A famous entertainer, Jason Traverner, known by millions suddenly finds himself in a familiar world where nothing apparently has changed except for the fact that in this new alternate reality he never existed. As a result his fame evaporates instantly and as for his fortune, he is only left with the (sizable) amount of cash in his pocket.
This book was written in the early 70’s and placed in 1988, and does a poor job of anticipating technological progress. Basically it’s the 1970’s with flying cars. However, the socio-political landscape has altered considerably. As is a common theme with PKD the near future is once again dystopian. The United States has just gone through a Second Civil War and the hot spots of political dissention are university campuses across the country. The nation is a police state run by the “pols” (police) and “nats” (National Guard), and freedom is greatly curtailed with most violations of the law resulting in deportation to a forced labour camp.
Traverner wakes up in a fleabag motel with nothing but the same clothes he was wearing and the wad of cash he was carrying. No identification and no memory of how he got there. Realizing he could not wander around without ID he asked the hotel clerk to put him in contact with someone who could provide him with false papers. Little did he know that those people were all police informers. The first half of the book is slow and predictable, with Traverner getting his false identification, realizing no one has any idea who he is and finding old lovers to seduce all over again so that he could stay with them as he sorts his way through his predicament. Meanwhile the pols are pursuing him, led by police general Felix Buckman as he appears to be a man of means since somehow he was able to eliminate all trace of his identity from their records.
Though Traverner is the main character, Buckman is the more interesting of the two. While he is a high ranking government official, he severely bends the rules himself, most notably through his incestuous marriage to his twin sister Alys with whom he has a child. Felix has a complex love/hate relationship with his sister who is a wild hypersexed drug user, which Felix attempts to keep a lid on. Felix demonstrates his compassion by preventing citizens from being condemned to a forced labour camp as well as his inner conflict with the system he was tasked to enforce by publishing an expose on the police apparatus in the epilogue. By comparison Traverner is flat. His wealth has isolated him from the socio-political problems of the times. His genetic superiority as a “six” has given him advantages over the rest of the population, and finally his lack of empathy in truly understanding the value of loss and despair as a component of love makes Taverner someone to whom you do not wish to identify with. Unfortunately Buckman’s incest also disqualifies him as unsavoury. As a reader I found I didn’t associate with either the protagonist or antagonist resulting in an uncommitted audience. The deep discussion between Traverner and his lover Ruth Rae is the emotional highlight of this book. Ruth explains that love cannot be understood without the context of loss, and also that until one has a child and knows unflinchingly that they would sacrifice themselves for that child, they cannot claim to have experienced love.
The final third of the novel picks up the pace and becomes more interesting. Alys picks up Traverner once he is released from the police station and takes him to the Buckman home where he has a bad reaction to mascaline (hallucinogenic drug). Meanwhile, Alys dies of an overdose of an experimental drug called KR-3 which has the effect of altering reality of other people (huh?). Her death releases Traverner from his alternate reality where he is unknown. So while he is back in his normal world, he is on the run for Alys death – trumped up by Felix in an effort to deflect political exposure to his illegal and immoral relationship with her. The story wraps up with Traverner avoiding the murder conviction and the police general retiring to quiet solitude (and later assassinated due to his memoirs) .
(Amazon) Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said