Thursday, October 9, 2014

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick

For whatever reason I've decided to take another stab at Philip K. Dick and his highly influential science-fiction literature. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is another one of Dick's full-length novels, fairly short in length, but because of his writing style you don't feel like a single page was wasted and this book probably could have been developed much further into a longer work. It's very interesting and there are a couple of very insightful passages into human nature within this book, specifically dealing with love and grief, but everything gets tossed into a large jumble with a ton of drugs going on as well. Hoo boy did Philip K. Dick like his drugs.

As I said in my reviews of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Minority Report, it seems that Dick is much better at writing short stories rather than full-length novels. When he's working on a short story there's an arbitrary stopping point that forces Dick to be extremely tight in his focus and stay on whatever his main topic is about. In full-length novels, by contrast, Dick has much more space to work with and so sometimes dozens of ideas just sort of pop up, announce themselves, then scurry into the background with you saying, “Wait! You were interesting! I want to see you developed!”

The main plot in Flow My Tears is that television personality and famous singer Jason Taverner wakes up one day to discover he is in a world where no one knows he exists. No one he talks to has seen his weekly TV variety show, or heard one of his albums. To further complicate things there's no record that Jason Taverner exists at all: no birth certificate, no driver's license, no documented proof anywhere that he exists. In a world firmly under the heel of a police state where no identification means instant incarceration in a forced labor camp, Jason Taverner is in a very, very bad position.

Alone, this plot is pretty fantastic and could easily make its own novel, or in the case of Dick he could make a really fantastic short story out of this premise. Unfortunately, as I said, because this is a full-length novel, Dick's able to wander off and introduce a bunch of ideas that never really go anywhere. For example, Taverner is a six, one of a handful of people the result of genetic experimentation that produced human beings superior in almost every respect. Despite this being an aspect of Taverner's character which is mentioned repeatedly, it plays a very small role on the story overall.

Another really interesting idea is that to help solve the race problem a ton of legislation has been passed, more or less protecting blacks as a sort of endangered species. However, legislation has also been passed which requires blacks to be sterilized after the birth of their first child, dooming them to eventual extinction. Writing as he was in the seventies, a period of great racial tension, this idea could have been a very interesting reflection on the racial ideology of the day. However, it's just sort of mentioned and then the story moves on.

A final idea that Dick talks about, and believe me there are plenty, is the fact that in this particular world, many of the university campuses in at least the United States have been walled off from the rest of the world, surrounded by the police and the national guard who are heavily armed and informed to shoot anyone who tries to escape. We're never told why the campuses have been placed into a state of siege, what horrible political protest (for that's what I'm assuming happened) allowed the situation to balloon to such proportions. In the novel's epilogue we're told that the universities eventually surrender and the students disappear into the forced labor camps, but we never encounter any students or go to any university campus so it's an interesting idea that ultimately goes nowhere.

I definitely think that in the future I'm probably going to stick more to Dick's short stories rather than his novels. It seems to me that his short stories work out much better because they're not able to just go all over the place. I probably will explore some of his novels again, but they're definitely very different fare from most reading.

- Kalpar

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