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A Scanner Darkly
by Philip K. Dick
Vintage Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Lux, 2/13/2007

“What does a scanner really see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a … scanner … see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself.”

Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, written in the 1970s, anticipates contemporary problems of life in a surveillance society, such as threats posed to identity by the information age and the inexorable collusion between those who make and enforce the laws and those who break them. Great science fiction often uses images of the future to show an exaggerated image of the present, allowing us to recognize what is already true. In this sense, Dick’s prescience stems not from an oracular gift, but from his ability to see what was already going on around him. Information technology, like a psychoactive substance, extends perception, and in so doing, extends the distortions and limitations of perception as well.

When we are first introduced to Bob Arctor, the protaganist of Dick’s novel, he is preparing to present a speech, wearing a disguise called a scramble suit. The suit masks his identity by cycling rapidly through a vast library of images of random civilians. While the film version of A Scanner Darkly made a heroic effort to depict the scramble suit, the novel tell us that one is only vaguely aware that a person wearing a scramble suit is in the room. This device is crucial to Arctor’s work as an narcotics officer – he is so deeply undercover that not even his superiors know who he is. His mission: to gather information on the source of the extremely addictive drug Substance D.

Midway through Arctor’s prepared speech, he stops. He finds himself unable to regurgitate the simplistic narrative he has been handed by his superiors, a speech highlighting the dangers of the drug and stressing the need for society to combat it. He has been undercover for too long, and has gotten too close to Substance D addicts, to see things in black and white. He introduces his own thoughts with a rhetorical question: “If you were diabetic, and you didn’t have the money for a hit of insulin, would you steal to get the money? Or just die?” He pleas with his bewildered audience to try to understand the anguish of these addicts, and the misery of the fate that awaits them.

It is not that the scripted version he began with is false – it is too simple, too one-dimensional, to be the whole truth. It is a cover story. To do justice to the real picture, as he is compelled to attempt by his tortured idealism, Arctor has to speak from multiple points of view, simultaneously law enforcement officer and addict. Two contradictory points of view come from the same vague blur.

The scramble suit elegantly evokes the loss of self. “The wearer of a scramble suit was Everyman”, Dick observes. To interact with the straight world of law and order, the world where he makes his living, Arctor uses machines to mask his identity and become a disembodied voice, without content or character. Does this sound familiar?

This fragmentation of identity and its relationship to the epistemological darkness in which we all find ourselves is the central theme of the book. As Arctor traverses the arc of the plot and gets closer to the truth of his situation, he becomes more and more confused, owing in part to his growing dependence on Substance D. He relies on the drug more and more to tolerate the vicious absurdities of his situation.

The predicament of his situation is exemplified by a story he recalls when, months earlier, a square woman came to his apartment to ask if he and his addict roommates would help kill a bird nesting near her window. After taking a look, they assure her that she has nothing to worry about. The bird is harmless, and in fact helps people by eating the local pests. She replies “If I had known it was harmless, I would have killed it myself.” They receive her reply as an emblem of everything that is wrong with the straight world. In Dick’s stories, empathy is the possession of anguished and the dispossessed.

The structure of the plot is a kind of lazy mystery in which Arctor wanders forward in his assignment, becoming hazier and hazier, losing all sense of who he is and what he is doing. Almost unwittingly, Arctor stumbles toward the heart of the mystery of what is going on in his world: why are the plant precursors to Substance D so effectively hidden from law enforcement? By the time Arctor finds the answers, he has forgotten the question.

In this novel, every important image becomes its own opposite. At the center of the circle, like the ringleader of symbols, is the drug. What is Substance D? We are never told of its effects. I imagine it to be something like a mix of ketamine and methamphetamine. We are told that there are two kinds of people: those who are addicted to Substance D, and those who haven’t tried it. And we know that it is the center around which the other images gather. Understanding, confusion, control, law-breaking, destruction, and transcendence are six heads of the same hydra. Perhaps “D” is for “dialectic”?

A Scanner Darkly is a superior effort by the prolific author. Admirers of his corpus will find familiar themes of paradox, compassion, technology, altered states of consciousness, and fascism at work within this novel. But A Scanner Darkly stands out as one of Dick’s strongest statements. In this book he achieves what has elsewhere eluded him: a coherent narrative with strong characters and dialog, and an internal structure that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I see A Scanner Darkly as a work of genius. Dick intuitively perceives and symbolically expresses key relationships between themes that surface in any conversation regarding psychoactive drugs in the last century. The history of altering human consciousness is inseparable from the history of social control, and this novel succeeds to some degree in explaining why. It is a passionate plea for empathy, and for embracing complexity.

And therein lies the greatness of A Scanner Darkly. Dick tells this story with both tenderness and ruthless clarity, speaking for the victims who bear the greatest cost for our society’s views on the use of drugs, which frequently lack both insight and compassion. The novel unfolds like a hallucinatory trip, moving from bewilderment to insight and back again, never settling, not resting on one version of what happens, always suspending final judgment. In Dick’s world, the humility implicit in not being certain about anything comes closest to wisdom, and closest to compassion.

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