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REVIEW: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

REVIEW SUMMARY: I liked this book a whole bunch.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Popular variety show host Jason Taverner wakes up in a world where he never existed.

MY REVIEW:

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.

ADDENDUM:

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”.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

6 Comments on REVIEW: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

  1. I love this book too. It felt to me that he wrote “Now wait for last year”, then decided to do it better in “Flow…” (although without looking it up I’m not sure which came first.)

    Re the outdated technologies: usually it does annoy me and so stuff like James Blish (those crazy floating cities!) drives me mad. However I really love PKD stuff despite any of that. So maybe in fact it’s just down to style and story?

  2. If a story is a classic (in my opinion), I’ll accept outmoded technology. As such, in my own personal book, the spindizzy and those floating cities are great.

    “Flow” was a good tale. Have you read “Man in the High Castle”?

  3. I have yet to read The Man in the High Castle even though that’s considered PKD’s masterpiece. Actually, I think that’s what’s intimidating me. I have a hit-and-miss history with liking so-called classics.

    The only other PKD books I’ve read were Solar Lottery (his first novel – it showed), I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (a short story collection that I remember liking), A Maze of Death (which, for the life of me, I have no recollection of. It was read during the pre-review era) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which I also really enjoyed).

  4. The only thing that intimidates me about PKD is how the literary types have embraced him after his death. Why him and why not others such as Heinlein? And where was all this praise when PKD was alive?

  5. I really liked Man In A High Castle. The best of his that I’ve read so far (so many more to read!) is A Scanner Darkly. I’d recommend reading before the film comes out 😉

  6. My dad is the reason i have gotten into Sci-Fi, i used to have the Star-Trek based idea that all science fiction was about spaceships going to far away Galaxies and having sex with the female life forms.

    Thankfully that isn’t the case.

    I got into PKD through my own means (my dad isn’t a big fan of him), i found Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? for $4 in a book bin (it was a re-release with the  “blade runner” movie graphics) and have since started movie sporadiccaly through his books. I’m in the process of my second reading of FMTTPS and am loving it more and more. I think there is something captivating about PKD’s works and how they are relevent in todays world, of coarse, as mentioned, there are technologies that he predicted that are very outdated (who would have thought we could fit a couple of gigs of harddrive space into a postage stamp sized thing). But its irrelevent, his works are FICTION so it would be impractical for anyone to criticize the “future” views of someone writing in the 50’s-60’s and 70’s.

    I would highly suggest The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, A Scanner Darkly and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich to anyone who enjoyed this book. PKD continues to facinate me and i’m quite sure thats not going to end anytime soon. I would LOVE to see more of his works become films.

    Leben

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