(1974/2007) Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, pbk, £7.99, 241 pp, ISBN 979-0-575-07993-9
This is a welcome 2007 reprint sadly marking 25 years since Philip K. Dick's death. Jason Taverner, host of an immensely popular, weekly TV show, is famous, handsome and wealthy. After finishing one particular show, he manages to evade a murder attempt by his one time mistress and protege Marilyn Mason, expecting to awaken in a hospital bed. Instead, he is in a cheap hotel room with only the clothes on his back and the money he had on him. He specifically lacks the most fundamental requirement of his society - ID cards. A fearful 'phone call to the birth registration centre reveals he doesn't, in fact, exist on any record known to the police state that is modern America; being picked up without ID is a one way ticket to one of the dreaded forced-labour camps as only students escaping from one of the fortress/prison campuses would have no ID. When his friends also claim to have never known him, Jason's life as a non-person begins. He needs to first pick up a false ID before being himself picked up by the police, so he ventures out in search of both a forger and his own reality.
Much of the plot revolves around Jason's search for his own identity and anyone willing to corroborate that he is, indeed, famous and wealthy. As he traverses the claustrophobic city being beset by police informers and the police themselves, Jason begins to realise that the biggest mistake one can make is to lose anonymity to the police - once noticed, you are never forgotten - and it is this paranoia which suffuses the novel. Most of the characters he meets along the way are grotesque, from his forger, the schizophrenic Kathy, to McNulty, Kathy's police contact; there is very little of the exuberant humour present in earlier Dick novels. There are one or two oases of respite, though. Once when an old lover shelters him for the night, and again when he at last meets an ordinary person, but for the most the characters are self serving and simply awful. In fact the meeting with the ordinary person probably enlightens us as to why Dick takes such care over all of his characters, no matter how small - he obviously has an affinity if not love for the ordinary person.
It isn't giving too much away to say that Jason finally manages to find one person who recognises him and owns, in fact, a collection of his recorded songs. One may think that this would be the end, but more awaits Jason merely because he was noticed and cannot now be forgotten by the police.
Although quite harrowing, Flow... is still excellent. It is noticibly darker than most of his other novels and a quick inspection of the copyright date of 1974 reveals that this was, I believe, the first novel following his personal crises from 1970 up to around 1973. This may have been the reason for such a bitter, almost bleak novel where there seems to be very little room for affection or love and where paranoia and suspicion are endemic. Despite this bleakness, I would still strongly recommend this novel as it has those quintessential elements we expect from Dick of inventivness and shifting reality and lacks only the usually pervading humour.
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