In Flow My Tears, the policeman said “Philip K. Dick is a nouveau-Nostradamus painting our future with such trends as identity theft, government surveillance, and the revival of vinyl records.”
“The exclusiveness of space, we`ve learned, is only a function of the brain as it handles perception. It regulates data in terms of mutually restrictive space units. Millions of them. Trillions, theoretically, in fact. But in itself, space is not exclusive. In fact, in itself, space does not exist at all.” Phil Westerburg – LA Police Agency Coroner
It is suddenly the year 1988, (fourteen years into the future from the publishing date of 1974), October 11th to be exact, and Jason Taverner, a television star and pop singer with 30 million viewers is casually cruising home in his Rolls flyship, after taping his show, with his present girlfriend, Heather Hart, a starlet in her own right. Oddly enough, the very next day on October 12th, Jason awakens natty-eyed in a shabby, bug-riddled shack-of-a-hotel, and nobody knows him anymore, whatsoever. Zilch, nada, caputski, nie one living soul has so much as even heard of him. He is now a living zero, and neither his business agent, his girlfriend, nor any of his 30 million fans have any clue as to who he really is? The rest of this Science Fiction novel, penned by Philip K. Dick, is the curvilinear journey of this ‘nobody’ scrapping vapidly for his former famous self.
The frame for this story is a United States that has transformed into a totalitarian state after emerging from a “Second Civil War.” Traces of democracy emerge ever so latently, but a most sturdy police infrastructure is in place, with the National Guard (“Nats”) and US police force (“pols”), identity checkpoints, and national data banks operating smoothly to monitor its citizens for transgressions. Previously, the black population has been pruned voraciously via sterilization and the student population is burrowed like gophers, entrenched that is, in sub-terrestrial kibbutz units `neath most major universities. Furthermore, other so deemed dissidents are incarcerated in forced-labor camps, that have in recent memory witnessed altering states of liberation and oppression, depending on prevailing political winds. In the current decade (mid 1980s) society is chilling ever so slightly as hints of democracy sprout up shyly. Blacks are more respected now a days yet public affairs are laced with indiscretions, such as incestuous relations and flagrant drug abuse. The residing government is a dictatorship with a “Director” and police marshals and generals in place to owl-eye any iota of civil discord.
The machinations of plot are, in design, the journey of Jason Taverner to retrieve his frittered identity. Also, the Police Academy in LA, and especially the Police General Felix Buckman, are utterly confounded by the fact that they have no info on Jason in their central data banks. The Police General is convinced that the data has been misplaced. “Somewhere, some obscure place, he’s overlooked a microdocument of a minor nature. We’ll keep searching until we find it.” Much of this SF novel provides vivid descriptions of the police surveillance apparatus in all its refinement. A specific fact in chapter one that piqued my interest was when Marilyn Mason, a jilted lover, hurled the Callisto cuddle sponge on Jason, for his womanizing ways. Did this in some way contribute to his loss of identity that appears in chapter two? I sense that there is a connection, but am not able to draw a line between the dots.
One thing I liked most about this book was the assortment of flaky characters that pop up in the story. Kathy Nelson comes to mind; she’s an expert forger who creates some docs for Mister Taverner to aid him in clearing checkpoints. “Most of it called for pol-nat standard postcurfew tags, with thumbprints and photographs and holographic signatures, and everything with short expiration dates.” Kathy is a state-of-the-art forger alright, and she is only nineteen years old, but she is also an informer for the state police and can’t be trusted. When Jason takes her to a tacky restaurant she freaks out and commences to scream. This results in her being thrown out by the management. Then there is Inspector McNulty; he is a yes man to Felix Buckman, but does much of the dirty work in terms of investigating the case. Later I’ll touch on some of the other big players.
