A SCANNER DARKLY – Philip K. Dick (1977)

A Scanner Darkly (Pepper)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.

A Scanner Darkly (Andrew Archer cover)

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32 responses to “A SCANNER DARKLY – Philip K. Dick (1977)

  1. Aonghus Fallon

    I had no idea the novel started out as a realistic depiction of drug abuse! I enjoy Dick’s books for their gnostic underpinnings – the idea that what we believe to be reality is pretty precarious – I particularly remember how one woman character segues into a different female character. The mc puts this down to a drug-induced illusion on his part, but the same transformation is also visible on the holographic tapes, which he watches again and again.* And I think Dick managed the transition from writing Fifties SF to a work rooted in the Seventies very well. I’m more ambivalent about his grasp of plot and character. His characters tend to be engaging at first, but often he doesn’t do anything very interesting with them. Maybe this is a case in point? Like you say, the cumulative tone of the book is kind of monotonous.

    As you probably know Dick once sent a letter to the FBI, claiming Stanislaw Lem was a composite of various authors with the shared goal of peddling communist propaganda to gullible Americans. He was quite, quite crazy, plus his whining about his ex-partner has to be taken with a pinch of salt: I’m guessing he was referring to his last wife? He was married five times and had a child by three different woman.

    * it’s never explained.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes that scene made me think of a scene in Lost Highway by David Lynch, now that I think of it it’s probably inspired by it.

      The plot in this book is indeed thin, it’s just there to serve the paranoia & claustrophobia, and the characters aren’t deep, not even the main character. But in this case 2D characters do the job of conveying the drugs dread well, as this novel has only one intention, so to say. But there is zero examination of why these characters started using in the first place, or the effect it has on their loved ones, etc. At one point it is suggested Bob has children, and that was kind of a sucker punch for me, as it showed there’s a whole untold part to this story. Sadly, PKD kept it to that one (very effective) instance, albeit he built a bit on it later on, as Arctor seems to forgot he has children.

      The wife that left him he talks about in the interview was his forth wife, Tessa being his fifth and last.

      I don’t know if we should take those suicidal emotions with a pinch of salt, as far as I can see PKD was an early forerunner of what is simply serial monogamy this day and age: people having a sequence of serious relationships without marrying. To do the same back then, you had to marry. His first marriage lasted a few months, but his second 9 years, 3rd 6 years, 4th 6 years and final marriage 4 years. I know a significant amount of people in their forties who have a similar track record – except for the children – and experienced the failure of each relationship as serious and emotional.

      But I don’t doubt he was crazy – speed is a nasty drug, even though he tries to make it seem innocent in comparison to hard drugs or psychedelics in that interview. That’s classic fiend excuse tactics.


    • As for the gnostics, I’m afraid to start his later books because of it. What I read about Valis, Timothy Archer, etc. doesn’t make me want to read it. The way you formulate it, it is appealing indeed, but the way it features in the final books seems like a form of mumbo jumbo psychedelics I’m not really interested in.


      • Warwick Stubbs

        I’d say the later novels feel more mature regardless of the subject matter. The Divine Invasion is one of my favourites, but if you’re not interested in the Gnostic aspects, then it’s probably not for you – personally, as an atheist, I find it all quite fascinating. Timothy Archer reads like his few non-sf books but with the subject of Gnosticism as the driving plot, VALIS is his true masterpiece (I’m biased because VALIS was the first Dick I read and was so different from all the other SF I was reading at the time).

        Liked by 1 person

        • If I ever come across VALIS cheap, I’ll pick it up for sure.

          I thought this one was pretty mature, much more than Androids or Ubik. I’m not saying I’m not interested in Gnostic stuff, it’s just that if it becomes too dominant or too serious, I tend to loose interest as I generally don’t feel it is that interesting in answering Deep Questions. Then again, gnosticism can mean so much that I’ll probably have to read those novels to really form an opinion. The metaphysics in this book didn’t really interest me either though. I’m very interested in epistemology and the ‘What is Real?’ question (see my previous review), but generally not in the way it is answered by pseudo-mystics and dope fiends.


