Inventing a future reality is easy. Anyone can say, “in the year 10,000 AD humans will have evolved into telepathic knights,” but to populate that reality with the names of TV shows is much more difficult. I think the particular genius of Philip K. Dick is a combination of killer scenarios (“In the future…”) and exhaustively mundane details that give a potentially sterile future some grit, some room to hobble around and assert itself.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said could have easily been a predictably trompy caper through a 1984-style police state if it weren’t for PKD’s skill for environments, and those airy, imaginative specifics which lesser writers might hoard for other books. Like, NBC still exists, but it airs shows like “The Adventures of Scotty, Dog Extraordinary” and “The Phantom Baller Show.” Or, people still read the LA Times, but refer to all science-fiction movies as “captain kirks;” everyone drives flying cars, but a mug that says “Keep On Truckin’” sits quietly through a scene, an anachronistic detail that speaks volumes. These details are more extraordinary to me than the foundations of the future-premise, which is that America has become a vast police state following a post-Kent State Second Civil War between the counterculture and the “man.”
It all speaks to Dick’s primary concern — the question, “What is reality?” (His incomplete answer, in 1972: “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”) It’s more than a conceit, or a set of physical parameters that delineate a certain place and time. It’s also the living, breathing detritus of culture, all those ignorable layers of fluff we push aside day in, day out.
Everyone, as they go about their lives, exists in a slightly different dimension than everyone else; an ineffable, unprovable, alternate reality. That, in broad terms, is the central matter of most Dick novels, especially Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, whose main character, Jason Taverner, wakes up one morning in a world that has never heard of him. He navigates a Los Angeles veined with police barricades, unfavorable to unpersons like himself, the situation made worse by the fact that he happened to be a massive celebrity in his previous “real” life. Is this the real world? Was the other world, the world of his 9 PM Thursday night show on NBC, somehow a dream? How can an unperson define themselves? What happened? If this is another world, then why are all the TV shows the same?
Incidentally, Taverner’s former celebrity is a good foil for Dick’s perpetual discussion of identity/reality, since Jason Taverner the star relies on others to define him. Without fame, and the constant reassurance of selfhood which comes with it (both the most alluring and most dangerous aspect of celebrity, in my view), his completely unrealized sense of self — for all intents and purposes, his lack of a reality — becomes inescapable. Taverner is not only somebody, but somebody, defined in part by the bits of stuff he’s accumulated, the albums he’s released, his hit singles (including a song called “Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuck-Up); because he believes himself to be more important, more real than the people he encounters throughout the novel, his prison of anonymity is excruciating.
If you like Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, which I do, especially the more I think about it, you would do well to read Dick’s surreal companion essay, “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (link to full text). It starts out with some classically wry comments about Disneyland (the kind of Baudrillard-ian LA observations that seem par for the course from smart sci-fi people) before developing into a legitimately crazy theory about how all human existence is just a veiled reality created by the Devil in order to obfuscate our true and perpetual time and place, which is Judaea in 50 A.D.
It’s hard to know if and when, or ever, Dick is bullshitting — both in his life and his books. It’s tempting to believe that, for lack of a better solution, he accepts all possibilities, and wrote (much like the hapless android in one of his early stories) by punching new holes in the tape-reels of his robot chest, dictating the details of his reality as he went.
NEXT BOOK: STILL DHALGREN…