Let’s get the obvious out of the way right off the bat — I don’t typically read science fiction. In fact, I can probably count the number of science fiction books I’ve read on one hand. Truth be told, it has less to do with not liking science fiction and more to do with the fact that I’m admittedly a bit of a literature snob and I don’t usually read any “genre” fiction including romance, mystery, fantasy, etc. I’m sure I’m missing out on some great reads.
I’m trying to be more open-minded though. I started a book club last year and we take turns picking a book each month and I have enjoyed trying new things. I scoffed at We Are Legion (We are Bob) and I ended up really enjoying it. I think maybe I’ve had a blind spot for science fiction because of what I think it is, when in reality science fiction can be a lot of things. I’ve always equated science fiction with stories about alien visits and robot wars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not my thing.
But recently I’ve been watching some really great television that fits into the science fiction category and I’ve realized that I most definitely like stories of dystopia and alternate universes. Black Mirror may be the best show on television. I have thoroughly enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, 12 Monkeys, and the new Star Trek Discovery series. And most of all, I love The Man in the High Castle, which brings us back to Philip K. Dick.
My son loves science fiction, and given I could hardly get him to pick up a book when he was growing up I have been encouraged by his newfound love of reading. He adores Philip K. Dick and he’s been bugging me to drop my pretentiousness and give him a try. He suggested Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said as a good place to start and I picked it up a few days ago and flew right through it.
I agreed that Philip K. Dick was a good entrance point to science fiction for me because he specializes in dystopia and he has been occasionally compared to one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. Having finally read a P.K. Dick novel I agree the comparisons are fair. They are both nuts!
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is the story of Jason Taverner, a world famous television star and singer who wakes up one morning in a strange place and he quickly discovers that he is no longer famous and in fact he lacks any identification at all. This is a huge issue in the not-too-distant future (1988) of this novel in that the world has become a police state where not having identification can lead to a permanent trip to a forced labor camp. As Taverner makes his way in his new reality as a regular person he quickly realizes just how privileged he was in his previous life.
First, a few cons from my perspective. P.K. Dick didn’t win any awards for literature, primarily because his writing style is sophomoric. He’s no literary lion, but I’m sure that didn’t bother him much nor does it concern his fans. This particular book, and I have no other P.K. Dick novels to compare it to yet, does not leave much to the reader to figure out. I think great literature shows but doesn’t tell — Dick’s style (at least in this book) is to explain what’s going on through the narrator’s inner voice. I was disappointed by how he explains everything as it leaves very little to the reader’s imagination. Finally, I was quite disappointed in the ending of the novel. I won’t give it away, but I’ll just say Dick wraps everything up in a bow.
But my complaints about the novel are quite minor. In fact, I really loved the story despite not liking the way it ended. Dick gives away the mechanism by which Taverner found himself in a parallel universe and I would have preferred he leave that to the imagination and the readers conjecture. Yet, I liked what being in that parallel universe meant for Taverner and the reader. The novel revolves around the themes of fame, identity, surveillance, genetic enhancement, and altered states to name a few. These are topics worth exploring, whether through a science fiction novel or a philosophy class.
The novel was published in 1974 and the issues it is about are even more relevant today given where we are as a species and a society. One of the things that makes P.K. Dick so special is how prescient he was in writing about these issues in the early 70s. One gets the feeling maybe he discovered some portal to the future just as the Nazi’s did in The Man in the High Castle. I know what you’re thinking — his “portal” was LSD! Perhaps, but regardless of how he got to his theories of the future it’s remarkable.
I liked Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, but I didn’t love it. The good news is, P.K. Dick was a prolific writer so there’s so much more to discover. Now that my mind has expanded, I suspect I’ll be adding a few of those novels to my to-read list. I’ve been told Ubik is pretty mind-blowing, and Valis gets great reviews. I’ll probably give Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a try even though I know the story having seen Blade Runner a bunch of times. If you are a Philip K. Dick fan, I’d welcome your suggestions.