Philip K. Dick by 1975: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

by George Turner

Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contibuting this essay.

[source: Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, Best of SF Commentary Number 1, Edited by Bruce Gillespie (Melbourne: Norstrilia Press, 1975, pp. 94-100). And with the permission of Bruce Gillespie, literary executor of the George Turner estate.]

Editor’s Note

Of all the articles that appear in this book, this is the only one which has not yet appeared in SF Commentary. George Turner wrote this article, at short notice, just before the book was published. It finishes the book well, even if on a sceptical note. George has been the sceptic throughout the book, pouring what he sees as the cold waters of common sense over the more enthusiastic fires of other writers. Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is the most recent novel that Philip Dick has written and published, and it is appropriate that George Turner sums up what he sees as the direction of Dick’s career by writing a long review of this book. This article is scheduled to appear in SF Commentary 44.

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
Doubleday, 1974, 231 pp, $US6.95
Victor Gollancz, 1974, 231 pp, £2.20
Daw Books UW1166, 1975, 208 pp, $US1.50

    One of the disadvantages of writing reviews in batches at lengthy intervals is that many competent but otherwise unmemorable novels fade from mind, save in a general impression of “nicely written” or “promising new talent” or some such. Then comes review time, and with it a frantic race through a dozen minor works to rediscover plots and dimly recalled crucial passages. (Consider the number of books I have had to read twice to satisfy demanding editors — arm-twisters they are, like J..n B……d and B…e G…….e — when I could have been frustrating myself over Finnegans Wake or learning Japanese in order to read The Tale of Genji in the original! Believe it if you like.)
    One can’t, of course, class Dick with the “competent but otherwise unmemorable”, but he is one writer who achieves his own brand of forgettability. With a few exceptions, such as in The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Martian Time-Slip (why did they junk his lovely original title, All We Marsmen?), his themes, plots, and characters tend to merge into a haze which is less a recollection than a general impression of the Dick mode and manner. Fragmented worlds, desperate protagonists, hallucinations of every conceibable and inconceivable kind, vicious women and Chinese puzzles of plot appear so regularly as to give one the feeling of reliving, again and again, the same experience against different backdrops. Nor am I unsure that this is not a truthful depiction of the Dick struggle with reality — a constant attack on an obsessive theme, expressed with every imaginative device he can lay his literary hands on, but leading at last to the same impression of tortured defeat.
    But there are Dick novels — I have mentioned three — of great clarity and individuality. A fourth is Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
    And at once I must stop and reconsider and tell the truth. I read it months back and thought it more immediately lucid than most Dick works, but dismissed it as a minor potboiler about the police state, plus a new use of hallucination. Later it occurred to me that it was an experiment in grafting sf onto the “LA private eye” novel, and there certainly is a deal of such slick writing, characterisation, and plotting in it. Similarities dictated by story line, perhaps.
    Then a pro-review copy arrived and I had to settle on an opinion — and could only recall the typical Dick haze of speed, single-trait characterisation, and dizzying complication. Nothing for it but to re-read…
    And a different book emerged. Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is (believe it or not, you Dick-fanciers) a novel about love. Furthermore, it is not a very good one. But it is very interesting and, good or bad, worth your attention for what it has to say.
