Heart Clock: by Dick Morland

There are few things more satisfying on a wet afternoon in August than a failed dystopia and a pot of tea. Dick Morland's Heart Clock, published by the New English Library in 1974, hits the spot.as a guilty pleasure, even if it misses the point as political satire.

In 21st century Britain everyone is fitted with a heart clock which determines their life span. Their life span is in turn determined by the economy - on Budget day the Chancellor announces how many years are to be added or how many are to be taken away. In times of boom everyone lives longer; in times of bust lifespans are reduced. The economy of 21st century Britain is such that lifespans have been reduced over successive budgets to close to what is known as the "Bible barrier" - that is three score years and ten. The heart clocks are not fatal devices - they are reminders to those whose time is up that they must report for termination. Failure to report results in heavy fines in years being applied to the lifespans of their immediate families. Everyone reports.

The creator of this system is Matlock. The one-time Prime Minister, who was one of the first to have a heart clock fitted, is now approaching 70 and is, of course, having second thoughts. He leads a minority party which campaigns against the system, but the country is too far gone to countenance further change. After one of his meetings is broken up by the police, Matlock is taken to the current Prime Minister's office and offered a seat in the Cabinet. He has no idea why but suspects the Bible barrier is about to be breached and that the government wants him on-message should there be trouble. While considering the offer an attempt is made on his life, then he is kidnapped, then he escapes...

And herein lies the problem with Heart Clock. It is frantic. It starts out as a splendidly British dystopia, complete with peeling wallpaper and cracked china; it proceeds as an action sf thriller wherein the physical heroics of its 69 year-old ex-Prime Minister beggar the reader's belief; and it ends with the attempted invasion of England by Scotland. It is as though the author was working to the timetable of a heart clock of his own and pieced together fragments of several stories which do not properly gel. None of this is to say Heart Clock is a bad book - in fact, it is very enjoyable, and connecting the Chancellor's Budget directly to mortality is a major stroke of imagination. But with a little more care and attention a "supergenarian" uprising sounds like just the cure for Logan's Run.

Dick Morland is, apparently, Reginald Hill, author of the Dalziel and Pascoe series.


  1. Well, that settles my nomination for Best Opening Sentence of the Month.

  2. Cheers, Philip. Thanks for the tweet too. I hope you're keeping well. True, I save my dystopias for British summers and my apocalypses for bank hols. The time of my life was reading Tucker's The Long Loud Silence on a dull Easter Monday. ;]

    I should have a look at I Mengele coming up in the near future. Enjoyed that - it shed some very interesting light on the world of F21C.

  3. Glad you liked it. I originally thought of it as a direct sequel to F21C, with a doddery Mengele caught up in an investigation of the supposed hoaxers; but in the end it didn't seem that there was enough mileage in it. I do have another story that might work in Nazi Britain, though.

    I have Adam Roberts' New Model Army on your recommendation from last month, by the way; but it'll have to wait a while, at least until I get through the second half of Moby Dick.

  4. That is interesting. I'm not sure if you've read George Steiner's Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. but that did just spring to mind as a possible variation. I Mengele seems a rather more scholarly choice, in that it presents something of the cultures wars of that history.

    I enjoyed New Model Army when I read it - I liked the idea more than the execution, and it went off in a direction that surprised me. Still it was the first novel by Roberts that I'd enjoyed since Salt.

  5. I didn't know Steiner's book, but I will now.

    Come to think of it, it's probably not such a bad thing after all that you only post a couple of times a month. Much more would cost me a fortune.

  6. I do actually mean to post more often, but a combination of laziness and life-crisis management combine to prevent me. Starting out I had intended to look at more contemporary material, such as stories in Interzone and Back Static and at Strange Horizons, etc. But no sooner did I set up than the quality of stuff published seemed to take a serious turn for the worse. Or perhaps I was looking at it through sudden different eyes. So I simply defaulted to what I like.

    I did download a copy of your latest but haven't yet had a chance to read through it; beyond peeking at some figurative captions which had me squinting and laughing.