philip k dick a scanner darklyPhilip K. Dick
Vintage Books

Cops and criminals have always been interdependent, but no novel has explored that perverse symbiosis more powerfully than A Scanner Darkly. Bob Arctor is a dealer of the lethally addictive drug called Substance D. Fred is the police agent assigned to tail and eventually bust him. To do so, he has taken on the identity of a drug dealer named Bob Arctor. And since Substance D–which Arctor takes in mammoth doses–gradually splits the user’s brain into two distinct, combative entities, Fred doesn’t realize that he is narcing on himself.

Having been reading some of Philip K. Dick’s novels that he wrote later in his life, circa the 1970s, you get the sense that the stories are more autobiographical disguised as science fiction. This could very well have been his way of coping with his increasing psychosis that he famously struggled with for most of his life. Reading A Scanner Darkly though, it’s almost like the sci-fi element was nearly forgotten, more of an afterthought, in favor of a look at an undercover narcotics officer slowly losing his grip on reality due to his own substance abuse.

The story has said narc named Fred who has been going undercover as a drug addict named Bob Arctor to infiltrate the source of a nasty drug named Substance D. A synthetic psycho-addictive drug, Substance D has a nasty effect of severing the connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, causing a break from reality that, more often than not, results in permanent damage. So then, during the course of the book, we get a ringside seat at watching Fred/Bob slowly lose his grip on his two manufactured personas and reality in general, as he is taking Substance D to maintain his front as one of the addicts he associates with on a daily basis. Due to his real identity being virtually unknown at the precinct he works for due to the scramble suit he’s required to wear while he’s Fred, he’s eventually assigned to watch himself as Bob, which doesn’t help with his gradual slip into his psychotic break.

Having now read this classic from Philip K. Dick, I have to say that A Scanner Darkly is really more of an at oft times uncomfortable look at the slow downward spiral of drug-induced psychosis. The only things that indicate A Scanner Darkly being a work of science fiction would be the inclusion of the aforementioned scramble suits, 3D Holocams, and that it’s set in the then-futuristic year of  1994. Otherwise, nothing could have been said about the year, and you would have thought it was set in the era it was written–namely, the early 1970s. There’s the slang, the mannerisms, the description of Southern California, and various other bits that indicate this. But, really, that’s all incidental to the story.

The novel is not so much a structured narrative, as it is a series of interactions between the characters (one of which is an oddly captivating yet slimy sociopath) while Fred/Bob is careening down a path that ultimately finds him stumbling almost Forest Gump style on the source of the drug, in a twist that’s worthy of Hitchcock at his peak. The captivation in reading this was, in fact, the William S. Burroughs style, which could very well be chalked up to the fact that Dick wrote this after a divorce saw him spiral into drug use, and having a number of homeless drug addicts come live with him at his house.

Overall, A Scanner Darkly was a rather unconventional science fiction novel, but a fascinating look into madness that tends to creep under your skin and remain there long after you’re done. Highly recommended, especially if you’ve only watched the movie adaptation.