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.
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.
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.