Monday, January 11, 2016

#136: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, #75: The Handmaid's Tale

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said:

"Thank God for the weaknesses built into a vast, complicated, convoluted, planetwide apparatus. Too many people; too many machines."
"Grief causes you to leave yourself. You step outside your narrow little pelt. And you can't feel grief unless you've had love before it --grief is the final outcome of love, because it's love lost."
"Fear...can make you do more wrong than hate or jealousy. If you're afraid you don't commit yourself to life completely; fear makes you always, always hold something back."
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is both a typical Philip K. Dick novel, and an atypical Philip K. Dick novel. It deals with a lot of his usual themes: altered reality, drugs, police, conspiracies, the meaning of existence, and totalitarianism.
But the way this novel is written is somewhat different from the rest of his work. I have heard that Flow My Tears was one of the few novels that PKD rewrote several times before publishing, in addition to The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly. I must say that the unusually extensive editing is fairly clear here (at least to a veteran PKD fan like myself). Flow My Tears is definitely one of the most polished PKD works that I have read, and probably one of the most thoughtful ones. And although this polished tone often seems to help the story, I felt that it occasionally hinders it at times, too.
Flow My Tears is the story of Jason Taverner, a famous pop singer and TV star from the near future. PKD quickly characterizes him in the first chapter --he's supremely self-confident and misogynistic, but he's also a seasoned professional when it comes to dealing with fame and the adoring public. One day, Taverner wakes up in an unfamiliar motel room and soon finds out that no one knows who he is anymore. His romantic partner, his agent, and his lawyer seem to have forgotten that they ever knew him. His fanbase has shrunk from thirty million to zero in an instant. Even the databases of the police state that he lives in have no records of his ever having existed. And so Flow My Tears becomes an SF mystery, as Taverner attempts to elude the police, all while trying to find out what the hell exactly happened. Plenty of crazy, reality-bending theories get thrown around, and, as usual, PKD plays with the reader's head a lot...perhaps even more so than in your average PKD novel, which is really saying something. Was Taverner's past life even real? Was he hallucinating one of the two scenarios? If so, which one? And what about Felix Buckman and Herb Maime, the cops who are tracking him? Are drugs involved at all? Do the enclaves of student-prisoners mentioned throughout the novel have anything to do with the whole situation?
As is often the case with PKD, the novel is populated by individuals who are, at turns, crazed, confused, and compassionate. There are some characters (Kathy comes to mind) who say things that the reader simply must "go with", or quickly drive themselves crazy trying to decipher the ramblings. And there are indeed quite a lot of ramblings. Although Flow My Tears is more polished than most PKD work, it is also more talk-y. These conversations tend to be interesting, even fascinating, in their own right, but they often don't add much to the story. With that being said, Chapter 11 is one of the best chapters that I have read in all of SF...and it's a talk between Jason and Ruth about love and grief that isn't a pivotal part of the plot at all, in strictly concrete terms.
Another classic PKD touch is the bizarre humor sprinkled throughout the novel, perhaps more liberally here than in most of his other works. Flow My Tears depicts a scary totalitarian police state, but also humorously depicts the human failings of this supposedly omnipresent structure. The humor is always out of left field, and it always disorients you, as I'm sure PKD intended.
Similar to this, there is a lot of illicit content in this one --again, likely intended simply to raise eyebrows and shock the reader. The relationship between the Buckmans and the short scene featuring Mr. Alien Mufi both come to mind immediately.
In a decidedly un-PKD-ish turn, the conclusion of this novel is, well, actually a conclusion! The cause of Taverner's altered reality is very bizarre, but I quite enjoyed it. It was somewhat reminiscent of the ending of The Man in the High Castle for me, and even more strongly reminiscent of the entirety of Now Wait for Last Year. Furthermore, PKD actually ties up loose ends quite well, giving us an epilogue that satisfies almost every curiosity one could have about about any main character.
Flow My Tears was very well-done overall, and from a literary standpoint, it's PKD at his best. However, I hesitate to put this one in my, say, top three novels of his, simply because it lacks some of the raw, visceral, punch of some of his work. Make no mistake about it, this is a very good book... it just can't compete with the rollercoaster build-up of Ubik or the frantic energy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or the emotional powerhouse that is A Scanner Darkly.

