Thursday, November 23, 2006

Review: A Scanner Darkly

"A Scanner Darkly" follows the story of Bob Arctor, narcotics undercover agent, as he traces the source of Substance D. Substance D is a highly addictive drug, its ultimate effect akin to schizophrenia. The "D" stands for Death. Therein lies the MacGuffin of the novel.

Written by science fiction master Philip K. Dick, "A Scanner Darkly" has several sci-fi elements to keep fans happy. For example, undercover agents wear a scrambler suit when reporting to their superiors. Then there are the advanced surveillance devices, the titular scanners, employed by the narcs. The plot around Substance D is engagingly sci-fi, too, presaging the X-Files by several years. But as with other PKD novels, these elements simply provide atmosphere. They take a backseat to the larger story taking place.

You see, "A Scanner Darkly", though disguised as a sci-fi novel, isn't about the sci-fi at all. It's about life in the hazy drug subculture of 1970's America.

"A Scanner Darkly's" characters muddle through a perpetual fog of paranoia, confusion, and aimlessness. Something as simple as getting a car repaired becomes a major adventure. Bills and trinkets become sources of conflict. Ambitions go no further than kooky plans of making it big someday. In the background is the constant worry of where the next hit is going to come from.

And whether your most trusted friend is an undercover agent who's spying on you.

The problem is especially acute for Bob Arctor, who's both narc and junkie. He even has to spy on himself. That's right: his identity as agent is kept secret even from his superior, so he has to report on his alter ego to allay any suspicions. Things get comically worse when he becomes the primary suspect in his own investigation.

It's this double life that takes its toll on Arctor. As the story progresses, he comes unhinged. Who's the real personality? The agent, or the addict? Or maybe they're both equally real. As Arctor views himself through the scanner, it looks like he's spying on a totally different person. Hence, the title.

PKD is at his best when he's writing about cognitive dissonance. He writes it so well that even the reader is kept off balance. The story becomes a game of perception. Viewed through Arctor, slowly coming apart, the reader is pulled into the disorientation. In this novel, it's not used as a plot gimmick. It becomes a vehicle by which the reader steps into the shoes of a drug addict, lost and confused.

As a novel about drugs, "A Scanner Darkly" is gently sympathetic and never judging. It doesn't condone or promote the use of drugs, not by any means. But it doesn't label its drug users as bad people, either. True, some atrocities take place -- stated, rather than described -- but never by the main characters.

Instead, they're portrayed as lost children who have fallen off the edge. The sense of responsibility is gone. The drugs have taken that faculty away.

Writing as he does, one feels that the novel is almost autobiographical. It's a feeling confirmed once you hit the afterword. PKD did spend time in drug rehab, as he admits. The very end of the book is the most heart-wrenching. It's a list of friends suffering or lost through drugs.

And, as a touch of honesty one would be hard-pressed to find in another author, last of all he includes himself.

"A Scanner Darkly" is available from National Bookstore.



  1. This is the movie that looks like it was passed through several Photoshop filters. I haven't seen it, but I remember seeing the previews. The whole cartoon-esque treatment makes it look quite eerie if you ask me.

    I just found this link to the movie trailer for those who are not familiar with it.

  2. Hi, Corey: thanks for the trailer link. I think the cartoon effect was intentional to give it that psychedelic drugged-out look. Can't wait to watch it!