Philip K Dick – A Scanner Darkly – Book Review

Philip K Dick - A Scanner Darkly - Cover

Verdict – This is genuinely a really affecting book, read it in as close to one hit as you can.  Highly recommended.

I admit it, I put off reading Philip K Dick books for many many years due to thinking he was a pulp writer.  I was wrong.  A Scanner Darkly relates the darkness surrounding drug addiction, hopelessness and focus that Dick experienced in his young-adulthood.  He was an amphetamine addict for many years, although he maintains that this was the first novel he wrote while not on something.

His was a life of turmoil, 5 marriages, 5 divorces, periods of homelessness, depression, paranoia, suicide attempts (once crashing a car on purpose with a wife as a passenger), plus delusions.  The work that comes out of this is, to say the least, unstable.

You can buy this book at amazon from this link.  I have added some links at the end of this page to more information about the author and the book.

A Scanner Darkly is wonderful, an immersive look at life as an addict of Substance D (otherwise known as Death), and large portions of the book are devoted to Bob Arctur’s search for new supplies of tabs.  Substance D is incredibly addictive and over time, overuse will damage the link between the two halves of the brain.  We follow Bob’s journey through slowly succumbing to this impairment, knowing its happening, but being addicted and unable to stop.  There are some heartbreaking sections where friends and acquaintances succumb along the way, plus of course, we can see Bob’s descent as it happens.

Alongside this, Bob is also an undercover policeman (Fred), running surveillance on both himself and his housemates.  There are several routes through which this conflict manifests itself.  His superiors take precautions about limiting his addiction, although he never does receive any actual help, as they need him to be an addict to protect his cover.

With this being a Philip K Dick novel, there are of course various background themes that complicate and confuse the people in the narrative.  As a policeman, Fred has a clinical view of the house and his actions in it.  As his brain deteriorates, he becomes less able to identify himself as being on both sides of the surveillance cameras.  There are a cast of people who pass through the house during the book and while Bob the addict genuinely reacts to events as they happen, the policeman watching the same events manages to come up with unrelated interpretations based on the same information.

Where this book wins for me is the speed with which Bob and Fred part ways and the believable mental processes both go through during their decline.  It is bleak and funny, harsh and loving, life and death, often in the same page.  There are monologues recounting the effects of addiction and an Afterword/Author’s Note listing real people that Dick lost during his early 1960s/70s addiction.

I love this book, Dick predicts entire communities ravaged by addiction and takes the opportunity to explain, although not excuse, the same addiction.  He makes it seem like a logical place to be, assuming Substance D is a choice that its OK to make.

The film adaptation in 2006 is either loved or hated, but very much worth a look.  A lot of the criticism of it is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, which if the reviewer has not read the book, is probably right.  The sense of dislocation, paranoia, bleakness faithfully comes across and the rotoscoping (look it up, great effect) shows off the down-played, flat colour performances of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Wynona Ryder, plus other celebrities in cameos.  It’s a page by page performance of the book with a great cast and while it lost money, you can tell its a labour of love by the Director, Richard Linklater.

More information about Philip K Dick can be found here, and the Wikipedia entry for the book here.