A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick


My second Dick book within a month, and I found I didn’t quite enjoy this as much as the first. I find his short stories far more engaging than his long form novels. From the blurb:

“Substance D – otherwise known as Death – is the most dangerous drug ever to find its way on to the black market. It destroys the links between the brain’s two hemispheres, leading first to disorientation and then to complete and irreversible brain damage. Bob Arctor, undercover narcotics agent, is trying to find a lead to the source of the supply, but to pass as an addict he must first become a user…”

I don’t think that is a fair description of the book, as there is so much more to it than that, but the blurb was the reason I picked it up. Still, I struggled to read this, and I found I skimmed the last 90 pages or so, just because there were so many inane conversations which didn’t seem to lead to anything. There are various stream of consciousness rants, which don’t move the plot, paragraphs in German, obscure scientific facts – and I don’t know if these were based on real scientific understanding at one point, or lifted from an academic journal, or were a fiction from Dick’s mind – and so much of the prose and conversations between characters seemed absolutely pointless.

However, there are moments where you see Dick’s genius come through, mostly in agent Fred’s thoughts. So, the main character is Fred, a.k.a Bob Arctor. Fred is an undercover narcotics agent, posing as Bob Arctor, and the narrative of the book flicks between the two perspectives, until there is a total disconnect between the two, and neither recognises the actions of one in the other. There is also the odd situation where Fred, as agent, is reporting on drug user, Bob Arctor, to his colleagues, but his colleagues do not know that Fred is posing as Bob Arctor. The reason for this, is that all agents wear, what are known as, ‘Scramble Suits’, and these cause a persons features to flicker constantly through as many variations of the human face as you can imagine, which renders them, ultimately, unidentifiable. Therefore, even when surveillance cameras and similar are placed in the home where Bob Arctor lives with a number of his junkie pals, they still do not know which one is Fred. Although, ultimately, they manage to establish who he is through a process of elimination.

This situation did not make sense to me, I did not understand why Fred would not simply disclose who he is to his colleagues. It was never sufficiently explained, and there seemed to be no real reason why his colleagues could not know who he was posing as. I considered that perhaps the reason for this facelessness, was to illustrate the facelessness of authority, and to justify the paranoia of Bob and his friends. Dick’s own paranoia comes through quite clearly in this book, and is manifested in a number of ways, including listing an impressive number of ways in which to hide illegal substances from law enforcement (the author note at the end of the book indicates the Dick was, himself, a drug user, so potentially these are from experience).

We can also consider the split personalities of the main character as a literal exploration of the concept of ‘Who am I?’, as both personalities seek to develop their individual conciousness. It also raises the question of who was in control, Fred, Bob or the drugs? Then, Fred starts to forget he is Bob, and Bob forgets he is Fred, and they become entirely different human beings, motivated by different ideas, emotions and needs. In the meantime, Fred is required to undergo psychiatric tests by his colleagues as Substance D starts causing him to behave more and more irrationally. The ending was unexpectedly dark (which is saying something for a book this grim), but fitted the overall tone of the book.

Having read a fair bit of Dick’s writing, there are a number of ideas and themes which are recurring, this includes paranoia (whether justified or not), his interest in loops, how the world is perceived, his politics, breasts – or tits in his parlance, and so on. While I found the premise of the book to be an interesting concept, which was reasonably well executed, I felt there were too many detours into pointless conversations and ramblings. I appreciate that this is meant to show a descent into drug addicted hell, but it is about as interesting as listening to other peoples “Oh my god, this one time, I was so drunk and I did xxx” stories. You know?

However, I would really only recommend this book to people who are Dick fans (lol), or who have enjoyed his other work. I would not recommend starting here. However, I did wonder, given that Dick’s books have inspired so many films, is this the book that inspired the show ’24’? Not that I ever watched it, so I may be way off base with that.

Next week’s book, ‘The Three Body Problem’ – Cixin Liu, which I am already enjoying immensely.



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