1974 Science Fiction novel by Philip K. Dick.   * * * * 1/2

Jason Taverner is on top of the world: He is a famous singing star, he has his own weekly TV show viewed by over 30 million people, he is incredibly good-looking and has any woman he wants, and above all, he is a "six"1 .

Then one day, Jason wakes up in a sleazy hotel room, and find he doesn't exist anymore. His ID cards are gone; his birth certificate is missing from all the computers.

He learns very quickly how the other half lives. In this future2 America, not being able to produce your ID cards at a random checkpoint means that you will be sent to a forced labor camp, almost certain death.

Worst of all for any celebrity, it suddenly appears that no-one has ever heard of him!

This is one of Dick's earliest novels portraying the disturbing "betrayal state"3, not so much different from our own, shaped by the evil Richard M. Nixon (or an analogue). Dick could out-write nearly any author you care to name with one hand tied behind his back.
1I'm not going to explain what a "six" is to you; you'll have to read the book.
2The "future" being defined as 1988.
3In fact, the term "betrayal state" appears to have been coined in this novel.
Warning: spoilers follow

This is a book about sex and death and drugs and what happens to reality when they collide. Jason Taverner has awakened in a reality he does not exist in -- this happens after he is attacked by an ex-lover with a deadly alien lifeform. Readers of Ubik would suspect that the rest of the book is a post-life experience, but what is happening to Taverner is quite real.

He gets tied up with the police, and with Police General Felix Buckman in particular. Buckman is a man of compassion who has been demoted from Police Marshall (this highest rank) for closing forced-labor camps and helping the students who live, barricaded in their campuses. Buckman is also in an incestuous relationship with his sister, Alys. Alys is a perfect foil for Buckman, as wild and anti-status quo as her brother is solid and committed to the health of his peculiar, police-state society.

Alys has taken a drug, a drug that changes not her own reality, but the reality of the people around her, creating by sheer effort of will the Taverner-less world. (She is a big fan of this TV host and singer, and his most recent romantic ballad, "Nowhere Nothin' Fuck-Up". The effort kills her, and the world returns to normal -- leaving Buckamn alone, grieving, and scrambling to avoid the scandal that is already beginning to erupt.

Dick wrote very quickly, strings of novels taking similar themes to very different ends. His entire body of work relates to itself, especially when seen through the dark mirror of VALIS. Taverner has a significant encounter with a potter. The pot she gives him, according to Dick, is "among people who know ceramics, openly and genuinely cherished. And loved." It is during this encounter that he begins to get his life back, through the machanism of Alys's death. It is clear that this is the same pot the Stephanie gives to Horselover Fat, the pot from which God manifests.

As with any book by the inimitable Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policemen Said, is meant to raise questions, and not really to provide answers. It is not meant to be an insult to the writing of Dick to say that themes are much more important to his works than either character or plot; and this work is certainly no exception to that rule.

Thematically, the book is similar to other works of Dick's: it deals with issues of the nature of reality, and the political and social descent of society into a dystopia. However, how these issues are interleaved leave some question about how they are related, and which one is the primary one.

  • The book takes place in a dystopian near future, where the social changes of the 1960s have turned into a civil war and a military and police dictatorship. Life amongst the middle classes is tolerable, but for those without connection, life can be a constant process of security checks and the threat of labor camp. Even more demoralizing than this is the fact that there is a type of synopticon, with everyone spying on everyone else.
  • As startling as all that may be, it is simply background to the book's main plot point: a lounge singer, Jason Taverner, wakes up in a world where he is no longer a celebrity singer, but is instead a total nobody. Not only is he invisible to the nation's gigantic security databanks, none of his friends seem to remember him. Therefore, above the already major paranoia of existence in a police state, there is the even more unnerving paranoia that existence itself might be contingent.
  • Although I said earlier that characterization is secondary in this work, the character of Jason Taverner...a self-centered, complacent and politically apathetic man, is I think important to the book. Through his loss of his position in the world, and even of his sense of reality, Taverner is forced to live the life of the underclass and develop some compassion for others. This personal development of Taverner is, I feel, not separate from the other two themes of the book.

That is what I consider to be the thematic nexus of the book, although of course others might add more to that. I actually found the book's conclusion, both in terms of the plot and in terms of how it resolves these themes, to be somewhat disappointing. However, I thought the book was still excellent at raising questions, even if it did not answer them to my satisfaction.

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