Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) by Philip K. Dick

FlowMyTears1Drugs. Alternate realities. Paranoia.

Drugs.

Stuff I expect from Philip K. Dick, even though I’ve never read his work. Stuff that deterred me from reading Philip K. Dick, because Naked Lunch and Sartre was enough paranoia for me. Stuff that’s old now, moving on, roll my eyes, that’s so old-fashioned.

And yet, the man managed to shock my worn sensibilities in this 1974 tale about the ultimate I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!

One thing about Ruth Rae: she was smart enough not to let her skin become too tanned. Nothing aged a woman’s skin faster than tanning, and few women seemed to know it… (96)

“You look every bit as beautiful—“ he began, but she cut him off brusquely.
“I’m old.” She rasped. “I’m thirty-nine” (98)

And later…

“Hell, no.” Worry appeared on her prunelike face. Prune-like—he withdrew the image; it did not seem fair. Her weathered face, he decided. That was more like it… (102)

“I can’t stay,” he said, “any longer. And anyhow, you’re too old… (105)

After she hits him over the head with a stoneware platter from Knott’s Berry Farm…

“Why did you say that to me?” Ruth said hoarsely.

“Because,” he said, “of my own fears of age. Because they’re wearing me down, what’s left of me. I virtually have no energy left…” (105)

I read this bit at the onset of my own thirty-fifth birthday, and it still haunts me… *scoff* ageism *scoff* sexism *scoff* *scoff*

But that’s the point. The protagonist is an arrogant, shallow celebrity who projects his own self-criticism onto the world, casting it about like confetti at a circus. And, as illustrated by that final quote above, he’s abnormally self-aware enough to know it. Because he’s a six.

FlowMyTears3He’s also a famous talk show host with a long music career and 30 million fans. But after a confrontation with an ex-girlfriend, Jason Taverner finds himself in a world where no one recognizes him. Without an ID, he must avoid the pols at every checkpoint or risk assignment to a labor camp, so he befriends a series of women who each help to hide him and guide him until he can find a way back to reality. Or is THIS his actual reality and he’s been too drugged to see it?

I keep seeing dismissals of PKD’s work because of his failed visions of future 80s technology. In his world, transportation technology leaps to flying cars, while communications technology stalls with corded telephones. (Funny how things happened the other way around, right?) Being a high-profile SF author makes PKD an easy target, but, from Anderson to Van Vogt, vintage SF authors can’t seem to imagine themselves away from the landline telephone, no matter if that tale takes place in Vancouver, Venus, or very, very far away.

But who reads vintage SF for reverse fortune-telling, anyway?

 

“And to him his public existence, his role as a worldwide entertainer, was existence itself, period” (4).

Primarily serving as commentary about the vanity and exaltation of celebrity culture, with some poignant moments about love and grief, Flow My Tears toys with reality from the privileged perspective of a superstar living on both sides of a police state. In one reality, Jason is exempt from the oppressive trappings of near-future listless fascism; in another reality, Jason attracts suspicion at every corner. Celebrity advantages are heightened in this atmosphere where an ongoing war between the police force and the literally underground college students goes on in the background, suggesting a more incendiary prophecy: the cultural attack on intellectualism. The reader will never really feel this darker aspect of the novel because Jason’s exceptional detachment from such grounded issues skirts the mood of what could be a juicy, mounting nihilism. But, oh well. Compton did it better the same year, with greater intensity, yet with equally limited interaction with the sociopolitical environment.

 “My reality is leaking back” (192).

The inherent sexism of Jason (and possibly PKD— I can never really tell where the character ends and the author begins in these male-written seventies novels. It was the “me” decade, after all) is too pitiful and codependent to be offensive, where Jason loves and respects no one, yet denies himself in order to maintain any relationship with just about any female. He says annoying things like, “In most cases a sympathetic lie did better and more mercifully. Especially between men and women; in fact, whenever a woman was involved” (43). He expresses jealousy at his lovers’ past relationships, while accepting the possibility of current, ongoing affairs, because, we assume, he is deathly afraid to be alone.

However, that codependent sexism is offset, perhaps unintentionally, by the women who happen to carry the tale. Jason is no one without his lady friends and, while no one would accuse PKD of drawing deep characters, his female caricatures are more interesting than his male protagonist. Superstar Heather (“… a goddamn beautiful-looking person” [7]), Mental Kathy (“An almost pseudo-epileptoid personality structure” [58]), Aging and likewise Codependent Ruth (“When you love you cease to live for yourself; you live for another person” [118]), Vast and Reckless Alys (“If Alys did not give a damn about something, that something, for her, ceased to exist” [139]), and Dumpy Mary Anne (“Does everything have to be on a great scale with a cast of thousands?” [198]). And the most grounded woman of the tale returns him to the reality he prefers—suggesting that his reality really is buoyed by his audience of nobodies.