    Protagonist Jason Taverner is a “six” — a laboratory-mutated type never very penetratingly defined in the story — who has, with his special abilities, become a famous tv personality. He has a typical Dick love-hate relationship with another star, Heather Hart. Being a “six”, he stands at some psychological remove from the rest of humanity (he understands people clinically rather than emotionally) and as a wealthy star is also removed from “little man” problems. His love life is patchy, temporary, gusty and gutsy — what you will — in the aimless fashion of those who, having discarded monogamy, find no satisfactory substitute in playing the field. (This may, if you like, stand for the book’s first symbol of the old Dick fragmentation).
    He is hospitalised after an attack by a revengeful ex-love and wakens to find himself cured but lying in a frowsy hotel room and minus the precious identification papers without which, in the police state (date uncertain, somewhere between 1990 and 2000?) he becomes automatically a non-person, fodder for the forced-labour camps. (It was this obtrusive police-state business which obscured much of the novel’s point on first reading. More about that later.)
    So he is a man on the run, thrust into the common world he does not understand. And nobody — literally nobody — seems to have heard of Jason Taverner and his tv show. Heather Hart does not know him, nor do his agent, lawyer, etc. (This is also a lengthy business which, although necessary to the plot, helps to cloud the central statement.)
    He meets with a female ID forger, who provides him with essential documents. But she is a product of Dick’s world-in-decay — today’s world writ larger, little altered in essence — and self-centered to the point where she justifies herself, both as forger and police informer, by creating an imaginary “husband in the labour camps”, whom she is working to set free. She solidifies her illusions by going into public hysterics when they are questioned. She wants Taverner sexually (husband or no husband) and knows all the arguments justifying “unfaithfulness”. She doesn’t get him because her elaborate ploy of betrayal simultaneously with attempted protection (the symbol of her mental process) undoes her and the police move in.
    At this point we learn that Taverner does not exist, in an administrative sense; there is no documentation of him anywhere in the world. He is given a police pass so that police surveillance may discover his supposed collaborators/manipulators.
    He goes to Las Vegas and picks up an old flame, Ruth (who, of course, does not remember him). Ruth is love in decay. She has had it all, including at least twenty-one husbands, and she uses the telephone sex networks whereby simultaneous orgasms, with multiple feedback, can be experienced by hundreds at a time. She is a shell of sex, the ultimate in lust, you might think — if you didn’t know from experience that Dick always trumps his own aces. For her, love and lust are the same thing. In a world without moral definition — which is what most of Dick’s worlds are — she cannot tell the difference. (But she tells the little fable about a rabbit that thought it was a cat, worth searching out and thinking over.)
    By this time, Taverner’s lack of identity has caught the interest of police chief Buckman, who has him brought back for questioning. To catch him, the police must raid the building containing Ruth’s apartment and search it floor by floor to find him by elimination.
    On their second last doorknock the police lurch in on a homosexual encounter between a rather over-written old queen and a thirteen-year-old boy. The activity, it develops, is legal. Though the police exhibit disgust and high-minded attitudes, it is plain that their real desire is a victim for violence — and none is legally available. Meaning that they mightn’t get away with it.
    It was this incident, having no relevance at all to any of the principals of the story (it gets a chapter all to itself) which alerted me to the sexual portriat gallery. This just had to be part of some overriding theme, because it had no connection with the plot. It must have been, in Dick’s view, a necessary insertion, even jammed in crudely as it was without reference to good workmanship or the general action. He thereby showed us another aspect of a world where even corruption of the sexually immature — in the sense of deliberate interference before the process of personal selection can take place after puberty — is legalised. Moral definition being non-existent, legal and not-legal become terms of political expediency…if it wont’t harm the dominance-system, by all means permit it; if it will, forbid it. The people? Oh, let the twits do as they please; it’s their own fault if they aren’t happy when they can do what they like — so long as it doesn’t rock the boat. And the price of freedom? Sure, there’s a price. But they wanted it, didn’t they? So where’s the belly-ache?
