A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

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Time magazine. July 6, 1981

One of the most notable cultural developments of the last few years has been the growing acceptance of open and legal recreational drug use, especially across the western United States. This has arisen out of an embrace by many of a so-called counter-culture where regular use of THC and experimentation of harder drugs (psychedelics and tranquilizers, etc.) were thought to be generally harmless. Even drugs known to be powerfully addictive and dangerous have enjoyed media status as chic and adventurous.

The “too cool for mainstream” mirage of the drug-centered counter-culture is brilliantly attacked by Philip K. Dick’s novel of paranoia and drug abuse A Scanner Darkly (1977). ASD is essentially a semi-autobiographical literary novel infused with science fiction elements. I’ve heard reviewers claim that the “scramble suits” and hologram-recording surveillance devices were extra details added by Dick to help the book’s genre marketability, but this is overlooking the most important future technology of them all: the drug Substance D.

Substance D is both extremely addictive and directly attributable to brain damage, resulting in a deterioration of the corpus callosum – the large bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres of the cerebrum. When this is damaged or severed – usually as a last-resort surgery for epilepsy patients – someone can experience an internal contention between two intentional actions. Outwardly observable signs of this are uncommon, however, and the split-brain condition is usually managed by the domination of one hemisphere over the other. Even though Michael Gazzaniga’s famous studies of split-brain patients were published in the 1970’s, Dick seems to have been inspired by Joseph Bogen’s 1969 writings to create the “multiple minds in one brain” theme in this novel.

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Vintage Books edition. isfdb.org

My Vintage edition of ASD features an obscured “scanned” face, rows of identical upward-facing heads and a pattern of what looks like to be chemical structure diagrams. The chemical diagrams are of smallish molecules that seem to resemble cathinone or maybe ephedrine, which are stimulants and very unlike the Substance D of the novel. Perhaps the various chemical structures pictured reflect the incomplete understanding of Substance D and whether it’s a synthetic or natural chemical. For a 1990’s paperback, the design is not bad, but my favorite cover has to be the Quays artwork on the 1977 Doubleday hardcover. That one features a faceless figure walking between the facades of two buildings indicative of decaying institutions. The smudge on the upper left illustrates the pervasive sickness of the character’s environment.

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The Quays cover for Doubleday. isfdb.org

ASD tells the story of Bob Arctor, an undercover agent attempting to trap a distributor of Substance D (an elusive guy named Weeks). He does so by allowing some of his D-using friends to live in his house, and by buying increasingly large numbers of D “tabs” from his friend Donna. He also uses small amounts of D himself to fit in with his investigative targets. He has vague memories about a past life with a wife and children, but remains convinced that he actively chose a career with the narcs (as opposed to using D first, and then turning to the police).

The book actually opens by following not Bob but one of the D-users, Charles Freck, who is on the prowl for D when he encounters Donna. After some fakery and denials, Freck convinces Donna to supply him with tabs of D in the near future. When she writes his contact information, Freck smugly notes her apparent ignorance:

What difficulty she had writing, he thought. Peering and slowly scrawling … They don’t teach the chicks jack shit in school anymore, he thought. Flat-out illiterate. But foxy.

Freck and Donna are both connected to Bob, but Dick establishes the plot and setting outside of Bob’s viewpoint, because Bob’s understanding of his world will prove to be very limited. Other drugged-out characters in Bob’s house include Jim Barris, a neurotic but clever technician, Jerry Fabin, who melts down following car problems, and Ernie Luckman, who appears congenial but baffled by his surroundings. These individuals seem largely inspired by the characters who frequently and randomly visited Dick’s Berkeley house, during the years he lived alone and experimented with drugs.

Inside the government building, Bob wears a scramble suit that obscures his identity, and effectively morphs into Fred, a frustrated narcotics agent. He expresses internal contempt for his audience of “straights” after giving a speech to the local Lion’s Club – insulting their intelligence:

Robert Arctor halted. Stared at them, at the straights in their fat suits, their fat ties, their fat shoes, and he thought, Substance D can’t destroy their brains; they have none.

Not only does this show emotional separation from his non-drug using, civilian past, but also feeds a theme of self-serving bias. ASD is populated by characters who believe they are more intelligent than they really are, and have more control over their circumstances than they actually do. Barris, for example, can explain what’s wrong with a car or Bob’s “cephscope,” but there is no evidence he can fix these things. Later in the book, the entire group is arguing about how a supposed ten-speed bicycle can have only seven gears – an extended exchange that is captured on video by hidden “holoscanners.” Medical staff take Bob/Fred in for examination after reviewing the footage:

“Just tell me,” Fred said, “was it the Lions Club speech that alerted you?”