But it’s PKD, and his reputation precedes him. Even though this isn’t just some trippy nightmare a la Naked Lunch, there’s the sense that this story is more cascade than craft, where the flow of narrative might overwhelm details. Sometimes ideas are dropped, conveniently forgotten, remembered later, or maybe not. “Isn’t there a microtrans on me somewhere?” (104), the unexisted man hiding from the police state suddenly remembers hours later. And, what about that whole drug squid thing that his ex-girlfriend threw at him? Oh, and then there’s the white pseudo-inclusiveness of the 70s where PKD wedges in a black guy at a gas station to play the Magical Negro to the despondent police general. They hug.

FlowMyTears2The lesson is this: “don’t come to the attention of the authorities. Don’t ever interest us. Don’t make us want to know more about you” (235).

But I got more from the “aging” Ruth:

Jason, grief is awareness that you will have to be alone, and there is nothing beyond that because being alone is the ultimate final destiny of each individual living creature. That’s what death is, the great loneliness…

But to grieve; it’s to die and be alive at the same time (120 – 121).

Happy Holidays, y’all!

 

 

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30 thoughts on “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) by Philip K. Dick

  1. Looks like someone’s having fun reading through the ’70s…

    Great review! I read a lot of PKD when I first got into science fiction, but never got around to this one. His ’70s stuff was a bit too trippy/dense for me then, and his ’80s stuff even moreso.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, it has been a 70s month for me!

      I actually enjoyed this novel, but it there are a lot of flaws in what PKD does. And there’s so much PKD out there, it’s hard to know where to start.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joseph Nebus says:

        There is something wonderfully, ineffably 70s about that era in science fiction. I don’t think I’m just imprinted on that because of my age; there’s just this attitude that pervades the decade, whether it’s New Wave stuff or Hard Science Fiction or Retread Space Opera or whatever.

        Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I think you are exactly right about ’70s era of SF, from all subgenres. As if science fiction suddenly hit adolescence and became aware of itself and its potential. I was alive for only two weeks of this decade, but I definitely see the difference between this era and its predecessors.

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      • Good places to start with Dick: This awesome collection. It’s $3 for Kindle this month (cough), but it’s also the one I got started with so I can heartily recommend it, and Lethem’s intro hits the nail on the head. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? since it fits the award winner requirement too. A Scanner Darkly and Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Ubik is my fave, and it was one of like three SFF books Time picked for its best books of the century, but I think I’m in the minority.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Thanks for the pointers! And that’s a good deal! I saw the Time pick for Ubik, and I thought it was strange because it’s just not referenced very often.

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  2. romeorites says:

    You know my rather dull anecdote relating to this story. And no, do not worry I havent anymore. But I do remember having a bit of a mind explosion regarding many themes covered in this. Mainly in regards to the fractious construct of “celebrity.”

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Aww, I was hoping for another anecdote!

      Yes, I think PKD’s application of the reality-bending experience to a celebrity is pretty clever and cutting. That quote I included about his existence in relation to his audience is one of my favorites.

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  3. Hestia says:

    “The inherent sexism of Jason (and possibly PKD— I can never really tell where the character ends and the author begins in these male-written seventies novels. It was the “me” decade, after all)”

    Nice.

    I liked The Man in the High Castle pretty well (though I don’t remember much of it now) and I liked parts of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was too much for me, and I guess I stopped there.

    I did really like his short story “Frozen Journey” reprinted in the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction — it uses his great mind-bending imagination, but is still nicely plotted.

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  4. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I plan to eventually read all three of those novels you listed, and thanks for the tip on that short story!

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  5. Oh man, I was so nervous to read this review one because I hoped you liked it and two because I hoped I still would like it afterwards. I have read most of PKD’s work in a kind of ecstatic glee, which means I haven’t (yet) spent much time really looking deeply at what is happening in the books, and the sexism (yeah, PKD does not do 3D women much, but it does largely seem to be because he does not do 3D anybody…but like you said, it is rather hard to tell sometimes). I think in another 6 months/year I am going to be ready for my next re-read of all of his work, then I can finally get into the gritty.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I really did enjoy reading this despite its flaws and I think the lack of 3D anybody, whether it’s purposeful or not, helps to develop the dissociative state of Jason. As thin as the female character development is, I find it really interesting how the women seem to carry the tale, in fact Jason seems to have no agency without them. I’m not sure of PKD’s goal with those female characters, but I liked them all: sort of ironic femme fatale types, maybe?

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  6. Jesse says:

    Flow My Tears is one of my least favorite PKD books. Dick such an in-the-moment, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants writer, there were times he got lucky and everything clicked into place (e.g. Man in the High Castle), there were other times his scatterbrain, what-will-we-write-today approach is spread in ugly fashion across the page – Flow My Tears being one example. As you noticed, little coheres about the novel. But yet, there it is, often listed amongst his best/favorite works. And I suspect it is precisely the morning-hair style which appeals… different strokes for different folks.

