Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly Book ReviewA Scanner Darkly [1977] – ★★★★1/2

In this novel by the brilliant science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick the setting is dystopia some time in future and the location is Anaheim, California. Bob Arctor (also known as Fred) is an undercover narcotics agent working for authorities while pretending to be a drug addict. His task is to trace dealers, including his on-off girlfriend Donna, to a source of drug supply. Other major drugs aside, the one drug which really causes havoc in the dystopian future is Substance D, a highly addictive matter, which, in a long-run, causes a strange and irreversible brain damage. Arctor knows all the dangers, but the problem is that no one is immune, and, soon, the undercover agent senses that he has gone too far in his goal to make himself indistinguishable from his drug addict pals. Due to the subject matter, this atmospheric story is far from being a comfortable read, but it is also fair to say that A Scanner Darkly is a philosophically and psychologically insightful work of science fiction with the strong character study at its core, as well as witty dialogues and a powerful message. 

A Scanner Darkly is an unflinching portrayal of drug addiction. The world of drug addicts, who are second-class citizens in the society presented, is laid bare in the story and the vision is harrowing. In that vein, this intelligent story can be described as being Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream [1978] meets Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [1968]. Arctor lives in a run-down accommodation with two other men who are each affected by drugs, including Substance D. The author is clear in the central message – there is no escape for half the citizens of the society. Substance D is everywhere and it is highly addictive. Some people get hooked on the substance through no fault of their own (being forcefully injected by other people, etc.), and despair is ruling the claustrophobically-depressing world. Barris, Arctor’s apartment pal, muses “Life…is only heavy and none else; there is only the one trip, all heavy. Heavy that leads to the grave. For everyone and everything” [1977: 79]. There are still instances of hope in this story, and, because the author is Philip K. Dick, there are many philosophical and almost political observations. The author does not really want us to sympathise with drug addicts, but he leaves doors open for us to understand the small lives’ lack of hope and the incapability of people to break out from the loop of addiction. For example, federal clinics for treatment and the New-Path, are portrayed as horrible places to be in, and there is nothing that can be offered to already-addicted people apart from a meaningless life which will terminate in a horrific death. There is the most frightening destiny imaginable reserved for such people – to slowly lose one’s control of one’s mind, and the fear is real – “What an undercover narcotics agent fears most is that…he will be slipped a great hit of some psychedelic that will roll an endless horror feature film in his head for the remainder of his life” [1977: 79].

For a science fiction work, Philip K. Dick created a strikingly believable dark world, which reminds the readers that the consequences of drug-usage portrayed are not that different from those happening in the real world. However, it is also wrong to view this book as a treatise on drug addiction and daily despair. There is still “fun” to be found in the novel. There are thrills of undercover operations, and the author uses irony to emphasise some preposterous situations which double/undercover agents can encounter. There are paradoxes here to discover involving police surveillance operations and borrowed identities (the irony involved in presenting the second version of self). Arctor is becoming increasingly paranoid since someone tries to sabotage his undercover mission, but he is also forced to watch his “own self” [1977: 79]. Substance D leads to madness, such as hallucinations, but it also opens doors to some wisdom or insight. As Arctor’s addiction grows, he begins to understand that “the drug world [is] a murky world for everyone” [1977: 68]. In fact, it is interesting to read how Arctor changes as a person throughout the novel. He starts off as a person being in control – an ordinary law enforcement official – and is gradually losing his sense of perception and identity. We end up with an unreliable narrator who grapples with his existentialist crisis, and we cannot say for certain that he is telling us the true version of events. Moreover, we are also introduced to some interesting “future” technology in the story, such as cephscopes and scramble suits. The latter is used to modify one’s image to protect one’s identity, and the wearer of a scramble suit will appear as a blur to any onlookers.

In other respects, the book has much more in common with the author’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? than it appears at first. Similarly to Electric Sheep, there is a clear demarcated world in the story between “straights” and “drug addicts” (in Electric Sheep – there were replicants and humans), and both novels also covertly discuss the issue of personal identity, as well as have methods to scientifically test the unusual conditions of subjects. Like in Electric Sheep, the main character’s aim in A Scanner Darkly is to locate people – Arctor tries to do so with Weeks – and empathy, as a concept, plays nearly the central role in both books.  

Another reason why A Scanner Darkly may not be a comfortable read is that there is much “drug-talk” (sometimes rant) in the story, some of which written in such a way as to be almost unintelligible. This is partly intentional to give more realism and power to the story, but it does mean that the reader is more or less justified in skipping some paragraphs. The presence of the sexist language and the fact that the story is a bit disjointed do not make the read any more enjoyable either. The story picks up the themes of undercover police operations, double agents, the effects of drugs on a brain, the consequences of drug addiction, the possibility of state rehabilitation, the issues of personal identity and mass surveillance, and societal discrimination, but at times it cannot really be said that it ties them all into a coherent whole convincingly. Having said that, the author keeps matters in the story uncertain, intriguing and interesting until the very end. There are a couple of twists or surprises near the end, with the finale being strangely powerful and heart-breaking.

In A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick presents a very grim and depressing world of drug-use and deviance, but the novel is also full of insight and is very thought-provoking. It is as though the author wrapped his philosophical thesis into some atmospheric, psychedelically-colourful and almost melancholy-poetic layer, and then presented it as an intriguing and fascinating science-fiction story.


15 thoughts on “Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

    1. Je n’ai pas lu “Ubick”, merci pour la recommendation. On me recommandé de lire aussi “Glissement de temps sur Mars” de Philip K. Dick.

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  1. I like A Scanner Darkly but my favourites are Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch…PKD was a genius but he was out there…crazier than a box of frogs. Great review. I think PKD drug use (to help him initially with his impressive 10,000 word a day writing) certainly plays into Scanner, and certainly didn’t help his paranoia.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I have actually just recently read “Ubik” and loved it too (I included it into my Mardi Gras Book Tag post), though I would have preferred the concept of Ubik to be developed a bit more in the plot too. It was still a great reading experience, though and I agree – Philip K Dick was a genius. I will look out for “The Three Stigmata”, but my next book of his to read is actually “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said”.

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