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A Scanner Darkly

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Substance D is not known as Death for nothing. It is the most toxic drug ever to find its way on to the streets of LA. It destroys the links between the brain's two hemispheres, causing, first, disorientation and then complete and irreversible brain damage.

The undercover narcotics agent who calls himself Bob Arctor is desperate to discover the ultimate source of supply. But to find any kind of lead he has to pose as a user and, inevitably, without realising what is happening, Arctor is soon as addicted as the junkies he works among...

219 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1977

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About the author

Philip K. Dick

1,549 books19.3k followers
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928 and lived most of his life in California. In 1952, he began writing professionally and proceeded to write numerous novels and short-story collections. He won the Hugo Award for the best novel in 1962 for The Man in the High Castle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year in 1974 for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Philip K. Dick died on March 2, 1982, in Santa Ana, California, of heart failure following a stroke.

In addition to 44 published novels, Dick wrote approximately 121 short stories, most of which appeared in science fiction magazines during his lifetime. Although Dick spent most of his career as a writer in near-poverty, ten of his stories have been adapted into popular films since his death, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, and The Adjustment Bureau. In 2005, Time magazine named Ubik one of the one hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923. In 2007, Dick became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,892 reviews
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,868 reviews16.5k followers
February 7, 2023
A Scanner Darkly can be described as follows: begin with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, mix in a pinch of The Big Lebowski, a dollop of A Beautiful Mind, a scene from Crime and Punishment, the shadows and penumbra of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, whispered apprehension of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a hint of thirty year in advance anticipation of reality TV, stir in a portion of dystopian science fiction and mix it all together with Philip K. Dick’s weird genius.

This is actually a very well written book; PKD delivers a mature, far from romantic glimpse of addiction and the drug sub-culture as only he could, a recovering, on again off again user himself and with mental illness added in. Still, this is a complete work by a talented writer and, minimalistic as it is, keeps the reader engaged.

There is humor in the book, though it cannot be considered a comedy, perhaps a dark comedy as the subject matter, though painted with a mild sci-fi brush, is one of addiction and death. A reader of PKD’s works will notice the recurring theme here, as in several other works, of the idea of split personalities, of a protagonist coming to grips with multiple sides of his own ego.

Another recurring theme, perhaps helped along by PKD’s own struggles with schizophrenia, is one of surveillance and, concurrently, helplessness while being watched. The pervasive paranoia and the multiple layers of theatrical irony are the elements of this story that will stay with the reader long after the book has been set down.

*** 2023 reread -

I’ve often wondered about the artistic synchronicity going on in the late 70s and early 80s that produced such unrelated but similar works like Bladerunner, Neuromancer and Rush’s 1982 single Digital Man. Something in the water.

The connection between PKD and Gibson’s Neuromancer may ride through this twisted nightmare from 1977. Conceived and drafted in the early 7os but rewritten for years before its eventual publication. Instantly lauded as something special this has come to be one of Phil’s most recognizable and referenced works and its spiritual undertones make it representative of his later work. I can see the foreshadowed confidence of Molly Millions in one of Dick’s characters here.

And is it just me or are there shades of Orwell’s 1984 in the protagonist’s denouement? Or was it Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange? What in the hell did Phil mean by this? Are the members of society kneeling and extending tongues out as far as possible to catch the drops of acid doled out by government flunkies in a capitalistic dystopian landscape? Is addiction written in our code? Gibson, are you paying attention? All the more reason to respect Phil’s work here.

A PKD fan will notice that if this is compared to some of his early 60s work, likely much of it rushed to the printers first drafts, the legend that this was rewritten over and over for years, makes us wonder about how good Phil could have been. But the buzzsaw frenzy of his prolificacy is a big part of the charisma of his canon and maybe take away the paying the rent immediacy of his most colorful SF might have been throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I’ve always thought this was one of his best books but now I think this is may be his best. Yes, Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Man in the High Castle get most of the awards and praise, but I submit to you, the Court of Goodreads, that this work, labored over for years as it described an autobiographical element of Phil’s own street drug experience, best portrays the damaged but creative genius of Philip K. Dick.

At any rate, this reread of this spot on book about addiction, with Phil’s inimitable mirrored elevator of paranoia and surveillance, was a joy to revisit, even considering its darkness and sober subject matter, and I should make this a more frequent reread.

Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,823 followers
January 22, 2012
I used to wonder how Phillip K. Dick came up with all the trippy concepts in his stories until I read A Scanner Darkly. That’s when I realized that the drugs probably had a lot to do with it.

Originally published in 1977 and set in the mid ‘90s, the book tells the story of Bob Arctor. Arctor appears to be just another burned out druggie who lives with a couple of other dopers, and they spend most of their time getting high on Substance D and assorted other drugs. Bob is actually an undercover narc for the Orange County CA sheriff’s department, and in the future, the cops undercover are in so deep that even their bosses don’t know who they really are. Arctor wears a special scramble suit that blurs his features and voice when reporting to his boss Hank, who also wears a scramble suit to conceal his identity.

Bob has been trying to buy bigger quantities of Substance D from Donna, a spacey hash addict, so that he can work his way to the source, but he’s actually fallen in love with her even though she refuses to sleep with him. He gets a tricky new assignment when Hank orders him to start keeping tabs on a new target; Bob Arctor.

Since he can’t reveal his identity, Arctor has to play out the fiction that he’s investigating himself, but his brains have gotten so slushed from Substance D that he’s having a hard time keeping track of who he actually is.

Bob’s increasing confusion about identity and reality is the kind of theme that Dick specialized in, and Bob’s progressive meltdown is some of my favorite writing he did regarding that. However, while this has a thin veneer of sci-fi over it with the story being set in what was the near future, it‘s actually a chillingly realistic look at drug abuse. Dick spent a couple of years in the early ’70s where he ran with the Just Say Yes! crowd, and this book is a semi-autobiographical account of that time.