    A good place to start with Dick is his best work: A Scanner Darkly. It forms a good benchmark from which to gauge the quality of his other works, i.e. to see what he’s like when he’s on point and organized.

    Enjoy your other trips in PKD land!

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    • Warstub says:

      Yeah, I tend to agree Jesse, but only in the sense of Flow My Tears in relation to what’s considered his best – I’ve read some of those pot boilers, some are fun, some are dumb, but most are pretty readable!

      My general impression with Flow My Tears was that Dick walked his protagonist into a plot, and then walked him out again. There was no sense of deep conflict, or tragedy, or personal growth in the way that there was in other novels such as VALIS, or Martian Time-Slip. Even Now Wait For Last Year had a far more meaningful ending, so I was never convinced that Flow My Tears was one of his best, like other people thought.

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        “Dick walked his protagonist into a plot, and then walked him out again.”

        Well put. I think the lack of personal growth was intentional, though, as I think FmT was also a critique of celebrity culture and that vanity that fosters it. Jason wasn’t intended to grow or change.

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  7. fromcouchtomoon says:

    Morning-hair style, haha, love it! I do get the sense that this isn’t a guy who does much re-drafting, but that seems to add to the whole paranoid-schizoid trippy tone. I haven’t even seen any of the movies inspired by his novels (I haven’t even seen Blade Runner!), so thanks for the tip on where to go next.

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  8. […] to the ‘70s. After a set of socially critical, sometimes psychedelic reads with Pohl, Silverberg, Dick, and Farmer, even a sophisticated 1953 satire like The Space Merchants feels stodgy and quaint. I […]

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  9. I’m partway through A Scanner Darkly. And, yeah, I think he’s sexist.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Haha, yeah… and yet the women of Flow My Tears steal the show. Not sure he intended that, but that’s what self-loathing codependent misogyny gets you.

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  10. James DC says:

    I loved this book when I read it about 15 years ago. Other PKD’s I would recommend are A Maze of Death (bizarrely underrated), A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, The Penultimate Truth, Radio Free Albemuth and Martian Timeslip, as well as any of the collected works of his incredible short stories, which may be a better place to start, than novels, with him….

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I just purchased a collection of PKD’s novels just last week. I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it, but I have heard from others that his short fiction is a great place to start.

      I know SFFAudio.com did a podcast of Martian Timeslip recently that I have on my To Be Listened To list. That’s the first recommendation for A Maze of Death, so I will also tack that on. Thanks for the recs!

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      • Warstub says:

        I love A Maze of Death! That novel blew me away. But so did V.A.L.I.S. They are both sad and affecting. Martian Time-Slip I think he considered to be one of his most well written, and it shows in being less desperate, but then that’s kind of what I like so much about A Maze of Death – it was a nightmare. I’m not sure many people like The Divine Invasion much, but I rated it highly. However, it deals with Christianity and gnosticism quite heavily, and those two subjects I find quite fascinating, other people can easily be turned off by them.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I’m eager to get to Martian Time-Slip, but my next PKD will be Dr. Bloodmoney. Based on yours and James’ recommendations, I’ll have to add A Maze of Death and V.A.L.I.S. to the list. Thanks!

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  11. It’s nice to see that you (mostly) enjoyed your first time with PKD. You kind of threw yourself in at the deep end choosing this book. I would usually recommend reading some of his short stories first, to a new reader. Then, if they are ready to move on to his long fiction, I would point them in the direction of, The Man In The High Castle; I think it’s his most reader friendly novel.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I really did enjoy it! I’m just nitpicky. I intend to read more of his work, if only to find out why you describe Flow My Tears as “the deep end.” I guess I need more PKD to compare.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess I meant “the deep end”, as in a book that’s more likely to discourage someone from reading any more PKD in future. A novel like “The Man In The High Castle” is probably an easier to story to enjoy for a first timer. But it could have been worse, you could have started with Ubik. It’s the one PKD book that causes me to wonder what he was smoking when he wrote it.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I really didn’t mind Flow My Tears, so I guess that I means I have more to look forward to when I get to The Man in the High Castle. And now I’m very curious about Ubik ;-P

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  12. […] a first pick. Both are delicious; I love them so much. Maybe they should tie. In comparison, Flow my Tears and Fire Time are pretty forgettable, with misplaced identity and Middle East allegory being the […]

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  13. […] I read by him, especially by the time Jason tells Alys, “But you’re vast,” (170) in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It’s not a word I hear every day, and Dick uses it […]

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  14. […] need more PKD? Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) by Philip K. Dick The Philip K. Dick Exegesis with a side of fiction @ […]

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