NOTE: Because life is too short to waste on crappy books, I’m re-posting another review of one of my favorite books, originally published at In Mala Fide on November 22, 2011. Consider these book reviews your crash course in the Tao of Matt.
The sad thing about true geniuses in the literary/art world is that their genius usually isn’t recognized until after they’re dead or otherwise unable to turn a profit on it. Philip K. Dick is the poster boy for this sort of thing, as he labored most of his life in utter poverty and died in his early fifties just months before the first film adapted from his work (Blade Runner) was released to theaters. Now nearly three decades later, Hollywood is rushing to adapt every goddamn thing he ever wrote into a movie: Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau, the list goes on. Not to mention all the other films that were inspired by Dick either directly or indirectly (Vanilla Sky, The Matrix, Inception etc.)
Most genre fiction is trash, and the nerd-dominated genres of science fiction and fantasy are the worst of all. The basis of all entertaining fiction is writing what you know and making sure what you know is interesting. The nerds who dominate sci-fi can’t produce anything but garbage because they don’t grasp this, substituting character development and plot for masturbatory exposition and futuristic gimmickry pulled out of their asses. There’s no verisimilitude or ethos, which is why most nerd fiction rings hollow. For instance, I can’t think of a single memorable novel or character by Asimov, Heinlein, or Herbert that stuck with me after I read the last page, and years afterwards, everything those tedious, overpraised failures wrote has slipped down the memory hole for good.
Dick sticks with me. Philip K. Dick stands alone among sci-fi writers as being worth reading, because he doesn’t use sci-fi elements to prop up bad storytelling; he doesn’t need to. His stories and characters stand on their own as being poignant and memorable. Dick’s milieu was the rapidly-changing social landscape of mid-century California, caught between the free-love hippies on the coast and the hateful, miserable Calvinists in the suburbs, Nixon’s “silent majority.” His writing is rooted in this conflict, along with his understanding of the nature of reality and his drug use, with the science fiction element nothing but glorified drapery. Dick saw modern Calvinist conservatism in its larval stages—its fixation on “law and order,” its willful ignorance, its hatred of beauty and glorification of ugliness—and feared it.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is one of his finest works in this vein, and one of my favorite novels. The setting is pure Dick, a futuristic police state America that is slowly liberalizing. Think the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Radical college students are condemned to live in poverty in collective camps. Blacks have been given a ridiculous amount of social status after a eugenics program designed to ethnically cleanse them was reversed; early on, while driving through Los Angeles, a hotel clerk muses about how he would get the death penalty if he ran a black person over:
“They’re like the last flock of whooping cranes,” the clerk said, starting forward now that the old black had reached the far side. “Protected by a thousand laws. You can’t jeer at them; you can’t get into a fistfight with one without risking a felony rap – ten years in prison. Yet we’re making them die out – that’s what Tidman wanted and I guess what the majority of Silencers wanted, but” – he gestured, for the first time taking a hand off the wheel – “I miss the kids. I remember when I was ten and I had a black boy to play with…not far from here as a matter of fact. He’s undoubtedly sterilized by now.”
“But then he’s had one child,” Jason pointed out. “His wife had to surrender their birth coupon when their first and only child came…but they’ve got that child. The law lets them have it. And there’re a million statutes protecting their safety.”
“Two adults, one child,” the clerk said. “So the black population is halved every generation. Ingenious. You have to hand it to Tidman; he solved the race problem, all right.”
Our hero is Jason Taverner, a popular TV talk show host who, after surviving a murder attempt by his mistress, wakes up in a run-down hotel to discover that all evidence of his existence has been wiped from the Earth. His IDs are gone, his friends don’t recognize him, and his name is nowhere to be found in the government’s databases. And in a world where you’re asked “Papers, please,” every other mile, being a nonperson is a one-way trip to the gulag.
On the run from the law, Taverner hooks up with Kathy, an ID forger and police informer with a batshit crazy streak. In the process, he catches the eye of LAPD chief Felix Buckman; thinking that Taverner is some kind of high-level government agent, Buckman has the police track him down. Taverner himself flees to Las Vegas to hide out with Ruth Rae, an Elizabeth Taylor-esque has-been actress with fifty ex-husbands. Cornered by the cops, Taverner is taken back to L.A. to be interrogated by Buckman and subsequently falls under the wing of his sister Alys, a slutty, drug using bisexual who has an incestuous relationship with her brother. Alys also happens to be the only person in the world who knows who Jason Taverner is.
Flow My Tears is one hell of a riveting book, but there’s one chapter that particularly resonated with me, the chapter that most clearly elucidates Dick’s anti-Calvinist sentiments. Near the midway point of the novel, police are ransacking Ruth Rae’s apartment building looking for Taverner when they come across a Mr. Mufi, a fat, pathetic slob with a predilection for pubescent boys. While preparing to cuff him, the corporal on duty discovers that Mufi’s paramour is thirteen years old, and that as part of a campaign to take all victimless crimes off the books, the age of consent has been lowered to twelve. Frustrated that they can’t legally charge him with anything, the police leave the cowardly bastard with this:
“I hope,” the corporal said, “that someday you do commit a statute violation of some kind, and they haul you in, and I’m on duty the day it happens. So I can book you personally.” He hawked, then spat on Mr. Mufi. Spat into his hairy, empty face.
If that paragraph doesn’t sum up mainstream Calvinist conservatism—unknowing, unthinking, with no higher principles than the desire to be the topper in the cell block of American society, getting off on raping the already weak and despised—I don’t know what does. Dick even makes it clear who he’s talking about when he describes the carpet in Mr. Mufi’s living room as “depict[ing] in gold Richard M. Nixon’s final ascent into heaven amid joyous singing above and wails of misery below.”
If there’s one criticism I’d level at Flow My Tears, the narrative sort-of disintegrates in the final third. The ultimate plot twist is relatively weak by Dickian standards, and the action doesn’t really build to a climax, instead plodding along to its conclusion. The book also never explains the backstory of Felix and Alys’ relationship; they have a son, Barney, who apparently grows up to be a normal man, not suffering the physical and mental retardation you’d expect the child of siblings to have. It’s not important to the story, but I found it a bit odd. Still, I’d recommend Flow My Tears as a great introduction to the only good science fiction writer of the past century.
Click here to buy Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.