Book Review: A Scanner Darkly (Contains Spoilers)

Title: A Scanner Darkly
Author: Phillip K. Dick
Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (October 18, 2011)
ISBN-10: 0547572174
ISBN-13: 978-0547572178
Pages: 304

This drama, tragedy, science fiction hybrid was the first novel I had read by Phillip K Dick,  and while I had seen parts of “Total Recall”, I was completely unaware that it was based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick. “A Scanner Darkly” is part of what sparked my interest in science fiction novels.

“A Scanner Darkly” is part science fiction, part thriller, part Greek tragedy set in 1994 dystopian southern California.  The war on drugs has been lost and the population is under constant surveillance.  Substance-D(aka Slow Death) is the drug du jour and everyone is “either on it or they have not tried it”.  The protagonist Bob Arctor is a disillusioned narcotics agent and Substance-D user. Arctor runs in a circle of fellow drug users and works in a tire manufacturing plant as a cover. One of the main effects of substance d is it literally splits the brain into two separate hemispheres. Over the course of the novel Arctor begins to question whether he is really Bob Arctor or Fred.

This novel is filled with interesting characters, Arctor’s roommates really shine in terms of eccentricity. Ernie Luckman is a burnout with a classic “stoner” persona is like Shaggy minus Scooby Doo. Jim Barris as a two-faced roommate who just doesn’t trust Arctor. Jerry Fabin is so far gone on Substance-D that he spends hours washing imaginary aphids from his skin and picking them out of his carpet. Arctor’s housemates all have eyes for Donna Hawthorne, Arctor’s love interest and low level drug dealer.

This is considered to be a semi-autobiographical work, Phillip K Dick drew inspiration from his own time living in a house with drug users in the early 1970’s after his wife left him. The character Donna Hawthorne is loosely based on a young woman associated with Dick during this time. Blurring the line between perception and reality is a long-running theme in the works of Phillip K. Dick and this book is no exception. Towards the end of the book Bob Arctor has no idea that he and Fred are in fact the same person simultaneously trying to evade narcotics agents and collecting information on himself. One thing that stands out to me is the novel loosely resembles a Greek tragedy. At the end of the novel Dick includes an author’s note which serves as an exodus. I don’t want to give away too much to those who may have not read this, but none of the characters have a truly happy ending or gain anything postive from their experiences.

One thing I like about this book is that the theme of a surveillance state transcends the era. Although this book was published in 1977 the debate over the morality of surveillance is ongoing. This aspect of the book is a good thing, because it allows readers to draw parallels between the world we live in and the characters own fictional world. This novel can be a little confusing at times when it comes to terminology, those new to Dick’s works may not be aware of what a “cephscope” is. PKDicktionary may be helpful for readers when it comes to these things.

Overall I would recommend A Scanner Darkly I personally rate is as a 9 out of 10.


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