A Scanner Darkly isn’t really science fiction: PKD didn’t want to publish a mainstream literary novel as his previous attempts had been failures. The publisher suggested Dick to put in a few bits of strange technology (the scramble suit) and set its timeline in 1994, so that it could be marketed as science fiction.
The book is a semi-autobiographical story based on Dick’s own struggles with drugs in the early 70ies. In this troubled period, he took amphetamines full time, and stopped writing all together. He talked about it in a 1977 interview with Uwe Anton and Werner Fuchs:
“But on the drug thing, what happened was that after my wife Nancy left me in 1970, I was in a state of complete desolation and despair, and suicidally depressed because I really loved her. She took my little girl with her, who I really loved, and I didn’t see my little girl for – I saw her only once in a whole year, just for a few minutes. I got mixed up with a lot of street people, just to have somebody to fill the house. She left me with a four bedroom, two-bathroom house and nobody living in it but me. So I just filled it with street people and I got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs. But that was for a period of just about a year. And then I just took amphetamines. I have never ever taken hard drugs. But I was in a position to see what hard drugs did to people, what drugs did to my friends.”
The interview also specifically talks about A Scanner Darkly:
“I saw things that if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I simply wouldn’t have believed them. (…) Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw. I mean I saw even worse things than I put in A Scanner Darkly. I saw people who were reduced to a point where they couldn’t complete a sentence, they really couldn’t state a sentence. And this was permanent, this was for the rest of their lives. Young people. These were people maybe 18 and 19, and I just saw, you know, it was like a vision of Hell. And I vowed to write a novel about it sometime, and I was just…I’m just…it’s just…well, I was in love with a girl who was an addict and I didn’t know she was an addict and it was just pathetic. So I wrote A Scanner Darkly.
But, I did take amphetamines for years in order to be able to – I was able to produce 68 final pages of copy a day. But I write very slowly now and I take my time, because I don’t have any economic pressures. I was supporting, at one time, four children and a wife with very expensive tastes. Like she bought a Jaguar and so forth. I just had to write and that is the only way I could do it. And, you know, I’d like to be able to say I could have done it without the amphetamines, but I’m not sure I could have done it without the amphetamines, turn out that volume of writing. So I can’t really say that for me amphetamines were a total, negative thing.”
Remarkably, A Scanner Darkly is a book on drugs, yet it wasn’t written under influence.
“Ah, well, my writing falls into two degrees, the writing done under the influence of drugs and the writing I’ve done when I’m not under the influence of drugs. But when I’m not under the influence of drugs I write about drugs. I took amphetamines for years in order to get energy to write. I had to write so much in order to make a living because our pay rates were so low. In five years I wrote sixteen novels, which is incredible. (…) But as soon as I began to earn enough money so that I didn’t have to write so many books, I stopped taking amphetamines. So now I don’t take anything like that. And I never wrote anything under the influence of psychedelics. For instance, Palmer Eldritch I wrote without ever having even seen psychedelic drugs.”
That’s it for the background – what about the novel itself?
A Scanner Darkly uses an interesting narrative device: Bob Arctor, undercover narcotics agent, becomes an addict himself, and in the process ends up spying on himself. But because of the particular effects the drugs – “Substance D” – have on his brain, he gradually forgets he is observing himself. This clever mise en abyme-ish construction delivers an effective paranoid, confused vibe. Also via his prose and other formal decisions, Dick manages to evoke the oppressive nature of serious drug addiction very well.
There is lots to recognize in this book: being with people you don’t actually like because of the possibility of scoring drugs, having wild & big plans for the future – eventually, reveling in esoteric knowledge about drugs itself and the procedures involved, the habits and reflexes, the gap between users and regular people, talking about other peoples’ crazy & dangerous trips that subjectively last an eternity, stressing the risks of other drugs you don’t take, pointing at alcohol’s status in society, self-delusionally claim you yourself chose all this since you don’t want to live that long anyhow, being helpless, feelings of guilt, physical dysfunctions, and, maybe most importantly for this novel: just bullshitting your time away with other users.
A Scanner Darkly is a bleak book – and that’s a contrast with lots of other books that feature drugs. As Kim Stanley Robinson wrote his PhD on PKD, and the dystopian The Gold Coast is also set in a future Orange County drugs milieu, I’m quite confident more parallels can be found between A Scanner Darkly and The Gold Coast. But the latter reads like a pleasant picnic in comparison either way. I don’t want to trash on The Gold Coast, as I loved that, but drugs is a sideshow gimmick in so many novels and films, often only to infuse them with some much needed edginess or counterculture credibility. I guess it takes an addict to write a realistic novel about addiction.
Not that it’s all gloom: A Scanner Darkly can be funny – but it’s the kind of comedy that also hurts, like the Quaaludes kitchen scene in Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. As such, the book never looses the oppressive quality of its brilliant opening pages on a guy who thinks there are bugs all over him.
And while the focus is on the addicts, there is some amount of societal critique too, and just enough of the bigger context in which the broken characters function. On the other hand, the conspiratorial ending detracted from the overall atmosphere, framing what is essentially a small story in something that is too large.
I’m still in two minds about this book. Rereading the notes I took, PKD clearly wrote a rich novel, both thematically as texturally, but at the same time the book’s vibe is monotonous – suitably so, I guess, but not necessarily what I want to read. I do think Dick managed to evoke emotions, but I wonder if they will have a broad appeal outside people already acquainted with these kind of addictions.
I’m also baffled by a passage from the Author’s Note at the end of the novel:
“There is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois; it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were. (…) not fate, because any one of us could have chosen to stop playing in the street (…).”
Dick underplays addiction here, as so many people prove time and time again that just choosing to stop isn’t always possible. I guess he took his own reality as law: it is not because he managed to stop, others can do it just as easily. Very strange bit, in an otherwise very emphatic novel.
My track record with PKD is bumpy, but A Scanner Darkly confirms I want to read more of him – even though I don’t think there are that many books of his I’ll like. I might try Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, maybe The Man in the High Castle, and a short story collection.