I love Philip K. Dick`s style, in spite of its awkwardness, for he is a brazen ‘paperback writer’ that is not afraid to slap down some words on his trusty typewriter and let them exist on parchment. He uses a lot of snappy, corny dialogue and one may think of hard boiler stuff, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but come to think of it, they may be a mite more arty than PKD. I had much to choose from, but I’ll give you this quote `cuz it will no doubt flip you out (from chapter 27)! “Someday your story, the ritual and shape of your downfall, may be made public, at a remote future time when it no longer matters. When there no more forced-labor camps and no more campuses surrounded by rings of police carrying rapid-fire submachine guns and wearing gas masks that make them look like great-snouted, huge-eyed root-eaters, some kind of noxious lower animal.” Images of the 1968 Democratic Convention immediately popped into my head!
Anachronisms are welcome weeds in Flow My Tears; a round peg in a square hole is a good fit in this case. As you mull over the leaflets you get a surreal sensation; is this the ‘Disco Era’ of the 1970s or a ‘Brave New World’ of the future? A little of both essentially. Citations of vinyl records herein are mondo. “Carrying the enormous record albums he ran back to the house.” And: “He lifted at the lid of the phonograph but it wouldn’t open.” Wisely, PKD is prophesizing the revival of vinyl record albums! Here’s another hoot for pase-isimoniciousness. “Does she still read the Book-of-the-Month?” And good old reel-to-reel tapes still peek (or rotate) from the pages. “Moodily, General Buckman opened the third drawer of the large desk and placed a tape-reel in the small transport he kept there.” Let’s not leave out the trusty retro-video conferencing that pops up here and there. The out-of-time ephemera that occupy this landscape are comic conundrums that tax our linear perceptions of history.
Jason Taverner is a genetically engineered six, an older model, a crooner, TV star, and a womanizer. I picture him looking like say a Pat Boone or Glen Campbell during the 1970s. White shoes, curly golden locks, a glassy smile, he pipes pop songs through a microphone to 30 millions viewers. PKD uses him as a conduit to channel theories of identity loss. Taverner is a breathing torso of Andy Warhol`s fleeting fifteen minutes of fame. It is noticeable, Jason`s robotic and predictable, a cartoon for Dick`s imaginative playland. Heather Hart is a six also, a cool movie starlet who digs Jason, and yet she is the object of a plot twist that could well be the crux of the matter. This must be coveted at this ink spot. Mary Ann Dominic is a suburban unknown soldier who cafe-hops with Jason through some troubling moments and is a skilled potter whose ceramic vases become cherished ware for the museums of the future.
Paranoia is the primary mood or tone of this paperback. Jason spends most of his time attempting to evade the police. And losing your identity is not such a pretty thing. The state apparatus is geared towards universal surveillance of society. The fruits of technology are recycled into maintaining a well oiled state. The spirit of George Orwell`s 1984 oozes out of every page. During the bust on Ruth Rae`s apartment the pols nonchalantly perform their duties. “Parked in one of the slots was a police van, with several pols standing idly around it, weapons held loosely. They looked inert and bored.” One gets the feeling that PKD knew that the paranoia factor within our society, manifold in all its tentacles, would do nothing but increase as we move through time.
A body pert near naturally seeks out data on the life of PKD, a passionate pursuit of proof for his quirky oracles and phantasms of the future, his on-the-mark predictions that echo through the nearly half dozen decades since his typewriter first clattered. The volume Divine Invasions-A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin is a handy tool for Dickian dogma as well as biographical tidbits that helps to fill in the potholes. An example would be the need of info about Science Fiction publishing and how PKD fits into that bigger picture. Furthermore, it is mandatory that you view the documentary The Gospel According To Philip K. Dick with its funky animation of PKD pecking at his trusty typewriter; oh, so this is what a real writer looks like. Brain storm! Facts about his personal story are friendly bookends to the telltale upshot of his weird novels.
