In my previous article on this very-close-to-completion series on the work of Philip K. Dick, I covered his work from 1965-1966 – a span of time when his friendship with Bishop Pike and his new relationship with Nancy Hackett (who he would marry in the summer of 1966), along with creative successes like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik, might have been expected to find things on an uptick for him.
However, as the late 1960s saw the hippie movement embrace psychedelia and the use of drugs to interrogate reality, Dick found himself an elder statesman to the same psychonauts who were avidly paying attention to the likes of Timothy Leary. The combination of an appreciative audience and a culture where taking unreasonable amounts of drugs was considered to be a cool way of sticking it to the man, rather than an irresponsible way of sticking it to your biochemistry led to a number of drastic decisions over the ensuing years, and with both Nancy and Bishop Pike exiting his life by the early 1970s, Dick would become unmoored again and enter what can arguably called his “crisis years”.
With this article, I am going to cover the final novels and stories Dick wrote before his transformative 2-3-74 experience. This does not include A Scanner Darkly, which is properly placed among the novels written after 2-3-74; although begun in 1972, Dick would make extensive revisions to it until it was finally in a state he was satisfied with in 1976, and among those revisions were a number of additions and tweaks which worked in themes and imagery related to 2-3-74.
The Exegesis makes this explicit: Dick breaks down particular, identifiable scenes from A Scanner Darkly and directly says that he included them as a result of the experience, rather than those scenes informing the experience, and included them in a manner which was conscious and deliberate, as opposed to the inadvertent subconscious inclusion of such themes in pre-2-3-74 fiction which he occasionally believed had happened. (Those of us with more conventional understandings of cause and effect may instead conclude that the 2-3-74 experience, being a neurological incident produced by Dick’s mind, naturally ended up reflecting the themes and concepts that Dick had been thinking extensively about over his lifetime.)
1967: Philip K. Dick Is Alive and Living In California
It’s become apparent to me as I work my way through this project that calling the span of years I’m going to cover in this article Dick’s “crisis years” is, though in some respects apt, is in other respects a bit of a misnomer. The fact is that chaotic incidents happened throughout Dick’s life, and they had been coming with increased frequency as time went by.
Poor finances troubled him more or less until very late in his lifetime. He wasted a good chunk of the latter part of the 1950s in a doomed attempt to break into mainstream fiction with a stream of mostly horrible novels. His Hugo win for The Man In the High Castle yanked him back into science fiction, but to keep up with the market’s voracious demands he took to using amphetamines as a writing tool, and in the midst of all this his marriage to Anne disintegrated after a series of outright abusive incidents. His friendship with James Pike, the Episcopal Bishop of California, was a source of intellectual stimulation right at the time when in the wake of his split with Anne he needed it, and also led to his whirlwind romance with and marriage to Nancy Hackett – but it also found Dick assisting at Bishop Pike’s seances, as a grief-stricken Pike desperately tried to contact his dead son (who had committed suicide in 1966).
However, the unravelling of Dick’s life in the late 1960s and early 1970s is truly something else. A sure sign of this is the known dates of receipt of material at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, who were Dick’s agents for all but the earliest phases of his career. Every year from 1952, Dick had submitted something to SMLA, who handled both his novels and short stories, and usually he submitted a whole bunch of somethings. Even in his late 1950s career slump, he managed to get something into them each year, and they would valiantly attempt to find publishers for his mainstream novels.
In 1967, based on the most complete chronology I can find (and the one I am largely basing this article series on), Dick didn’t submit a single story or novel to SMLA.
Considering that writing had been almost a compulsion for Dick, even at times in his career when it seemed like he’d never be able to make a living off it, for his output to crash like this suggests startling circumstances in his life – and indeed, that’s what was going on. It wouldn’t have been so apparent to the general public at the time, because thanks to the sheer amount of material he’d cranked out in 1963-1966 his publishers had a backlog of material to release – after all, releasing them all at once would glut the market and probably tank their sales, due to them all competing against each other – so a constant stream of publications continued across the 1967-1973 period I am going to cover here, bolstered both by new material he wrote during this time and by older pieces retrieved from projects previously shelved. (We Can Build You came out at last in 1972, for instance, after originally being written in 1962.)
However, private accounts and Dick’s own correspondence from the time reveals that he had a serious breakdown in 1967. He came to regard Isa, his newborn daughter, as not a human but a strange mutant thing (like Eraserhead a decade before David Lynch actually filmed it), he became convinced he was controlled by an alien entity (a sensation which would repeat itself in his 2-3-74 incident), he had Nancy hide his gun from him because he couldn’t trust himself with it – he was, in short, a mess.
At some point during the year – it’s unclear whether this was something he worked on before his breakdown, during it, or after (if I had to put down money I’d bet it was an attempt to find a new project to occupy himself afterwards) – Dick seems to have decided to make a bid to break into writing for television, since some of the only material which exists from 1967 are a couple of pieces reprinted in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick that seem to be written as idea pitches to studios. (It’s ironic that this went nowhere when now, years after his death, the appetite of TV and movie studios for lavish helpings of Dick is insatiable.)
One of these, titled appropriately enough Plot Idea For Mission: Impossible, finds Dick applying his knack for a twisty plot to what was arguably the US television show most dependent on plot twists and paranoia. Dick’s episode idea relies on the Mission: Impossible team coming up against an opponent as cunning and skilled as they are, prompting them to create a two-layered fake situation because they realise that he’d quickly see through the first layer of deception. It would probably make a good episode of the show, though perhaps an alarming one for audiences because two of the team are apparently killed during it (but they’re actually playing dead to sell the second layer of deception).
The other piece, simply entitled TV Series Idea, outlines a rather saccharine concept based around a small firm in the guardian angel business, hired by dead people to look out for the interests of their clients’ living relatives. It’s basically a device for the main protagonist to be dumped into some Earth person’s problems each episode and solve them, like a much more twee version of Quantum Leap.
In retrospect, it feels like The Prisoner – with its playing with identities, mutable reality, mind control, societal oppression, political manipulation and a whole bunch of other stuff that Dick ate for breakfast, and a star whose intense political and religious convictions and dedication to individual freedom would have made a fascinating person for Dick to bounce ideas off – was the great Philip K. Dick TV show of 1967 which Dick himself never actually wrote for. Thomas Disch, a friend of Dick’s, was actually commissioned to write a Prisoner tie-in novel in 1969; though Disch’s own work also deals in similar areas, one does wonder what might have come about had Dick been tapped for the job instead.
Although Dick did not successfully complete and send off any novels or short stories during 1967, he did make an attempt to do so; an outline of his next planned novel, Joe Protagoras Is Alive and Living On Earth, survives. It’s an interesting attempt to provide a pragmatic answer to the question of “what is real/not real?” in Dick’s fiction by positing that the question prioritises the wrong criteria – that the real question is “What allows one to survive and thrive?” vs. “What grinds someone down, destroys them, or otherwise renders them either broken or dead?” It is interesting mostly for watching Dick think through his various reality inversions as he plots them out and ascribing story purposes to them, putting the lie to the notion that Dick threw in plot twists for their own sake. (Whether the texts of his stories actually succeed in conveying the purposes of those twists is another matter.)
1968: Galactic Pot-Healer
The Glimmung – which, whilst not a full-blown deity, at the same time is a form of life operating in a largely different sphere from ordinary mortals – wants to raise a sunken cathedral from the oceans of its homeworld, Plowman’s Planet, and reaches out to multiple planets (utilising its capacity to act in several locations at once) to recruit a collection of craftspeople to aid in the raising and restoration of the place. One of these is Joe Fernwright, the titular pot-healer – a repairer of ceramic pots, vases, and the like using techniques which leave the items as good as new.
Joe is at the end of his tether – as are all the other collaborators on the project, since the Glimmung chose all of them when they were otherwise on a path to destruction in their day-to-day lives. However, the Book compiled by the Kalends of the Planet – an account of the future which becomes increasingly complete with further iterations – offers up dire warnings. When Joe investigates, he discovers a terrible realm of entropy in the deep ocean, and a strange dualism that must be confronted.
As you might have gathered from the above, Galactic Pot-Healer recycles a lot of names and concepts from the then-unpublished Nick and the Glimmung, though not precisely; whereas Nick and the Glimmung was essentially a science fiction fairytale for children with an essentially hopeful ending, Galactic Pot-Healer is a dreary and depressing affair, with a protagonist who might be the most miserable, depressed, low self-esteem mope since Dick’s bitterly pessimistic mainstream novels of the mid-to-late 1950s.
