A Scanner Darkly

by Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly CoverYou can really feel the influence of William Burroughs and Ken Kesey on a work like A Scanner Darkly. While I would assume this comes from Dick having read and being a big fan of the aforementioned authors, it could just as reasonably stem from being a part of the drug infused counter-culture––that Dick admits to during his note from the author in the edition I read––or from criticizing the establishment and its ineffective, or even malicious, attempts at curing or punishing mental illness. No matter the reason, to construct a story with similarities to classics does not preclude a good or bad book. However, with A Scanner Darkly, Dick shows that he can go a step further, creating a complex and thoughtful novel in the process.

Set in the near-future––the near-future from the time it was originally written, anyway––A Scanner Darkly is about Fred, an undercover narcotics agent, tasked at monitoring and busting Bob Arctor, a man addicted to and thought to be selling the toxic drug, Substance D, aka Silent Death. The first problem is that Arctor and Fred are the same person. (When in the office, agents wear “scramble suits,” which obscure their identities from other agents and their superiors, to, presumably, better protect agents. In theory, I suppose I can understand the logic of shielding agents’ identities from those even within the organization, but it struck me as absolutely silly, being a huge waste of time and resources spent investigating “suspicious behaviour” of people they didn’t realize were agents.) The second problem is that Substance D ruins your brain; unable to reveal his identity, Fred/Arctor sets out to investigate himself, losing his grip on reality and becoming less and less sure of who he is. While things appear fairly simple at the story’s outset, as the plot––and the protagonist’s addiction––progresses, things become increasingly muddled.

The book’s best writing most likely comes from Dick’s firsthand experience with drugs and addiction, as well as all the terrible consequences that result. Unfortunately, it’s also steeped with the parlance of the time, serving to date the work, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And, much like Electric Sheep, A Scanner Darkly gives you something to think about, but never answers the questions it poses. If any of what I said seems interesting to you, you’ll probably find A Scanner Darkly to be quite good; conversely, if complicated plots or loose ends fill you with rage, stay away from this one.