    This, then, is our own world, italicised in the Dick idiom. In a day when every noisy little group infests the footpaths demanding “natural” rights, who stops to sort out rights from indulgences, or even from private desires to be gratified at the expense of others? (Is this me talking about morality? Good God! I thought I’d got past caring how other people kill themselves. Thank you, Philip Dick.)
    Taverner is caught and brought before Buckman, who questions him and lets him go again, loaded with miniature surveillance gear. Buckman has come full blown into the action halfway through the book and swiftly develops into the key character, although Taverner makes most of the plot run. Buckman, it seems, has a love-hate — mostly hate — and thoroughly incestuous relationship with his sister, Alys, a monstrous leather-and-lesbianism type who gathers all sex into her practice and uses all forms of stimulant as well. Where Ruth was helplessly lustful, Alys uses sex merely as another ancillary gratification. Her generalised lust is the kind that would eat the world and hunger for the moon.
    This monster picks up Taverner as he leaves her brother, removes the surveillance gear, and takes him to her home. Her interest in him — and here the thing becomes difficult to elucidate — is that she has caused his non-identity situation through a drug which causes hallucinations, not only in the user but in others concerned in the hallucination produced. It alters reality outward from a centre. The implication seems to be that the whole situation is only temporarily existent, though other views are possible. You know Dick when he starts his reality-juggling! This reality-variant is one of his least successful, impossible to rationalise; it barely gets by, if at all.
    At any rate, Alys dies of an overdose of telephone-sex-network-feedback (did I hear some greasy mutter about the perfect finish) and Taverner escapes to yet one more woman, Mary Anne — who doesn’t want him. She is an artist, a potter, who finds release in her art. Make what you like of her, and of the whole incident wherein Taverner at least meets someone to whom he has nothing to offer. She is the only island of peace in the sexual storm. Not that she rejects sex as a fulfillment; she wants the something more that runs a sexual encounter into a loving-encounter. As an artist, she rejcts the second-rate; even fears it.
    So Taverner has come full circle to the reality of love which is not his “six” superiority to find. Is there further to go? There is, but not for Taverner.
    Buckman discovers his sister’s death, and the politically disastrous reason for it, and decides to call it murder, with Taverner as patsy. Here follows one of the most uncomfortable sequences in any of Dick’s writings — a long, internal discussion of Buckman, emotionally torn by the death of his sister/lover, shuddering down through levels of mental stress to a realisation of some basic truths about the nature of the world he inhabits. In the end, he makes an extraordinary, but clumsily appealing, gesture to a negro which is, miraculously, not misunderstood. He has understood something of the necessity for love itself, in the sense of a oneness of humanity, without the pleasure/pain complications of sex — love as a basic person-to-person gesture.
    I hate to say it of so important a sequence, but this is Dick at his worst, coping with a page-after-page analysis which, apparently, he would not trust himself to achieve by his usual method of a single stroke of action. (I don’t blame him; this sort of thing is frustratingly difficult.) The main trouble, I feel, is that we are not prepared for such a reaction in Buckman; nothing in the previous scenes demonstrates potential for such a gesture or even for the soul-searching which provokes it.
    An epilogue tells, with full Dick quirkiness, what become of all the major characters, and the final paragraph, dealing not with a person but with an artifact, is worth quoting:

