Thursday, January 12, 2012

Book Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Title: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Philip K. Dick
Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Vintage
Publishing Date: August 17, 2006 (first published January 1st 1977)
Paperback: 288 pages

Stand Alone or series: Stand alone

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Bob Arctor is a dealer of the lethally addictive drug Substance D. Fred is the police agent assigned to tail and eventually bust him. To do so, Fred takes on the identity of a drug dealer named Bob Arctor. And since Substance D--which Arctor takes in massive doses--gradually splits the user's brain into two distinct, combative entities, Fred doesn't realize he is narcing on himself.

Caustically funny, eerily accurate in its depiction of junkies, scam artists, and the walking brain-dead, Philip K. Dick's industrial-grade stress test of identity is as unnerving as it is enthralling.

I can't even begin to explain this story in a tidy little paragraph. Since the book was made adapted into a movie though, I'll let the trailer do the summarizing:

See what I mean? A Scanner Darkly is basically the story of one man, Fred/Bob Archer, and his experiences with Substance D. As Fred dives deeper and deeper into the world of drugs, personal identity and questions of friendship are brought to the forefront.

Apparently all of Philip K. Dick's books are slightly autobiographical and this one gains a lot from the author's personal experiences. It adds a sense of believability to the story which is important with a story as disjointed and exaggerated as this. Even though A Scanner Darkly is a more extreme version of our current drug culture, anyone who's been around drugs will recognize certain characteristics throughout the book. I've really known people who carry around various bicycle parts and books on the most random subjects you can imagine. This becomes one of the few solid points of the story.

I also thought the story was made stronger by the author's note at the end. I couldn't help but relate to where Dick was coming from. Even though I've never been addicted to drugs, the high cost of happiness is something that resonated with me. He says, "If there was any 'sin,' it's that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever..." There comes a time when sometimes the cost of happiness is just too much. When the punishment is too much to bear and there's nothing left to do but move on.

My biggest issue with the story is the ending. Even though I actually enjoyed the way it ended, everything felt rushed and unexamined. The decent into madness was too quick to be completely satisfying and there were some loose threads I would have liked wrapped up. I also think Dick's depiction of women was problematic. There was a sense that women had no genuine role in society and that their only true contribution was as sexual fodder for male characters. All of the characters were kind of depressing though so I'm probably not being entirely fair, but it really stuck out to me. Whenever there was a female character there was usually the threat of sexual violence or violation that was unnecessary.

There's a quote that says you are what you continually do and I think this book sort of reinforces that idea. There's this sense that all the characters are good people, but they continue to do not so good things. Yet the people around them, who don't use drugs, are not so good people who follow all the rules. So the question then becomes, who are the genuinely good people? What makes a man a man? Is it circumstance or something more? I know that seems a bit silly, but the question of personal identity is one Dick toys around with a lot in this story. Fred forgets that sometimes you are what you pretend to be.



Interesting and worth checking out. You can't really read this book without thinking of Trainspotting (which is actually better in my opinion). I look forward to watching the movie and seeing if the filmmakers were able to actually make Dick's idea a little more orderly.

Rating: 6. Good, but might not be for everyone


  1. I liked the film more than the book; the ending in particular is a lot less abrupt in the film (or at least feels that way... I suppose there isn't much time spent on it, but it's far more proportional than it was handled in the book).

    I liked "The Man in the High Castle" more than any of Dick's work, so if you liked this one, you might want to check it out.

    Oh, and I think the attitudes towards women are largely a relic of that era, and much of it may be meant to make the characters more human. I did my senior thesis on Dick and I got the privilege of speaking with Dierdre Pettipiece, who actually knew Dick personally and worked at my university. I suppose I never asked explicitly, but she's definitely a feminist and I would have hoped she would have mentioned he was a misogynist if he was (she actually described him as a drama queen... unrelated but amusing). I certainly never read anything in hundreds of pages of his notes and journals that suggested to me that he thought little of women, and I would like to think I would have noticed and remembered. He certainly does sexualize women in this one, though.

    One last note (sorry... so much PFD trivia pent up inside), he was in the same high school graduating class as another sci fi writer, Ursula Le Guin, but they didn't know each other at the time. She's apparently a fan of his and has dedicated a work or two to him, and he became aware of her during his writing years and wrote fondly of many of her early works, though I'm not sure the two ever conversed.

    1. I will definitely check out "The Man in the High Castle." I have a friend who adores him and keeps throwing book titles my way lol.

      And I know you realize you don't have to be a misogynist to have problematic portrayals of women. I purposely didn't go as far as calling it sexist. It's just that most, if not all, of the female characters were measured in terms of their sexual availability and the constant references to rape and prostitution were noticeable (not that prostitution is inherently problematic). Maybe I would feel differently if I read it again, but it bothered me by the end of the story. Even if it was merely an attempt to evoke an emotional response from readers by highlighting the destructive effects of drugs, it's still lazy.

  2. It's tough to gauge. "Different time," and all that rubbish. To be fair, he didn't have the benefit of things like the 90's PC movement bringing stuff like this to broad attention. I can't say I'm shocked that his portrayal of women is rough around the edges, I suppose. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and liken it to Twain's portrayal of black people in his work.

    1. Obviously I think it's important to keep the time frame in mind, but that doesn't mean we should disregard it either. I won't use it as measure of his character, but I think it's perfectly valid to critique parts of his work. I have every intention of reading more of his work still

    2. Well if we're judging his character, keep in mind he was a huge meth addict for most of his mid to late career.

      He's certainly so saint.

  3. *doh, no saint.

    Just woke up from a nap...