A SCANNER DARLKY by Philip K. Dick
Mariner Bookes, 2011 (reprint), 304 pages, 978-0547572178, Paperback, $13.95
Philip K. Dick is well known as one of the great masters of science fiction literature. He’s best known for his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a book considered by most as the beginning of the “cyber-punk” movement, and which was also the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner. But possibly his second most well-known piece–thanks in part to its own film adaptation–is A Scanner Darkly, his tale of split brains, drug addiction, and paranoia. It’s a bizarre and fascinating narrative.
Substance D, Slow Death, is an incredibly addictive, mind-altering drug that has become a rampant issue in the not-so-distant future. It’s a compound that quite literally splits the mind in two, creating dual, separate identities in one mind. Robert Arctor is an addict and a dealer, hooked on his own product. Fred is a secret law enforcement agent whose next mission is to monitor and, eventually, bring down Robert Arctor. The problem is, Robert and Fred are the same person. And as Robert tries to elude Fred, Fred tries to keep his bosses from realizing that his mind is beginning to slip through his abuse of the drug. Neither knows whom they can trust, and as someone continues to tamper with Robert’s life, the suspicion continues to grow.
Dick’s style of writing (both here and in his other novels) reminds me of another author I reviewed recently, William Gibson. This comes as little surprise since Gibson was inspired heavily by Dick’s work. But for that reason, A Scanner Darkly comes with the same caveat as Gibson’s Neuromancer: you’re either going to love it or hate it. This is due to one very specific reason: Dick, much like Gibson, offers absolutely no hand-holding through the narrative. There is no stopping for exposition or world building, the perspective shifts constantly, and there is ultimately very little character development for some of the cast. Even the story’s beginning, where we’re introduced to Jerry Fabin, is so bizarre that it may turn off potential readers. Jerry is a Substance D addict, and his mind is so completely shattered that he believes himself to be constantly covered in aphids, to the point where he cannot live a normal life.
With Dick and A Scanner Darkly, the reader is left to himself to figure out what exactly is going on. The author isn’t going to spell it out for you, and, for some, that’s going to be a bit jarring. Couple that with the novel’s slow-but-steady pacing, and this definitely adds up to a book that isn’t for everyone.
That said, I felt that this book was fantastic. It seems that Dick loves to write about some combination of psychology, paranoia, and the human condition. With good reason, though; he does it extremely well. A Scanner Darkly is a real testament to how brilliantly Dick blends content and form. He creates a world that is both fascinating and frightening to read. Society seems to be divided, black-and-white, into two groups, the “straights” and the “heads.” The straights spend their days entombed in strip malls, protected by armed guards. The heads are bottom feeding addicts, strung out and desperate for nothing but a source for their next fix. Even the rehabilitation clinics are startling, as junkies have to grovel to find safe havens from councilors who openly consider them less than scum. In a novel about mind-crippling drugs and delusional paranoia, Dick’s structure of jumping between character perspectives and their internal monologues makes us feel as though we’re really a part of his world. Reading it, you begin to feel as the characters do–suspicious, as if you can’t get a firm grip on anything that’s going on. You’re never sure of any character’s intention, you don’t know who you can trust in the novel, and you’re never certain of which “mind” is in control, Fred or Robert.
This brings me to another point. While some of the other characters don’t get a lot of development, the way Dick creates the dual character of Robert/Fred is incredible. At first glance, the divide isn’t even noticeable. We’re introduced to Fred, an undercover agent, who tells us that he is posing as the man Robert Arcort, a Substance D dealer. Yes, at first he seems like a man disillusioned by his job and the evils of his work, but he seems to have a complete grasp on his mind. That is, until you spend more time with him, and with Robert, and you begin to realize what Fred cannot see. Robert is becoming his own entity, a mind separate from Fred with his own reality, and watching both of their slow descents into madness is fantastic.
Having greatly enjoyed this book, I recommend it to absolutely anyone, but with a word of caution. There is a decent chance it might not be for you. Dick has a very particular style of writing, one that I feel would divide most of his readers. Much like his vision of the future and Fred/Robert’s mind, they’ll be split evenly into those who just couldn’t get into it and those who couldn’t put it down. But, for those who are intrigued by his style of craft, A Scanner Darkly is a greatplace to start.