The Handmaid's Tale:

"But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing."
"I know this can't be right but I think it anyway. Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I've resisted, comes flooding in. I don't want pain. I don't want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth. I don't want to be a doll hung up on the Wall, I don't want to be a wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. I feel, for the first time, their true power."
"Don't let the bastards grind you down. I repeat this to myself but it conveys nothing. You might as well say, Don't let there be air; or, Don't be."
Margaret Atwood doesn't like this novel to be classified as science fiction, and it's a shame, because science fiction needs more authors like her. I am admittedly biased towards her brand of SF --I like literate, contemplative "Soft SF" that focuses on ideas and people rather than the impersonal equations, stiff characters, and mechanical minutiae you often find in Hard SF-space opera (although there are certainly exceptions to this). Atwood certainly touches upon the best aspects of Soft SF in this novel, and that is a big reason why I enjoyed it so much.
The first comparison that comes to mind with Margaret Atwood's style is Ursula K. Le Guin. They are skilled technically, and less focused on action-packed plots. Both writers exhibit beautiful, creative, dream-like methods of description. Although I enjoy Le Guin's SF very much, I might be tempted to say that Atwood edges her out in terms of sheer technical skill. The Handmaid's Tale shows off Atwood's talent, while also making you turn its pages quickly and eagerly. Despite the fact that the first third of the novel was relatively barren of big action, I found myself immediately pulled in, streaming from chapter to chapter without looking up. Atwood combines the page-turner and the "serious novel" into one, and I cannot applaud her more for doing so. It's a difficult task, and I wish authors could pull it off more, because I love it.
The novel tells the story of Offred (Of Fred, that is), a handmaid in the near-future Republic of Gilead, an oppressive theocracy that has taken over a large part of the United States, after a coup. We never learn all the details about this coup, but it seems to have been partly militaristic, partly social. In this Republic, women are strictly relegated to a small group of roles. Offred is a Handmaid --simply a walking womb in the eyes of Gileadan society --tasked with reproducing with her assigned Commander, a higher-up in the social pyramid. Other roles include housekeepers and illicit prostitutes, and not much else. Even the Commander's official wife, who is too old to reproduce, seems to live a pretty miserable existence despite her comparatively high social standing. She is extremely jealous and dismissive of Offred, yet cannot legally do much to get rid of her. The tension in the story comes in Offred's small, tentative breaks with the rules of the system --sometimes with the help of other characters. By the end of the novel, things have gotten very suspenseful, and I assure you that you'll want to know more even after you've finished the book completely.
Atwood seems somewhat dismissive to the genre of SF in her statements, but again, I wish she wouldn't be. The efficient, rich world-building that she shows off here would be a welcome addition to genre SF. And if she can match the infusion of wisdom and deep thought that she has included in The Handmaid's Tale in another SF novel released some time in the future, I would scramble to read it. Atwood even manages to make the episodic, fragmentary plot of this novel work surprisingly well. I usually slow down quite a bit when I read these types of novels, but Atwood managed to keep me interested in an astonishing amount of easy task, I assure you. And although it was a bit nihilistic here and there (which I can sometimes find grating after a while in SF novels), it was also quite the opposite in other places.
The conclusion of the novel was somewhat frustrating, but I have gotten used to this as an SF fan, and particularly as a Philip K. Dick fan. A somewhat dry, but interesting epilogue of "Historical Notes" provides some answers, while also offering some very clever tidbits --take a close look at Wilfred Limpkins, for instance, or the way Atwood sketches the future of the future through small details, or the casual instances of sexism in the speeches. After close examination, maybe this epilogue isn't as dry as it seems afterall...
As you can tell, I quite enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's haunting description of the hanged "snowman" and Offred's revision of the Our Father were two particularly memorable aspects that will stick in my head for a long time. This was a highly recommendable read and one of the most well-written novels that I have encountered in science fiction...and yes, despite Atwood's own words, I'm very much inclined to call this science fiction!

No comments:

Post a Comment