In his Author’s Note to A Scanner Darkly, Philip K Dick explains that the novel is based in part on his own experiences and those of a group of friends.
“This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed – run over, maimed, destroyed – but they continued to play anyhow.”.
This novel is a love song to the joys and perils of drug-taking. It follows a group of friends addicted to a drug called Substance D. Over time, it breaks the links between the hemispheres of the brain. At its worst, its users become hollow shells of themselves, practically vegetables, with their sense of self entirely eroded. But knowing this doesn’t deter people from taking it, even though the only apparent attraction of taking it is that it leaves people feeling ‘mellow’. The addictive appeal of stepping outside of life’s cares and responsibilities is one that is impossible for some to resist.
But A Scanner Darkly is also a novel about the role and power of the state. Bob Arctor, the main character, is an undercover agent working for the state to identify the ultimate source of Substance D by tracking its dealers. The state is happy to tolerate its agents becoming users of the drug they are seeking to investigate, and it takes a particularly cold-hearted approach to its agents. When reporting back to the authorities, agents wear ‘scramble suits’ that obscure their appearance, and to further protect their identity agents report on themselves as suspects within their own investigations.
This layering of paranoia and conspiracy, aided and abetted by the effects of Substance D, is the real strength of the novel. As he becomes further addicted to, and affected by, Substance D, Arctor develops multiple personalities. (One of the side effects of the drug can be that the hemispheres of the brain develop distinct and independent existence and identities.) Bob Arctor the drug addict becomes an entirely separate person from ‘Fred’ his identity as a narcotics agent. ‘Fred’ puts Arctor under surveillance, and becomes convinced that Arctor’s suspicious behaviour (behaviour that in actuality is covering his work as an agent) means he must be high up in the organisation supplying Substance D. In a glorious satire on McCarthyism, the state looks to undermine and pull down one of its own on the flimsiest of evidence.
As well as posing questions about just how far the state is prepared to go to tackle crime, A Scanner Darkly asks profound questions about the nature of identity and reality, and the truth of our own perceptions.
“Any given man sees only a tiny portion of the total truth, and very often, in fact almost perpetually, he deceives himself about that little precious fragment as well. A portion of him turns against him and acts like another person , defeating him from inside. A man inside a man. Which is no man at all.”
This is far from a perfect novel. It suffers from a slow start that made it difficult to get into. And it is very of its time: my inner Feminist Hulk raged against some of the dated gender and race stereotypes. But it has moments of real humour and Dick’s ambiguous feelings about the joys and perils of recreational drug-taking give it real depth.
Goodreads rating: 4*