A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick

“What an undercover narcotics agent fears most is not that he will be shot or beaten up but that he will be slipped a great hit of some psychedelic that will roll an endless horror feature film in his head for the remainder of his life, …” (p.67)

f557780b0201df09d8eedd04357421f2I can’t seem to focus on writing this review because of the tiny bugs crawling all over the keyboard. Each time I brush them off, they return in greater numbers. Jerry says he can’t see them but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, right in front of me, blocking out the screen now. Jesus, they’re all over my hands Jerry, help me get them off. Whaddya mean there’s nothing there? Wait a minute, are you recording this? What?.. No, I know you don’t have a camera but I swear I can hear something that sounds just like a video camera’s lens adjusting its focus. No, I’m not being paranoid. I can feel it zooming in on me right now. I’m what?.. You think I’m talking too much? Talking or thinking? Shit, I need a couple of tabs to calm me down. Do you have any, Jerry? Please man, I’ll spot you a couple back when I get some. When?.. Friday. I promise, man. Yeah, I know what I said last time but…


A Scanner Darkly
won the BSFA Best Novel Award in 1978. It is a story set in a (then) future 1994 which focuses on surveillance, recreational drug use, addiction and withdrawal. The main character is Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics agent who is sharing a house with a couple of users. The drug of choice is “Substance D” or “Death”. Arctor is searching for a lead to the supplier(s) of the drug.

D,” he said aloud to his audience, “is for Substance D. Which is for Dumbness and Despair and Desertion, the desertion of your friends from you, you from them, everyone from everyone, isolation and loneliness and hating and suspecting each other.” (p.19)

scanner-book-coverIn the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Dick makes it clear that most of the characters are based on “comrades whom I had” who were “punished for wanting to keep on having a good time forever”. He also declares that “there is no moral” to the story, just it reports on “the consequences” of substance abuse. Thus, it is a story laced with paranoia, distrust, fear and some bizarre conversations. It’s also painfully funny at times. For some readers, though, it may be too dark and depressing.

Personally, I enjoyed it. Dick’s depiction of the characters’ drug-fueled ramblings made me laugh quite often. This humour was a welcome light in the darkness of the subject matter. I also thought the idea of the “scramble suit” was brilliant, but I’ll leave that for you to find out more about. I’ve read complaints that A Scanner Darkly is boring or dull. In that it charts the daily lives of drug addicts, their actions and conversations, their constant search for the next hit, then maybe so. It’s certainly different to a lot of Dick’s other, more sci-fi fare. But underneath the nonsense there is a dosage of realism that, in my opinion, is worth the discomfort.

“The two New-Path staff members stood surveying the thing on their floor that lay puking and shivering, its arms hugging itself, embracing its own body as if to stop itself, against the cold that made it tremble so violently.
“What is it?” one staff member said.
Donna said, “A person.”
“Substance D?”
She nodded.
“It ate his head. Another loser.” (p.188)

Recommended!

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Japanese cover

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