BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Popular variety show host Jason Taverner wakes up in a world where he never existed.
PROS: Engrossing story; memorable characters; enjoyable writing style; layered theme of “What is real?”; interesting police-state backdrop.
CONS: Some dialogue between characters did not flow logically at times.
BOTTOM LINE: A very satisfying and engrossing read.
Jason Taverner is the host of a popular weekly television variety show, adored by thirty million fans. He’s also selfish womanizer. When one of his gals takes retribution (via the dreaded Callisto cuddle sponge which bores its feeding tubes into the chest of its victims – I hate when that happens), Taverner is sent to the hospital only to awaken the next day in a strange hotel room. Taverner soon discovers that the world around him has changed slightly. Sure, it’s still a police state where students are confined to their campuses, people have tattooed identity numbers and genetically-based status ratings and the naughty (and problematic) are put into forced labor camps, but Taverner’s problems are more personal: he awakens in a world in which he never existed.
This is a serious blow to his feeling of importance. After all, he is immediately demoted from his prestigious status level six to being an “unperson”, the automatic status of someone who has no identity cards, no birth certificate and, in fact, no recorded history. Taverner reaches out to some old acquaintances to no avail – they have no idea who he is.
Taverner’s search to regain his identity and feeling of self-worth quickly leads him on a literal reality trip where he meets several interesting characters. Kathy is an ID forger and a police informant who has more than a few screws loose. As Taverner puts it: “Listen. I’m going to tell you something and I want you to listen very carefully. You belong in a prison for the criminally insane.” Kathy’s police contact is Mr. McNulty, an unsympathetic cop who must answer to the big boss, Police General Felix Buckman. Buckman’s fetishist sister, Alys, is a whole other flavor of nuts. She has an…interesting…relationship with her brother that causes him some embarrassment from time to time – like when Alys crashes in his office after one of her frequent all-night videophone sex and hallucinogenic drug binges.
There were several things I liked about Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Firstly, the storyline is an engaging one, showcasing a neat little mystery in Taverner’s predicament. Will he regain his identity? How the heck did this happen? Where is the story, with its frequent change of locales and introduction of new characters heading? The depiction of the police state society, it turns out, was not only well done but it was a great backdrop for the mystery.
The writing style was also highly enjoyable, frequently reminding me of the writings of Theodore Sturgeon, who always leaves me smiling. There were some parts where character dialogue did not seem to flow logically, but that was not too distracting. And not that the story is played for humor, but there were some laugh out loud parts in this book. It’s also a quick read (and a lean 200 pages in the edition I have).
The main characters were all memorable. Kathy wonderfully devolved from a streetwise hustler to a nutjob of major proportions. Alys was almost as quirky, though her personality spikes were usually the result of drugs. With Taverner, I was torn between feeling sympathy for losing one’s identity and feeling satisfaction of seeing this lecherous womanizer and mild racist get punished. I thought, for a large majority of it, that the book was about Taverner. What I learned by book’s end was that it was really about Buckman. This in itself is a bold decision since the character of Buckman isn’t introduced until 35% of the book is done. (Isn’t there some rule of writing that says the main character should be introduced fairly early in the story?)
The main theme pervading through the novel, like all of Philip K. Dick’s books, is “What is reality?” On a superficial level, this of course applies to Taverner. Is the real reality the one where he’s a T.V. star? Or, is it the one where he does not exist? I must admit that throughout the book my own prediction of what was real teetered back and forth between the two. On another level, the reality question affects other characters as well. Kathy is a police informant because she believes her husband is being unfairly held in a prison camp. But is that the real truth or just what Kathy has convinced herself of to make life easier? Buckman is forced to come to grips about the reality of his own life and the life (or lifestyle) of his sister. The book succeeded in layering this common theme amongst several characters. The result is a very satisfying and engrossing read.
Having just now read JP’s review, I wanted to make mention of, as he puts it, the anachronisms. Throughout the book there are a few technologies that may make the book’s future setting hard to swallow, especially when the book is being read at a time when some of those technologies are already outdated. Kevin (I think) dislikes older science fiction for that reason. “Men on the moon, you say? Bah!” (Not his quote – that’s my generic quote to this point of view.) However, I actually find these cases to be charming. For me it is part of the allure of older sf if only because it shows me what forward-looking vision resulted in way back when. So, when reading Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, the use of vinyl records in the future elicited a smile when first mentioned (those crazy golden age writers!), then a black-box encapsulation of all future mentions that mentally translated to “audio recording medium”.