The two medical deputies exchanged glances.

“No,” the standing one said finally. “It had to do with an exchange that was – off the cuff,” …

“Something about a stolen bicycle,” the other deputy said. “A so-called seven-speed bicycle. You’d been trying to figure out where the other three speeds has gone was that it?” Again they glanced at each other, the two medical deputies. “You felt they had been left on the floor of the garage it had been stolen from?”

“Hell,” Fred protested. “That was Charles Freck’s fault, not mine; he got everybody’s ass in an uproar talking about it. I just thought it was funny.”

This scene is one of the funniest in the book, but also shows the ambiguity of Bob/Fred’s mental health at the time. The Substance D has begun to take its toll, and the agency has caught on to it.

Besides his fears of his D habit being found out, Bob harbors an increasing paranoia about Barris. He takes Barris’ claims about his technical expertise at face value, and therefore fears his ability uncover the holoscanners and sabotage him. Furthermore, the holoscanners were set up by the agency to entrap Bob (whose identity inside the agency is hidden by the scatter suit), not Barris. Of course, Barris claims to have set up a camera himself, for any invaders of Bob’s home during an ill-fated road trip.

The one character Bob trusts is Donna, who grants him some physical intimacy but repeatedly denies him sex. Her arguments for doing this are rather crude and make up the part of ASD that hasn’t aged particularly well. Although she is a source of D tablets for Bob, he never actually witnesses her using them – although they do smoke hash together. It’s a relationship she is in control of, and she steers him into a state of emotional dependence on her as well as a chemical one on D.

Besides the surveillance and intermittent reporting to Hank, Bob’s mission includes finding a way into the mysterious New-Path clinics. His initial attempt, while still on his mission to catch Weeks, was to pose as a filthy, large-dose D-user. This ruse seems to be successful until he asks the admittance staff about Weeks, and then makes his own conclusions about the state of his efforts:

This was a drag, and he felt restless and irritable. “My buddy,” he said, “the black guy. Did he make it here? I sure hope he didn’t get picked up by the pigs on the way – he was so out of it, man, he could hardly navigate. He thought-”

“There are no one-to-one relationships at New-Path,” the girl said. “You’ll learn that.”

“Yeah, but did he make it here?” Arctor said. He could see he was wasting his time. Jesus, he thought: this is worse that we do downtown, this hassling. And she won’t tell me jack shit. Policy, he realized. Like an iron wall. Once you get into one of these place you’re dead to the world.

So it’s this moment of awareness, and not his cover being threatened, that sends him out of New-Path. It happens early in ASD, when Bob’s state of decay is still almost entirely an act. The passage also shows how a corporation is a more formidable entity than the average dealer like Weeks, or other dangerous individual like Barris. I won’t do further into the relationship between Bob, Donna and New-Path – no need to spoil the plot of the book – but it does echo a theme I’ve seen in Dick’s earlier short fiction: that of a populace trapped in a kind of compulsive consumerism. Of course, in ASD the populace is the “too smart for the straight life” counter-culture and the product is Substance D.

Out of the many Philip K. Dick novels I’ve read, I consider a handful of them to be true genre masterpieces: Time Out of Joint (1959), The Man in the High Castle (1962), Martian Time-Slip (1964), Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and A Maze of Death (1970). A Scanner Darkly, published in 1977, also belongs on this list. Considering that all of his famous short fiction was published in the 1950’s, PKD’s best work appears to have arisen from most, if not all, stages of his long writing career. ASD astutely mixes SF elements into an under-the-surface look at the lives connected by illicit drug use, in the general hangover felt from the reckless 1960’s and 1970’s. Despite its imperfections, it stands out today as a coherent, engrossing look into the bridge between damage to the brain and unreliability of the mind. 9/10.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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7 Responses to A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

  1. NOTE: I edited the post for a little more clarity. I also replaced the phrase “theme of intelligence” with “theme of self-serving bias,” which is more accurate.

    Also, there’s a lot to unpack in this book, and I chose to focus on something I didn’t see in a quick scan of other reviews, or of discussions of Linklater’s movie.

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  5. fredfitch says:

    Was looking back through your archives and found this. It’s a surprisingly complex book, given that it’s so short.

    You give very little of the plot away, and of course there’s a major twist, that you don’t discuss (as well as a truly horrific end for one of the supporting characters).

