Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said: SF Masterworks 46 by Philip K Dick
(Gollancz, £6.99, 204 pages, paperback, first published 1974, this edition 8 November 2001.)
A superb scenario, as, in a frightening totalitarian world projected from 1970s America, a famous TV star awakes unknown, unrecognised and without ID records. Luckily he is a genetically modified six, which gives him high intelligence and great sex appeal. He will need these to survive along with a substantial dose of luck -- but by the end of the book you realise that most of it was perhaps not luck, even most of the stranger pieces of good fortune. For instance, why is he not killed early on? There turns out to be a reason. How he survives, the nature of the world he inhabits and what had happened to make him vanish from knowledge and records form the basis of the plot. It also turns out to involve some uneasy consideration of the nature of human relationships, particularly how people use each other. The plot is so well knitted together -- one of the best of Dick's plots in my opinion -- that it is hard to say much about what happens without ruining it for a reader. The plot device that resolves everything seems a bit weak, but maybe it didn't in 1974, when different views of the nature of reality were popular.
The main characters are all interesting and well depicted. The hero's feelings are convincing and he is kept believable by his character flaw that he is a calculating user of women. The totalitarian state seems to have emerged in the USA in response to a civil war between the radical student movement and the conservatives, won by the latter. The black population has been all but eliminated along the way. At the time when the novel is set, society is easing up somewhat.
Dick throws out ideas for the future here there and everywhere that a lesser writer would hoard for other books. Such is the strength of these ideas that it does not matter when we know 30 years on that they didn't happen that way. I could still accept them as 'might have beens' and of course alternative history is now a popular sub genre in its own right. Some of the technology projects the 1970s very clearly; personal flying machines, seed sized nuclear bombs, no whisper of the microchip and hardly even of the shrinking of transistors, so reel to reel tapes are still in common use. The paranoia and use of technology for social control resonates well with today.
The book remains one of the best novels by someone with a literally amazing imagination, which is rarer in SF than you might think. Inside the first leaf are listed all the books Dick wrote (which is a nice touch of this series, it must have been tempting to list SF Masterworks 1-45 instead) and I was pleased to see that I haven't read more than a quarter of them. As for the title, no the policeman doesn't actually say it, but he hears it, in a John Dowland pavan, and it fits.
Elsewhere in infinity
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© Richard Hammersley 20 July 2002