A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Paul R. Potts

I recorded this review for the Escape Pod podcast in 2006. My review ran in a special review episode: http://escapepod.org/2006/08/07/ep-review-a-scanner-darkly/ sandwiched in between regular story episodes 65 and 66. That episode was called a “tag-team review” because I reviewed the book, and Jonathon Sullivan reviewed the movie.

I recorded it with a cheap USB headset mic, the kind online gamers used to taunt each other. I had a better microphone, a BLUE Snowball, but when I used it, my six-year-old PowerBook G4 added random crackles and dropouts. So the audio quality, the best I could manage at the time, makes me cringe. But despite that, I think it’s not bad. I added some audio effects here and there, to punctuate certain ideas and words with sound. I’m not sure that part was entirely successful.

I always intended to submit more reviews to Escape Pod, or try reading stories for them, but over the next few years we had several more children, and my quiet time for recording pretty much vanished completely. I have continued to work on music and podcast projects over the years. Maybe I can do more of this sort of thing, too.

You’ve probably heard of the forthcoming Richard Linklater movie, A Scanner Darkly, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. A lot of Phil’s works have been adapted into movies, including Screamers, Total Recall, and Minority Report. Over the years I’ve read every one of Dick’s novels, and recently I re-read A Scanner Darkly. So I’m going to talk a little bit about the book, not the movie.

First off, this is not Dick’s best novel, even though it is one of the most interesting. If you are new to his work I would recommend that you start with a book like Ubik, or Lies, Inc. You could also try reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was adapted into the film Blade Runner.

Nothing Dick wrote really can be slotted neatly into a single category, but A Scanner Darkly is particularly hard to classify. It is in part a very realistic novel, set in Southern California in the late 1970s, with convenience stores, big cars, and drive-in movies. But there are also strange hi-tech devices which have evolved around a society of surveillance. One of these is the “scramble suit,” which disguises the wearer’s voice, and projects an ever-changing series of random identities, so that the wearer is completely anonymous.

The book was inspired by Dick’s own experience with drug abuse, and is dedicated to a number of his friends who died or were damaged doing the same thing. It is full of great dialogue and ranting, kind of like drug-addled stand-up comedy, which reminds me a bit of the “routines” from William S. Burroughs’ book Naked Lunch. The various characters in the books are at times threatening, or paranoid, or just oblivious to the ways in which they are destroying themselves.

The protagonist of the book is a man named Bob Arctor. His name sounds a bit like “actor,” and that’s not a coincidence. Bob has a marginal existence in a suburban house with some other drug-abusing friends. But Bob is really a narc, who goes by the nickname “Fred.” As Fred, Bob puts on the scamble suit and meets with his colleagues to report on the drug users living in the house, one of whom is — Bob Arctor. In other words, Bob has himself under surveillance. But all the drugs he is taking seem to be impairing his mind to the point where he doesn’t seem to realize he is spying on himself. Meanwhile, his co-workers are becoming suspicious that Bob’s heavy drug use is starting to cause permanent brain damage. There’s black humor here, but it isn’t a happy story.

The title, A Scanner Darkly, is inspired by a phrase from Corinthians chapter 13: “for now we see through a glass, darkly.” Dick was getting at the idea that we have great difficulty truly knowing ourselves, and he wondered in this novel whether a scanner — in this case, a three-dimensional holographic recorder — would give us any more insight into ourselves.

Like I said, this isn’t Dick’s best work. It is a little bit incoherent — he throws in untranslated German poetry, there are some strange events which are never explained, and a number of loose ends aren’t tied up. But that’s true of most of Dick’s writing. It is still a very powerful and mournful work, and it will stick with you. Like most of his work it is quite short, so you should have time to read it before you go see the movie.

If you’ve ever known someone whose mind was falling apart, due to drugs, or mental illness, and most of us have, you will find a lot that is familiar in this story. You might find yourself agreeing with Dick that drug abuse is not a disease but a decision, but that it’s a decision that results in people being punished entirely too much for their mistake.

This is Paul R. Potts.

I jumped in to a thread on the Escape Pod web site and made these comments, dated August 16, 2006. I was a responding to an opening comment that Dick was “a bad writer.”

I note in 2016 that the later version of Total Recall is a much, much better film.