The blue vase, made by Mary Anne … wound up in a private collection of modern pottery. It remains there to this day, and is much treasured. And, in fact, by a number of people who know ceramics, openly and genuinely cherished. And loved.

    As so often with Dick, you must make what you can of that. When you have sorted out all the involvements — of which my account has hinted at only a fraction — this, one of Dick’s simpler novels, still retains some ambiguities.
    Earlier, I remarked that this is not a good novel. It is time to say why.
    It is a good story — entertaining, hard-hitting, swift, inventive. It is not a good novel because the story, emphasising mystery and suspense, diverts attention from the displays of emotional fragmentation which are the real heart of it. If these are not the raison d’etre of the novel, then what is the significance of the curiously isolated homosexual scene, and what meaning has Buckman’s anguished approach in sexless love to the negro who plays no other role in the action?
    So many people find Dick a fine and significant writer that I incline to listen to them and not say too much, wondering if I have missed what others have found, looking for some blind spot in my appreciation, hoping for enlightenment. But the praises always end in vagueness when I try to pin them down to cases, and like Omar, I come “out by that same door which in I went”.
    Recently the Nova Mob debated Dick, with that reluctance to see much fault in his work which is the attitude of Dick fans in general. He was praised for (1) the high standard of his writing, (2) realism of background, and (3) characterisation. No doubt he was praised for other things, but these I remember from having heard them so often.
    Are these praises justified?
    High standards of writing?
    I quote from page 5 (Gollancz edition) of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said: “Jason Taverner has never and will never disappoint his fans.” And from page 10: “Things which even he, at forty-two years, didn’t know them all.” (Believe it or not, that is a complete and self-contained sentence.) These represent careless, sloppy writing, and the book presents many more examples.
    Reverting to page 5, we find: “Heather … cursed quietly as her flat, large hat flopped from her head and disappeared forever within the whale’s belly of close-pressing fans.” The metaphor, if you visualise the scene, seems irrelevant. It is visually inept and raises associations (Jonah) which do not belong to the reference. It is the metaphor of a fast writer who doesn’t revise much. Again, on page 99, we have: “… her mouth twisting like newborn things just alive.” It is not only tautological but visually vague — what newborn thing resembles a twisting mouth? It is a reaching-for-the-big-effect without reference to meaning or common sense.
    On page 165: “… then, for reasons obscure to him but somehow important, he snatched up the two records from the phonograph…” This is sheer laziness. Those records had to be got out of the room in order to make the plot work, but there simply was no reason why the man should take them. My plotter’s teeth go on edge when I strike the word “somehow” (somehow our hero found the strength — somehow he knew there was an enemy round the corner — somehow he hung on long past all human endurance — somehow he … balls!) No novelist is entitled to snow the reader. It is plain bad craftsmanship. It wouldn’t have been all that difficult, given the illimitable freedoms of sf activity, to think up a cogent reason.
    Sorry, but Dick is, in detail, a very bad writer indeed.
    Yet, irritatingly, he is also capable of brilliant workmanship, and Bruce [Gillespie] has quoted enough in his writings on Dick to prove the point. But he is, between splashes of brilliance, slapdash and slipshod and — I think — capable of manipulating plot to make his thesis work (which is culpable indeed) and equally capable of ignoring incompatibilities when they get in his way. (I think here of the hopeless temporal mess concerning cause and effect in Counter-Clock World and the problems of influence between living and half-living in Ubik — the latter despite Lem’s gallant attempt to defend the indefensible by introducing ideas which the writer did not hint at.)
    What a Dick novel has to say is unfailingly interesting, but the details of his saying are as unfailingly suspect. (I am not one who feels that anything goes in sf; for my money, a novel must make logical sense, particularly when it is questioning accepted logic. I don’t mind a writer hinting at universes where the status quo is different, but when he starts describing how different, then he had better have a mightily logic-proofed structure to offer. Otherwise he is merely playing fantasy on no higher level than that of the ass who thinks he is writing sf if he bases a story on the question, “What if we all turned green with pink stripes?”)
    I have never agreed with those who find his backgrounds convincing. There are good ones — The Man in the High Castle — but in general they seem to me almost non-existent. This may be reasonable in a writer who questions reality at every step, and it is, no doubt, simpler to have his characters exist in closed universes, where they are more easily controlled. Often all that exists is the four walls of the immediate scene and a patch of blue sky or other simple prop when it becomes necessary to shift the locals. Tell me something coherent about the worlds — the everyday, living worlds, I mean — of any of his novels except The Man in the High Castle and perhaps Solar Lottery. You won’t be able to tell much, because these worlds were never shown, save through cracks in the action. They weren’t relevant to the action, so they didn’t exist, except as odd traits to be introduced as required. The test of a good background is: What can you tell me about the lives of the average citizens who are not in the story?
    The Nova Mob made some talk of characterisation. People praising Dick always do. But just try to pin them down! (The Nova Mob came up with the Japanese gentleman in The Man in the High Castle. Good try, boys.)
    Let’s look at the characters in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
    Taverner — handsome, intelligent, talented. And, like most Dick people, panic-stricken if the plot demands it and perfectly clam in similar circumstances a few chapters later — because the plot demands it. Taverner is a puppet. But then, his is a puppet’s role — he is there to make the string of sex contacts which are the book. Ok, I’ll accept Taverner — as a non-character.
