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Book Review

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
by Philip K. Dick;

       I found Philip K. Dick through the movies Blade Runner, based on his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? happens to be my second favorite science fiction movie of all time. (My most favorite sci-fi flick, for what its worth, is Stanley Kubricks 2001.) Because of Blade Runner, I always thought Id give Dick a try sometime, but managed to put it off alas, there are many books to read, and so little time. Then I saw Steven Spielbergs Minority Report, a mediocre movie for my taste, not in the same category as Blade Runner and 2001, but the story itself is intriguing, a future society where crimes are discovered before they happen. I was wondering where Spielberg got his clever idea when the titles rolled at the end and I saw the screenplay was based on a Philip K. Dick short story. Two times could be no accident; I decided to go to the source and see what this author was all about.

      Philip K. Dick, who lived from 1928 to 1982, mostly in California, wrote 36 novels, many with odd titles, and 5 short story collections, winning the Hugo Award in 1962 for The Man in the High Castle. I decided to start with Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of 1974. Set in the futuristic year of 1988, fourteen years beyond the books publishing date, Dick imagined a world of incredible technology: 3-D television, cars that fly, and other gee-whiz gadgets that have not come to pass. Like other science fiction writers of his era, Dick got the future at least partially wrong; technology has progressed more slowly than the optimism of the mid-20th century believed. Yet this does not interfere with the enjoyment of reading such a tale, and there are other human truths to consider more interesting than flying cars.

      As with Minority Report and Blade Runner, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said visualizes a bleak, nightmare world of the future where the police control every aspect of every citizens existence. The story begins with Jason Taverner, a famous TV star with 30 million viewers who wakes up one morning to find that his identity is completely erased. He is more than undone. Suddenly he has gone from fame to utter anonymity, a man with no record that he ever existed not even his closest lovers have any memory of him. Jason is a superior being, a handful of genetically modified humans known as sixes, but this does not help him much as he sets out to discover what has happened to him.

      In Philip K. Dicks United States, Civil War has been raging; there are still pockets of students living in underground pockets in various cities. To safely navigate this world, Jason needs to buy himself the proper identity cards, a quest which takes him to a waiflike forger, a pretty young woman who may, or may not, be a police spy. Nothing is at all certain in this world, who is spying on whom, who can be trusted. In fact, Jason is unable to stay in hiding long before his circumstances come to the attention of Police General Felix Buckman, a high Los Angeles official who is living in an incestuous relationship with his sister and who sets about in a cat-and-mouse fashion to bring Jason in.

      Dont look to Philip K. Dick for any high literary purpose; this is pulp fiction in the original meaning of the phrase, science fiction born from cheap magazines of the 1950s in which writers had to spin a tale as fast as they were able. Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is a book you can gobble up in three or four hours, an ultimately quick read vintage sci-fi that is a great deal of fun if you dont take it too seriously. And as far as the future is concerned, we all know dont we? that the police in the United States will never have the power of a General Buckman to know every minute detail about each citizen: every credit card transaction we make, what we read, what we watch on TV, our politics, even our sexual inclinations. This, happily, is only the realm of science fiction?

A History of God
Karen Armstrong,

      The Sinai Peninsula is one of the most startlingly beautiful places on earth: a land of fantastically shaped gold-brown mountains, utterly treeless, rising up from the Red Sea in reality, not red at all but the most turquoise water you could ever imagine.

      A few years ago, I happened to be snorkeling in this seductive sea, in the Gulf of Aqaba, and as I came to the surface and gazed at the beach through my mask, it struck me that this place where I was happily on vacation was the epicenter of the world's three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even now you can feel it, something mystical in the land. Get rid of the Club Med windsurfers, and the international youth set sprawled near their backpacks on the sand -- and of course people like Gail and me who had come to Egypt to teach English -- and you can imagine wild-eyed prophets wandering the Sinai wilderness, filled with sun-drenched visions of God.

      For the past few months, on and off, I've been reading Karen Armstrong's "A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam," the New York Times bestseller that was published first in Great Britain in 1993 by William Heinemann Ltd, and later in the U.S. by Alfred A Knopf in hardcover, with a trade paperback a year later from Ballantine Books. It's a dense book, full of intriguing information, following the footsteps of pagan idol worship in Babylon as it gradually evolved into Judaism, complete with an initially fierce tribal God to strike down one's enemies (if one observed the proper rites); and how Christianity, and then later Islam, branched off from this monotheistic tree.

      Karen Armstrong is an Oxford University educated Roman Catholic nun who left her order in 1969 to write widely (and intelligently) on religious matters -- books on Islam, Muhammad, Buddha, and her best-known work, "The Gospel According to Woman." In today's world, when many are trying to make sense of a world full of religious hatred, "A History of God" should be required reading for all. Karen Armstrong shows very clearly what I sensed gazing at the Sinai Peninsula from my diving mask: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are first cousins, closely related, and if there are problems between us, it is family strife rather than the enmity of strangers. All three religions, of course, share what Christians call the "Old Testament" as their starting point.
Religious "truths" are not a static reality but evolve from generation to generation and vary from place to place. Christianity, for instance, embraces such a wide spectrum of thought in the United States today -- from Pat Robertson on the Right to women clerics presiding over gay marriages on the Left -- that is difficult even to think of it as a single religion. Armstrong's book is finally not about God at all, but rather about mankind, the history of how human beings have imagined God, probing the universe for meaning.

      Armstrong presents her material objectively -- and a vast scope of material it is, covering 4,000 years of thought! But she isn't afraid to express her own opinions as well: that religious stories are metaphors, parables that the best minds of the past never intended for us to take literally. That "God" is not a personal figure, no dictator in the sky -- neither a He nor a She -- and that to "personalize" the notion of God is to wrongly and dangerously project our own tribal prejudices and human limitations onto a non-human divinity.
I found "A History of God" the sort of book I preferred to read only a few pages at a time, absorbing the intricately varied philosophies of our human attempts to become wise, ethical creatures. Karen Armstrong is a terrific writer, making a difficult subject accessible to the average reader. As for the wisdom, ethics, and divinity of which she writes -- one senses that the human species still has a long way to go

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