Reviewed in the United States on December 16, 2005
(Written for Worm's Sci Fi Haven by countezero, more of his reviews can be read here: [...])
To readers of a particular mindset, specifically those who are outwardly contemptuous of authorities like government and law enforcement, Philip K. Dick's Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), will probably go down the gullet like manna. For readers less inclined to view their political and personal freedom as conditions that hinge on the whims of small-minded men in high castles, the novel may not be so sweet.
Dick, for those who are unfamiliar with him, wrote 36 novels and five short story collections-one of which, The Man in the High Castle, won the Hugo award in 1962. He died in 1982 of heart failure just months before the release of Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, which is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Thanks to his timely death-and Scott's bold theatrical vision of his work-Dick suddenly became a "poor man's Pynchon," who, "may be recognized as the greatest American novelist of the second half of the 20th century." Not bad praise for an author whose novels never made him much money and were mostly out-of-print until Harrison Ford doggedly pursued an outlawed band of replicants through rain-soaked Los Angeles streets on the silver screen.
What I've written above is the accepted biography, the one published on the cover of his novels. It is factual, but it is also too polite. The whole truth and nothing but the truth, something which Dick professed simultaneously to worship, wonder and write about, is slightly stranger.
Would it surprise the readers of this review to learn Dick believed he had been contacted by pink laser beams from something called VALIS, or the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, which he described as one node of an alien artificial satellite network originating from the star Fomalhaut in the Pisces constellation? Further digging reveals:
"Dick claimed that he began to live a double life, one as himself and one as Thomas, a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century C.E. Despite his current and past drug use, Dick accepted these visions as reality, believing that he had been contacted by a god-entity of some kind, which he referred to as Zebra, God, and most often VALIS. He saw Rome as the pinnacle of materialism, which, after forcing the Gnostics underground 1900 years earlier, had kept the population of the Earth as slaves to worldly possessions. Dick believed that VALIS had contacted him and unnamed others to induce the "impeachment" of Richard M. Nixon, whom Dick believed to be the current Emperor incarnate."
Biography can either add illumination to a reader's comprehension of an author's works, or it can muddle it. I've chosen to mention some of Dick's lesser known eccentricities because I believe it is almost impossible to understand Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said without knowing something about the questionable beliefs and obvious passions that drove the man behind the rhetorical curtain to pull the particular plot levers he did.
Beyond the paranoid details Dick sprinkles throughout the opening pages of the novel-America is a police state in which everyone must carry I.D. cards, college campuses have been closed off by the military and blacks have been sterilized to cut down on the crime rate-there isn't too much to gawk and gape at for the reader. A television celebrity named Jason Taverner, who is the idol at the center of "the big worshipping world of viewers," receives an interesting comeuppance from one of the attractive celebrity wannabes he's been spending some nocturnal hours with. Because Taverner has failed to land said Lady a record contract, as he promised, she shoots him in the chest with a Callisto cuddle sponge, some sort of life form which apparently has 50 feeding tubes that like to burrow into a person's chest. When he wakes up, alone in a dilapidated room, he discovers no one has the foggiest idea who he is. Even, his fellow celebrity lover, though Taverner possesses her private phone number and can describe a number of intimate details about her. But what's worse, remember folks he's living in a police state, is that there is no official documentation to prove anyone named Jason Taverner ever existed.
No celebrity, no status, no identity. "I don't exist," Taverner mentally moans. Existence being one of Dick's favorite topics, it's hard to read this line and not smirk. Taverner does exist, of course. He thinks, therefore he is. What's bothering him, beyond playing cat-and-mouse with the police, who know all about the forged papers he is forced to acquire, is that nobody recognizes him as Jason Taverner, celebrity extraordinaire-at one point, Taverner even discovers a selection of his records, but when he plays them they are blank.
Had the novel stayed with the idea of identity it might have worked. After all, what is identity? Are we are all self-contained solipsists, whose identities are totally the result of our own internal thoughts? Or are we shaped by our deeds and what other people think of them? Is a celebrity a celebrity simply because of the attention given to them, or do they possess some unquantifiable glimmer of brilliance? Certainly the people Taverner meets in the novel keep noticing special things about his post-celebrity-self, despite the fact they've never laid eyes on him before. He shines, he sparkles, he's handsome and he has a way with words and carries himself in a manner that defies ordinariness, even though for all intents and purposes he is no different than them. He's special, without having earned such an adjective.
