A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)
It’s taken me some time to write this review. I like to start these reviews by giving a brief synopsis of the novel, but getting down in one short paragraph what this novel is about has been a challenge. A Scanner Darkly follows the story of Fred, an undercover narcotics agent living in Southern California. Fred’s true identity is supposed to be a secret from everyone, even his handler at the police department, Hank. In order to maintain his anonymity, Fred meets Hank in a “scramble suit” that continuously scrambles his exterior features, obtaining such characteristics as eye and hair color and other facial features from a database containing millions of possibilities. Fred’s job is to gather information on and eventually bring to justice various drug dealers, specifically those who deal in Substance D, which alters a person’s brain to the point that it separates his or her left and right hemispheres and ultimately leads to brain death. Early in the narrative, Hank tasks Fred with the job of conducting surveillance on a man that the police believe may be a major player in the Substance D drug trade—Bob Arctor. Bob Arctor shares a house with two other “heads”—Barris and Luckman—and he has an unrequited love for Donna, also a drug addict. The wrinkle is that Fred is Bob Arctor, and so his job is to conduct surveillance on himself. In his identity as Bob Arctor, he is also addicted to Substance D. As the narrative unfolds, Fred begins to suffer the effects of Substance D to the point that he forgets that he and Arctor are one and the same person. One of the primary means of surveillance are “holo-scanners” and as Fred begins to watch the surveillance tapes from the scanners, he comes to see Bob Arctor—the man in the surveillance tapes—as his dark image. It is in this way that Dick plays upon the biblical verse from I Corinthians 13 which talks of seeing “through a glass darkly.”
The wonderful thing about A Scanner Darkly is that it is making meaning on so many different levels. On one level, it is a social commentary on how drug addicts are perceived in our culture. Dick is exploring the ways in which drug lords are able to manipulate supply and demand in order to make money and how these drug lords ruthlessly profit from their customers, unconcerned about the life-altering affects of the drugs they push. While Dick’s commentary is on the drug trade, it can apply to so many other aspects of our contemporary life—pharmaceuticals is the first thing that comes to mind. So this novel, though published in 1977, is still culturally relevant.
On another level, the novel is exploring questions of identity. Fred is Bob Arctor, but his ability to remember that fact breaks down as the story progresses as a result of his addiction to Substance D. His left and right hemispheres separate entirely and fail to communicate but instead compete with each other, so that Fred and Arctor—instead of working together to avoid capture—become adversaries. In the last fifty pages of the novel or so, Fred receives another identity, and this further complicates his ability to know who he is as well as define his identity. Another thing that complicates Fred’s identity is the scramble suit. While wearing it, the image reflected in a mirror is not his own, further distorting his sense of his own identity. For Fred, identity is fluid, changeable, and available for manipulation, and once he loses his identity as Bob Arctor, he effectively loses a part of himself. Indeed, it seems as though Dick is playing with that “what if” question that Robert Louis Stevenson was playing with in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—what if we could divorce our “better” half from our “worse” half? What would happen? I wouldn’t call this a Jekyll and Hyde story, but shades of that story do resonate through A Scanner Darkly.
On still another level, A Scanner Darkly is a dystopian fiction. The story itself is set in 1992, fifteen years in the future. This device allows Dick to imagine how a drug as deadly and widely abused as Substance D could impact a society and have a forceful effect on the norms and values of that society. It also acts as a cautionary tale and encourages the reader to consider how other addictions—chemical or not—effectively trap and keep its victim in bondage.
I picked up this book because I am in the early stages of planning an introductory level literature course for Spring 2013. My initial title for the course is “From Page to Screen” and the course would give students the chance to read the text upon which its film counterpart was based. I’m not sure I would have picked this book up otherwise, but I’m glad that I did. Dick’s narrative style here is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling. We get the story (mostly) through Fred’s perspective, and as his brain begins to suffer the effects of Substance D and his ability to discern his full reality disintegrates, so too does his ability to narrate in a coherent fashion break down. It doesn’t go into stream of consciousness, but it does alter, and as a reader I felt my own level of confusion at the same time that Fred himself (or Bob Arctor) was also confused about what was happening. He loses the ability to know what is real and what isn’t, and as readers, we experience the same difficulty. For me, that’s one of the things that makes this novel brilliant.
A Scanner Darkly is definitely one of my Recommended Reads. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I do think it will make you think, and isn’t that one of the things a good book should accomplish?