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Beth Meacham, David Brin

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick My favorite PKD books tend to be those published in the 60s when he was writing wacky fun reality warping sci-fi like [b:Ubik|22590|Ubik|Philip K. Dick|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327995569s/22590.jpg|62929], [b:The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch|14185|The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch|Philip K. Dick|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1338461946s/14185.jpg|1399376], [b:Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep|7082|Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?|Philip K. Dick|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1435458683s/7082.jpg|830939] etc. Of his 70s books that I have read [b:Flow My Tears the Policeman Said|22584|Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said|Philip K. Dick|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1398026028s/22584.jpg|949696] is my favorite, whereas [b:VALIS|216377|VALIS (VALIS Trilogy, #1)|Philip K. Dick|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388200579s/216377.jpg|23607] I could not (as yet) finish. I think the later PKD novels tend to be more serious and introspective though the weirdness is always present.

A Scanner Darkly is one of his early 70s books and I find it more grounded than his earlier books, less insane and a little less fun to read. It is also semi-autobiographical and more melancholy than his other books that I have read. Set in the “near future” of 1992 (it was the future at the time) in a grubby, dystopian California where the general standard of living appears to be very poor and drug addicts possibly outnumber the non-addicts. The novel is mostly centered on Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics officer who lives among three addicts in a rented house and has a girlfriend who is a small time pusher. Bob’s cover is of course as another addict and his mission is basically to glean enough info form his junkie friends and his girlfriend to locate and arrest the producers of a powerful and popular drug called “Substance D”.

The trouble is Bob is too deep under cover and has become an addict himself, consuming copious amount of this drug which messes up his head to the extent that he begins to have an identity crisis and lose his capacity for clear thoughts. As a police agent, Bob goes under the name Fred and always wear a “Scramble Suit” which prevent people from remembering his appearance so his true identity is known only to himself.

This novel reads more like a thriller or drama about drug abuse than science fiction. The sci-fi elements like the scrambled suit and holographic photos seem to have been shoehorn in to make the novel legitimately sci-fi, because for some reason Dick did not want the book published as a “mainstream” book, possibly because sci-fi is his comfort zone or to avoid alienating his regular readers (just my conjecture).

Fans of PKD’s weird goings-on will find enough to please themselves here I think. There are even some hilarious moments in the book such as the bizarre story of a motorized man-shaped block of hash told by one of the junkies.

Dick is often criticized for writing inelegant prose, I never notice this myself as I have always liked his uncluttered prose, the right tool for the right job of telling his bizarre stories. Flowery or lyrical narrative style seems to be very unsuitable for his material. That said A Scanner Darkly seems to be more well written than his books from the 60s; on the other hand there is much more swearing in this book than I can remember from his earlier books. There is also a little bit of romance, considerable compassion, kindness, and sadness. Elements I do not usually associate with PKD’s works. The saddest part of the book is actually the author’s Afterward at the end of the book.

I would recommend reading this novel then watch the 2006 faithful movie adaptation for maximum appreciation. Not my favorite PKD as there are dull patches here and there but overall a very worthwhile read and one of his more “important” novels.

And now a mini-review of A Scanner Darkly, 2006 movie

It is a good movie with a unique look and good performances by the actors. However, I wish the filmmaker Richard Linklater has shot the movie conventionally instead of employing the "interpolated rotoscope" technology to make the movie look like animation. On the plus side, the movie does look suitably surreal, like junkie's drug addled perspective. Unfortunately, the animated look puts an additional layer between the actors and the audience and causes an emotional disconnection.