Rating 2.5 stars
Written in 1977 and set in the then-future of 1994, Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly considers a world split into Straights and Dopers.
The dope is Substance D, a synthetic drug that creates a type of dementia, disrupting brain synapses and severing the connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Straights don’t touch it. They live clean lives in protected communities. Dopers are hooked on it. If they stop taking it, they die.
Bob Arctor is a narcotics officer with the Orange County PD. He’s deep undercover, trying to trace the capsules that his contact sells back through the dealing chain to the source. His undercover persona needs to take Substance D in order to maintain his cover. Much of the science in the novel is around brain chemistry and the way habitual drug use, of whatever type, alters the functioning of the brain. Because Arctor is a nark, his brain activity is monitored. He is part human experiment, offering up data on how Substance D works. I found this element of the story interesting.
I found it a strange experience, though, reading about a time I lived through, a time now in the past, as though it’s the future. It felt more like a parallel reality than a prediction. Southern California in Dick’s imagined 1994 is a grimy place, as though the 1970s had stretched on forever. Cassette decks in cars are still the dominant audio tech, despite Bell Laboratories coming up with a body suit that can scramble images so that the wearer is a living pixelation. In our reality, CDs have been around since 1982, with mp3 players coming onto the market only three years after Dick’s setting for his future. Stealth-wear, as the New York Times called it back in 2013, took a while longer.
Of the other future tech that sits alongside the scramble suit, only the holographic variation on CCTV was given any particular attention. I was intrigued by the idea of holographic scanners capturing 3D interactive images of scenes that a viewer can later step inside and examine in detail. I was a bit nonplussed that this data was played back from a tape.
There’s something called a cephscope, or cephalochromascope to give it its full title, which allows people to see their own brain patterns as a form of relaxation therapy. All we really find out about it, though, is that Arctor is majorly bummed out when his gets broken.
Science and technology aside, Dick’s novel is primarily a human story, and it’s the desperation of Arctor to carry out his mission in a way that sits with his own moral compass that propels the narrative, rather than the imagined future science. The story concerns itself with society’s failure of the most vulnerable. If you’re not succeeding like the Straights, you’re nobody, cast aside, left to seek solace in a drug culture that promises escape but becomes a prison.
In immersing himself in the world of the Dopers, Arctor begins to see things from a different perspective. Before he became a nark, he had thrown aside his own Straight lifestyle, divorcing his wife and leaving behind his children and the comfortable home they shared. As he becomes ever more deeply submerged in the culture he’s trying to monitor, he begins to lose his grip on reality. Assigned to a watching brief on a suspect who happens to be him doesn’t help matters. When he is in his guise as Fred, his brain begins to separate out Arctor as Arctor from Arctor as Fred.
There are a few things wrong with this book, from a 21st century perspective. For me, the issues lay primarily with the attitude of Arctor and his colleagues, whether narks or dopers, towards women and people of colour that rankled. Women are only there to be lusted after and fucked. People of colour are viewed by the whites as lacking in the same brain power as white people.
As much as Arctor spends the majority of the book in two minds, I too am in two minds about this novel. I had high hopes for it. I really enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The persistence of a very 60s stoner subculture as the basis for A Scanner Darkly made for fairly dull reading, though. I found it hard to care about anyone. A lot of the time it felt as though nothing was happening, which I suppose is an accurate reflection of the lifestyle of habitual drug users. The drug induced paranoia was, I think, intended to be amusing in a gonzo way but I found it boring. There wasn’t enough to hook me in. Even when I read the author’s note, in which Dick explains that the novel is an homage to the friends he lost to drug misuse, it didn’t change my opinion.