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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Scanner Darkly

I dug back into some old school science fiction this month. While I’m not a big Philip K. Dick fan, I wanted to read a little more of his work and see if maybe I just wasn’t reading the right books. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and We Can Remember it for you Wholesale, were enjoyable but neither blew me away. In the end I chose A Scanner Darkly to see if maybe it would be the difference maker.

As background, I love reading about American History and used to have a passion for learning about the 1960s and 70s counterculture, including their obsession with mind-altering drugs. In my youth I experimented a bit as well but never adopted the lifestyle. Looking back, I am glad I didn’t. After reading this novel, it seems PKD feels the same way.

A Scanner Darkly is set in the future, about twenty years ahead of when it was published (1977), but as I read it, it felt more like a contemporary piece. There are some futuristic technologies mentioned but, for the most part, this isn’t much of a science fiction novel anymore. It is a combination of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (entertaining movie, terrible book) and Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger movie, not the Colin Farrell dumpster fire).

Fred, aka Bob Arctor, is an undercover narcotics agent posing as a dealer and user in a futuristic Orange County. He is trying to find the biggest dealer of Substance D, a hallucinogen that causes permanent brain damage. It damages the structure that links the left and right parts of the brain, causing an irreversible split in the person’s psyche. In a sense the person becomes two completely different people with differing memories, skills, and desires as the two hemispheres compete with one another for dominance.

While posing as Bob Arctor, he lives in a house with two other guys, smoking joints, dropping acid, and ingesting several unique substances that may or may not have Substance D in it, also known as blue death or death. He becomes infatuated with a young dealer named Donna. Being with her becomes his only real purpose in life. Meanwhile, Fred watches security feeds of Bob Arctor (himself) gradually struggling to remember or be aware that he is Bob Arctor. Through the scenes where he is Fred, you see his gradual descent into what is best described as drug-induced dementia.

Scanner Darkly is semi-autobiographical, meant as a tragic memorial to Philip’s friends that died or suffered permanent brain damage from drug use during the 1970s. The characters in the novel are accurate portrayals of the immature nature of habitual users of the most potent narcotics. In the author’s note, he argues their crimes or faults do not match the severe punishment they received; at the same time nearly all of them continued using without regard for the future. It is the same for the characters in the book. Even as they steadily became less functional, they continued to use. One of the characters even concedes she does not intend to live long, she thinks the afterlife will be better than her terrible life.

There is a common theme of wanting to escape reality and everything that goes with it. None of them are capable of coping with the most basic responsibilities, preferring to live life on their own terms, in a trashed house. All of the users desperately want to live in fantasy worlds, or trips, getting money through menial jobs or through stealing.

Fred/Bob’s loss of sanity and detachment reality is a difficult trek to follow and at times tediously boring. There are numerous scenes with meandering dialogue that didn’t make much sense and had no real impact on the plot. It was placed there to demonstrate the erratic, incoherent thinking and uselessness of each character.

PKD bluntly and directly claims addiction is a decision, not a disease. This sentiment is controversial to say the least. From my own experience, some individuals don’t care if substances are addictive or are destroying their lives. They simply don’t want to live a normal life in our reality. Others start off experimenting and spiral into addiction without realizing it. As they approach rock bottom, it is extremely difficult for them to reverse course, even if they want to. There is evidence of a chemical or genetic predisposition toward alcoholism but I am not sure if that same mechanism extends to other substances.

When it comes to hallucinogens, I am inclined to agree with PKD. No one can credibly argue habitual use of LSD, MDMA, or other potent mind-altering drugs is safe or beneficial. Unless you have someone who is completely ignorant of these substances (in the modern era, I doubt it is possible for any adult to be that ignorant), everyone knows what they are getting into when they decide to take a hit.

Of course, it depends on the drug. For example, I would absolutely not put marijuana in the same category as the drugs mentioned above. Caffeine is far more addictive, and alcohol more harmful. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of marijuana users remain functional, assuming that is the only drug they habitually use.

The novel also explores the duality of undercover police work and its sometimes morally ambiguous nature. In a group of four users, two of them were undercover agents. I’ve read some research into government task forces that lean heavily on UCs, and in some cases they are the instigators of illegal activity. One could argue their investigative and enforcement techniques inflict greater societal harm when compared to the underlying criminal activity they are targeting. When half of the criminals in question are actually cops, one has to wonder exactly how big the problem truly is and whether the government may be inadvertently (or intentionally) feeding it.

One of the purposes of law enforcement is to deter crime through apprehension and punishment of those that break the law. If they are encouraging private individuals to break the law then they are doing the exact opposite of deterrence.

There is also the depiction of the potentially counterproductive role of treatment centers. In the novel, the treatment center is actually having patients help grow the plant that yields the precursor to Substance D. Although fictional, many people believe certain institutions are promoting the activities they claim to treat or prevent. In recent years, people have called into question for-profit detention and treatment centers. There is a perverse incentive to encourage illegal and socially harmful activity in order to fill more cells and beds.

Unfortunately, this element is only explored for a few pages at the end with limited insight.

While poignant and timely in the 1970s, Scanner Darkly is not impressive when compared to other works in drug-themed fiction. Numerous movies, TV shows, and books have come out giving accounts of the dark side of the drug culture. PKD’s version is somewhat dull in many respects, with meandering dialogue, utterly boring pointless scenes, but an ending that catches your attention. The prose is rough, with some mediocre descriptions, which was disappointing.

I appreciate the personal, honest nature of the novel, but I think others have been able to hit on this in a much more provocative and compelling way. I cannot recommend this novel, unless you are fascinated by the drug culture, specifically hallucinogens and some of the old school counterculture references of the 1970s. Not one of PKD’s best works.

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