My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve not read this book since 1982, until recently, and my recollections of it were very favorable. I was more of a fan of PKD’s “Middle Period” before his style morphed into transcendentalism and drug-induced psychedelic surrealism. To be honest with myself, I’ve not changed my mind THAT much. I’ve tried VALIS and A Scanner Darkly, and I found them to be profound, but kind of a mess in places– and frankly, not as enjoyable to read as The Man in the High Castle, which at least has a plot.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said represents the happy medium for me. There’s a plot that’s easy to follow: Jason Taverner is sitting on the top of his world. He’s a host of a popular talk show and a globally famous singer. He’s also a “Six”, a genetically enhanced individual who was part of a created leadership caste experiment that mysteriously failed and was suppressed some time in the novel’s past. (does that sound familiar? It should if you’ve see Blade Runner).
But what sort of world is Jason Taverner inhabiting? A relentless police state that capitalizes on fear, paranoia and bureaucracy. So when Taverner suffers a serious mishap at the hands of a jilted ex-lover, he collapses and has to go to the hospital. He wakes up in a seedy flophouse in Watts, with a pocket full of cash, his normal clothes and nobody, absolutely nobody, knows who he is. Gone is the fame, gone is the power, gone is the prestige. The world being a reflection of Jason’s reality, everything else holds up– it’s still a world full of cops, and political repression and paranoia. Only Jason doesn’t exist in this version of it.. and has no ID whatsover. In this world, that could get a person arrested with no provocation. Arrest means a forced labor camp, and a slow death.
So the book’s main theme is the Phillip K. Dick standard, “What is Reality?” Which PKD was up front about, at least.. “In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.” (NYT Book Review). Jason Taverner’s trip through this nightmarish dystopic America seems like it has a tenuous grip on reality the entire time (and in fact, that becomes an important plot point towards the climax).
My take on this story is that it is a journey story, with Jason being guided by women every step of the way– first by Heather Hart, who represents his cynicism and world weariness. Then by Kathy Nelson, who represents his adaption to the new reality he finds himself in. Then by Ruth Gomen, his tenuous connection to his old life, then by Alys Buckman, who represents his lowest point and the nadir of his story. Finally, by Mary Anne Dominic, who is anchor point for the trip back to his previous reality.
Taverner’s nemesis is General Felix Buckman from the Pols (national police) and the brother of Alys. Felix is a very twisted character and the voice of the status quo, in some respects. Unlike many of the Pols, Felix appears to have a conscience, and that makes him a very interesting character.
Like much of Dick’s output from the middle period, FLOW MY TEARS is very engaging and it really makes you think, which is what PKD wanted, of course. I’ve dropped it a star after listening to it again decades later, as it isn’t what I would call a PKD masterwork, but it remains a very forceful, ethical and well crafted story, and I enjoyed it.