Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Published: Doubleday (1974), Gollancz (2001)
Awards Won: Campbell Memorial Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Hugo, and Locus SF Awards
“Jason Tavener woke up one morning to find himself completely unknown. The night before he had been the top-rated television star with millions of devoted watchers. The next day he was just an unidentified walking object, whose face nobody recognised, of whom no one had heard, and without the I.D. papers required in that near future. When he finally found a man who would agree to counterfeiting such cards for him, that man turned out to be a police informer. And then Taverner found out not only what it was like to be a nobody but also to be hunted by the whole apparatus of society.” ~goodreads.com
I’ve read a handful of novels and short fiction by Philip K. Dick, and have enjoyed most of them. Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said didn’t really work for me. On a happier note, Amazon Prime’s television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, one of Dick’s novels that I did really enjoy, is now online!
It might be the case that I was really just in the wrong mood for Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, because I have generally enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work in the past. I know a lot of people really enjoyed this novel (look at all the awards!). In fact, I’m really surprised I bounced off of this one as hard as I did. For me, the first issue was the writing style. Philip K. Dick’s prose is often pretty plain and workman-like, but it seemed particularly clunky in this novel. For instance, he actually used the word ‘friendlily’ multiple times. I wondered if he was deliberately playing up the artlessness of the prose to get the right tone for Tavener’s life of shallowness and celebrity. Even if that’s the case, though, I find modern-day celebrity culture tedious, and thus was not really drawn in by this fictional version.
This lack of interest ties into my issues with the characters, who all seem pretty vapid and aimless, and with the plot, which is more or less nonexistent. Random things happen, but they often don’t seem to have an impact on either past or future. For instance, shortly after the opening of the story, someone nearly succeeds in murdering the main character. Afterward, neither the event nor the perpetrator have any further role in the story. Tavener’s vanished identity is a mystery, but it’s not one he’s going to solve. Instead, he wanders around, encountering the a variety of women, and the reasoning for his situation is tacked on to the end of the story like an afterthought. I gather that this is one of those books where the wandering around is really the point, and I know PKD often abruptly ends his novels with wild ideas that are interesting but might not make much sense. In this case, though, I think I was just not engaged enough with the story or the characters to really appreciate the ideas behind them.
It seems like the world might have been a kind of 1970s nightmare, and in that sense I think it has not aged well. Some of the things which might have been extrapolations of trends in the 1970s no longer have any resonance with this Millennial reader. I think this would be a surmountable obstacle, except that the world-building seems to exist only for these atmospheric purposes that it does not achieve for me. Tavener’s country is a police state, where rebelling university students have been trapped underground and people are regularly sent to labor camps for little or no reason. Everyone is always ready to turn on everyone else, so there’s not much genuine connection between people. There’s also this weird thing about the main character being a ‘Six’, a person genetically engineered to be better and smarter than baseline humans. Except he isn’t, at least in any way I can tell. I’m not sure if this is a jab at the idea of genetic engineering or a failure of voice. Given how many novels Philip K. Dick has published, I suppose it’s not surprising that some of them are just not my thing.
My Rating: 2/5
I normally like Philip K. Dick’s work, but I bounced very hard off of this one. This is the story of a shallow pop star briefly losing his fame and identity, and of his wandering around until it is restored. All of the characters seemed vapid, shallow and incapable of meaningful human connection, and I was frustrated by the apparent pointlessness of the plot. I think the reveal at the end could have been an interesting twist if I’d been in the mood for it, but instead it just felt tacked on. I’ll probably still read more Philip K. Dick in the future, because I am honestly surprised I did not enjoy this one.