Name of Book: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Year of Publication: 1977
Characters in the excellent A Scanner Darkly are dying a Slow Death. Slow Death is just another street name for Substance D, or straight Death, an organic drug that has turned almost every American into an addict. Often cut with meth or heroin, D usually comes in tab form and eventually causes the brain to split into two separate hemispheres. This is where Philip K. Dick takes his habit of writing drug trips to a new level; complete neurological and personality deterioration where the mind begins to wage war on itself and the reader. It’s a psychosis induced schizophrenia, and we’re in the middle of it.
Most known for writing the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick is one of the most celebrated sci-fi writers of all time. What makes him unique is his ability to plonk the reader directly into the world as if they’ve always lived there. There’s no time for exposition or concept explanation, so there might be a learning curve, but you get the benefit of never feeling condescended to or cynical about the world’s realism. Current writers like Ted Chiang, most notably in his series Exhalation, do their best to do the same. What makes A Scanner Darkly a more terrifying reading experience is the exploration of addiction and loss of self to the most extreme and irrevocable. It's a creative use of form, as well. As Fred/Bob’s brain begins to split, the warring hemispheres speak less and less to each other. To demonstrate what that “cross-chatter” would feel like, Dick employs a disorienting mix of regular prose, disorienting paragraphs written in German, and script formatting.
Fred, a federal narcotics agent, is ordered to pose as drug user Bob Arctor to discover who has been flooding the streets of LA with Substance D. Committing to his undercover job, however, makes Fred vulnerable to the side effects of Substance D, and loneliness, paranoia, and hallucinations begin to plague him. At first, Dick uses a series of anecdotes to make us laugh at the absurd paranoia of kooky characters suffering from addiction. Of course, these anecdotes aren’t remotely funny, and the more we care about Fred/Bob and his own deterioration and isolation, the more we understand the ugliness of his addiction and loss of self. Fred/Bob ruminates in a particularly bleak passage about looking through a futuristic Scanner (“What does the scanner see?”), and wonders if he’s looking at a mirror image or a photo or a mirror of a photo of himself. It's as disorienting as it sounds, and a sorrowful and heartbreaking moment where a protagonist’s identity has been completely removed. Once deemed unfit to work, Bob/Fred is sent to a withdrawal center and given a new name. It doesn’t matter; he’s a husk with no history or personality. Dick also uses this point in the novel to comment on the cyclical nature of capitalism and exploitation to great effect.
This might not be Philip K. Dick’s most accessible novel, but it might be one of the most successful at exposing primal human needs. Perhaps because he was one, Dick never condemns drug users. Instead, he exposes the void that each of them is trying to fill. Even if it’s as simple as a want of friendship and platonic companionship and community. Our enemy is loneliness and capitalism, which leeches off the individual. Ultimately, it's a sympathetic look at humanity, and he doesn’t punish characters for their own self-destruction. A Scanner Darkly is a trip, not a morality tale.
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Character studies of people on the subway.