We're coming into the home stretch, folks. You and I have gone through some of Philip K. Dick's best work, such as "Martian Time-Slip" and "Dr. Bloodmoney" and "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch ". There are only a few PKD novels left, and I've saved some of the best for last. Of "A Scanner Darkly", for instance, the author said "I believe it is a masterpiece. I believe it is the only masterpiece I will ever write." Wow.
In old usage, a "masterpiece" was a piece of work that a journeyman put together to advance to the rank of master within a guild. By that measure, Philip K. Dick was a master long before he wrote "A Scanner Darkly" in 1973. Nevertheless, this novel marks a sort of leap in his skill. He was always concerned with some pretty big issues, such as the need for empathy and the question of what makes a human being. He also returned to certain themes several times, including drugs, paranoia and the uncertain nature of what we call reality. In this novel, he dug deeper into all of these matters than maybe at any time before. What's more, while he always seemed to love his characters and grieve over their pain, he clearly took "A Scanner Darkly" much more personally. In his Afterword, he goes so far as to say "I am not a character in this novel, I am the novel." It shows.
Like a lot of great sf, but unlike most of PKD's speculative work, "A Scanner Darkly" reads pretty much like a mainstream novel except for the few technological developments. In this case, there are two such advances, if you can call them that. The first, since this is PKD, is a new recreational drug. It's called Substance D, and it's scary. It gets you high in some fashion, but if you take it, you run the risk of dividing the hemispheres of your brain so that they don't work together anymore. They function separately, or in extreme cases compete with each other. Either way, that's pretty much it. You thought you had one personality? Guess again.
The other technological advance is something called a scramble suit, which is composed of a material that broadcasts a huge number of facial and body features on its surface. Put it on and you're a vague blur that no one can identify. Very useful for undercover narcotics officers; in anonymity lies their security.
So one day Bob Arctor, a Substance D addict and undercover officer (who's called "Fred" when in his scramble suit), receives orders from his superiors (who don't know who he is) to bug the home of Bob Arctor the suspected dealer and collect evidence to be used against him at trial. Because he is an addict, and because the use of the scramble suit confuses him even beyond the drug's effects, he shortly loses track of himself and begins to suspect that Bob Arctor might really be a dealer. The activities of his paranoid housemate Jim Barris don't help his state of mind, and neither do his growing feelings for his friend Donna.
In short, both Substance D and the scramble suit tend to divide a person's personality into two untenable parts, and Bob Arctor has to deal with both technologies under increasing emotional tension. Like most great novels, then, the various parts of "A Scanner Darkly" work together to reinforce each other until you can't put the thing down. But does that make it a masterpiece?
Not by itself. While all of these wheels within wheels spin around and around, though, Bob Arctor and his friends maneuver through the precisely described physical world of Anaheim, California, with all its prefabricated plastic fast-food joints and gas stations and similarly denatured landscapes. With a few exceptions, they're actually very nice people - you wouldn't think a bunch of head cases could live together peacefully for any length of time, but with a few exceptions they do. Masterful characters in a masterful setting.
Also, this may be PKD's finest prose. He always wrote very fast, and therefore his style could get a little crude, but in 1973 his output had slowed. He took his time. He placed the information he wanted to convey into his characters' thoughts rather than in his own authorial voice, which makes his wild ideas touching rather than simply interesting. So when you discover that some character, by chemical means, has entered into a whole new mode of perception but can't communicate it to anyone, it's almost enough to make you cry.
If you ask me, the most devastating aspect of "A Scanner Darkly" is the way the characters hope for a better world even while the one they inhabit crumbles around them, either because of the effects of Substance D on their personalities or because of what they're forced to do to survive. The novel's title, of course, rings a change on the famous passage from 1 Corinthians in which Paul says that although we now perceive as through a glass darkly, one day we will see clearly. The rest of the chapter implies that when our perception is thus cleared up, we will experience _agape_, what the Jews call _chesed_, or selfless love. It's the kind of love that Bob Arctor, watching his mind crumble away, surrounded in his own home by police videoscanners that see him at all times but don't know him at all, continues to believe in.
The author informs us in his Afterword that many of his characters were based on people he knew - he lists several of them along with their various fates, mostly death, brain damage or psychosis. He says he loved them all, and in "A Scanner Darkly" he did right by them. You bet it's a masterpiece.
Benshlomo says, You don't stop loving people just because they mess up.
This is Philip K's hyper-paranoia book. Of course, all of his books to some degree rely heavily on knowing the difference between "reality" and the totally subjective; but only in A Scanner Darkly do the two fluctuate so. Our main character(s)' reality switches before our eyes. In this book, you can see the brilliance that eventually lead to Philip K's madness, but you can also see his glaring insight into people and his terrific sense of humor. The first 150 pages of this … more
Jerry Fabin is covered in aphids. Or at least he thinks so, spending most of his time in the shower. His friend Charles Freck tries to help, but eventually must take Jerry to New-Path, a center to help addicts of Substance D (known as Death) come off the drug and adjust to life without intoxicants. Charles catches up with Donna Hawthorne, Bob Arctor's supposed girlfriend/dealer, scores some Substance D and falls in with Bob's crowd. Bob Arctor lives with two roommates, Barris … more
From Publishers Weekly America in the near future has lost the war against drugs. Though the government tries to protect the upper class, the system is infested with undercover cops like Fred, who regularly ingests the popular Substance D as part of his ruse. The drug has caused Fred to develop a split personality, of which he is not aware; his alter ego is Bob, a drug dealer. Fred's superiors then set up a hidden holographic camera in his home as part of a sting operation against Bob. Though he appears on camera as Bob, none of Fred's co-workers catch on: since Fred, like all undercover police, wears a scramble suit that constantly changes his appearance, his colleagues don't know what he looks like. The camera in Fred/Bob's apartment reveals that Bob's intimates regularly betray one another for the chance to score more drugs. Even Donna, a young dealer whom Bob/Fred loves, prefers the drug to human contact. Originally published in 1977, the out-of-print novel comes frighteningly close to capturing the U.S. in 1991, in terms of the drug crisis and the relationships between the sexes. But the unrelenting scenes among the addicts make it a grueling read. Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Mind- and reality-bending drugs factor again and again in Philip K. Dick's hugely influential SF stories.A Scanner Darklycuts closest to the bone, drawing on Dick's own experience with illicit chemicals and on his many friends who died from drug abuse....