A Scanner Darkly / Philip K. Dick


In the near future, Substance D, aka Slow Death, or Death, is a highly addictive and dangerous drug which has 20% of the population of the United States hooked. It causes wild hallucinations and severe brain damage, where the two hemispheres of the brain compete with one another, causing paranoia, schizophrenia, and finally, death.

Bob Arctor is a user of Substance D, and lives with his addict friends Barris and Luckman in his suburban, rundown house in Anaheim, California. Together they spend their days under the influence of various drugs, taking part in a number of inane conversations and arguments, often escalating quickly due to the group’s shared paranoia. But Bob Arctor is living a double life, also working as an undercover narcotics officer, one of a network employed by the government, along with invasive and advanced surveillance techniques, in a desperate attempt to fight back in the failed war on drugs. When Arctor is required for reports at the police station, he must wear a “scramble suit”, a high-tech costume that constantly changes the wearer’s appearance, to keep his identity private, and is assigned a code name, “Fred”. All the narcotic informants must wear these, even Fred’s superior, Hank, keeping their identities protected even from one another.

“We’re all dreaming,” Arctor said. If the last to know he’s an addict is the addict, then maybe the last to know when a man means what he says is the man himself, he reflected. He wondered how much of the garbage that Donna had overheard he had seriously meant. He wondered how much of the insanity of the day–his insanity–had been real, or just induced as a contact lunacy, by the situation. Donna, always, was a pivot point of reality for him; for her this was the basic, natural question. He wished he could answer.

Since starting his most recent assignment, Fred/Arctor has become addicted to Substance D, and formed a strong bond with Donna, a cocaine addict and supplier of Substance D; Arctor had hoped to be introduced to her supplier, getting further up the supply chain in an attempt to gain a lead. At his next review Hank informs Fred that, due to the information from an unknown informant, his next assignment is Bob Arctor; Arctor essentially has to begin spying on himself. The narcotics division installs hidden surveillance equipment throughout Arctor’s house while the group are out, and Fred must analyse the footage for anything that could incriminate Arctor, while getting an external viewpoint of the life that he and his drug addict housemates lead.

The paranoia and uncertainty that affects Arctor and Fred is jarring as the effects of Substance D addiction loosens his sense of reality. He is even called in for medical analysis several times, where doctors coldly tell him of the damage that is taking apart his brain.

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, 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. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

The New Path rehabilitation centre, and Arctor’s severe brain damage from coming off Substance D in the final few chapters of the book were difficult. It showed the damage withdrawing from the drug can hold, as Arctor is essentially a scrambled mess, barely able to perform simple tasks and utter short sentences.

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The film adaptation, directed by Richard Linklater, is pretty good. Its distinctive animated style perfectly captures the schizophrenic and paranoiac tone of the book.

It is revealed that Donna was also an undercover agent, like Arctor, and is aware that Arctor was used by the police. The intention all along was to get Arctor closer to Barris (the real target of the surveillance in Arctor’s house), to get him hooked on Substance D, to get him into NewPath, It is strongly suspected that NewPath themselves are behind the manufactures and distributors of the drug are NewPath themselves, growing little blue flowers on farmlands across the United States. It is hoped that eventually Arctor may regain his mental capacities and provide evidence against NewPath; but this is in no way a certainty.

Donna said, “I think, really, there is nothing more terrible than the sacrifice of someone or something, a living thing, without its ever knowing. If it knew. If it understood and volunteered. But” – she gestured. “He doesn’t know. He never did know. He didn’t volunteer-”

“Sure he did. It was his job.”

“He had no idea, and he hasn’t any idea now, because now he hasn’t any ideas. You know that as well as I do. And he will never again in his life, as long as he lives, have any ideas. Only reflexes. And this didn’t happen accidentally; it was supposed to happen. So we have this…bad karma on us. I feel it on my back. Like a corpse. I’m carrying a corpse – Bob Arctor’s corpse.

A Scanner Darkly isn’t Dick’s best work, and it isn’t my favourite book of his (that will remain Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) – but it is still a great read, for its message and the emotional impact. The poignancy of the author’s note at the end of the novel is traumatic, bringing you back into the reality of a world where addiction is a problem, and the repercussions are severe.

If there was any “sin”, it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever, and were punished for that, but, as I say, I feel that, if so, the punishment was far too great, and I prefer to think of it only in a Greek or morally neutral way, as mere science, as deterministic impartial cause-and-effect. I loved them all. . .

. . . These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The “enemy” was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.

If you are unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick then you may not know that he had an amphetamine habit in the 1970s. It didn’t last long and I don’t believe he was as heavy a user as some of the characters in this book, but he did once state in an interview, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw.” Some of the aspects of drug culture are brilliantly realised and truthful. I have no doubt Dick saw some extraordinarily dark times.

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In the theatrical adaptation Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, Robert Downey Jr. plays Barris and Woody Harrelson plays Luckman.

Note: When I finished reading A Scanner Darkly last week I immediately sought out the film adaptation. I really enjoyed it; a much more faithful adaptation that we might be use to seeing, in terms of plot anyway. There were no jarring changes; one reveal towards the end, which wasn’t actually detailed in the book, made a lot of sense but was a nice twist. Check it out, alongside the book.

  1. Paranoia within paranoia within paranoia! What a great story it’s like its been written by someone on crack. Actually I was a cocaine addict, using 22 hours a day and cocaine actually calmed me down and made me less anxious and paranoid. It was when I was a child before I started drinking and using drugs that I was paranoid, checking under the bed, in the wardrobe, the shower room and bathroom for serial killers, finding hiding places from the serial killers and practising my escape routes. That’s how my OCD started. And then when I got clean the OCD flared up again and I was checking not just the wardrobes but the (tiny) laundry basket and (full) chest of drawers for serial killers and doing all sorts of other crazy OCD stuff. My drug addiction almost killed me but I’ve done a hell of a lot of crazy shit while I’m sober because of paranoia!

  2. Jeff said:

    I’ve only read you piece so far in to avoid plot spoilers because I have a copy of this awaiting my attention. It persecutes me with its presence. It could be a ploy!
    Will have to pop back here when I’m done. Good to see something in blogland about PKD.

    • Sorry Jeff – hope I haven’t spoiled anything! But you’ll enjoy it, I’m sure. It has that typical Philip K. Dick mix of dark humour, tragedy and general trippy-ness.

  3. This sounds really interesting. Definitely one for the Philip K Dick reading list.

  4. I saw the film years ago and completely forgot to follow up on checking out the book. Perhaps it had to do with already knowing what happens. Generally easier for me to read the book first and then see the movie.

    • The film is so faithful to the book, really well done in my opinion. But if you are a fan of Philip K. Dick, I really would recommend the book too!

  5. Opher said:

    I met Phillip Dick. Spent a great evening in awe round at his apartment in Los Angeles in 1980. So much more I’d like to talk about now!

    • Wow – that is incredible. Were you a fan of his when you met him? I’m sure he was a fascinating guy.

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