Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick.

What is it that I love so much about tales of a dystopian future?  They are always so bleak and very often totalitarian, and yet I can’t ever get enough.  I’ve got an even stronger fondness for those stories and novels that were not only written in the past, but also take place in what is now the past.  1984, for example, was written in 1949 by George Orwell (the pseudonym of British journalist Eric Arthur Blair).  It’s no wonder, then, that I picked up Philip K. Dick‘s novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

Like 1984 before it, Flow My Tears is the story of a then-future; at the time of its initial publication in 1974, the novel was written about events taking place in 1988.  As a reader, I think this makes the book even more interesting — what would I have thought of it, had I read it then?  Would I have found the story more compelling, or less?

Jason Taverner is a highly popular singer and talk show host…  until one day he is not.  He literally wakes up one morning as an unknown — only he has any idea as to who he is.  He’s without any sort of ID; neither his girlfriend nor his legions of fans have any recollection of him at all; and according to the police, Jason doesn’t exist, not even in their vast network of databases.  In a world where papers are required to move about freely, Jason quickly apprehended for using forgeries and his troubles worsen as the reader is introduced to the Buckman siblings, Felix and Alys.  Felix, a police general, has a tenuous relationship with his more hedonistically-inclined sister, who turns out to be the key to Jason’s misfortune.

It’s difficult to say whether or not Flow My Tears is an easy read.  In once sense, it is easy; Dick’s writing is very accessible to the reader, and his imagination is astonishing.  In another sense, keeping track of who is who and their relation to others tends to be tricky, and I thought piecing together exactly what had happened to Jason was on the confusing side.  Still, in the novel’s slim pages, Dick addresses some intriguing topics — he speaks about celebrity and identity, of course, as well as dissent and the concept of authority, racism, sexuality and gender, genetic modification, and the side-effects and consequences of drug use.  While some subjects are only hinted at, I still find it astonishing, the amount of information Dick is able to cram into a little more than two hundred pages.  I could only dream of being so creative.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

I remember the first time I had read The Handmaid’s Tale — I was twelve, I was at my grandparents’ house in the Philippines, and I had found a beat-up copy amongst my mother’s things. My mother’s books were always forbidden to me, mostly because she read (and still reads) the sort of literature that includes a lot of bodice-ripping, flashing eyes and strong, muscular arms. There was something about the cover of Margaret Atwood’s novel, though, that I couldn’t resist, and for about a week or so, I would sneak-read it whenever I stole a chance. I ended up smuggling the book back to the States with me, buried deep within my T-shirts and shorts.

For me, The Handmaid’s Tale has held up over the years; its dystopian and distant future always makes me think about what we consider to be important and how much of that actually is expendable. The novel, interestingly enough, takes place in Cambridge and Harvard Square, areas I never imagined at age twelve that I would eventually become intimately familiar.

Atwood tells the story of a mother who has been — over the course of a short period of time and an internal war within the United States — separated from her young daughter and husband, who may or may not be dead. She goes through what I suppose could only be called behavioral rehabilitation so that she can learn her new role in society, and what it means to be a handmaid. In the story, some women have somehow become barren, making children especially precious and valuable. The narrator and her equals are used for reproduction; they are the few whose ovaries are still viable, and are allocated to high-ranking members of the military. The narrator is given the name “Offred,” which I always inevitably read as “off-red” even though I now know it is actually intended as “of-Fred,” as in “belonging to Fred.” Fred, as it happens, is the name of the military official to whom Offred is designated, though she refers to him solely as The Commander.

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is about more than women’s roles in society, though it is incontestably about exactly that. Atwood writes about the power religion holds over us, as well as the multiple meanings behind the word and the act of sex. She writes about motherhood, daughterhood and sisterhood, as well as the traps our own minds will set for us during a time of great distress. Told through a mixture of haunting flashbacks and equally disturbing depictions of the novel’s present, The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately describes the lengths some women will go through to survive.