    This was always my conflict reviewing Westlake. How can you review a book if you can’t talk much about what happens in it? Sometimes I felt this or that plot revelation was too important to spoil, but mainly I just synopsized the whole book–meaning that nobody should read my reviews before reading the book in question.

    I don’t agree about Donna–I think she’s the emotional center of the story, and maybe PKD’s best-realized female character. She exists on multiple levels of being–I enjoyed the references to her peasant brain, always looking for ways to make a quick score. But that’s only part of who she is. It’s trustrating, yes, that Bob never gets anywhere with her–but then again, he does. Just not the way he wanted. Like every other PKD protagonist. (Can you name a single one whose shoes you’d like to be in?)

    Winona Ryder was the perfect choice to play her in Linklater’s film–Keanu–eh, he worked out okay (he always looks stoned, so it’s not really a stretch). I was 50/50 about the motion capture animation. I don’t think the whole film should have been done that way.

    One thing I felt was central was the concept that if you’re watching everybody, you’re watching nobody. PKD was way ahead of the curve there. The total surveillance state ends up sabotaging itself, because there’s too much data to process, and important stuff slips through. Maybe with computers, algorithms that can filter data, that isn’t true anymore. But I doubt it. I really do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      A lot has been written (and podcasted, etc.) about A Scanner Darkly, so I focused on what I didn’t see discussed – the pervasive ignorance and intellectual decay of the drug counterculture. Instead of leading some sort of free-wheeling rebellious lifestyle, Arctor and friends are feeding an insidious addiction-treatment-enforcement loop, replete with corporate or “non-profit” pseudo-corporate interests. Arctor appears to gradually realize this, that is before Substance D and Donna land him in a New-Path program; that’s why I considered him the central figure of the novel.

      So, I saw the chance to take a relatively novel angle for this book, one of PKD’s best.

      My rule for disclosing the plot has been (and this is by observation, not principle) to avoid too many “spoilers” in the review, but have zero such restrictions in the comments.

      on that note …

      Donna was revealed to be Hank in the movie, whereas in the book she is a government agent who set out to entrap him. Why Linklater felt the need to close the circle like that, I’m not sure. As you mention, PKD offers ample complexity in that character already, and in a more plausible manner.* Otherwise, I really did like the film and consider it an underrated SF classic. A great cast, especially, as you mention, Winona Ryder as Donna. Then again, Waking Life is one of my all-time favorites, so I’m partial to Linklater’s work.

      * As for the female characters of PKD, Donna is certainly one of his most realized creations, as you do state. Kathy Sweetscent from Now Wait for Last Year, and Mali Yojez from Galactic Pot-Healer were also in that league, but maybe not as layered as individuals as Donna. PKD seems to have gotten better at portraying women throughout his novel-writing phase of his career. It’ll be interesting to see what he did in his VALIS trilogy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Speaking of spoilers, I had no memory at all that in the movie, Donna was really Hank. I can sort of visualize it, now that I’ve read the synopsis, but not really. I must have just blocked it out. And I never use drugs (caffeine and alcohol, sparingly). I don’t get what Linklater was doing there either. Maybe just making us feel better about Arctor not hooking up with her? 🙂

        He’s probably my favorite American filmmaker still working (David Lynch is still working, dubiously a filmmaker now), but he’s got his quirks, it must be said. Well, so did PKD.

        It is intimidating, isn’t it? Analyzing a book that’s been, if anything, over-analyzed. All the low-hanging fruit has been plucked already.

        I agree, of course, about what he’s saying about the drug culture. And yet there is much to like about these stoned slackers–he’s one of them, after all. It’s self-criticism. They have many endearing traits (when they think their house has been broken into, they’re swearing vengeance on anyone who might have hurt their animals, who are, of course only at risk from their spaced-out caregivers).

        There was a lot of consciousness among the sharper of the substance experimenters, during this period, that they were on a dead end path. That this couldn’t sustain itself. Turn on, Tune in, Drop out. It just ends up being the last one.

        There’s James Fogle’s Drugstore Cowboy (I’ve only seen the movie, and you wouldn’t call him part of the counterculture).

        There’s a fair few stories by Norman Spinrad that point out the dangers of losing touch with reality, and yourself into the bargain. Are you expanding your consciousness or hopelessly corrupting it?

        And yet, if anything, the problem seems to have gotten worse–more pervasive, more entrenched, more destructive–less creative. Not going to see any literary masterworks stemming from crystal meth or opioids, I bet.

        Liked by 1 person

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