      • Aonghus Fallon

        Re the whole gnostic thing, I guess that depends on how seriously you take it? (ie, you don’t need to believe in magic to enjoy a well performed conjuring trick). In terms of PKD and his personal relationships, I think there was something in one of the books (I’m pretty sure it was ‘Flow My Tears’ but can’t remember the exact context) that made me wonder about his attitude to relationships as a whole.

        Not having any kids myself (or any interest in having any) it’s equally possible that I tend to be a bit pious about parental obligations, having no such obligations myself!

        Liked by 1 person

        • True, but I tend to want to learn something if serious questions like these are asked, and usually pseudo-mystics and druggies aren’t that instructional.

          If I ever read Flow…, I’ll keep it in mind and report back. I can’t imagine fathering children with 3 different wives either, but then again, would my life have turned out differently, who knows – there’s a difference between one’s pious wishes (which I share), and the way things might turn out outside your own volition.


  2. Warwick Stubbs

    This book did not click with me. I suspect part of that may be due to his wife Tessa’s hand in the rewriting process – in terms of prose, sentences and paragraphs, it did not feel like authentic Dick. Still, a first edition copy is something I’d definitely snap up!

    Dick himself felt like Martian Time-slip was one of his best, and I’d have to agree. It feels like a meditation on trying to cope in a new environment as a regular person, as does The Man in the High Castle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, me too thought his prose was quite different from the smooth rapid fire of Ubik, much more oppressive, but I thought it fit the themes. I haven’t read enough Dick to recognize it as inauthentic, so to say, but I can well imagine it.

      I’ll read up on Martian Time-slip, thanks, that one wasn’t on my radar yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought this novel felt extremely claustrophobic, like trying to wake up but not getting there. It was also a bit messy.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great review! PKD can be awesome at his best. This is also published in Sf Masterworks, so I‘ll maybe pick it up.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I watched the animated film based on live action of this novel and that was bleak as well as weird so think I’ll give this a miss. We’ve discussed a couple of PKD’s titles before of course and I’ve come to the conclusion that I at least need to read his novels a couple of times before they start to make any kind of sense to me. This is why I have ‘Flow My Tears’ waiting for a reread.

    Some of stuff is a little more accessible, I think, as I found with ‘The Penultimate Truth’: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-truth. I suspect you wouldn’t have any problems with that!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I tried to watch the movie starring Reeves and I just had to stop because it was too weird. I also quit the tv show Man in teh High Castle because I was bored 😀

    I just checked my calibre library and I’ve never actually read anything by Dick. The more reviews I see over time, the less likely I am to read anything by him. I’m not totally done with experimental reading, but the days of just reading something “because” are pretty much done.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. While I find interesting that so much of the author’s own experience stands at the roots of this novel, I’m not sure I would be able to endure the bleakness of its overall mood…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great review. I think I’ll abstain for now; this doesn’t seem like a cheery read 😉 though I’m sure it’s valuable. I only ever read Dick’s Do Androids… and it was ages ago. I’ll think on what to choose as my next PKD.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “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)

    Good review, Bart! I reviewed this back in 2016 during the early days of my blog. It certainly is a dark and depressing story filled with paranoia and bizarre conversations between characters. I did enjoy the dark humour; also the concept of the “scramble suit” was really cool. But yeah, not a book to take to the beach and relax with 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. oberon the fool

    All I really remember from this book is the phrase “Let’s hear it for the vague blur.”, which I have randomly inserted into conversations ever since.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I haven’t read this one, but every Dick novel I’ve read has left me impressed with its narrative structure. Whatever they’re limitations and flaws – hard to escape, as he was churning novels out so quickly – they’re always doing things, and playing with layers, like nothing else in that era. Even his short fiction from the 1950s seems out of step with his contemporaries.

    Liked by 3 people

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