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Gambler / 2009.09.08

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

If you take two Phillip K. Dick's books, chances are they are going to look like they've been written by different people. His novels often have some shared themes, but differ in terms of storytelling approaches, overall mood and many other nuances. This makes reading a new book of his somewhat similar to discovering a new author - there is always an element of surprise involved. Thus, picking up Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, I didn't know what I was getting into. It was almost an accidental buy. Strangely, I never even heard about this book before. All the more reasons to review it.

The narrative there follows Jason Taverner, a singer and host of a TV show with 30 million viewers. In other words, a celebrity. Except that after the first chapter he finds that no one ever heard about him. Literally, no one. Which is a bit of a problem, because that includes the police. You see, in the wonderful world of the future he lives in, you need to have a set of documents just to walk down the street without risking arrest and a life in a forced labor camp. Jason Taverner finds himself without either the documents, or any records about him in the global police database.

There are many standard ways to ruin a book with a similar beginning. Fortunately, Dick does not choose to thread on any of them. The novel is not about prince-becoming-a-pauper or some mind-bending conspiracy. Neither there are any cheap "plot twists", even though it has a strong mystery flavor. Everything is very balanced and natural in the sense that no element of the narrative is manipulated for the sake of some other.

That includes science fiction bits, which are seamlessly blended with the rest of the story. It's one of those things that set Dick apart from most of other writers in the genre. You read about some weird parasite with feeding tubes like you read about swine flue in the newspapers. It feels strangely normal, somehow. And it should be. After all, in the world the events take place, that is reality. Just like flying computer-navigated limousines, colonization of the close space and the fact that the whole world has became a totalitarian state. It's not totalitarian in the same sense the word is commonly used today. The book doesn't mention any figure or group that runs things and tries to control all aspects of people's lives, imposing some ideology. Instead, the government is totalitarian in the way any government would be if it slowly grew too big and got too much power. As you can guess from the title, interactions between Taverner and the many levels of the police apparatus are a major part of the narrative.

Describing those, the author also tells us a lot about the world all those events take place in. Bit by bit, mentioning some of the stranger aspects in passing, then returning to them later on, slowly forming a broader and more detailed picture. When this process is applied to characters, it's often referred to as character development. Here, we can also speak about "setting development". I don't want to goo to deep into concrete examples, because this slow discovery is one of the most interesting aspects of the narrative. Taverner's personal mystery dims in comparison to understanding how some routine things in his world really work. Some of those things still read like science fiction. Others are pretty similar to higher-grade technology available today: global databases, implanted identification, RFID, GPS-like tracking...

Although, I don't want to leave an impression that the book is purely "speculative fiction", as they call it. (I hate the name. Stock brokers speculate. Good science fiction writers envision and try to predict. There is a huge difference in the intent and the methods involved.) The characters and the story are not secondary to the "setting development" going on. Each of those complements the others quite nicely.

The first thing Taverner sets out to do is to get new identity papers. Forged, of course. Thus, he meets Kathy, whose business is doing forgeries. Young, good-natured, manipulative and psychotic. It seems there is a contradiction here, but there really isn't. Dick's characters, for the most part, are very unusual, yet life-like and complex. He doesn't define them by stating some dominant traits in the beginning and tackling on a myriad of minor aspects later on. Instead, what we see is the same thing we would see observing people in real life. Except that the situations they're in are not routine stuff that tells you nothing about the person. The story provokes characters to do things that highlight different aspects of their personalities and lives. Plus, you get the benefit of Taverner's reflections and observations. The book is written in third person, but he is clearly the main character, his thought process process often described on the pages.

Throughout the rest of the narrative, Jason Taverner tries to continue his life in a world that thinks he's not supposed to exist. He tries to elude the police whenever possible, although there are no wild pursuits or other extreme endeavors. It's all very civil, unlike in many other SF novels. There is no ninja action; the things he does are the things a normal person could do in the same situation. But at the same time the story is by no means boring or routine. After all, the his circumstances are highly unusual. Besides, it's all written very--cleverly, and not without a certain kind of abstract humor. There is, for example, a recurrent theme of a celebrity no one heard of. Or, for example, the fact that Taverner is a six. What that means, you'll have to find out for yourself. However, when he meets with a police general Buckman, the latter quickly (and falsely) announces himself a seven. I take it as a commentary on how elusive some seemingly insurmountable differences is status really are. The book is full of nuances like these.

Another thing it excels at is describing human interactions. An example. In the first chapter, Jason comes out of studio with Heather Hart, the night's special guest on his show. After a single exchange of seemingly trivial phrases, it's obvious that they don't just work together, but know one another for years. The dialogs are so life-like, that if you read closely, you can catch a drift of characters' relationships, attitudes or traits pages before those are described explicitly. Which is doubly impressive, considering just how weak most science fiction is when it comes to describing people.

As I said earlier, Phillip K. Dick wrote a lot of very diverse novels. Some of them were very close to life-changing experiences for me. (To be fair, some of them I consider crap.) Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is not a masterpiece that must be read by everyone regardless of circumstances. For that it lacks an overall direction, some powerful ideas that would drive the entire narrative. However, it's a meaningful, intelligent and extremely well-written book. Definitely one of the best SF works I've ever read.


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