Book Reviews

Book Review: A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick


A Scanner Darkly

By: Philip K. Dick

Published: 1977

The Rundown: “Substance D is not known as Death for nothing.  It is the most toxic drug ever to find its way onto the streets of L.A.  It destroys the links between the brain’s two hemispheres, causing, first, disorientation and then complete and irreversible brain damage.  The undercover narcotics agent who calls himself Bob Arctor is desperate to discover the ultimate source of supply.  But to find any kind of lead he has to pose as a user and, inevitably, without realizing what is happening, Arctor is soon as addicted as the junkies he works among…”

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: A man, gray, walks through an alleyway.  He is watched by two security scanners perched on the gray walls.  Then again, maybe they aren’t watching him.  They seem to be pointing away from him, so how could they be watching him?  Why would they be there if not to watch him?  Maybe they’re only there to distract him and prevent him from noticing the real scanners.

This book is about drugs.

The Good Guy: “Fred” once lived a normal middle-class life, with a wife, a daughter, and a lovely home.  Bored, he leaves his family to work as an undercover narcotics agent busting criminals who peddle the illicit Substance D.  He is now “Bob Arctor,” a dealer who is addicted to the drug he pushes.  Fred is so deep undercover that even his bosses don’t know his fake identity.  He soon finds himself in the position of investigating himself.  Bob must keep his housemates from discovering that he is a narcotics agent, and Fred must keep his bosses from realizing that he is Bob Arctor.  This sticky situation is made schizophrenic when all the drugs he’s dropping turn Fred/Bob’s mind to slush, and he can’t always remember who he’s supposed to be.

The Bad Guy: The primary antagonist is Jim Barris, one of Bob’s druggie roommates.  Barris’s mind is just as slushed as everyone else’s, but only he seems to suspect that Bob is an undercover narcotics officer.  He installs surveillance equipment in his house and car in case the police come for him.  Bob views him alternatively as an evil super-genius and as a spiteful, pathetic junkie.  It’s unclear how dangerous Barris actually is because Bob’s judgment is so distorted.  It’s like that old joke from Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

The Guy in the Good Guy’s Bed: Bob wants to start a romance with the drug dealer Donna Hawthorne, and throughout the novel, she’s referred to as “Bob’s girl.”  However, although Donna cares for Bob, she doesn’t want to have sex with him.  As a result, their relationship consists of Bob buying drugs from her, some of which they do together.  However, Donna is smart enough to steer clear of Substance D.

What a Wonderful World: As you read the book, you get the sense there are people out there living normal lives somewhere.  The lives of all the characters, however, are consumed by Substance D.  Everyone is a drug addict, a narcotics officer, or both.  The cabal selling Substance D has infiltrated the police, so undercover officers have to hide their identities from their superiors, lest they be murdered.  The addicts and dealers are paranoid of the police, understandably: at this point, the police care little about due process.  Everyone is afraid of everyone else, few people know what is going on, and the most vulnerable suffer.

The Party Don’t Stop: One aspect of the story that was really cool was how the tone mimics drug addiction itself.  The novel starts out light, describing a guy named Jerry Fabin who is hallucinating that the world is infested with aphids.  His druggie friends have him committed when he becomes convinced that giant aphids from outer space are coming for him, and wants to flood the house with cyanide gas.  As Bob slides into paranoia, the story becomes progressively darker.  The ending is downright heartbreaking.

A Bad Trip: This book was published in 1977 and takes place in a “futuristic” 1994, so elements feel dated.  Given how much race and racism has fueled the War on Drugs, it’s strange that this novel ignores race completely.  There’s a paragraph hinting that racial profiling is present, and that blacks and Hispanics are angry about it, but that’s it.

Does it Represent…

Women: There are two types of female characters in this story.  There are the women whom Bob wants to have sex with, and there are women who are the victims of drug culture.  The latter are present to show the (male) reader that drugs are bad, and the former are there to titillate or disgust the (male) reader.  This is very much a story about men.

People of Color: There is only one named black character: a drug dealer named Weeks whom Fred follows to a rehab clinic.  Fred gives up on him when he reaches the clinic, and Weeks never actually appears in the story.  Other black people show up, but are never named.  This is very much a story about white people.

LGBT People: No.

The Disabled: Substance D is an extremely toxic drug which soon renders its users psychotic.  The main character is in the later stages of addiction, and experiences severe cognitive impairment and paranoia.  Many of the people whom he interacts with are also users, and they suffer similar problems.

Memorable Quote: “I see only murk.  Murk outside; murk inside.  I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better.  Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

Recommended For: Fans of The Naked Lunch who wished that book were more coherent.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


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