Friday, January 20, 2012

Dissecting the Short Story: "Observations on a Clock" by D. Thomas Minton

As mentioned on Wednesday, this will be the final post for now in my Dissecting the Short Story series. Remember that I won't be shy about including spoiler material in this analysis, so if you have a copy of this magazine, it might be worth your time to read it first before reading the bulk of this post.

"Observations on a Clock" by D. Thomas Minton
Published in:
February, 2012 Asimov's Science Ficton
Approximate Length:
2200 words
Third Person, Chronological
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:

There are three characters. Four if you include The Clock. They are Chevalier, who is the main character, Maria Tessauda, and Don Cristobal.

Chevalier is alone, somewhere fifteen light-years from Earth. The other two characters are MEMs in his head -- programmed creations which he interacts with but which are not real. Tessauda has been dead for centuries; Cristobal is someone he knew and is revealed to be the reason that Chevalier is where he is.

There is a Clock here, wherever Chevalier is. The Clock is associated with a Testament and a Revelation. The Testament is described as "saving humanity from self-annihilation" and having "prepared them for the coming Revelation,. which will arrive when the Clock runs it course."

The Clock is indeed about to finish counting time, bringing the Revelation. The Clock is considered divine by Chevalier and Cristobal but Tessauda sows seeds of doubt (or nurtures already-existing doubts) within Chevalier. A digger exists near the clock platform and Tessauda encourages Chevalier to activate it to prove whether or not the Clock is divine. Chevalier does so but Cristobal chides him, noting that to have activated the digger is evidence of doubt and that finding nothing would not prove the Clock's divinity, it would only prove that nothing had been found.

Chevalier turns the digger back off. Time continues to count down towards the Revelation, which Chevalier is to witness and communicated to humanity.

Shortly before the Clock will cease its operations, Tessauda convinces him to look again at the trench made by the digger. As she is not a physical being, he has to be the one to actually brush the dust aside and reveal a platform below the revealed platform of the Clock, evidence that something preceded it.

Chevalier, Tessauda and Cristobal argue about what will happen next. She asks what will occur if the "Clock strikes zero and there is nothing but the dark?" Chevalier has wondered this himself, Don Cristobal states flatly that this will not happen.

Chevalier realizes that if he communicates back that nothing has been Revealed that he would be dooming the Order and, thus, humanity. "It would be better to send nothing and let them think he had failed." Then he apologizes to Don Cristobal, saying he is not strong enough.


The character names are all evocative. "Chevalier" brings to mind a knight (the term is defined by Wikipedia as "a class of membership in a French or Belgian Order of Chivalry") appropriate for the character's mission with religious overtones. "Don Cristobal" sounds like a Spanish noble, religious or otherwise -- and again that seems appropriate for the character. "Maria Tessauda" brought to mind Marie Tussaud (she of the famous wax museum) and, in fact, a Google search for the character name asks if that's what you're looking for. In this case, I'm not seeing a connection and it may purely be coincidence that the name brings a historical personage to mind.

There are some other interesting allusions and resonances here. Tessauda once chides Chevalier, when he attempts to deny that there can be anything below the Clock's platform and tells him to not "crow your ignorance a third time" -- this made me think of Peter denying Jesus three times, appropriate for a story with religious overtones.

The opening and closing sentences echo each other -- a technique which I like a great deal. The story begins "The Clock sits in the dark, counting down time. Alone. Except for Chevalier." and ends "Chevalier drops to his knees, alone in the dark, as he has always been. Except for the Clock."

Did The Story Work For Me?

This story wasn't really my cup of tea. That doesn't make it a bad story, of course, but my personal taste runs towards stories which are less oblique in their approach.

Truthfully, I'm not sure what I was supposed to make of the history of these characters or the end of the story. It did a great job of evoking a mood, but I ended up feeling confused.

It sort of put me in the mind of aspects of the movie The Fountain. I thought that movie was good enough when I watched it, but wasn't blown away by it. However, I've probably thought about it after the fact more than just about any movie I've seen in recent years. Which means I may end up coming back to this story in a month or two to re-read it and see if I get something new out of it.

Thanks for stopping by to read this write-up. Happy reading and writing this weekend!


  1. Michael, thank you for featuring my short story. I've periodically stopped by and enjoyed many of your dissections in the past, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it featured. I hope your story dissections are only taking a hiatus (I'll be sorry to see them go), but as they say, all good things...

  2. Thanks for stopping by to comment and I'm glad that you enjoyed seeing your story featured. I'm trying to think of ways to rework the series to make it at least a touch more interactive. These posts -- while a great exercise for me -- tend to be the least-commented on ones besides the occasional pure-administrivia posting.

    One thought I've had is to put up a poll at the beginning of the month listing three or four stories which are ALL available online to read for free from places like DSF, etc. and let the readers vote on which one they'd want analyzed. Then I'd put up the dissection near the end of the month. If I try that approach, it will probably be starting in March or April and I'll announce it here and on Twitter.