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said would make a stunning movie, visuals out of this world, air-bound quibbles, yellow or orange in color that look like VW bugs with Mr. Natural decals. The checkpoints would resemble the border bridges of Nuevo Laredo or Ciudad Juarez, but pols in spacesuits inspect IDs-fingerprints, voiceprints, EEG prints appear on the monitor. The wardrobe people will be making whoopee with Alys Buckman, her tight black-belled patent leather pants, gold chains, beaucoup blue eyeliner, black wig long and wavy, witchy fairy boots, and a bag of potions as big as Cleveland. Another good one would be the raid by the pols on Ruth Rae`s snazzy Las Vegas apartment to arrest Jason Taverner; think a low key, intergalactic-like ATF raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco (that’s outer space-like already).
The Epilogue is a new feature in Flow My Tears for PKD as his MO is to usually leave loose-ends pertaining to outcome of his kinetically-charged SF novels. Fully fifty-nine years are telescoped with such flagrant ironies, that prediction of destinies for characters are floating debris in some foamy waves of uncertainty. Those outcomes are hazy mist for your eyes here, but the police state endures and many artifacts are preserved in museums such as pottery and the delicate collection of S & M art of the basket case lesbian twin of Felix Buckman. Dick telescopes aftereffects of the story: a thawing of the police state, liberation of the subterranean student population, new constructs of politically correct, yet impudent and lame universities; seventies deja vu in the twenty-first century? A mother of all police manuals? Huh?
While reading Flow My Tears, the word parody will rear its homely head. Gulliver`s Travels by Jonathan Swift comes to mind, for when Gulliver arrives in the land of the Lilliputians they are at war with the Blefuscudians. This is a parody of the wars between England and France. PKD spuffs the Nixonian Era where the ‘student movement’ had to be dealt with by undercover agents of Nixon. Recall the fate of the students in this US of 1988. Another comparison is that Swift`s world is first a land of mini-people, then a land of giants-sharp contrasts keep coming up. PKD`s world is similar; one time Jason is famous then the next he is a nobody. In one moment he is in a swinging Las Vegas lounge with a synthetic old flame, then in the next he is under the hot lamp of a pol interrogator, sweating like a possum in a pot destined for the evening vitals. This composition (the pristine manuscript was in tact in 1970) predates the exposure of the Watergate break-in, thus reinforcing a vision of parody of a secret police state before all the facts were revealed.
A significant arsenal of brain cells have been expended (both by myself and other PKD aficionados) by way of theories for the brassy loss of identity of said Mister Taverner. One explanation for his sudden anonymity is that Alys Buckman took the powerful drug KR-3 and she uses a most mysterious mutation of mind control ever fathomed by mortal coil; she, with the craft of a wizard, projects him in a parallel world where he is unknown. Alys is a replicant police agent for her brother/lover (another odd theory of mine). The drug itself dictates how the atoms of reality will be assembled. I don`t know exactly how this works, but I believe that whatever her will is then becomes the prevailing corporeal model, and physical matter rearranges to simulate her mindset. As such, data in info banks vanishes, Heather Hart`s memory of Jason disappears, and Alys can abduct him (as she stealthily does so) to a vestibule as a silly toy to play with; she morphs to a black-burned skeleton, like a puff of smoke (an inside joke for lost comrades), when the poisonous KR-3 fries her system to a crispy critter. My theory here would be that she strains her mind to the outer limits and the KR-3 turns on her and makes her identity-less instead of Jason. The spell is broken-then he returns to his old universe-it goes without saying, though, this is an ify-at best-return to reality.