Over the course of the novel, Joe Fernwright is astonishingly passive. He mends not a single pot. He gets to Plowman’s Planet largely by accident, lacking the wherewithal to get off Earth without trouble. There he does little of significance. He talks to a few people. He looks at something the Glimmung doesn’t want him to see. He passes on a message from the Glimmung which, whilst important at the time, could probably have been just as easily passed along by the Glimmung directly (the powers and capabilities of the Glimmung are defined rather arbitrarily). He persuades the Glimmung to conserve its power after being wounded by its evil counterpart, the Black Glimmung, before attempting to raise the cathedral. When the Glimmung enters into a peculiar sort of communion with the craftspeople in order to collaboratively raise the cathedral, though it will take aeons to do so, Joe chooses not to remain in this new collective consciousness. Joe tries to make a pot of his own, rather than restricting himself to mending other people’s pots, and it’s a bit crap. That’s the sum total of what Joe does over the course of the book.
Dick wasn’t too satisfied with the book; it was written to contract and apparently he just knocked it out without really revising it or otherwise polishing up his first draft, and the word he used for it is “stupid”. In the Exegesis Dick further enunciates his dissatisfaction with Galactic Pot-Healer; he recalls that when it came time for him to depict the Glimmung, it rang hollow because he was trying to depict a theological and spiritual concept he didn’t really have any personal experience with or feeling for.
It was only with the 2-3-74 experience that Dick felt that he had encountered a “salvific” deity of the nature he is trying to depict here. Whether you believe Dick encountered something real or was overpowered by his own imagination, it is evident here that Dick is trying to push on into theological and philosophical territory he doesn’t yet feel able to explore, resulting in long stretches of the book where Dick is very obviously thinking to himself out loud on the page. This is particularly evident with a lot of the supporting cast, who don’t have much of a personality mapped out for them and seem to exist solely so that Joe and the Glimmung can have Socratic dialogues with them. (Willis, the robot who writes theological tracts, might be the most extreme example of this.)
What Dick seems to be trying to do here is depict a sort of benign equivalent of the entity from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – a thing which, whilst not God itself, takes on some of the qualities of God, but this time around it’s the more friendly ones rather than the frightening ones. Whereas the Glimmung is a force of entropic evil in Nick and the Glimmung, here the Glimmung is trying to extract something precious from a realm of entropy and reverse those dire effects, restoring the deities associated with the sunken cathedral.
The concept of the true “underworld” not being deep underground but the deep ocean may be the most interesting concept here, though Dick doesn’t use it especially effectively. The idea of God trying to extract the good from the mire it is imprisoned in and repair it would become a major theme of VALIS and the Exegesis, as would the notion of twin deities, one good and one evil, one male and one female, an idea which also had its expression in The Cosmic Puppets back in the early 1950s.
Here, Dick reverses things compared to The Cosmic Puppets: the good creator God is male, and the destructive, entropic, evil God is female. This is astonishingly like the theology Dave Sim would promote in the later phases of Cerebus, and is not unlike the worldview of pathetic philosopher-clown Jordan Peterson. As in both those cases, it carries with it a thick layer of misogyny. The female deity is evil because the male deity created her to have sex with, and sex with evil is the most alluring type of sex (the hell?). Joe’s ex-wife is a nagging “frustrated man” who keeps yelling at him about the alimony payments he’s failing to send her. His love interest in the book, such as she is, jumps his bones for no particular reason and then just ends up another straw person to bounce dialogue off. It’s all surprisingly drab and boring for a Dick novel of under 200 pages.
What adds insult to injury is that by this point, Dick had already proved he could do better. Writing women remained a perennial weak point of his, but this feels like a relapse into significantly more misogynistic phases of his writing. Moreover, the core idea of a benign divine force which acts to reverse the all-encroaching creep of entropy had been handled much better in Ubik – another novel hampered a bit by a too-large cast consisting of a bunch of specialists who don’t really do much of the job they are supposedly trying to do in the book, but which somehow works anyway, whereas Galactic Pot-Healer falls flat.
Between this, the astonishingly glum and depressing atmosphere of the novel, and Dick’s admission that he just rattled the novel out in a hurry, it seems evident to me that Galactic Pot-Healer is the product of a Dick in distress – something Dick wrenched out of himself to get his fiction flowing again after spending over a year without delivering up any finished manuscripts to his literary agents.
1968: A Maze of Death
A group of strangers assemble on the mysterious world of Delmak-O; to their knowledge, they are the first human settlers, though if that’s the case of the presence of a mysterious ambulatory building and a morass of surveillance devices disguised as small local life forms is rather odd. Like in a whodunnit, characters start dying. Eventually, they all die about a dozen pages or so before the end of the book, at which point it turns out the entire story has been an enormous sham, a “polyencephalic” experience (in effect a shared dream-reality) used to pass the time on a stricken starship as its crew desperately tries to remain sane.
I am spoilering A Maze of Death massively there, but I honestly think it’s one of those rare stories which is better experienced spoilered than unspoilered. The first time around you read it, the last two chapters – which largely undermine the objective reality of everything that has come before – are pretty enraging, a shock big enough that when I first read it, it threw me off my appreciation of the entire book. If you know it’s coming you can at least brace yourself for it.
Even then, by the standards of Dick’s usual schtick it’s kind of a lot of the same old stuff we’ve seen before. The collective hallucination engaged in by people as a means for psychological reassurance, maintaining their sanity, and retaining empathy for each other has already been extensively wheeled out in The Little Black Box, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – and as well as recycling themes and concepts, Dick has reached the point of recycling full-grown incidents from his other novels. For instance, here there’s a scene towards the end where a fictional character from the collective hallucination miraculously manifest in the real world to bring succor to the purported protagonist here, elsewhere there’s another use of the I Ching to present readings from an in-universe divinatory device (a trick used as far back as The Man In the High Castle), and of course the story being rooted in the highly divergent subjective viewpoints of the protagonists who all perceive a somewhat different world was a feature of Eye In the Sky.
Likewise, there’s another retread of the “printer” idea, yet more life-draining shrew wives and perilously slutty women as the most distinctive women among the cast, the idea of a world of mental patients who don’t realise they’re mental patients from Shell Game, and so on and so forth. There’s supposedly some theology in here based on a big theological thought experiment engaged in by Dick, William Sarill, and Bishop Pike, but it ultimately comes across as just generic Christianity with the serial numbers filed off and some business about “god-planets” that Dick never really develops.
Part of the reason the novel falls flat for me is that it feels like Dick is stepping too far outside his wheelhouse as an author. The thing about this sort of cast-picked-off-one-by-one murder tale a la Christie’s And Then There Were None is that if the cast isn’t interesting, you ain’t gonna care. Dick’s grasp of characterisation was often thin, and it would usually be the first thing to go out of the window whenever he was writing at speed – this shows every sign of that, the characters not really being characters so much as they are shallow caricatures.
However, the excessive reliance on reheated material from earlier in Dick’s career – coming so soon after he resorted to similar strip-mining for Nick and the Glimmung – and the continuation of the depressing, misanthropic, self-hating attitude of Galactic Pot-Healer suggests that Dick was struggling to find both ideas and reasons to keep going at the time he produced this.
In the Exegesis, Dick would note that this novel, Eye In the Sky, Time Out of Joint, Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch “are the same novel written over and over again” – a regular recapitulation of themes which would later become central to his 2-3-74 experience. However, of that set I would say that Maze of Death is easily the most dispensable, and I suspect it only gets as much attention as it does in the Exegesis because it was a comparatively recent novel of Dick’s that happened to hit on the same ideas.
1968-1969: Our Friends From Frolix 8
Pitched in late 1968 and finished in early 1969, Our Friends From Frolix 8 represents the last produce of Dick’s rapid-fire writing period: for the last decade-plus of his career his novels would come more slowly, and he would take more time polishing them, and whilst his stints of very fast novel-writing (often fuelled by amphetamines) had yielded classics like Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, there’s no denying that it was decidedly patchy in quality.
