A Scanner Darkly

09 Jun 2006

I’m going to record this review of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly to Steve Ely of Escape Pod and see if he can use it.

Hi Steve,

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 “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 a 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 First Corinthians Chapter 13. The King James version reads “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 novels 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.

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