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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly, first published in 1977, is a novel set in near-future California.

The plot follows undercover police officer Bob Arctor as he attempts to find the source of the drug Substance D, also referred to as just “D” or “Slow Death”. He lives with two other guys, Ernie Luckman and James Barris, the former he considers a friend and the latter he distrusts. Barris acts as a source of conflict and, given his actions, also of suspense.

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Arctor’s supplier is Donna Hawthorne, a young woman who he is fond of. It is his aim to buy Substance D from her, eventually in quantities too much for her, and then work his way up the chain.

As part of his job, he wears a “scramble suit” that hides his identity when he has to go into the station. Whilst in the suit, he is “Fred” and he reports to one also in a scramble suit called “Hank”.

As his investigation progresses, he gets increasingly addicted to Substance D, thereby becoming more detached from reality and more paranoid. It gets to the point Arctor’s house has to be under surveillance using holo-scanners, and as Arctor in the suit watches the holo-playback he thinks of himself as Fred and doesn’t quite recognize himself as Arctor.

Compared to some of Dick’s other works, this novel is somewhat light on sci-fi elements and worldbuilding since its focus is on the drug scene or, more specifically, the effects of drugs on individuals. The text is in the usual third-person omniscient voice with Arctor mostly as the viewpoint character. Dick’s style is typically tight and he “shows” rather than “tell”. However, given the subject matter of this novel, there is a substantial amount of “telling” of Arctor’s thoughts and perceptions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a little different from his other works.

Arctor’s decline is gradual but, whether it is deliberate or not, it is not always clear. There are many novels and films regarding drug abuse, but as a point of comparison, the decline of the characters in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) is calculated and brilliantly crafted. A Scanner Darkly lacks that structure but there are hints of it.

Also, like the film, this novel does have that tragic quality which is intentional given Dick’s own experience of drugs, including the loss of friends. This is something he points out in his notes. In this respect, one has to wonder whether Aronofsky took some inspiration from this novel.

Overall, this is a well-written novel, a bit different from Dick’s other works in some respects as it is more personal. Although he criticizes drug abuse or “misuse” as he calls it and does not excuse users, he is very sympathetic to those who have suffered its effects.


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