Perhaps it would be best to consider Galactic Pot-Healer and A Maze of Death as warm-up exercises, since Frolix 8 seems more substantial in terms of execution than either of those rather threadbare concepts, and a better follow-up to Androids and Ubik in at least that. It depicts a future where a mutant elite rules over humanity, consisting of the Unusuals – individuals with strange psychic talents like telepathy or precognition – and the New Men, who have an enhanced intellect making them capable of feats of brainpower unavailable to others.
If you are not one of the Unusuals or the New Men, you’re one of the Old Men – regarded as evolutionary detritus and lacking the crucial edge needed to compete against Unusuals and New Men. Between them, the New Men and the Unusuals have the whole governmental system wrapped up: to serve in any especially demanding capacity, you need to pass the Civil Service exam, and it’s fixed so that Old Men cannot possibly qualify. Old Men might not have the fancy new nodes in the brain which underpin the New Men’s cognitive abilities, but they can recognise bullshit when they see it, and so there is a resistance movement pushing back against the oligarchy who refer to themselves as the Under Men.
The Under Men are struggling against genius New Men who can out-think them at any turn, Unusuals who can anticipate their every move or read their thoughts, and the best system of mass surveillance and social oppression that the New Men and Unusuals can devise between them; their great hope is that Thors Provoni, who years ago went off into deep space to try and find a place of safety for the Old Men. As it happens, Provoni is coming back – and he’s not alone, having discovered an astonishingly advanced form of life which is coming back with him in order to stabilise human society lest a culturally dysfunctional humanity cause havoc across the universe.
The novel does not primarily focus on Provoni, though we do get to check in on him from time to time. Instead, we cut back and forth between the main protagonist, humble tire regroover Nick Appleton, and the antagonist, Willis Gram – the telepathic Unusual who is the head of the Earth government. Appleton has recently begun drifting into the circles of the Under Men as a result of his son unjustly failing the Civil Service test; Gram is trying to plan the government’s response to Provoni’s expected return. Both of them are entirely incapable of keeping their personal lives separate from their political engagement – especially when it comes to Charley, the wild 16 year old career criminal that both of them fall for.
Though Frolix 8 is stylistically a return to form, thematically there’s something rather grim about it. The concerns about Old Men being displaced, controlled, and out-competed by New Men and Unusuals risk becoming a little dated, especially in light of recent far-right “they will not replace us” rhetoric, but that genuinely does not seem to be what Dick was going for here. Especially in light of his early work, it’s evident that the Old Men/New Men/Unusuals thing is, broadly speaking, a critique of technocratic “meritocracy” on the basis that once you start deciding some people have merit and others don’t, you’re conceding all power to those who decide where merit lies, and more specifically a slam on the sort of creeping fascist-tinged elitism present in the science fiction genre.
Dick had been taking pot-shots at this theme since the early 1950s. As Dick recounts, it was inspired by the disturbing house policies of John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Analog. As the final recipient of the Campbell Award when it was still called the Campbell Award succinctly noted, John Campbell was a fucking fascist. One of the ways that fascism manifested itself was in his ideas about stories concerning mutants and psychics: he was very keen on them, but he insisted that the psychics and mutants must be superior to ordinary humans, benign in their attitudes, and clearly in control of whichever future society they existed in, as befitting a more exalted race.
Campbell was still active in 1968 – though the boom in the New Wave of Science Fiction had shaken his former grip on the genre. However, attitudes like this were not exclusive to him. The popularity of the “fans are slans!” mantra in American SF fandom at the time – inspired by A.E. van Vogt’s novel Slan of superior brainiacs persecuted by a drab mundane society that doesn’t understand them – was a further exercise in this sort of geek elitism, a vainglorious elevation of fandom from hobby to an intrinsic feature of identity by the sort of people clueless enough to imagine that someone being sniffy about your reading habits is persecution and discrimination on the level of the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the culture at the time.
With the New Men and Unusuals, Dick has placed them in precisely the social role Campbell demanded for his slan-like enlightened master races. The big difference between Campbell’s vision and Dick’s here is that the New Men and Unusuals are not automatically benign. Willis Gram is a vindictive, self-indulgent toad who uses the apparatus of the state to rape and murder women on a whim, and attempts to do the same to Charley, and constantly bullies his underlings into staying in line. Amos Ild, the greatest genius among the New Men, has been spending his energy on the Great Ear project, an attempt to make an electronic form of telepathy which does not require the input of Unusuals – a pretty blatant power play that can only shift the balance of power between Unusuals and New Men to the New Men’s favour, since it will make an entire class of Unusuals redundant and no longer special. These people are still, in the end, human beings, and human beings given great power in an oligarchy tend to do some pretty bad shit.
That said, Nick Appleton is no angel, though I think we are meant to sympathise with him more than we actually do. He has just enough awareness to realise that going through with having sex with Charley would be “statutory rape” (using those words) and refrains from doing it, but he’s still entirely happy to leave his wife for her. The wife in question is called Kleo – named after Dick’s last-wife-but-one – and it is tempting to read her as a blend of the negative qualities Dick tended to ascribe to Kleo and Anne (and, for that matter, to all women who he decided after the fact were No Good After All): a selfish attitude, an inability to see the big picture or grasp big ideas, and a tendency to tell their husbands off for exerting independent thought.
There is a bit where Nick slaps Kleo which reads uncomfortably like a real domestic violence situation; maybe we are supposed to sympathise with Kleo here and think Nick has been an utter shitbag for doing this, but if so Dick does a bad job of communicating that unambiguously, and it would be just as easy – and perhaps easier – to believe that we’re supposed to cheer when he does that. Kleo is condemned for being “vapid”, though that term would equally apply to most other women who play any significant role in the book, most particularly Charley, who is presented as basically being this completely wild hippy kid who’s been been ruined by a hard world and so is now this promiscuous vixen as a result, and who Nick might have been able to save if she didn’t get fridged by a car accident very late in the novel.
(It is very difficult not to see parallels between Nick leaving Kleo for Charley and Dick leaving Anne and taking up with Nancy, though as I understand the chronology Dick’s marriage to Anne was understood by both of them to be over before Dick and Nancy met. It is particularly worrying to see Dick presenting this younger woman as being on a wild trajectory towards early death.)
A brief exception is made for a character who only appears in a single scene, the policewoman Alice Noyes, who in order to act as a uniformed officer rather than an informant has undergone an operation which means that “both legally and physically speaking, she was not a woman”. The character is given almost no development other than one scene where she shows up and makes some policy suggestions which reveal her to be cold and cruel and entirely willing to go along with political murder, and the whole thing is framed as her having surrendered her “femininity”, so it ends up seeming sexist and (depending on how you read the stuff about the operation) transphobic to all hell and never, ever gets enough context that might allow for a more nuanced reading.
This flavour of misogyny in Dick’s writing – the breakdown of women into young girls who need saving (and might be sluts), mature women who are shrewish and terrible (and might be sluts), and women who do not fit Dick’s gender expectations and are therefore cold bitches who have abandoned a precious part of themselves (and probably aren’t sluts, but if they were sluts they’d be more human and relatable) – is hardly new to this novel, though it seems particularly prominent this time around due to the recurring motif of Appleton and Gram both being completely unable to keep their personal lives out of stuff.
There’s a sort of mirroring going on between Appleton and Gram over the course of the novel, in fact: both are exiting their current marriages, both are infatuated with Charley, and the novel’s main interest is how the return of this otherworldly saviour affects both of them. The major difference is that Gram has the entire apparatus of the state to support his actions, but his attempts to thwart Pavoni turn out to be fruitless, whereas Nick is almost entirely disenfranchised. When the novel is at its best, it feels like Nick’s mere attempt to buck the system is a triumph in itself, even though it doesn’t have any real effect; at its worst, it feels like both the narration and the characters in the world are paying all this attention to Nick that he really doesn’t merit, to the extent that Gram towards the end is awfully willing to chat with Nick about his problems.
Another notable thing about the novel is Dick’s apparent total loss of faith in the capacity of progressive movements to enact positive change in society from within, a view which may be more understandable considering that the novel was written in the late stages and immediate aftermath of the 1968 Presidential election, in which Nixon won against the alternatives of George Wallace carrying a South dreaming of bringing back segregation and Hubert Humphrey, who between his pro-Vietnam War stance, the ugly beatdown of protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and his general charisma vacuum was certainly no Robert Kennedy.
