Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said" by Philip K. Dick ****

This may rank as my favorite Philip K. Dick work so far (though I have fond memories of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I read nearly two decades ago and thought intriguing but poorly written; I'm not so sure I'd have the same opinion now, and of course, much of my nostalgia actually comes from the movie, which is a very different animal and, actually, not as interesting in terms of theme).

Flow My Tears is an It's a Wonderful Life tale, but without the pleasant vibe. It took me a while to recognize the basic plot line as one that's been done many times before. Rather, my mind went to stories in which a character wakes up with amnesia. Here, however, the main character wakes up and knows exactly who he was the day before--only no one else knows him or remembers him, and his ID cards have been erased. Essentially, he doesn't exist.

But this isn't some tale where we learn just how many people depended on our character to survive. He doesn't, in fact, appear to have changed many people's lives at all, despite his seeming importance in the world as a pop star and variety show host. Like the empty entertainment he provides, he as a person is short on value.

Worse, he lives in a totalitarian society, a police state. Where once he was a man of privilege, he is now wanted. After all, it's illegal to go without your ID--and you can't get an ID unless you have a birth certificate, which you don't have if you don't exist. He's looking a slave labor, and so instead, he hires someone to make him some fake IDs, which proves to land him in just as much trouble.

Dick is asking big questions here--about fate (what value do we really have in the scheme of overwhelming forces?) and about identity. In the case of the latter, he seems to be suggesting that ultimately we don't control it; rather, society and circumstance forge identity for us. If we're lucky enough to host a talk-show, we're one person; if we're less fortunate, then we're likely some slave in a labor camp. The individual, in the end, isn't much value.

I've barely skimmed the surface of this text. As one would expect from pulp sci-fi, there are plenty of plot twists, and as with most of Dick's titles, there's some interest in psychological neuroses (though less than in the three previous texts I've read this year), in hallucinogenic drugs, and in altered states of reality.

If I have one complaint about the book, it's that it's actually too short. I felt like he only told half the story, then got tired of it, and chopped out a summary epilogue chapter for the ending. Until then, this text was humming along, and the questions Dick seemed to be asking were still begging us to go further down the road. I could have seen something akin to Kafka's The Trial for the second half of the book, but it wasn't to be.

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