When one reads any story written by Philip K. Dick, one expects certain themes and situations to appear. An example would be the question: What constitutes reality? In A Scanner Darkly, Dick uses drug culture and the often-debilitating effects of drug abuse to take the reader through a journey into a fracturing mind. It is an honest portrayal of the cost of experiencing life through the distorted mirror of altered states of consciousness. It is also one of the most personal stories written by the late Philip K. Dick, based largely on the people he encountered during his own lost times.
Like most Dick stories, A Scanner Darkly begins innocuously enough, starting off as a police procedural. The audience is introduced to Bob Arctor, aka Fred, an undercover narcotics detective who has become no different than the people he keeps under surveillance. The sense of lost identity is very quickly established in a scene where Arctor/Fred gives a rote speech while wearing a scrambler suit. In order to protect his identity, the protagonist wears a full-body suit which randomly displays different faces and body parts. This suit can be seen as a separation of the mind from the body, which is also a side effect of long-term use of Substance D, the drug Arctor/Fred is investigating and abusing. Combining the mental cost of Substance D, the need for complete removal of personal identity, and an order to begin surveillance on himself, Arctor/Fred is given a splendid recipe for paranoia and identity confusion.
In the drug culture that Dick takes his audience, the audience gets to experience the long, strange trip, whether they want to or not. Speaking from personal experience, the listless, almost vacant conversations held between Arctor/Fred and his roommates/suspects are eerily reminiscent of actual conversations between drug users. It’s in the characters that Dick exceeds beyond just a basic, drug-fueled misadventure.
Anyone who has been deeply involved in drugs knows someone like Barris, the shady drug user/pusher who claims to have specialized knowledge and is always working on special projects, like synthesizing cocaine from the contents of spray cans. Or the character Luckman, the amiable stoner who is probably the best friend one can have during a trip but isn’t playing with a full deck of cards at any time. All of these characters and the bright dystopia they live in act like real addicts, making them all the more relatable. It would have been easy for Dick to make a moralizing piece of anti-drug propaganda. Instead he presents broken, flawed people who make the mistake of thinking they can play in traffic without getting hit.
However, this story is very much the descent into madness and loss of personal identity for Arctor/Fred. One of Dick’s other favorite storytelling ideas is to show characters who are moved by the system into situations that harm them without their knowledge or consent. Without revealing too much of the story, Arctor/Fred is such a character, lost in a mission that becomes increasingly impossible to complete. Substance D, also known as Death, creates the effect of the brain separating and fighting itself to understand stimuli. In one of the few lucid moments for the character Barris, he points out that life is the only trip and it’s a heavy trip that leads straight to the grave. If life is a drug and the brain is the center of how one perceives life, how could their not be conflict within one’s own mind just by the act of living? Dick uses Substance D to confront the often destructive trip the drug “life” puts us through.
Philip K. Dick doesn’t shy away from the negative repercussions of prolonged drug use though. As the story reaches its climax and denouement, the physical toll has shattered the minds of some characters and the emotional sanity of others. This slide into oblivion is best summed up by Arctor/Fred, whose separated mind produces a German song with a stanza dealing with darkness, silence, and the loneliness of the singer in this vacuum. The final destination of Arctor/Fred: the DTs (delirium tremens), the uncontrollable soiling of one’s self are all real symptoms described in matter-of-fact but compassionate detail. While reading the scenes of Arctor/Fred suffering withdrawal, I remembered my own experiences becoming clean. Dick managed to capture both the humiliation and the humanity of such a situation in a way that I could relive my own past without shame.
A Scanner Darkly is not Philip K. Dick’s best work but it is a deeply personal statement of the people he knew who lost themselves in the trip. Using the descriptions (and slightly antiquated dialogue of 70’s drug culture) of a surveillance heavy system, Dick explores how we are able to define ourselves and how easily that definition can be altered and obliterated. As one of the classics of science fiction literature, I highly recommend picking up this book. If you wish to see the drug culture from the drug user’s perspective, this book will serve you well as an harrowing introduction.