The belief that we have made such a mess of our domestic sphere that only the intervention of an external power can bring justice without total societal collapse is considered treason when applied to politics, but is orthodoxy from the perspective of many religions. Though the aliens of Frolix 8 are not meant to be God – there’s a flippant reference to God’s corpse, or at least the carcass of an entity which when alive would have been able to create entire worlds, being discovered near Alpha Centauri – it is impossible not to notice the messianic tone of Provoni’s return.
In particular, the coming of this salvation results in a fundamental transformation of the world. Whilst Dick would write about more subtle versions of this sort of transformation both before and after this novel, here it is accomplished in a blunt and mildly appalling manner; the alien uses its astonishing telepathic powers to simply burn away the novel parts of Unusual and New Man brains. For Unusuals, this puts them in the same boat as Old Men; they have to adjust to no longer hearing thoughts or seeing the future, but adjust they can.
For New Men, the consequences are more shockingly far-ranging: the extensive telekinetic brain surgery necessary to remove the parts of their brains which give them such astonishing intellects causes significant impairment as well as regressing them developmentally; they are explicitly and repeatedly compared in the text to brain-damaged children. This sets up a conversation between Nick and a newly-impaired Amos Ild in which there is a suggestion that these cognitively impaired individuals have lost the capacity for malice and are now precious angels, who may have a heightened understanding of spiritual things and should be cared for and nurtured.
Given Dick’s history with the mental health system, I think he is giving the general public a lot of credit when he assumes that, given such a level of societal advantage and power over their former neurological overlords, they wouldn’t use it as an opportunity for some manner of gruesome revenge – and yet this is the assumption he seems to go with. It is also not especially apparent from the text whether Dick feels that this event is awful and genuinely cruel, or awful but Unfortunately Necessary. The collective punishment it entails is troubling in the extreme; the nicest way I can imagine to respin it is that it’s an attempt to use a wealth redistribution metaphor but using intelligence in the place of wealth, but even then that doesn’t work because the intelligence isn’t redistributed to anyone.
Either way, it has the unfortunate effect of buying into the very Campbellian premises that Dick is trying to argue against; the implicit assumption is that the New Men need to get their hyper-intelligence taken away, which accepts the debatable axioms that a) short of actual developmental issues, intelligence is determined solely by genetics and environment and opportunity has no role in it and b) a more intelligent person will always have an advantage over a less intelligent person, and by virtue of having that level of intelligence will inevitably out-compete everyone else and rise to the top of society.
Once you get into the trap of agreeing to both of these premises, the inescapable conclusion is that to prevent an intelligentsia from acquiring undue influence in society a cap on intelligence is needed. In other words, the argument is that the dystopia Kurt Vonnegut depicted in Harrison Bergeron has its good points. The only way out is to recall that the definition of “intelligence” is a fuzzy thing, and that an imaginary minority of highly intelligent mutants would be no more likely to act as a monolithic bloc than any other identifiable group. (And if they were that smart, they might be able to exercise enough long-term thinking to realise that deliberately persecuting others could set themselves up for a fall.)
More evidence that Dick was being very strongly influenced by the general atmosphere in the US at the time, by in the circles he was moving in especially, is the apparent social shift that has alcohol a forbidden substance, treated with about as much dread and horror as, say, marijuana is in Reefer Madness (though arguably with much better basis for doing so), whilst various recreational and psychopharmaceutical drugs are swigged as frequently and nonchalantly as alcohol would be in a typical 1960s setting.
On top of that, there’s the culture around obtaining Under Men propaganda, which is basically framed exactly like a drug deal, with ingeniously hidden stashes and constant paranoia about getting busted. There’s a somewhat clever idea here with the notion that revolutionary propaganda and rhetoric can end up being as much of an addictive opiate of the masses as any other – risking the creation of a culture that is more keen on talking about shit than doing shit. (Insert your cheap Black Mirror episode idea about the stultifying effects of social media here.)
On the whole, Our Friends From Frolix 8 finds Dick expressing his ideas in the form of a richer tapestry than he’d attempted for a couple of years, but the waning of the 1960s seems to have found both ugly impulses and a pessimistic despair creeping into things, expressed in a world where all of Dick’s prejudices are on display and the best we can hope for is a marginally more humane atrocity than simple bloody revolution would have been. As it turned out, this would herald a very dark time in Dick’s life.
1968-1972: Fragments From the Crisis Years
The Nixon years were, by and large, not kind to Dick – indeed, the late Lyndon Johnson years were no barrel of laughs – and this inevitably impacted his work. A new novel of his would not arrive at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency until 1973, though considering that he had a backlog of unpublished novels trickling out here and there this would have been less apparent to the reading public than it might otherwise have been. (The advantage of making a big binge of content is that you can then parcel it out bit by bit and it’s less obvious when your hand isn’t at the tiller.)
Some red flags suggesting that all was not well with Dick appeared in a short biographical essay he wrote in 1968 – the sort of material which goes in the “about the author” section in a book. In one, he mentions his “young, pretty, nervous wife, Nancy, who is afraid of the telephone”, and complains that in his most recent divorce he lost custody of some 17 sheep; this is not exactly a respectful way to talk about the people who are in your life or who have exited. Of himself he says “Warning: don’t lend him any money. In addition he will steal your pills.”
This is the sort of ha-ha-only-serious self-deprecating joke people make about themselves when they have recognised their personality flaws but have been unable to work on those flaws. But elsewhere, Dick was editorialising. A Self-Portrait written for a fanzine, offering a more extensive account of his life, makes no mention of his first marriage whatsoever. (It also hypes up how young Nancy is, as though “young” is almost the only adjective that Dick can attach to her.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. Dick wasn’t entirely miserable during this period. The publication of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in March 1968 was met with enthusiastic sales and the interest of the movie business, the first step on the long road which led to Blade Runner. Bertram Berman, who would ultimately have nothing to do with the version of Androids that would later get filmed bought the option, and in mid-1968 Dick penned some notes on the novel offering his ideas on how a movie could be made out of it.
The resulting essay is interesting partly as a thing to compare with how Blade Runner turned out, partly has an unpacking of what Dick thought was going on in Androids. For instance, Dick proposes that Deckard and Isidore in the novel represent two opposing views on the androids – the former that they are “vicious machines that must be destroyed”, whilst Isidore regards them with a “naive love” which is dashed when their real cruelty is revealed, and suggests on that basis that Deckard should be the primary viewpoint character. Though Isidore is not present in Blade Runner, J.F. Sebastian is – a genius android designer, rather than a man who’s been cognitively impaired by the toxic aftermath of World War III, but also someone who regards the androids with empathy before they abuse his benevolent, trusting nature.
However, Blade Runner arrives at a movie which interestingly engages in Dick’s themes largely by ignoring large amounts of the novel. Dick would ultimately be pretty pleased with the film itself, after a span of time when he was deeply troubled by the direction the script had gone in; as Ridley Scott is wont to do, a lot of the overall effect of the movie comes from the visual and audio feast on offer and the emoting by the actors, rather than the words on the script, after all.
Watching Dick tie himself in knots trying to figure out how to work in Mercerism and the Mood Organ into the movie is a good argument for why they were cut, but Dick is clearly having fun here: he particularly gets into a consideration of casting (perhaps having grand ideas about how much influence authors typically have over that stuff) and proposes Gregory Peck for Deckard, Dean Stockwell for Isidore, and Grace Slick as Rachael, but the latter is almost certainly down to Dick being a huge Jefferson Airplane fan.
Along similarly fun lines, in late 1968 Dick offered up a brief 116 word story – more a synopsis than a story really – entitled The Story To End All Stories For Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. The Ellison-edited Dangerous Visions had come out in 1967, including an all-original selection of stories from many luminaries of New Wave science fiction of the era; Dick himself contributed Faith of Our Fathers, one of his most powerful short stories. It was, as a result, a bit of a manifesto for New Wave SF as a whole.
As is often the case with such things, Dangerous Visions put a spotlight on a lot of common trends in New Wave SF at the time – frank treatments of sex and sexuality, exploration of gender, eccentric views of God, the influence of the drug culture of the era, a tendency towards apocalyptic landscapes, a streak of xenophilia, a proto-punk attitude, and a tendency to prioritise shock and style over necessarily making a whole lot of sense being among them. In other words, whilst lauding the good in the movement, it also inadvertently but unavoidably reflected a lot of what was bad or just plain goofy about it.