And then it could be political. Think of the Great Purge of Joseph Stalin. People were erased from the face of the earth. Felix suspects that Jason is getting a green light from higher ups. He`s not at the top of the pyramid and is expendable. Paranoia reigns. How could the file have been purged? Is Jason an agent of the state with a clearance to perform strategic intelligence? Think of Lee Oswald`s waiver to stay in the Soviet Union. Was the parallel world manufactured by Alys political in nature? People that perished in Russia during the Great Purge were whited out completely-photographs, personal records, families too scared, did they ever really exist? Kathy and Jason are afraid of deportment to forced labor camps. Who is really manipulating them? Is the mind control of Alys an early form of ‘identity theft’? Cults do this too. Jim Jones and Charles Manson-need I say more? Devotee are reduced to zombies who kill and worship, kill and worship-zealots with empty promises and brainwashing destroys free will. David Koresh did it too. Die for me! Felix Buckman was the architect of a seamless, efficient state. Taverner was used in conspiracy of Alys to confound her paramour-a spell on society for reasons unknown.
Dick is commenting on fame too. Is it not an illusion? A Maya-here today, gone tomorrow. This happens all the time. Celebrities’ crash and burn. Britney Spears, Fatty Arbuckle, Tiny Tim (no, he not fade away). In Sutin`s biography PKD`s philosophy is revealed. Orthogonal time is real time. Linear time is a Maya. The two types of time run parallel to one another. An example would be a vinyl phonograph record. When it is played it is exactly the same every time-same cracks and pops, but your perception alters. Once an event becomes history it is a permanent record. It can be played back over and over again. Once it happens it is permanent through eternity. It is not linear, but rather rotary. It stands still but is time nonetheless. Jason enters a time/warp, a forgotten memory of when he is unknown. This is a valid rotary record, but just has never been played before. Alys taps into the lost memory and makes it a living experience. Have you ever gone to a cut-out-bin and purchased a platter and played it when you got home? Say the Purple People Strings that Ruth Rae so loved? All records are valid evidence of history. Yet some get more playback. Some are never played even once. This was a first for the playback of the anonymous Jason. If no one ever reads what I am writing right now, that doesn’t mean that it’s not part of the collective record of the current chronicle.
Much has been made of the humanity of Felix Buckman when he visits the self-service quibble gas station. Yea, he goes back and hugs the black man after he had given him a sketch of a heart with an arrow through it. I thought this was but a sidebar to a novel about cruelty and paranoia in a totalitarian state. One could see this as parody also. Buckman is giving a token salute to a black man who he has helped to oppress in the past. It was a nice touch, but not really a conversion or anything. He was just feeling sorry for himself, and his twin sister had just ODed in an embarrassing way. A cover up was in place to marginalize the mess up. It is interesting though, that PKD had a similar thing happen to him after he wrote the book. The bit about the John Dowland song is just some gentle ribbing, I thought. “I’ll play it on that big new quad phonograph of mine when I get home.”
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU is the real theme of Flow My Tears. Every page, nearly, oozes fear and confusion. Some funny stuff is on every page too. This is comic relief when butterflies dance in your stomach. But make no mistake, this is Orwellian in nature. Recently I saw on the news that when you show your passport at the border a file will be created by Homeland Security. Eerie chills trickle down my spine. It was implied that HS could use items in your file thereafter. PKD is weeping upstairs as he sees his predictions come true.
Identity loss can result from multiple consequences. It could be the result of disturbing political manipulations. It most certainly will result from some form of mind control. Sometimes drugs will play a role, as they did in this case. And most of all identity loss can be a function of quirks in the time/space matrix that is sensitive to ever so slight gyrations. Moreover, the outcome of history can change with the lightest alteration in the sequencing of events. PKD plays with these themes and urges us, vicariously I suppose, to contemplate the tenuousness of our existence. *I do hope my piece is granted a clearance certificate from you readers, then the electronic gates shall open to millions of Science Fiction devotees who have memorized every word of Philip K. Dick.
The best fan page for Philip K. Dick is www.philipkdick.com. There is a wealth of information about his life and writings here, and tender loving care is present in abundance. You can find the article “The True Stories of Philip K. Dick” on that web page too. This was a very groovy Rolling Stone piece by Paul Williams that appeared in the November 6, 1975 issue.