But unfortunately, Dick abandons this promising narrative in favor of another. Enter Police General Felix Buckman, one of the police state's higher-ups who has a drug-addled, insane sister who ends up being the critical cog in the entire ebb and flow of events. As it turns out, Alys has been experimenting with a substance called KR-3, which bends time and space temporarily to create an alternate reality interlaced or superimposed over the actual one.
"Anyone affected by it is forced to perceive irreal universes, whether they want to or not...Taverner (who was affected with the drug) passed over into a universe in which he didn't exist. And we (the people he came into contact with) passed over with him because we're objects of his perception," Buckman's aides explain.
Perception? Now there's an interesting theme. Too bad Dick fumbles it when he is trying to wrap up his novel with the above explanation. And if those fine words don't quite wrap things up for you, it's probably because any reader who comes to the end of the novel needs to know something about the beliefs of Dick's which I mentioned earlier.
In an essay entitled "How to Build a Universe that Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later", Dick writes, "The two basic topics which fascinate me are `What is reality' and `What constitutes the authentic human being?'" To this, add and consider the following three statements.
1. "If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn't we really be talking about plural realities?"
2. "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
3. "I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem."
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said presents a perfect synthesis of these statements. For Taverner and Buckman, the universe as they know it is certainly unglued. There is no one single reality in the novel, there are at least two. But both realities are "real" because both of them continue to exist when the characters who exist within them wish they would go away.
So what then are we to make of the ending, when a singular reality is ultimately restored? I was certainly baffled by it, until I read the essay I quoted from above and came across Dick's bizarre claim that the novel is inspired by the Book of Acts, from the Bible:
"A careful study of (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) shows that for reasons which I cannot even begin to explain I had managed to retell several of the basic incidents from a particular book of the Bible, and even had the right names. . . My theory is this: In some important sense, time is not real. Despite all the change we see, a specific permanent landscape underlies the world of change: and that this invisible underlying landscape is that of the Bible; it, specifically, is the period immediately following the death and resurrection of Christ; it is, in other words, the time period of the Book of Acts."
We are all, in other words, "fake humans" living in "fake realities"-with, presumably, Richard Nixon at the helm. Occasionally, we are given glimpses of the truth, or revelations, but most of our lives are spent dwelling inside a contemporary dream. Brush it aside as we will find Tiberius ruling over Rome, the apostles spreading the word. Exactly who or what has thrown the proverbial wool over our collective eyes, or to what end, I have not been able to learn in my brief bit of research for this article. Perhaps Dick, who seems better informed than any of us, wasn't privy to that information himself.
What does all this say about the plot of the novel, about Taverner's experience inside an alternate reality, which ultimate wasn't actual reality but an imagined one? To be honest, I'm not sure. The epiphany in the novel-and the scene from which the title is pulled, belongs to Felix Buckman, not Taverner. Exactly what revelation the scene conveys, beyond eliciting sympathy from the reader for a character who up until that point has been entirely despicable, I don't know. Felix cries. His sister, who he also happened to be carrying on an incestuous relationship, has died. This is sad, sort of, but to what end? Looking back at the essay one last time, I see Dick hints at what he wants his audience to understand, but see if you can follow his logic:
"(Buckman) is Christ himself returned, to pass judgment. And this is what he does in my novel: He passes judgment on the man sealed up in the darkness. (On whom? Taverner?) It was judged and condemned. Felix Buckman could weep at the sadness of it, but he knew that the verdict could not be disputed. And so he rode on, without turning or looking back, hearing only the shriek of fear and defeat: the cry of evil destroyed."
Only Taverner didn't kill Alys, Taverner is not convicted of killing Alys-what's more he didn't even know her in the novel's actual reality. He only met her in the novel's other reality. Is Dick saying we're guilty for the crimes we commit in both the realities he believes in? Are we judged in one world for what we do in another? I live those questions for my readers to answer. What I will say is that Dick's method has ultimately failed to convince me. His metaphor is strained and does not work. He misses, or very rarely chooses to focus on what is, or what might have been the core of an excellent novel. Instead, an ultimately empty "dream within a dream" scenario, something the professors who taught me creative writing in college told me to avoid is explored. Never end a story with "...and then I woke up," or its equivalent I was told in a stern voice by several different PhD's. With Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Dick does just that-and it's his zealotry for and his personal beliefs about the faulty nature of reality that have led him to such a disaster of flawed intent.
Two out of five