Dick’s Story To End All Stories is, in essence, a brief distillation of New Wave cliches into a single, condensed plot that contains all of them dialled up to 11, which Dick submitted to the fanzine Niekas for the amusement of its readership. This is the entire story:
In a hydrogen war ravaged society the nubile young women go down to a futuristic zoo and have sexual intercourse with various deformed and non-human life forms in the cages. In this particular account a woman who has been patched together out of the damaged bodies of several women has intercourse with an alien female, there in the cage, and later on the woman, by means of futuristic science, conceives. The infant is born, and she and the female in the cage fight over it to see who gets it. The human young woman wins, and promptly eats the offspring, hair, teeth, toes and all. Just after she has finished she discovers that the offspring is God.
It was just a little thing he did for funsies, but it’s reassuring to see Dick able to have a bit of a laugh at the scene and at himself at this stage in his life. And, as you can see above, it’s about as perfect a parody of the edgier aspects of late 1960s SF as you can hope to find.
One can only speculate about what Dick would have made of the long, messy saga of The Last Dangerous Visions, the long-promised final volume of the Dangerous Visions anthology series. It was originally intended to come out in 1973, following the 1972 followup Again, Dangerous Visions; as it stood, Harlan Ellison died in 2018 without ever issuing the anthology – this, despite the fact that there were no shortage of stories submitted for it by significant names in the field, so all Ellison had to do was pick enough to meet the page count, perform his editorial duties, and send the thing off to print. As it stood, it fell to Christopher Priest to write the truly definitive take on that debacle, and to J. Michael Straczynski to pick up and finish the project.
Despite these rare chuckles, however, the depressive, pessimistic streak in Dick’s writing deepened. In the process of writing Our Friends From Frolix 8 he knocked out The Electric Ant, in which a man discovers he’s actually been a robot all along and, fiddling with his internal systems, discovers that he doesn’t have programming so much as a predetermined reality pattern fed to his senses. His fiddling with the reality tape results in a sort of philosophical suicide which takes the false world he lives in along with him. It’s a classic combination of Dick tropes, but with a horribly bleak conclusion. (The title may reflect how heavily Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was weighing on his mind, since there’s a bit in that where Rachael compares the androids to ants.)
This Androids-inspired flare in Dick’s fortunes would not last, and the following years would be unproductive. After delivering Frolix 8 and The Electric Ant to his agents, it wouldn’t be until 1971 until he delivered them another story, and not until 1973 that he’d send them something they could actually sell. In 1969 he would be hit hard by the death of Bishop Pike, who would perish in the Israeli desert in an expedition attempting to find confirmation of some of his historical theories. Shortly after that, Dick would find all those years of using amphetamines to fuel his writing process catching up with him; he would end up having a stay in hospital with pancreatitis which he would in future ascribe to his drug abuse.
After this, Nancy would leave him in 1970, taking Isa with her, commencing an unstable period in Dick’s life when he would live in shabby accommodation and would allow his drug buddies to move in and out as they wished – an era which would later provide the fodder for A Scanner Darkly. Owning the house where your narcotics-fuelled social circle hang out is great if your buddies share, but it doesn’t exactly give you peace and quiet to get much writing done, but some work was completed at this time. Some time in 1970 or 1971, Dick would write Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked, which would be the sole sad little squib of a story he’d send to his literary agents during this dark period.
It’s not good, and it didn’t get published until the five-volume compilation of Dick’s Collected Stories put it out in 1987, and frankly it is good that it didn’t go public in Dick’s lifetime because it’s a deeply embarrassing piece – something he apparently originally privately circulated in 1970. It’s a pretty blatant grab for sympathy, as well as an abdication of almost all responsibility for the failure of his marriages; the Dick-insert, the titular beaver, is berated by an Anne-ish wife for his lack of earning power, finds brief solace from the attentions of the Nancy-ish figure of Carol Stinkyfoot, only for her to disintegrate into three different archetypal Dick female characters (the mysterious alluring beauty who portends death but is very welcoming and proper about it, the caring mother figure who portends death through smothering, and the younger woman who’s out to bang a bunch of other dudes but will give him the time of day for a bit) who all berate him into a state of nonexistence because of his lack of earning power.
Though writing Cadbury was surely cathartic, it doesn’t seem to have involved much in the way of helpful self-examination; the whole thing frames Dick/Cadbury’s problems as a factor of the women in his life being demanding, soul-sucking, utterly commercially-oriented fiends, even when they at first appear not to be. Not once is there any consideration that maybe Cadbury the beaver could just separate from his wife and not have any alternative lined up ready to go – that he could just go live on his own, or at least without a romantic/sexual relationship ongoing in his life. It simply isn’t considered, to the point where Cadbury fades away from existence when the women stop paying attention to him.
A more serious effort was ongoing in the form of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, though Dick had to set the book aside at points because his life was just too unstable (and he was feeling too unstable) to meaningfully work on it. In a stroke of good fortune, Dick thought to hand over the manuscript to his attorney for safekeeping for a while when he was feeling especially fragile. Later, in late 1971, Dick’s home office was burgled and his secure filing cabinet blown open – where the manuscript would have been had Dick not sent it away. The incident preyed on Dick’s mind, not least because the police had apparently half-seriously wondered whether he’d burgled his own safe (perhaps as an insurance scam). Thus, when Dick went to the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention as guest of honour in February 1972, he already had plenty of worries on his back.
At the convention he delivered the speech The Android and the Human. It launches off from the idea that if, as psychologists and anthropologists claimed, the drift away from early animism is an important step in our development as individuals and as a society, then things are going to get mighty strange now that a new wave of electronic and computerised gadgets are coming forth and turn out to be way more animated than the inert matter comprising them, because this means that there’s these expressions of our inner natures now out in the wild – complex machines which do what they do not out of a deceiving attempt to mimic humanity, but because human beings made them to achieve human-selected goals.
This promising beginning ends up drifting into a rather rambling discourse on politics, personal liberty, and social ethics that isn’t especially well joined-up in terms of the arguments it’s trying to make, and has way more belaboured rape jokes and other diversions into weird misogyny and Madonna/whore complex territory than the subject matter at hand really calls for.
It drifts eventually into a sort of early cyberpunk manifesto, as Dick talks about his encounters with the early phone phreak subculture and expresses the view that the best acts of resistance to tyranny is massive amounts of small acts of petty crime, rather than organised political opposition, because ideological political opposition is part of the system, always has been, and can therefore be readily accounted for, whereas random acts of criminality – especially those which exploit new technologies in ways not intended by their creators – are less easy for the big data tyranny of the future to take into account.
It’s a fun idea, but it’s a bit rich to read Dick reading about how the boomer generation are these hip kids who won’t be the ideological footsoldiers of the man and then think on who ended up swelling the ranks of the Tea Party and QAnon later on. (Sure, for that matter those 1970s slacker dropouts Dick is talking about were only a minority of their own generation as well – but there is a surprising level of overlap between aging hippies and New Agers and QAnon nonsense.)
Moreover, Dick seems insistent on the notion that the human impulse to perform a few small acts of self-enriching mayhem here and there can’t be accounted for in a big system, and unfortunately I suspect he is wrong: in fact, I fear that accounting for a certain level of systemic inefficiency due to minor larceny is statistically quite easy. He also seems to think that the rip-offs, scams, and hacks performed by people will always and inevitably involve “punching up” at the government or a big corporation, but that is far from the case; see the many cults, sects, and scams which thrive on preying on the general public, after all (like, say, QAnon and the community of grifter types who squeeze money out of that grim world).
The notion that the thing which makes us human and not machines is a capacity for “pure selfishness” and grifting is not a very positive assessment of humans, the idea that this cannot be accounted for is not a very positive view of machines; in short, the speech feels like a libertarian-bordering-on-ancap declaration that we should treat life as a free-for-all because that’s how the powers that be are going to treat us, a viewpoint which seems unlikely to challenge the powerful so much as make it more likely for them to play awful divide-and-rule games with us.
Within a day of making the speech, Dick was announcing to people that he’d met the love of his life – a certain con attendee named Janis. He had at the time been seeing one Kathy DeMuelle, who he had been expecting to come with him to the convention and he mentioned in correspondence at the time with Ursula LeGuin that Kathy was 19 at the time; this means that when she and Dick started their relationship Kathy would have at most been only a shade over the California age of consent at the time, and very possibly wasn’t.
