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A Book Review of Philip K. Dick's "A Scanner Darkly"

Nicholas loves reading, writing, and reviewing fiction in his spare time.

A Review of "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick

A Review of "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick

Who Was Philip K. Dick?

If you’ve ever taken the time to read the works of Philip K Dick, you probably have a good idea of the consistent themes and motifs that he employed during his career. Dick was one of the most visionary science-fiction writers of his time, and much of the fame his name conjures now is a by-product of the numerous adaptations of his work. Blade Runner (from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Total Recall (from the short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale), Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and others are all based on his work.

Screen Capture From the Film "A Scanner Darkly"

Screen Capture From the Film "A Scanner Darkly"

Review and Synopsis of A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is perhaps Dick's most personal work and his most provocative in terms of literary style and structure. This book too was adapted into a feature film in 2006 directed by Richard Linklater and starring Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and Robert Downey, Jr. The main Socratic question behind A Scanner Darkly is this: What constitutes reality?

Dick delves into drug culture and the harrowing experiences one can have when their mind is altered. By using some of the tropes of dystopian science-fiction, Dick is able to transform the book from a simple drug story (like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson) into a complex tale about the poignant and tragic downward spiral one can expect if they give themselves completely to drugs.

Now, I don’t want to get on a “drugs are bad, m’kay” soapbox here. I’m a former addict myself and have been clean for 14 years as of this writing. The reason this story, in particular, reached me is that I’ve been down this road and have seen firsthand what uninhibited substance abuse can do to a person.

For me, the lead character of Bob Arctor is a cipher—precisely because we aren’t given much of a backstory for him or who he truly is. We learn what his job is from the beginning: He’s an undercover narcotics detective that is investigating a street drug known as Substance D, or Death.

The introduction to Arctor and our story involves him giving a speech to other police officers in a scrambler suit. This is a full-body suit that randomly changes the appearance of his face and clothing (think a NASA spacesuit with reflective panels with holographic displays that appearing and change constantly). The suit serves as an apt metaphor for what we are later shown is a side effect of long-term abuse of Substance D: the fracturing of the mind.

Soon enough, Bob Arctor is given an order to begin surveillance on himself by his superior officer, who also wears a scrambler suit during their clandestine meetings in police headquarters. When you cannot know who is giving the orders, can you really trust yourself to follow them? With the order to surveil himself combined with his own abuse of Substance D as part of his cover, Arctor begins to slowly lose his personal identity. Is he a cop investigating how this drug is getting onto the streets? Or is he a drug user who thinks he’s a cop? This is the long and strange trip that Dick takes his readers on as they venture through the novel.

Screen Capture From the Film "A Scanner Darkly"

Screen Capture From the Film "A Scanner Darkly"

The Characters

The characters that populate this dystopian world are where Dick’s writing really shines. Speaking from experience, the vapid, nonsensical conversations Arctor has with his sometimes-lover and his two roommates are scarily familiar and on-point.

If you’ve had even a cursory experience with drug culture and the people who have gone far off the deep end into that culture, you’ll have met someone like Barris. He’s a drug abuser and seller who is always claiming exceptional knowledge on a variety of subjects and has “special projects” that he’s tinkering with that really amount to nothing at all or could be completely destructive to himself and others.

Luckman, Arctor’s other roommate, is the classic stoner-like character, which made the casting of Woody Harrelson in the role for the film absolutely priceless. Luckman’s the kind of druggie friend who you want with you during a good or bad trip, but you both know his brain’s software is missing a few crucial patch updates.

These characters are relatable because they feel like real people with internalized reasons for why they’ve lost themselves in Substance D. Given his own experiences with drugs, it would have been easy for Dick to make this a strident anti-drug propaganda piece, but that’s not what he’s done. Instead, what the author presents are deeply broken human beings who have made the incorrect decision to play in the middle of a highway thinking they won’t get hit by a car at some point.

In one of the few lucid moments you’ll see from Barris, he talks about life being the only trip and says that it only ends at one destination: the grave. This is the key insight from the author and one of the strongest points that can be made from this novel. If Life is a drug that we all are addicted to (I know I prefer it over the alternative), and our brain is the center for perception, how can there not be a conflict over what is real and what is not? Is it just one strange trip after another? Even after reading the book and using my own life experiences as a reference, I can’t honestly tell you one way or the other.

Cover Art for the Novel "A Scanner Darkly"

Cover Art for the Novel "A Scanner Darkly"

The Takeaway

The ending is gut-wrenching. Arctor’s descent into madness and his withdrawal symptoms of prolonged abuse of Substance D are handled with care, but the utter humiliation that comes with this process is not left out. The detail provided by Dick as Arctor suffers from delirium tremens and soils himself are very real effects that someone would experience. I went through them, and it was perhaps the worst experience of my life. Through Dick’s moral portrayal of Arctor’s suffering, I was able to relive those dark moments from my life without the inherent shame I felt for years afterward.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. It’s not Philip K Dick’s best novel by any stretch, but it is a magnificent piece of literature that presses the reader to question the nature of their reality. Our perception of the world around us and ourselves walks a razor-thin edge. It can be radically altered or removed entirely at a moment’s notice. That’s the power of storytelling in a nutshell, and Dick was one of the best at mining that ambiguity.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Nicholas W King

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