Book Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

It’s been a long time since I read a science fiction novel–hell, any novel–that disturbed me in quite the way Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly did.


Forget science fiction. This is literature. This is one of those books that proves that genre fiction can be as real, hard-hitting, and thought-provoking as literary fiction, any day of the week and then some.

A Scanner Darkly is a psychological thriller based on the premise of a near-future world where drug culture has permeated real culture to the point where the two are no longer distinguishable. The cops don’t know who the addicts are; the addicts don’t know who the cops are. Indeed, in the case of Dick’s protagonist, Bob Arctor/Fred, the addicts and the cops can sometimes be the very same person, and neither is aware of the other’s existence.

Substance D, Death, high-grade Death, mors ontologica, death of the spirit–this is the drug that has permeated the streets of L.A., and more specifically Orange County, in a world where hash is worth thousands of dollars and every drug in distribution is cut with meth, at least a little bit. But Death, high grade, that’s what everyone wants to get their hands on. So when Fred, a nark, an undercover narcotics agent, is told to start surveillance on Bob Arctor, an addict, possibly high-up in the distribution chain, for a potential large-scale drug bust, Fred, the nark, begins watching himself, Bob Arctor, on holographic recording cameras as Arctor deals, and drops, Substance D, Death.

Got it?

What no one has told Fred, the narcotics agent, is that Substance D has unique chemical properties if used over a long period of time in high quantities. Substance D has the ability to split the hemispheres of the brain so that they are no longer able to communicate with each other. Death kills communication between the hemispheres, rupturing the brain (and by extension, the personality) down the middle.

This is why, over the course of the book, Fred, the narcotics agent, loses his understanding of himself, Bob Arctor, the addict/dealer. As the two hemispheres of his brain diverge, Bob and Fred grow further and further apart, until they no longer recognize each other as the same person. What results is a tale of unraveling, a classic story of descent into madness in a retro-future setting that leaves no one untouched.

The beginning is yin-and-yang, a few funny stories with tragic endings about the stylish ways other addicts before Bob Arctor have gone out. The middle is funny enough that you almost forget you’re walking on the edge of a knife the whole time, waiting to see who will fall victim to the addiction and who, if anyone, will make it out. It’s funny in a dark way, because of that walk-the-knife thing, but also just in a funny way–parts of it are almost like watching a sketch comedy show, with all these burned out, coked up addicts with their various impairments sitting around trying to solve problems and communicate ideas. It’s funny in the way Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is funny. But then the end starts happening, and when you realize it’s happening it’s not funny anymore. And right at the end the knife goes in and there’s a  twist that fucks you up, and I’m still thinking about that twist and what it has to do with the real world, our world, and I probably will be for a while.

Not since Fight Club have I read such a visceral depiction of schizophrenia. Not since The Basketball Diaries have I seen such a devastating picture of a man mentally obliterated by a mind-altering substance. (Hint: I’ve never seen Requiem for a Dream. I know. I need to get on that.) And never in my life have I read an author’s afterward that made clear how intensely personal this work of fiction really is.

In subject matter (though not in writing style) A Scanner Darkly reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The two books both ask the question of how far humans will go for fun, for entertainment, and both come up with dangerous answers. Infinite Jest is, if anything, more hopeful. A Scanner Darkly, as the title implies, shows us that when we turn the mirror on ourselves, only madness lies within.

Recommended for anyone who likes philosophical questions about the nature of entertainment, addiction, and madness. Recommended for fans of science fiction and suspenseful crime novels. Recommended, generally.