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Book Reviews A Scanner Darkly

Published on January 30th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley


‘What does a Scanner see?’ – Review of Philip K. Dick’s ‘A Scanner Darkly’

Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly is a dark comedy Sci-Fi novel about a group of young male friends, living in a suburban area, whose lives revolve around the steady use of a highly addictive narcotic called Substance D, also known as Death. The drug is an illegal substance which is widely used throughout America, and is the main focus from Drug Enforcement Agencies operated by the Government to crack down on delinquency  unemployment and crime resulting in use of the drug.

The protagonist of the book a Robert Arctor is an undercover Narcotics Agent who at the start of the book has already infiltrated this group of users in order to maintain his disguise as an addict of the drug, to get closer to a dealer with connections high in the chain of the manufacturing process of Substance D. The government don’t know where the drug is made and are using many Narc Agents to find this information and getting them to relay information back to the agency in an anonymous guise using a “Scramble suit”.

Robert “Bob” Arctor’s alias amongst the Narcotics Agency is Fred who is straight edge and professional, his superior Hank seems to work a superficial pleasantness with him and from the offset it is clear that Arctor has begun to blur his job as Fred and his infiltration as drug user Bob, confusing which is his true self.
The trail on his Narcotics manufacture disappears when the lead goes off the radar, presumably to Newpath, one of the Substance D rehabilitation centres, where they give you a new identity and help clean yourself up, once you have proven you have what it takes.
Fred/Bob is asked by Hank to root around the group of friends he has been using to maintain his addiction cover to find some information, but things begin to get much more complicated when Hank reveals that the Agency has begun suspecting Bob is involved in high-end crime after a tip-off they’ve received and Arctor is requested to begin surveilling Bob/himself.

There's a panda santa in the background.

There’s a panda santa in the background.

Written in 1977, A Scanner Darkly was one of Dick’s later novels, and primarily focuses on drug culture in the US versus a hypocritical enforcement system, closely modelled on his own life and reflecting his own views on his belief that the government enacts too cruel a punishment on drug users. Dick considers it his best novel and it took him the longest to write at about 3 years, an unusually long amount of time for an author who writes complete novels in a couple of weeks.

The book is written from a third person perspective, however most is told from Arctor’s perspective and is employed to great effect in a few key scenes with a couple of his housemates.
The Arctor chapters successfully convey a sense of isolation and the pacing for the narrative is perfect with dramatic and suspenseful events regarding paranoia and drug use overlaying the characters relations and drug experiences with one another. The exposition from Jerry Fabin in the beginning and later, Arctor, paint the world of future Orange County with a terrifying clarity – a modern-life suburb, peppered with horrifying elements – creating an uncanny valley of setting. The dialogue in the book is superb, the portrayal of drug culture is incredibly immersive and well-written, one almost gets sucked into the madness. As the book develops, the character of Arctor becomes more prominent as his paranoia and transitory thoughts begin a spiralling momentum of insanity which courses through to the finale.

The book is reminiscent of Fear & Loathing in many respects, obviously with drug-use but also in the slaying of the American Dream. The traditional American values of greatness, commerce and civility are all thoroughly wrecked on Thompson’s visit to Vegas and the homely ones of family, security and faith are focussed on in A Scanner Darkly. A trip away or the life at home. Principles of a 70’s nature are all pretty evident in a Scanner Darkly, the end of the 60’s are well underway, there is nothing cool or hip in the popular culture about what the group of friends are doing, however they foolishly attempt to maintain the illusion – not of the 60’s , a vast difference to the denizens of which upheld their beliefs and actively fought and pursued what they liked, like promiscuity, drugs and fashion because they enjoyed it, their exercising a laidback freedom and giving it to the man – but in A Scanner Darkly they continue the facade of contentment through creating a counterculture to THAT. A fuck-you to the happiness, and the joy, using the freedom that they earned from their predecessors to begin a journey of self destruction, knowingly and whole-heartedly.
Philip K. Dick said of A Scanner Darkly, “drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to move out in front of a moving car.”

UK 1st Edition

UK 1st Edition

This book is funny, I suppose it was going to be difficult to portray a group of people and how drugs have affected them without injecting some humour, but for this book, it’s almost a work of art.
Not only is it incredibly hilarious, but it also manages to pull off the comedy whilst also maintain a steady kind of horror at the situation. There’s no way anyone else could have ever pulled this off quite so magnificently. The interactions between characters is where the real genius lies. It’s almost as if the conversations actually happened and Dick was merely transcribing them. It really reminded me of The Thick of It, with perfectly executed lines bouncing between characters while carefully illustrating events over the backdrop of absurdity (it really took so much not to say omnishambles here). My favourite character is Jim Barris, his entire existence seems to be to serve as a complete mindfuck to all those who surround him, I don’t think you could create a more devious bastard.

A film adaptation was released in 2007 that was surprisingly accurate and is a brilliant film, one of Keanu Reeves more convincing roles, although I suppose that isn’t much of a compliment to say that he’s good at playing a spaced out personality confused dolt, but it was a good laugh and well adapted piece, with more good performances by Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr and would you believe it, Winona Ryder. She’s not half as irritating in it as she is in other films.

Still a remarkable novel, delving into culture & government, trust & betrayal and morality & duty. Touching, funny, beautiful. One of my favourite novels.

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