Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick drew me in with one tightly written, deeply engaging scene after another. And like so many of Dick’s novels, it turns the protagonist’s life upside down and inside out in the first couple of chapters. It’s a must-read for any fan of Dick’s fiction.
The story of Flow My Tears is compelling enough in its outline. Jason Taverner is a huge celebrity with a variety TV show that has 30 million viewers. Rich, famous, traveling about in his private “quibble”, a sort of flying car that can travel at 1200 mph and land on a small space like a helicopter. He’s also, in this not-so-far-off future, a genetically engineered six, one of a small number of elite people who are not just gifted but who project a personal magnetism that wins over everyone.
And then, after a bizarre near-death experience and a stay in a hospital, he wakes up in a shabby hotel room with only a wrinkled suit (although bespoke and made of fine silk) with several thousand dollars but no ID cards. That can be a fatal problem in a rigidly controlled society, following a Second Civil War, with forced labor camps, revolutionary students living underground beneath burnt out campuses and police checkpoints constantly requiring IDs to see if you are who you claim to be.
Not only is Taverner lacking those cards, he also seems to have vanished from the memories of his closest colleagues and lover. No one remembers him, he can’t prove who he is – and so he has effectively ceased to exist. The novel is about his search for help and for some understanding of what has happened to ghost his very existence. Along the way, he has a series of engaging conversations with people who show a much greater awareness than he does about love, grief, identity and reality – the true subjects of Flow My Tears.
In fact, Taverner is mostly a foil for the people around him. He does wake up to some of the realities of the repressive world he lives in but only because he has lost his celebrity status that has shielded him from the ugly truths of this society. When the woman who produces his fake ID cards turns him in to the police, he realizes he has been living all along in a “betrayal state” where people do what they have to do to survive. Only now has he joined the ranks of the ordinary people, but his cynicism, sexism and need for fame and money continue to define him throughout the novel.
All the other characters, even those who assault or try to trap him, are telling him all sorts of things about what’s important in life, even the constrained life of a police state. He sometimes responds to these people in a sympathetic way but usually ignores much of what they say in his quest to get back the identity and fame he once enjoyed.
His main adversary, the police general Buckman, is an interesting character who believes in his work of maintaining a “coherent” society, as he puts it, yet who rigorously sets himself apart from the usual police types. He loves seventeenth century music and songs (which are quoted throughout the text) collects beautiful objects and, we learn at one point, was demoted to his present (still high) position because he tried to improve conditions in forced labor camps, especially for Black people. He is fascinated by Taverner because he is a six (Buckman pretends to be a seven when interrogating him even though there is no such thing) and because he represents an impossibility – a person for whom no record can be found in any of the exhaustive data bases of the police state.
When Buckman is faced with his own terrible loss, we see him near collapse in grief and tears, yet at the same time he schemes to blame Taverner while also taking revenge on some of the higher-ups who demoted him. He is deeply affected by loss but resists real change in life until it is forced upon him.
Taverner is constantly tested in his encounters with former lovers and even strangers to re-evaluate his life, to consider the meaning of loss and love, yet he continues to resist, like Buckman, even though he evokes warm responses from many of the people he encounters. A former lover, Ruth Rae, who has been married dozens of times, talks to him at length about the loss of a loved one, even a pet animal. She sees the need to love as essential so that even when you suffer the pain of loss you recover and transfer that love to someone else. Taverner’s response is primarily to the pain of loss. “So why is love so good?” All his life, he reflects, he has loved people only to have them drop him and go elsewhere for “a better offer.”
Then Ruth Rae, whose life on one level seems to make a mockery of close relationships, tells him what love is all about.
“Love isn’t just wanting another person the way you want to own an object you see in a store. … Love is — she paused, reflecting — like a father saving his children from a burning house, getting them out and dying himself. When you love you cease to live for yourself; you live for another person.”
“And that’s good?” It did not sound so good to him.Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Vintage paperback edition 1993, pp 109-110
She goes on to tell him that love overcomes the instinct that pulls you into fighting for survival, but Jason can’t understand why that is a good thing. Because, she tells him, “the instinct for survival loses in the end.” In other words, all the fighting to survive ends in death, alone, but if you love you can go out with a feeling of contentment that those you love are still living. Jason can’t grasp this idea, since everyone dies anyway. When Ruth tells him that grief is also a good thing to feel, all he can say is: “In what fucking way?”
This is an extraordinary conversation to find in a science fiction novel, and this is only part of it. There are many other scenes in which Jason encounters women who try to open a different world of experience for him, but he stays focused on getting his old life back, meaning his status, his privilege, his money and his fame.
There is a belated explanation of how it happened that Jason and others were thrown into a different world where he didn’t exist, but that’s not the focus of the novel. Philip K. Dick is an extraordinary writer in his ability to probe deeply into human experience under the strange circumstances that only science fiction permits. He does it in Flow My Tears and also in A Scanner Darkly, another favorite of mine. He may go well beyond the bounds of what most SFF readers are looking for, but for me that’s what makes him great.