Dark Futures Book 11: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week the great Phillip K Dick brings us Drugs, Disorientation and Dystopia.

I think the first thing to say about Phillip K Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is that it has a fantastic title. The second thing is that like the book itself, it doesn’t actually make a whole heap of sense. Which is not unusual for a writer like Dick, who throws around high-concept ideas in all his books with the sort of wild abandon one would expect from the sort of man he was, alongside meditations on reality and purpose and identity. He’s a writer who build castles on the clouds, and sometimes it’s a little easy to fall through them.

So let’s get into it. Jason Taverner is a man with everything – rich, famous, loved, talented. He stars in a TV show, has hit records, lives a privileged life in a world where an oppressive world-state is still fighting the wars of the 70s – students buried under ruined campuses, large scale surveillance, the stuff that is starting to become a little over-familiar in books I’m reading this year. Oh and he’s also secretly genetically engineered. Then one day a spurned ex-lover throws an alien sponge onto his chest and he nearly dies, waking up to find that no-one knows him, as if he had never existed. And from there …well, shenanigans ensue.

As you can tell from the reading the book, there’s a lot going on there, and I think that is the core of the problem. The central resolution, which is very weird and very PKD, is interesting enough, but has nothing to do with alien sponges or genetic engineering or even police states. They’re just ideas thrown into the background for reason other than “because”. There’s no sense of a thematic coherence just a blaze of ideas on show. Now I’m not adverse that that – its an interesting enough otherworld, albeit one that feels dated now seeing as its clearly playing on specific fears of the year it was written rather than more general fears of totalitarianism – but they feel a little wasted and in need of more attention.

Like a lot of Dick though its more about a slightly lyrical journey through “stuff” rather than a clinical insight into dystopianism (or any of the books other throwaway ideas) anyway. Criticising it on that basis feels a little like ordering a Cheese Sandwich and complaining that the Ham doesn’t taste right. What Dick is really talking about is reality itself; notably the realities we wrap around ourselves and how they interest with the wrapped around realities of others, and they intrude on us and us on them. It’s about celebrity, and obsession, rather than psychic sponges and genetically engineered singers, and when you look at it in light the dystopian police state makes a bit more sense. Because it’s about stepping out of your own private reality and dealing with the world around you.

Maybe.

I guess that like pretty much every other PKD book I’ve ever read, ultimately I’ve found Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said strange mix of inspiring and frustrating. There is so much thrown in and mixed about, and such an interesting and challenging resolution, but at the same time I’m unconvinced that it does have an intended meaning, or indeed makes any coherent sense at all. It’s like one of those paintings that come into focus as you stare at it, and I worry that any interpretation of the book I can come out with is more a reflection of my internal reality, not the one the writer is trying to put across. Which may of course be the whole point…

 

Next time:  Some books are merely within a sub-genre, others create them. From the dawn of Cyberpunk, William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

 

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