A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

Written By Jake Garner

“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.”

Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Total Recall and The Minority Report; each and every single one of these films are indeed a legendary example of science fiction. Now what if all these epics were created by a single mind? Well, that is precisely the case here. Philip K. Dick is the undisputed heavy weight champion of sci-fi. With over fifty stories under his belt, the writer spent his career dedicated to presenting his audience with intelligent, philosophical and creative works. You have probably seen one of the thirteen film adaptations which stem from one of his written works, so why not pick up one of the books? There is definitely a multitude to choose from. Dick’s tales are not composed of the material seen in your average scientific influenced saga. Instead the pages are marshaled together incorporating a heightened sense of mystery and obscurity. A Scanner Darkly, executed in 1973 and gaining the British Science Fiction Award in 1978, is one of the many of his novels that tackle the notions of human struggle in a world that seems unjust and callous. By confronting real moral and ethical issues, and then placing them in an unfamiliar venue in the future, he manages to create an exhilarating epic, all within the space of three hundred pages. The book gained so much eminence that itself was transformed into a film in 2006, with a superb line-up of actors to equally match the grace of the novel. The narrative retains an autobiographical truth, as Philip K. Dick stated it was based around the drug culture of the 1970s, and his experience with the people he knew who were deeply involved in such culture.

“What is identity? He asked himself. Where does the act end? Nobody knows.”

A Scanner Darkly is a worrying delineation of future America. A third of the population are dependent on drugs, particularly that of Substance D, a.k.a, Death. The small red pill has found itself ingrained in the heart of society, and more specifically found itself fixed in the throats of the people the story encompasses. Bob Arctor, otherwise known as Fred, the protagonist of the fable, plays the role of an undercover narcotics agent, keeping tabs on those who are addicted to D, and the lifestyle in which they lead. Though, unfortunately for Arctor, the life of a narcotics agent poses just as many, if not more, complications to that of the addict. The house Arctor surveys, is funnily enough, his own. Hidden behind the creepy scramble suit that conceals his identity from the rest of the narcotics department, he watches the events happening in his own house, on futuristic monitors, alongside all the other narcs and their equally spooky scramble suits. Leaving the American dream buried somewhere beneath the dirt, Arctor leaves his ordinary family far in the past. A wife, clean home and two children, all forgotten, he turns to the one thing that is gripping the nation, D. As an alternative choice, he fills his house with his drug addlebrained companions, Freck, Barris, Luckman, and his new girlfriend Donna, who holds dark secrets of her own. Observing yourself through a screen for the societal opposition, Arctor finds himself becoming increasingly confused, falling into a downward spiral of insanity that slowly becomes his undoing. Perhaps as the title suggests, this is a dark novel, full of dark characters, with a dark but convincing storyline. But can we admit that there might just be a darkness within us all? Dick’s time spent actually living part time in a commune full of such characters is reflected in the realistic telling of A Scanner Darkly. Despite the habits of such people, Dick sustains the notion that addiction is a choice, and feasibly so, we shouldn’t judge those who get addicted. This is indeed the message I took away from the novel. Let’s face it, doesn’t everyone have their own demons?

“In this particular lifestyle the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying,” but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory.”

If anything, A Scanner Darkly is a perfect example of just what Philip K. Dick’s writing is capable of. The pure originality it clasps has not been matched by any other science fiction I have read in recent years; then again I am a big fan of Phil. For anybody who isn’t familiar with his work, A Scanner Darkly is a perfect starting point as it is relatively short, but full of substance that will keep any sci-fi fan yearning for more. Though if you approach this book with the expectation of the usual geeky, emblematic attitude that typical sci-fi novels maintain, prepare for something much, much darker.

“Every junkie, he thought, is a recording.”


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