That’s a really appallingly bad look on Dick, and one his biographers do not seem to make very much of, possibly due to the paucity of information out there on Kathy; when it came to the Convention invitation, DeMuelle demurred, and Dick would later claim to have been emotionally destroyed by this, though those who were actually at the con didn’t see much sign of this. Vancouver fandom got all giddy about having the real, live, genuine Dick in their presence, and Dick perked up considerably as a result of this enthusiastic reception; this business with Janis may well have interpreting her fannish enthusiasm as something more.
Either way, Dick decided to stay in Vancouver, but of course when the convention was over the positive feedback stopped and he quickly fell apart. Janis, very sensibly, ran a mile, and the local journalist that Dick had been staying with asked Dick to leave his home as a result of Dick’s erratic behaviour. This period of personal disintegration north of the border culminated in a suicide attempt in March 1972, following which Dick spent some time in X-Kalay, a Canadian splinter group of the infamous Synanon addiction program turned cult (an experience which Dick would later mine for A Scanner Darkly).
Returning to California in 1972, Dick relocated to Orange County; Willis McNelly, a science fiction fan and literature professor and a pioneer of efforts to approach SF as a subject worthy of academic study, had encouraged the move, perhaps cannily realising that having a research subject conveniently nearby may be handy. (It paid off; Fullerton State University holds a collection of papers donated by Dick.)
Dick spent the balance of 1972 making the acquaintance of local SF fans – including some up-and-coming wannabe authors by the names of K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock, and Tim Powers. The period was not without its hiccups; in particular, October 1972 would see Dick write a letter to the FBI outlining an outlandish conspiracy theory. Here, he claimed that a neo-Nazi organisation, having failed to recruit him to plant secret messages in his fiction to get the word out to “the right people”, had proceeding to plant their messages in Thomas Disch’s novel Camp Concentration.
Despite such wobbles, by the end of the year Dick had regained just about enough creative energy to write again. As well as returning to Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, Dick would also turn out A Little Something For Us Tempunauts. This is an examination of time travel as it might be conducted by the US and USSR along similar lines to the space race – with similar concerns of saving face when there is an accident, even if the accident has put the tempunauts (as the US calls their time travellers to contrast with the Soviet “chrononauts”) into an eternally cycling time loop which only one of them is aware of. (Or, for more of a downer, one of them is just depressed and has the impression he is in a time loop, but is not, but guarantees that he is by his actions at the end of the story.) It’s a refreshing return to form, and closely accompanying it to the literary agents would be the completed Flow My Tears…
1973: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
In the early years of the Cold War, the US government attempted a secret eugenics program to produce a race of magnificent superhumans. It was by and large a failure; the final products, the “sixes” (known as such because they were the sixth iteration of the project), had mild but not overwhelmingly increased cognitive capability, somewhat more resilience to old age, and a somewhat elevated personal magnetism, but didn’t play well with others enough to really constitute a master caste of golden gods.
In 1988, nearly 40 years later, the program has long since been shuttered as a failure, and the surviving sixes have become self-indulgent media celebrities. One of these is Jason Taverner, pop star and late night entertainment show host, who boasts a loyal audience of 30 million viewers who tune in each Tuesday night to watch him on NBC. One day, after wrapping up the show, Jason is attacked by an up-and-coming starlet he’d exploited for sex, and though he is able to evade death thanks to his six capacity for quick thinking, he is badly injured and loses consciousness as he is being rushed into hospital.
Once he wakes up, he finds himself not in a swanky private ward, but in a fleabitten motel – and the world has forgotten him. No, not just the people – literally the whole world. Nobody recognises him, his TV show isn’t listed anywhere, and though he’s still a fat wad of cash, his ID cards are gone. He calls his friends on their private numbers; none of them remember him. As it will later transpire, his file is even gone from the central government records.
This is very bad for Jason, because his 1988 is not a time or a place where being anonymous is a benefit. Following the Second Civil War, which has left the “pols” (militarised police) and “nats” (national guard) besieging the last remains of resistance to fascism which are hunkered down beneath the college campuses, the US (and, so far as can be told, Earth in general) has become a hideous, invasive dictatorship, a police state where privacy is near-nonexistent, constitutional protections have been torn up, and a network of espionage, paid informants, and mutual betrayal maintains the status quo.
As Taverner tries to make sense of what has happened to him and retain his freedom, his case comes to the attention of police general Felix Buckman. Buckman is of a social caste which is allowed to have secrets; his secret is that he is in an incestuous marriage to his twin sister Alys, whose erratic behaviour risks becoming a political liability in the cutthroat upper echelons of the police ranks. Eventually, Felix realises that Taverner is telling the truth and has been the victim of a bizarre accident – but when bad circumstances befall Alys. Felix is strongly tempted to pin the blame on Taverner, seeing how his suspicious behaviour has already pinged the police’s radar. But can he got through with this horrible act of revenge?
As well as winning Hugo and Nebula awards, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said won the John W. Campbell Jr. award. This is ironic, since in some respects, Flow My Tears is Dick’s final, ultimate rebuke to Campbell and his tendency to take all the wrong lessons from Slan, in part by presenting a total inversion of Slan which actually repudiates and rejects most of its premises in a way which Our Friends From Frolix 8 fails to.
As in Slan, the world of Flow My Tears is oppressive, and a protagonist who is part of a class of supposedly uplifted superhumans is pitted against all the forces of a hostile society. However, ultimately being a six does almost nothing for Jason; in some respects it is actually a liability. Sure, he might have somewhat faster cognition than ordinary people, but in practice that means he can just jump down neurotic rabbitholes all the faster.
As an example of this, Felix Buckman is able to completely demoralise and gain leverage over Taverner simply by claiming, totally spuriously, to be a “seven” – the next stage on from a six. There is no such thing – but Taverner doesn’t know this, and is paranoid enough to think that there might be, and once he believes he’s up against someone who is smarter than he is he ends up second-guessing himself, short-circuiting what minor cognitive advantage his six status had given him and leaving him powerless to outwit Felix.
More generally, there’s the plot point about how the six project was an abject failure – a waste of energy directed at a fascistic pipe dream which, at most, managed to create people with a much weaker version of the same hyper-attractiveness involved in The Golden Man, but unappealing personalities which drive others away once they get to know them. The sixes aren’t superior or inferior, they are merely different, and not different in such a radical or drastic way as to make them immune to the massed resources of the society they live in.
By the end of the book, Taverner is entirely demoralised and hands himself in, hoping to clear himself in court; in the epilogue it turns out he does, but under circumstances which strongly imply that this is because Felix decides not to go through with framing Taverner for Alys’ death. The whole Slan thing, and John Campbell’s rock-hard boner for mutant master races, hinges on the idea of these grand evolutionary great leap forward types prevailing over society; here, the society in question turns out to be bigger than any one person can overcome. His particular crisis underlines this: if his society doesn’t believe he exists, he doesn’t.
Felix is in a somewhat better place to effect change than Taverner, but it’s a matter of wanting to, and even then what he can accomplish is limited. As the novel progresses it’s revealed that Felix, for all his faults, is actually trying to make the police more humane – he’s used legalistic means to scale back the massive prison camp operations, for instance. It is implied that if Buckman loses his position, the likely consequence will be that someone worse gets in.
However, Buckman is in the position of trying to humanise an inhuman institution. Buckman is powerless to push too hard against his superiors; when he eventually gets around to it years later, in the epilogue, it ends poorly for him. Perhaps the most important part of the book – the really salient crisis which all the rest of the novel is essentially just there to provide context for – is when Buckman, motivated by a need to shore up his position so that his political enemies don’t use the death of Alys for leverage against him, contemplates framing Taverner, and then outright contemplates murdering Taverner, and then realises he cannot go through with either of those things.
This emotional crisis in Felix prompts the tears that give the novel its title, troubled dreams as his flying car autopilots him away, and a flailing, desperate, incoherent attempt to make some sort of human connection by hugging a black man he meets at a gas station. (During the Second Civil War the regime instituted a program of genocide against black people, causing mass death and sterilisation, so this is particularly loaded.) At first confused, the man recognises that here is a person in some sort of emotional distress and responds with compassion – perhaps the first time anyone does that in the entire novel.