    There are the women — five major ones. Heather Hart hates people, loves Taverner — and what else? Ruth Rae is an emotionally burned-out sexpot; not much room for character work there, just dreariness in expensive gowns. Mary Anne is an artist, a nice girl whose image comes over well enough, but she is so plainly puppeted into position to make a point that it really doesn’t matter when she is smartly phased out, her bit part done.
    Alys is a monster; she isn’t a character at all. She personifies love perverted (in the Dantean sense) and, finally, life perverted because love has no place in it. Nobody could make a character from such material. She is a construct, a gimmick. (A damned interesting one, though.)
    That leaves the hysterical Kathy, the forger. She could be a character if she lasted long enough. She is a thing of contradictions which it would be possible to resolve because she is the only person in the book with enough psychological background to build a human being on. Then, when we have become interested in her as a person, the plot demands that she be discarded and forgotten. Damn! There’s a whole book in that girl, and a whole crazy civilisation shoring her up, and we will never know about them. (But Dick is not interested in people, save as demonstration models, or in backgrounds, save as gimmick hooks.)
    The only other person of importance is Buckman, the police chief, a fairly conventional literary-model cop of brains and menace. Incest gives him a quirk but doesn’t make him a person, and the style of his big scene with the negro could have been grafted on to any human being in distress. Buckman is a puppet.
    Tell me — honetly, now — how many Dick characters can you readily conjure up by name, appearance, provenance and personality? Those are minimum requirements for memorable characterisation.
    That’s enough tearing down; it’s time to build up. One of the things a reviewer must do when he had finished gutting a novel or a writer is to find honesty enough to acknowledge the good amidst the bad. This is most true when dealing with a man like Dick, who commands general praise. The totally worthless rarely receive universal plaudits. If a majority sees value, as distinct from merely emotional pleasure, it is the reviewer’s business to discover what they see and to evaluate it.
    The first and most obvious plus value in Dick is his talent as a story teller. He has ingenuity, speed, and much of that unrelenting drive which took us all by the short hairs in Bester’s first two novels. This knocks realism on the head, save in tiny moments which impinge like darts and stick in the memory, creating an illusion of realism in retrospect. But of general realism there is little or none; the nature of the Dick plot, allowing never a static moment, prevents it.
    Is this, then, a weakness? In a purely literary sense, yes. But if we drop the classically literary for the nonce and examine non-realism as a suitable technique for exhibiting a point of view, we can only approve. Dick has not bypassed the rules for lack of talent, but because he could make use of the obverse — non- or anti-realism — of one particular rule. The nature of reality has been his overriding concern through a score or more of his books, and he has used a non-realist technique to impose it on his fictions — plus the occasional flicker of realistic observation to tie it, however loosely, to the world we know.
    The same, I think, applies to his characterisations. His characters vanish into haze when the book is done. And why should they not? The puppeteer has done with them. They were not people but types, mostly very extreme types (which gives the illusion of characterisation by the impact of strangeness, but is, in fact, only a process of issuing identification tags) representing the range of people to be considered as a cross section. He has been spoken of as a creator of microcosms and there is a sense in which this is true; his mode of using a matrix of contrasting types usually produces a spectrum of reaction and behaviour which can stand as fairly representative of humanity. So, if there are rarely any real characters, there is always a group symbol of humanity.
    Lack of background also has a value. If his puppets move in a vacuum, at least we are not distracted y irrelevancies. Dick unfolds a formula for a particular aspect of reality or unreality, the aspect he wishes to discuss.
    My summing-up perhaps amounts to this: If we are prepared to approve the totally contrived, non-realist novel (and, in Dick’s case, it is pretty obvious that most of us are) then let us give due praise to the man who writes it better than anyone else. But — and this is an ever-present but — let us not go overboard with praise beyond the bounds of good sense. Science fiction has always suffered too much from that, and made itself laughable where it might have been respected.
    For myself, I wish that Dick would write about one third as much, three times as well, get rid of the careless and the hasty, and pay attention to patching obvious logical holes.
    The answer to that, I suppose, is that writers must live and, to live, must produce. My personal recipe — to work for a living and write in one’s spare time — seems to appeal to nobody but myself. But it would certainly reduce the enormous output of indigestible, infuriating professional science fiction which its writers should be ashamed of. And possibly would be, if it wasn’t a question of baby’s new shoes.
    For all except the totally successful, being a professional writer is a hell of a life, which I would only wish cheerfully on people who are cruel to animals.

George Turner
June 1975

One thought on “Philip K. Dick by 1975: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

  1. That was refreshing.

    In PKD books, the ideas are the characters surely, and the characters themselves act in service to the ideas via the plot. The structuring of the plot is often kinetic, exciting, but people rarely behave quite like people, more often ideas-about people. And that is not a bad thing necessarily. It depends on what you are looking for – – – and what PKD provides is a rich and thought-provoking mirage, over a dream-scape environment.

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