Time Out of Joint

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Time Out of Joint is a novel by Philip K. Dick, first published in novel form in the United States in 1959. An abridged version was also serialised in the British science fiction magazine New Worlds Science Fiction in several installments from December 1959 to February 1960, under the title Biography in Time.

The novel epitomises many of Dick's themes, with its concern about the nature of reality, and ordinary people in ordinary lives having the world unravel around them. The title is a reference to the line uttered by Hamlet to Horatio after being visited by his father's ghost and learning that his uncle Claudius murdered his father; in short, a shocking supernatural event that fundamentally alters the way Hamlet perceives the state and the universe ("The time is out of joint; O cursed spite!/That ever I was born to set it right!" [I.V.211-2]), much as do several events in the novel.


Plot summary

As the novel opens, its protagonist Ragle Gumm believes that he lives in the year 1959 in a quiet American suburb. His unusual profession consists of repeatedly winning the cash prize in a local newspaper competition called, "Where will the little green man be next?". Gumm's 1959 has some differences from ours: the Tucker car is in production, and Uncle Tom's Cabin was recently written. As the novel opens, strange things begin to happen to Gumm. A soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words "Soft-Drink Stand" written on it. Pieces of our 1959 turn up: an article on Marilyn Monroe (who did not exist in their world), and radios (which had been abandoned at the dawn of television). People with no apparent connection to Gumm mention him by name, including military aircraft pilots. Few other characters notice these or experience similar anomalies; the sole exception is Gumm's supposed brother-in-law, Victor "Vic" Nielson, in whom he confides. A neighbor woman, Mrs. Keitelbein, invites him to a civil defense class where he sees a model of a strange military factory. He has the odd feeling he's been in that building before.

Confusion gradually mounts for Gumm. His neighbor Bill Black, observing this, starts worrying: "Suppose Ragle is becoming sane again?" In fact, Gumm does become sane, and the deception surrounding him (erected to protect and exploit him) begins to unravel.

Gumm tries to escape the town and is turned back by kafkaesque obstructions. He sees a magazine with himself on the cover, in a military uniform, at the factory depicted in the model. He tries a second time to escape, this time with Vic, and succeeds. He learns that his idyllic town is a constructed reality designed to protect him from the frightening fact that he lives on a then-future Earth (circa 1998) that is at war with its colonists on the Moon, who are fighting for independence. Gumm has a unique ability to predict where the colonists' nuclear strikes will be aimed. Previously Gumm did this work for the military, but then he defected to the colonists' side and planned to secretly emigrate to the moon. He was captured, his memory erased, and the fake town created so he would continue predicting missiles in the guise of a newspaper contest, without moral qualms about being on the wrong side.

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