By uncovering the empathy which he had shut off for professional purposes – Buckman doesn’t even recognise his tears as tears, he’s so disconnected from his emotional, human self for the sake of work – Felix not only becomes incapable of following through on his plot against Taverner, but he in the long run becomes incapable of going along with the police state apparatus.
Later, Dick would become convinced that the gas station sequence was an inadvertent coded version of an incident in the Biblical book of Acts, and that the juxtaposition of the words “king” and “Felix” in the first edition was a signal for the end of the cosmological Black Iron Prison which was the apparent physical universe, and that the entire book was an encrypted spiritual message, all as part of his attempts to rationalise his 2-3-74 experiences. All of this should be taken with a pinch of salt, but under all this the sense of the importance of this scene, and Buckman’s nervous breakdown in general, is accurate since the sequence is very much the keystone of the novel, without which it would have just been rather muddled.
Some reviewers at the time wondered if Dick’s counter-cultural credentials were softening, since it was the first book of his they were aware of where the establishment figure is treated sympathetically; this both overlooks the ways in which Felix’s attitude is not entirely endorsed by the novel (after all, if it were, why does he have a nervous breakdown after chickening out of killing Taverner?), and misses the point that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has Deckard as the protagonist, a man whose job was conceived after Dick read the diaries of Gestapo agents in researching a prospective Man In the High Castle sequel.
If anything, what Dick is positing here is even more radical: that not only is the establishment dehumanising to its victims, but it is also dehumanising to its participants, and anyone whose empathetic capability is functioning correctly couldn’t simultaneously function as a cop. In those moments where Dick was inclined to speculate that Flow My Tears had been targeted by government agents in that 1971 break-in at his home, he’d muse that perhaps the authorities were scared of the idea getting out that policemen could cry and have feelings – because once the police started listening to their consciences, they’d stop being the police. Dick would doubtless be on the reactionary side of some contemporary issues and the progressive side of others, and we could debate where he’d sit, but I think it is a safe bet that he’d be firmly on the side of the “defund the police” movement in the present day.
Dick formulated the book in part as an attempt to actually deliver some commentary on reality, rather than just constantly asking “But what is reality?” without offering anything more. Given the time span during which it was written, and his break in writing since 1968, you can very much see it as his Nixon novel. Sure, a good chunk of A Scanner Darkly was formulated during the Nixon administration as well, but it was also further developed and revised into 1976. Conversely, Flow My Tears is the only novel Dick would write which was wholly conceived, written, revised, and published during the Nixon administration.
Later, as he was unpacking his 2-3-74 period, Dick decided that Tears actually depicted, in a way, the real world (or that first century Rome was the real world and Tears was a close approximation to it, or some variation on that theme). I am inclined to see this as a symptom of Dick losing the thread of what started out as a metaphor for what: obviously, a book written in a futuristic fictional setting but which is influenced by and comments on developments in reality will end up reflecting that reality.
Though his thinking would become confused later, however, Dick’s depiction of the ugliest side of American society in the early 1970s is kind of spot on. The resurgent conservativism, the near-total walking back of civil rights, the astonishing hostility towards students and learning, the police informants, the COINTELPRO-like tactics, the dirty tricks, it’s all there. Despite the fact that we don’t really see much outside Taverner and Felix’s immediate fields of view (very deliberately), it still comes across as as possibly the bleakest and most well-realised dystopia Dick would ever offer up. (There’s even a passing mention to a painting of Richard Nixon as the Second Son of God, rising to Heaven on a wave of liberal tears.)
There’s a proto-cyberpunk aspect to a lot of Dick’s fiction, and perhaps it comes out strongest in Flow My Tears (with A Scanner Darkly also coming close). Perhaps this is because Dick was writing only a decade away from the emergence of the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling at this point, so he was closer to the birth of cyberpunk at this time, but there are other aspects of the novel which, whilst also fitting with Dick’s existing body of work, particularly point it in a cyberpunk direction.
One of the distinctive features of cyberpunk is the idea of technology being abused – rather than technical wonders being used for their intended, designed purpose, which is either utilitarian or outright noble and uplifting as in older schools of science fiction, cyberpunk has technology hijacked for unintended purposes, and a chunk of cyberpunk writers (which Dick would be a forerunner and early example of) sees this as inherently subversive in its own right, even if those purposes are simply for getting your rocks off rather than for any more targeted action against the status quo, because it means you have taken over something which was supposed to control and regulate you and made it dance to your own tune.
This is, of course, in keeping with the ideas Dick expressed in The Android and the Human, which of course he devised midway through the process of writing Flow My Tears and therefore provides a useful insight into his thinking as he was composing it. (There’s other ideas that creep in, both in terms of the way oppressive systems try to disconnect people from their empathy and in terms of Felix briefly ruminating about how people had an annoying habit of behaving in irrational ways which are hard to predict.) In particular, it cuts to his idea about small acts which get one over on the system being not merely acts of momentary selfishness but a part of resistance in their own right.
This is most particularly the case when it comes to the character of Alys, who in her sexually transgressive activities, drug-taking, and general out of control hedonism is the opposite of the outwardly staid and conservative Felix. Twins, especially twins who are brother and sister, are always worth paying attention to in Dick’s works because of his own fixation on his deceased sister (he seemed to be haunted all his life by a feeling that she was meant to be the good twin, the Gallant to his Goofus). Alys even dresses like she fell out of a cyberpunk novel, all leather and chains; apparently she dresses that way because she’s big into BDSM and Dick had a fairly shallow, cartoonish idea of what that entailed, but let’s face it, that’s true of a lot of the fap fantasies cyberpunk authors put into their fiction.
Perhaps one of Alys’ most interesting hobbies is using a telepresence sex network which apparently operates over the telephone network – not only a prediction of networked systems being a big deal in the future (a very cyberpunk idea), but also a prediction that the Internet would, indeed, be for porn. And it’s precisely the sort of hijacking of an advanced technological system for personal gratification that Dick was talking about in The Android and the Human and which the cyberpunk authors can’t get enough of.
There’s a weird thing here in that Taverner doesn’t seem to be aware of the phone sex network when Alys explains it to him, but it’s mentioned early in the book that he is an occasional user of it himself. I think this is the only time in the novel the term “transex” is used, which if this were one of Dick’s one-draft-and-done meth-fuelled jobs would make me think that Dick had forgotten that he’d seeded the phone sex network concept early on, and then when he wrote about it later on he wrote it like he was introducing it for the first time.
(Another bit of fun future slang Dick uses here originally appeared in The Electric Ant; here, as in that story, the term “a captain kirk” is used to describe a type of schlocky science fiction movie or TV show, Dick anticipating that the conventions of Star Trek-influenced space opera would end up becoming so ingrained as to become a genre unto themselves.)
However, given the revisions the book was subjected to, during which it is hard to imagine that neither Dick nor his editors spotted this, and given the strangeness at the heart of Taverner’s condition, one is tempted to consider it a little-acknowledged extra layer of weirdness. See, Alys isn’t just hacking the system – she’s also hacked reality. Taverner disappeared from reality as a result of a drug trip – not his own, which would typically be the case in much Dick material, but Alys’s.
Specifically, Alys has taken an experimental drug which rewrites reality for its users – and everyone in their “percept system”, the sum total of those parts of reality that they come into contact with, which is why everyone forgets Taverner’s existence since via the phone sex network and media consumption Alys’s percept system is fairly diffusely spread. Taverner’s situation kicks off at the start of Alys’ trip; when her long bender finally results in death by overdose on her part, reality is restored.
In the middle, Alys was entertaining the notion that she and only she knew who that hunky Jason Taverner was; perhaps Taverner losing his memory of his teledildonic phone wanks reflects Alys’s conception of him, or perhaps it reflects the fact that by hooking into the massive continuous communal orgasm on the network, Taverner had made direct contact with Alys previously – so as part of making Taverner an unperson it was necessary to undo his connection to that.
To be honest, though a fun Dickian mutable-reality angle (inspired by Dick’s first experience with mescaline shortly prior to beginning the novel), the resolution of the “how the fuck did he disappear from the records?” angle feels utterly secondary at the end of the book; if it were not for Felix’s breakdown at the end, the book would feel like another messy rehash of old themes, but precisely the novel culminates in Felix’s breakdown, which would not have the weight it has if it didn’t have the weight of the preceding 180 or so pages behind it, the weakness of this plot thread doesn’t feel like the fatal flaw it might otherwise have been.
