The story follows a group of drug users in California in the far-off year of 1994. Actually, the date doesn’t really matter, the book is barely science fiction. The futuristic setting (for when it was written) is simply a device to allow for a drug that doesn’t exist and new techniques for undercover cops.
Anyway, the main protagonist is a druggie called Bob Arctor who is actually an undercover narcotics agent called Agent Fred. Arctor, like his friends, takes a drug called ‘Substance D’ (or Substance Death) and he slowly finds himself addicted. Substance D causes the two hemispheres of the to ‘disconnect’ leading initially to confusion and disorientation and ultimately to brain damage. A bit like Jaegermeister.
All narcotics officers keep their identities secret from everyone, including the police, so when Agent Fred goes to where he can view the surveillance footage of his/Arctor’s and his mates’ house he has to wear a mask (that flashes hundreds of different faces across it every minute, which is cool). As Arctor gets more involved in the drug world he becomes addicted to Substance D. His brain hemispheres lose connection and he grows ever more paranoid and confused. As his brain splits – so do his two personalities. Agent Fred starts to grow more and more convinced that Arctor is a major player in the drug world. He starts to investigate himself…
Philip K Dick is one of my all-time favourite authors and A Scanner Darkly is one of my all-time favourite books. The book is primarily about drug addiction and self-identity. Philip K Dick took an unbelievable amount of drugs in his time and also lost a lot of friends to addiction. He knows what he is talking about. There are some very humorous and very authentic stoner conversations. There is a guy who is convinced he is covered in bugs and they are starting to spread. One guy tries to kill himself by overdosing but it goes wrong and he descends into a trip where a multiple-eyed being from another dimension reads him his sins for all eternity – after 11,000 years the being finally reaches where he discovers masturbation.
Dick’s books generally deal with the themes of what is real, what makes us human, identity and perception. He’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction genre that I like. I have a friend that refuses to read science fiction that was written after 1980 as he claims that older sci fi was more about ideas and philosophy. Dick is one of his favorite authors as well.
A Scanner Darkly is funny, thought-provoking and ultimately, sad. It is one of the few books I have read where I actually sat for a few moments after finishing thinking wow. Just writing this review makes me want to read it again. Don’t see the film and be done (I haven’t actually seen it) – give this a go.