Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Despondent over the failure of his fourth marriage and at the same time stimulated to fresh creativity after his first mescaline trip, cult author Philip K. Dick worked on what would be his 29th published science fiction novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, from March to August 1970. Ultimately released in 1974, an important year in Phil’s life (the year of his legendary “pink light” incident), the book went on to win the prestigious John W. Campbell Memorial Award, was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and has been a fan favorite ever since.
Incorporating many of the themes, tropes and obsessions that would later be subsumed under the adjective “phildickian,” Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said introduces the reader to Jason Taverner, a popular singer/TV variety show host in the Los Angeles of 1988. It is a typically dystopian Dick future, in which a second Civil War has transpired, college students are in perpetual warfare with the government, and an all-pervasive police state keeps relentless tabs on the citizenry. In a classic opener — the old “what if you awoke one morning to find that no one knew who you were” — Jason is attacked by an old girlfriend with a “gelatinlike Callisto cuddle sponge,” a dangerously parasitic creature. Awakening in a seedy hotel room, the popular celebrity finds that he is now a nobody; a total unknown, with no birth certificate on file, no one who remembers him, and no IDs. And in the police state of 1988 L.A., not having an ID is a very easy way to get shipped off to an FLC (forced labor camp)….
During his travails in this new reality of his, the befuddled Taverner encounters a series of women even more striking than the wacky dames that Bobby Dupea met in Five Easy Pieces. There is Heather Hart, a fellow singer and, like Jason, a genetically engineered “six”; Kathy Nelson, an ID forger with obvious mental problems; Rachel Rae, an alcoholic old flame with a deep insecurity about aging; Alys Buckman, a leather-clad lesbian and twin sister of Police General Felix Buckman, with whom she has had a baby (!); and Mary Anne Dominic, a sweet potter (yes, ceramics and pottery again feature in this story, as they had in Dick’s 1969 novel Galactic Pot-Healer) who helps Jason at one of his lowest points.
Interesting and well-drawn characters, all, but it is perhaps Felix Buckman who is the most fascinating of the bunch. Though one of the policymakers in this thoroughly frightening police state, he is shown to be quite a complex person by Dick, a writer who had undergone his fair share of harassment and intimidation by the authorities in his own time. Buckman, despite a certain ruthlessness, is also a lover and collector of old stamps, antique snuffboxes and, amusingly, old issues of Weird Tales magazine. Dick shows this authority figure to be capable of a certain liberalness of spirit and even — in perhaps the novel’s most startling scene — spontaneously hugging a total stranger in the street. Still, Buckman reflects, in a passage that the justifiably paranoid Dick obviously related to: “Don’t come to the attention of the authorities. Don’t ever interest us. Don’t make us want to know more about you.” The real heart and soul of the novel (his are the tears that are referenced in the book’s title, as well as his love of John Dowland’s lute song of 1596, “Flow My Tears”), Buckman is one of Dick’s most memorable and ambivalent characters.
As mentioned, many of Dick’s favorite subjects get another workover in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Thus, the book touches on divorce (Ruth Rae is said to have been married 51 times; 46 more than Phil!), cigars (Buckman smokes Cuesta Reys), classical music (Buckman ponders the relative merits of Wagner, Berlioz and others), sex (the legal age of consent in this typically wacky Dickian future is 12!), drugs (Alys is a walking pharmacopoeia, Jason himself undergoes an extremely well-portrayed mescaline experience, and pot is legally sold in packs) and, of course, the tricky subject of the plastic and elusive nature of reality.
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is consistently inventive and filled with all manner of imaginative touches, from Alys’ teeth (which are ornamented with signs of the zodiac) to luxury apartment buildings that float on jets of compressed air. It also features some offhand humor, such as the reference to phone orgy participants Bill and Carol and Fred and Jill (a nod to the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and the wall-to-wall carpet depicting Nixon’s ascent to heaven! Dick, to add verisimilitude to his novel, employs throwaway references to fictional objects and uses futuristic slang expressions that no one could possibly understand (such as “jeter,” “thungly,” “rotive,” “floogle,” “gunjy” and “cheruba”) except the characters in his story. A further sense of fidelity to facts is engendered when the author has Gen. Buckman, in the middle of speaking, pause “a moment to quietly fart, then continue….” What other author would do this? You’ve gotta love that Dick!
In addition to its compelling and touching story line, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said also provides the reader with some wonderful discussions on the importance of love (“When you love you cease to live for yourself,” Ruth tells Jason), fear (it “can make you do more wrong than hate or jealousy,” Jason says to Mary Anne) and, fascinatingly, art and critics (Jason grouses about critics discussing the work that he had put out 19 years earlier; in 1974, Dick’s first novel, Solar Lottery, had been released 19 years before!).
It is not a perfect novel, and as usual, a close reading will reveal some inconsistencies and minor goofs. For example, the hotel clerk Eddy Pracim leaves a room at one point, but a few pages later is still present. In another scene, Jason has terminals placed on his head to record an “electrocardiogram”; that, of course, should be an “electroencephalogram.” And then there are the occasional ungrammatical sentences, such as “Things which even he, at forty-two years, didn’t know them all.”
But these are quibbles. Ultimately, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is a tense, exciting, passionately written, inventive and moving novel, filled with memorable characters and some remarkable situations. Compulsively readable, it is Dick near the top of his form, and for many of us, modern science fiction does not get too much better.
Oh… as to the reason for Taverner’s predicament, Phil DOES manage to give us a somewhat plausible, if way-out, explanation for it. But, like Felix Buckman, you might feel the need of some Darvon after hearing it!
A fun, obviously Dickian story. I recommend Brilliance Audio’s version narrated by the hilarious Phil Gigante.