There are other issues. The treatment of any kind of sexuality in the book feels very strange. In some points Dick is guilty of somewhat naive fumbling – for instance, Alys keeps getting referred to as a lesbian, but I feel like it’s pretty obvious from other aspects of the text that she is bisexual. In other instances, the text seems to risk veering down a sex-negative and potentially homophobic cul-de-sac. For instance, when the police are doing door-to-door searches in a Las Vegas apartment complex seeking Taverner, they blunder in on a man lying in bed in a postcoital heap with a thirteen year old boy; their subsequent discussion among themselves drops the details that a) homosexuality had been legalised in this future (at the time Dick was writing same-sex activities between consenting adults were only legal in five states and b) the age of consent has been lowered to 12.
It’s the conflation of a) and b) which makes this section of the book troubling, along with the speculation by the police troopers that the law had been changed in this manner to provide cover for high-ranking police officials’ own taste for pedophilic abuse. I am reasonably sure that we are supposed to see this whole incident as an example of this future being all corrupt and depraved and decadent and whatnot, but I’m not sure Dick does the legwork to establish that it’s the middle-aged man banging a youth that’s an issue, rather than the gender of the youth. Admittedly, most of the disapproval is voiced by the police officers themselves – but then if we are meant to read them as being liberty-suppressing tools of a despotic police state, are we also meant to think that Dick was arguing for the age of consent to be lowered to 12?
Assuming we are meant to disapprove of this sexual liaison would be consistent with the general air of grubby sordidness that attaches to sexuality in the book, even though Alys’s unconventional sexual interests are arguably an ideal example of the sort of system-jamming Dick had been endorsing in The Android and the Human. The intent seems to be to depict sexuality without empathy as being just one more dehumanising force in this world, but it comes across as a generalised disapproval of sexuality altogether.
The phone sex network is an example of this; it isn’t gone into in a whole lot of detail, but it apparently saps your vitality and burns out the pleasure centre in your brain is overused, and the way it amplifies your sexual centre in a communal network experience feels very much like it’s a tawdry, sexualised riff on the empathy boxes from The Little Black Box and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, except instead of cultivating people’s empathy and common humanity it’s just a massive circlejerk, a solipsistic, empty endeavour akin to the Perky Pat experiences that the Martian colonists prize in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
Naturally, Dick’s tendency to depict women as being either utterly irrational and depraved or completely innocent and pure rears its head yet again. In fact, it’s particularly evident this time, since Taverner’s journey seems him in the company of a string of different women. One is tempted to ponder whether he is retracing steps taken by Alys, bouncing between people with a connection to Alys due to his status arising from her drug trip. Several of the women have clearly-described links to Alys – a neighbour, a former lover, a fellow regular participant in the phone sex networks – adding some credence to this. Either way, the tendency for them to be either astonishingly selfish, extremely mentally fragile whilst at the same time manipulative and destructive, or simply too good and pure for this world as they endeavour on their pottery is a familiar pattern for women in Dick’s writing.
Still: that breakdown of Felix’s. It’s powerful stuff. A mediocre or even a quite good Dick novel which still wore those flaws as prominently as Flow My Tears did would be dragged down by them; somehow, there’s an idea at the core of Flow My Tears which is almost buried, but which communicates just enough to rise above the baggage.
I don’t think it is a secret spiritual signal intended to work on a transformation on its readers and the universe as a whole, as Dick came to believe it did. (Then again, I read the book right around the time that Trump lost the election and the Vote Leave cadre were ejected from 10 Downing Street – just like Dick believed that the original transmission of the message led directly to the resignation of Richard Nixon. So don’t hold me to that too hard.)
I think it is more likely that what’s coming through here is the start of a more mature writing style for Dick – an end to novels tossed out in a rush, to be replaced with a final clutch of books over which more time and care has been taken by and large – combined with a chillingly accurate depiction of the zeitgeist of the Nixon years, the point when the youthful aspirations of the 1960s guttered and died, Altamont, COINTELPRO, Kissinger, and similar monstrosities seemed to herald a new dark age, and the forces of darkness seemed to be winning.
In the epilogue, despite the fact that Felix and Taverner alike do not do anything which can be said to directly lead to it, the police state is depicted as falling. It does not fall immediately; things get worse before they get better. It takes over a century. But still, despite all, the power that had held the land in its grip loses its energy, falters, and fades away. Dick considered the moral message of the novel to be a warning to those in power: this, too, shall pass, and some form of judgement would eventually come. It came for Nixon in the 1970s; it will come for others in the future. In between some kind of survival is still possible, even in a culture of betrayal and hatred.
Despite the thing which seems at first to be its main plot turning out to be a mere mirage, and despite some ugly missteps that have only gotten more dated over time, there’s a lasting power in Flow My Tears which makes it another major pillar of Dick’s bibliography. Certainly, no other book aside from Ubik from prior to the 2-3-74 incident features as heavily in the Exegesis as Flow My Tears, and whilst that may well partly be due to it being the last book he finished before that transformative neurological event happened, it’s probably also due to him realising on some level that he’d seriously upped his game with it.
1973: Roe vs. Dick
Not all of Dick’s social commentary in 1973 has aged that well. Aside from Flow My Tears and A Little Something For Us Tempunauts, the only fiction he’d pen that year would be The Pre-Persons, clearly a response to Roe vs. Wade and the abortion debate in the US at the time. The story posits a near future where, using the need to curb the population to conserve resources as a pretext, and feigning a belief that the soul only really enters the body when a person is old enough to learn and understand algebra, the US has legalised postnatal abortion for kids up to the age of 12.
What this means in practice is that children are treated like stray animals: kids without documentation, or whose parents have requested that they be aborted, are picked up by men in vans just like stray dogs or cats would be, and are taken to a prison camp shelter where they have a 30 day stay of execution in case someone chooses to adopt them (or, in the case of kids who don’t have their expensive government documentation, their parents pay the $500 fine), after which they are killed off.
The story gives us a slice of life look at how this affects various characters in this society, as one man mounts a protest against the system by declaring that he has forgotten how to do algebra, so he should be aborted too – a declaration which the authorities cannot go along with, because of course if full-grown adults can be aborted then the controllers and collaborators of this system are no longer safe, but which also exposes the hypocrisies of the whole setup.
The polemic is well-constructed in its execution, but is still very obviously polemic, and its pro-life position is unsophisticated. It hinges, in particular, on a “slippery slope” argument combined with a contention that existing rules on late-term abortion are based solely on superstition, a position largely divorced from medical fact. In addition, in depicting children and adults alike contemplating violent reprisals against the abortion centres and using deliberately Holocaust-esque imagery surrounding the whole thing, the story is much harder to defend in light of violent actions taken against abortion clinics by actual pro-life advocates.
Even if you are personally pro-life, however, the story isn’t necessarily going to sit well with you. Dick’s misogynistic tendencies are given free rein here, with the men cowed by their wives and unable to escape this horrible situation because they can’t leave the country without the written consent of their spouses, and the only woman who appears in the story is an emotionally destructive hell-mother who switches from berating her kid for being afraid of the abortion van (the child having turned 12 recently) to talking to her husband about wanting to get an abortion as a fashion statement. There’s a bit where the men gripe about how up in Canada the women aren’t as bad as the women in the US which feels like a prototype for later bullshit spouted on social media by incel types.
Dick also uses the story to try and portray his stance on abortion as being a logical extension of his broader political outlook. As well as the “fleeing to Canada” thing immediately bringing to mind the image of Vietnam draft-dodgers, the legalisation of abortion is also depicted as yet another attempt by the old and established to trying and suppress the young rising generation. Overall, it’s an astonishingly crass treatment of its subject matter, and whilst Dick is clearly using some well-honed talent in its execution the overall message is pretty horrible.
Childbirth was likely on Dick’s mind at the time. At some point after his Canadian misadventure, he would meet Leslie “Tessa” Busby; by April 1973, Tessa and Dick would be married, and some three months later Christopher, Dick’s final and youngest child, would be born. It would be in this domestic context that Dick would undergo the experience he would refer to as 2-3-74, spawning a swathe of works which range from pieces whose final shape bear that experience’s fingerprints without referring directly to it (such as A Scanner Darkly) to overt attempts to unpack what had happened to him. It would happen in February to March of 1974 (hence the name), and it would happen in connection to a nice Christian lady delivering prescription drugs… and a ray of pink light.