a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically worked into an organized system. It may be an aspect of chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia in which the person loses touch with reality.
This is the word that sums up A Scanner Darkly.
Dick’s hilarious, hopeless and harrowing depiction of a drug addled future society left a pretty strong impression on me.
On the surface the book is primarily concerned with the issues surrounding addiction, from it’s effects on individual users to the systems of control that allow it to become so widespread in society. As with all of PKD’s books there was a strong undercurrent of philosophical questioning. Although all of his books are essentially classic science fiction, oftentimes set in the future, what they really serve to do is provide a brutal analysis of the present. The worlds that Dick conjures up hit much closer to home than the epic of works Frank Herbert or Arthur C. Clark; they give us a commentary on a variety of social, psychological and philosophical issues that can affect us all at one time or another. I think this is why many of Dicks books, written in the 50s, 60s, and 70s still hold up as modern and contemporary even now.
The real genius of the book is how the lead character embodies both sides of the issue of paranoia and addiction. As the story progresses, Bob Arctor the lowlife junkie, and his scramble suit wearing pseudonym, Fred the undercover narcotics agent, start becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between. When Fred gets asked to place scanners into Bob Arctor’s home to constantly track his movements the split in the Arctor’s personality deepens. The reality of both sides of Arctor/Fred’s identity starts to blur to the point where it becomes difficult for him to identify himself with one or the other, a side effect of excessive consumption of the fictional drug ‘Substance D’. The effects of which are brutally described in a brilliantly surreal chapter towards the end of the book. Did ‘Fred’ only start on this paranoid, drug fueled mission as part of his undercover role? Or is Arctor the addict merely using his undercover pseudonym as the best way for him to obtain and sustain his substance D habit?
Although it actually took me a while to get through the book – a lot of the time because of the main characters’ random paranoid digressions in conversation – I think A Scanner Darkly stands up there with the best of Dick’s books. One particular thing that really stood out for me was the authors note at the end of the book. PKD describes how his own experience of casual drug use (and abuse) had ultimately left the lives of his friend group torn apart. The main characters in the book were almost all based on people he knew; friends, many of of whom are now suicidal, psychotic, or dead.
A Scanner Darkly is a book that is as funny as it is sad. It’s filled with as much prophetic genius as it is pointless nonsense (although this was undoubtedly intentional to put across Dick’s message). And overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to reading the Valis trilogy at some point to see how PKD’s sci-fi-chedelic visions play out. Solid 4*.
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I look forward to seeing what you think of Valis, then. I use the scene in the movie version of Scanner Darkly for the first week of a class I teach on Tragedy and Subjectivity. A lot of students don’t come back! But it’s an amazing central motif for a book that expresses with enormous poignancy the painful struggle of trying to be a (single, unified) person in a complex world. “What does a scanner see?” Well, what is a “scanner,” anyway? It’s both a biopolitical control mechanism and, of course, an echo of our hope for redemption (1 Corinthians 13:12). All these horizons of meaning cut across us and put the very idea of “autonomy” in question.
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