Examining a comprehensive list of surviving novels by Philip K. Dick, there are a few that were in print, when I wrote the comments below, that I had not read, and still have not yet read: in particular Gather Yourselves Together, Voices from the Street, and The Broken Bubble. So my claim to have read all Dick’s novels was not, strictly speaking, true. I believe I’ve read all of them except for those three, although I’d be hard-pressed to recall the details of some of them. I own all his stories, in the five-volume edition from Subterranean Press. I’ve read shorter compilations of his stories, but I have not plowed through the entire five-volume set. My kids love it when I read his hilariously silly and weird early story, “Roog,” out loud as a bedtime story.

Hi all,

I’m not going to go too deeply into this thread, but wanted to toss in my $0.02. I’ve read all of Dick’s novels.* Simeon, I will agree with you that Dick is not, overall, a terribly strong and consistent writer, although there are exceptions in his work. This is why I said something in my review about loose ends in A Scanner Darkly (“that’s true of most of Dick’s novels.”) Scott mentioned Le Guin or Tiptree’s comment about sloppiness of technique. It’s true.

The actual quality of his writing is wildly variable. His strongest novels (Ubik is one of the more coherent, Mary and the Giant much more conventional) are quite strong, but there are a lot of them that were clearly speed-fueled, extremely rushed, and poorly edited. And some of them are just kind of middling: they just don’t make that much of an impression, good or bad. I would not really want to try to defend the quality of the writing in his pulpier novels. Dick… had issues. Anxious, impoverished, depressed… all too human, and as his early death indicates, all too frail. In fairness, if you look at just about any big-name writer who had to earn a living cranking out work, you can find some that is not memorable.

However, I also agree with Sullydog that his reputation is well-deserved. He was a brilliant guy, one of those driven visionaries who comes along now and then. Read the VALIS trilogy if you want to be convinced of that. Was he crazy? It seems that he probably crossed the line into psychosis, yes. But ironicaly he was aware of where that line lay and in VALIS it is quite interesting to see him make himself into a character (Horselover Fat, a literal translation of the meaning of the words Philip Dick) and then analyze that man and his visions and mad exegesis. It’s baffling, amazing, apocalyptic (in the sense of “revealing what is hidden). He was a genius; the word genius coming from the root for”source” or “fountain” — ideas flowed out of him.

Can the two aspects of his work be reconciled? I would also go so far as to say that the kind of mind who was so bursting with ideas and anxieties and visions is almost by definition not the kind of mind who is able to take the time to tinker, to refine, to polish all his work until it shone like gemstones. He felt that his mind was being blasted with a barrage of strange information, and had to get it down. And he had to crank out more work to earn a living; probably more work than he would have chosen to release, on his own. But that reality drove him to produce the body of work that we’ve got, warts and all. This is not entirely a bad thing — it means there is a lot in Dick’s work which encourages the reader to think of it as unfinished, inviting the reader to flesh it out, at least internally.

It is interesting to note that most of the film adaptations have been based on his short stories, not his novels, Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly being exceptions. This is in part because the novels are just too jam-packed with different things going on. Even the adaptation from Androids into Blade Runner had to lose a number of the stranger aspects of the novel altogether (all the elements about Mercerism, for example). The movie Blade Runner itself is a mixed bag: brilliant visually, but with problems: the weakly integrated detective-story theme, the voiceovers, all that.

The short stories tend to be more coherent (polished, edited down) and have, individually, a sufficiently small number of out-there ideas that it is possible to get them into a coherent film.

The adaptations have not, as a rule, been stellar. Personally, taking into account what I feel makes a good movie as opposed to a good novel or short story, I think that the smaller-budget ones have been better. I feel like Total Recall was just painful to watch. My favorite adaptation is probably not one that most people would pick — it is actually the film Screamers, which alters the original story “Second Variety” only slightly. It is entertaining, focused, has that surreal Cold War world view (I love the “RAD” cigarettes they smoke to protect themselves against radiation), moves quickly, and is not centered around a big celebrity action hero. Minority Report was a pretty good movie, on the strength of an aggresive script, although I think it would have been better with a smaller budget and without Tom Cruise. Paycheck had some promise but ran out of gas. Re: Richard Linklater: Simeon, I agree with your distinction between “boring” and “bad.” Some of my favorite films of all time are slow and meditative: the original Solaris, Wings of Desire. I thought Waking Life was quite fascinating, although it could have used a little more cutting. But his stuff has ideas in it, and that makes it worth a hundred Hollywood knock-off action flicks.

*All his novels: well, everything I could possibly get my hands on, including The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, Mary and the Giant, Puttering About in a Small Land, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, and his children’s book Nick and the Glimmung. There are probably one or two very obscure ones, still out of print, that I missed.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
June 9 and August 16, 2006

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