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Sui Generis book club #5

Time for another book review! Today I'm attempting a Philip K. Dick triple feature: Time out of Joint, A Scanner Darkly, and Flow my Tears the Policeman Said. That's three for the price of one.

I've never done literary criticism before, so I'm stretching my analytical skills when I write these opinions. Please take them with a grain of salt. As with my wine reviews, I feel I lack the necessary words to give a proper treatment to the topic under discussion. I wish I had broader experience and a deeper pool of knowledge to draw from, but I guess we all have to start somewhere.

I've mentioned Dick before, but after reading these three novels, I have read only a total of five PKD novels (including Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) and a few of his short stories (including the Minority Report). So far, so good. I love everything that I've come across so far. But I love it in different ways. Let's discuss.

I read all three of the aforementioned books in the last couple of weeks. I started with Time out of Joint. I've seen this story described as the original "Truman Show," which is as close as I can come for a comparison. A man is being kept in an artificial world, but the reasons are more nebulous, the stakes are higher, and the disparity between that world and reality are more shocking when he escapes. I found this novel to be the weakest of the three. Several things just didn't seem to add up in the end, and left me scratching my head. For example, the protagonist is aided in his escape by a character who is apparently both aware of the ruse and motivated to keep him in the dark about it. I didn't understand this. But I enjoyed the book anyway.

A Scanner Darkly is a sad story about drugs and what they do to people. It's about a lot of other things as well, of course, but this seems to be his definitive anti-drug book. From my first encounters with PKD, I assumed he was some kind of whacked-out looney, but as I read more I was surprised to learn that he was passionate in his advocacy against drug abuse and spoke about drugs to addicts and young people. He was asked in an interview whether drug-taking was a positive influence for him (I believe this is before A Scanner Darkly was published). He answered,

No, absolutely not. There's nothing good about drugs. . . There was a time
in my life when I thought drugs could be useful, that maybe if you took enough
psychedelics you could see beyond the illusion of the world to the nature of
ultimate reality. Now I think all you see are the patterns on the rug turning
into hideous things.
This book is dedicated to people he knew who were destroyed by drugs, and it's a powerful statement. In a letter to his agent, he calls it "the greatest novel ever written. Or at least the greatest novel I've ever written anyhow." I couldn't agree more.

The main character in Flow my Tears the Policeman Said is a jerk. His identity is basically erased in the beginning of the book, and he's really confused about what's going on, but it doesn't stop him from acting like a creep. The plot of the book centers on him trying to figure out what has happened and why no one else realizes that something has gone wrong. I wanted him to uncover the mystery, but I didn't care if he found resolution. When it looks like he might be killed for no good reason at the end of the book, I thought it might teach him a lesson. So it's strange that I really loved this book for the characters.
I think that, more than any other PKD book I've read, this one is about the peaks and valleys of real life human relationships. This novel tackles all the big topics: love, drugs, fame, and power. And it's set in a compelling world with side-plots that could easily spawn books of their own. My favorite are the offhand references to a second American civil war that has driven students underground, where they live starving in warrens underneath the great universities. Police with submachine guns keep them under control, and draconian policies ensure they will be sent to forced-labor camps if they escape. Awesome.

Flow my Tears and A Scanner Darkly are both excellent books, and great places to start if you don't know Dick. These stories really get in your head and mess with you. Best of all, they're pretty short, so you can tell after a couple of hours whether you love them or hate them. A good sign for the former is if you can't put them down after you start reading, and stay up long past your usual bedtime to finish. And if you begin to suspect the latter, I humbly submit that there is something the matter with you.

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