In an afterword that reads like an epitaph, Philip K. Dick explains the impetus behind A Scanner Darkly. He tells the reader that, having witnessed the death and onset of senility of many of his drug-abusing friends, the novel is a reminder to himself and others that the euphoria of narcotics has a flip side. Largely autobiographical, Dick openly admits some of the characters—Barris, Luckman, and Arctor—are based on people who exist or existed in real life. A tragedy in the Greek sense, A Scanner Darkly is as such a brilliant, drug addled story of the counter-culture in an anachronistic future, flower power not everything it was cracked up to be. (Sorry for the pun.)
A Scanner Darkly is the story of Bob Arctor and his duel life. One half narcotics agent, one half drug dealer, he is a user as well as dealer of Substance D, and all confusion as a result. And Arctor’s friends don’t help. Barris is either an intelligent man solving the world one riddle at a time or a complete crackhead. The more the story progresses, the faster the reader oscillates between the two possibilities, his antics like a puzzle piece that fits in two different places at once. No such discernment is needed with the luckless Luckman whose brand of sentience has its area code in another dimension. And Donna, Arctor’s would be lover/always dealer, forever hangs on the fringes, teasing and haunting just as he’s ready to give up on her.
Captured as only Hunter S. Thompson can, Dick perfectly portrays the rigid paranoia, dementia, and eccentricity of the drug riddled mind. The dialogue, while surveying the stratosphere for looniness, never loses touch with reality. Dick guides the deranged banter with an unfailing hand, into wonderland and back, shaping a wholly unpredictable yet highly readable narrative in the process. Trusting that conversation amongst the main characters is based on objective message is truly the most interesting aspect of the novel.
A Scanner Darkly is one of Dick’s more realist works. There are a few sci-fi elements, e.g. scrambler suits which disguise people’s identities, holoscanning, and synthetic drugs, however, the remainder is as real as apple pie--even out-dated to some extent. The cassette tapes and rattletrap cars the characters drive (Arctor has a boat of an Oldsmobile) lend the story a strong retro feel. Not a sterile, clean future, the grittier, dystopian side of America is portrayed. Sagging porches in run down suburbia, poorly mown lawns beside old shopping malls, and people living under the threat of petty theft are redolent throughout the story.
Sadly, it is the realist elements which highlight the only real fault of the novel. The grand reveals of Now Wait for Last Year, Ubik, and especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch all fit their respective stories despite stretching the imagination, . Dick is, after all, read to expand the mind. The conspiracy theory denouement of A Scanner Darkly, however, fails slightly. The main reason for this is because of its contrast with the message Dick was trying to drive home. Without spoiling anything, the larger forces at work give the characters an escape route from the responsibility of drug use—the theme Dick was trying to cultivate in the first place. That being said, the softened ending does not fully dilute the social agenda, various other points in the novel portraying the negative effects of extended drug use as good as any novel has.
In the end, A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K. Dick’s greatest achievements. Poignant to a culture still dealing with drug problems, Dick’s imagination on the nature of narcotics induced mental health issues, government watchdoggery, and general discontent amongst an otherwise functioning group of people is social commentary not to be ignored. That Dick is able to focus what few writing abilities he possesses into a consistent, enlightening and a well-paced narrative is also to be lauded, the opportunities rare. The scrambler suit, for example, is an amazing literary parallel to the identity problems Arctor faces. The conspiracy theory ending unnecessary, readers will forgive Dick his whims given the powerful statement that is the afterword. Simply put, readers cannot call themselves a Dick fan without having read A Scanner Darkly. Of all his novels, perhaps this has the greatest chance of standing the test of time.
(The opportunities to applaud a film adaptation of a novel rare, the following note should be made. Richard Linklater’s film version of A Scanner Darkly is superb. Perhaps the best adaptation of any Dick story, Linklater omits only a few minor details while clinging tightly to the novel’s characterization, dialogue, plot and theme. Keanu Reeves the weakest point, Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect Barris, however, just as Woody Harrelson and Wynona Ryder portray Luckman and Donna as I imagined them while reading. The rotoscoping effect of the film serves to make the film not only unique in appearance but it also more vibrantly displays the hallucinogenic aspects of the story, the scrambler suits especially.)