Where it really shines is in its portrayal of the drug culture with long sections dedicated to things like an addict who begins seeing bugs everywhere or a botched suicide attempt that turns into a psychedelic eternity of recrimination for past sins. The long rambling conversations with Bob and his fellow druggies are darkly hilarious in that they show a kind of weird creativity while also being completely devoid of logic and apt to go in paranoid directions. For example, a problem with a car eventually leads to their certainty that the cops have planted drugs in the house and that the only solution is to sell the place.

Dick does a masterful job of showing how people could end up living in a perpetual haze while ignoring the long term damage being done even as they see their own friends die or get turned into little more than vegetables by their own behavior. As he puts it, their sin was in wanting to play all the time but the penalty was far harsher than they deserved.

On a side note, I also loved the movie version of this done by Richard Linklater that featured a hand drawn rotoscope process over filmed scenes to give it a feeling of realistic unreality. Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson give great performances as Bob’s druggie housemates, and Keanu Reeves was born to play the brain fried Arctor.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
795 reviews3,617 followers
October 3, 2021
There are other books dealing with drug addiction that tell a whole story and not just the introspection of the protagonist balancing next to the cliffs on insanity by using Dicks´ stylistic trademarks consciousness, parallel realities, illusion, perception, madness,…

Like most of Dicks´ novels, it is focused on one character and his mental problems, combined with the description of highs, illusions, and hallucinations with a sudden ending and many whats? and whys? while reading. It´s difficult to read, one gets a piece of information or disinformation, nothing is happening, then suddenly everything happens too quickly, it´s tricky to follow the whole thing and the end is so constructed, not pre implemented in the whole story and unlikely.

The Sci-Fi element got completely lost in this one, except for some magic cloak style and I still remember how long I waited for the ending until it suddenly erupted and ended the novel far too early at a point where it could have unfolded instead.

I added these paragraphs to my review of „Do Androids dream of electric sheep“ (still to come) too, because it fits for both novels.

Just as „A scanner darkly“, the novel shows that Dick was a highly overrated and overhyped writer, I will spontaneously call him Kazuo Ishiguro of Sci-Fi, whose novels I disliked so much that I first didn´t even wanted to add them to the library. Wait a moment, one of my inner voices just told me that I did yet delete them for the sake of my peace of mind and mental sanity.

I´ve read tons of sci-fi and just don´t get what people see in Dick and Heinlein, it´s not even social sci-fi because everything is so stereotypical, or illogical, full of authors' voice, both unplotted and without realistic character motivations. Just as if they wrote down whatever came to their mind without caring about the conventions and rules of the art of writing real, great, worldbuilding space opera sci fi, or meta social sci fi or full dystopian sci fi, or anything that has more than 2 grains of sci-fi trope elements, and not just egocentric, eccentric, very average novels with tiny amounts of fantastic elements and much drivel and delusion.

The 2 strange weirdo uncles problem:
They are, especially in comparison to the true big three of sci-fi, Asimov (incredible worldbuilding, wit, innuendos, and connotations en masse, perfect pacing) Clarke ( über epic language, a positive interpretation of Lovecrafts´ big, dangerous old ones, subtle social criticism), and Lem (everything great about Asimov and Clarke conmpressed and so complex that it blows my poor, little mind whenever I reread it)the 2 strange uncles of the genre nobody wants to invite, but has to, because it would be too unfriendly and the aunt is quite ok at least. So the one is wasted, drunk or on drugs, mentally ill or extremely unstable, promoting pseudo fringe philosophical drivel about conscience and reality, conspiracy theories, alternate realities, and timelines, uchronias while he is losing the red line and inner logic of his strange ideas until he finishes with an extremely unsatisfying and far fetched conclusion nobody except of him understands. The other one is arbitrarily and unpredictably switching between extreme political and economic ideologies and ideas he is hardlinering and proselytizing about, while his views about women, gays, and sexuality are insulting half of the family, until he finishes his endless monologues without referring to any details, facts, or integrating complex interwoven character arcs. Family gatherings suck.

Tropes show how literature is conceptualized and created and which mixture of elements makes works and genres unique:
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,357 reviews11.8k followers
April 2, 2020

“I have seen myself backward.”
― Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick's searing, hyperrealist tale of a specific time (late 1960s), a specific place (California), and a specific mentality (seek maximum happiness now since tomorrow you might die) set in 1994, enough in the near future for the author to inject massive doses of his signature wild imagination into the mix. As most readers will know, director Richard Linklater employed distinctive digital technology and animation in creating a blockbuster film based on the novel.

In his Author's Note to A Scanner Darkly, PKD lists fifteen of the people he loved who lost life or sanity during those outrageous years. He also reveals something extremely personal to his readers: he is not in the novel, he is the novel. Intrigued? You should be. Here are ten hits of what this unique, drug-centered classic is all about:

1. Freak-Out: The opening scene features doper Jerry Fabin in a frantic battle with thousands of aphid bugs infesting his hair and every inch of his body. Unfortunately, Jerry is fighting a losing battle - even standing under hot water in the shower ten hours a day doesn't help. After suffering one particularly severe attack, Jerry admits defeat and is admitted into Number Three Federal Clinic. The psychic meltdown of Jerry Fabin is a haunting reminder to all of Jerry's friends of what can happen with too much dope, a reminder coating every page of the novel like a thick syrup.

2. Drugs and More Drugs: In addition to hash, heroin, cocaine, mescaline, LSD, speed and other familiar names on the list, there is the new prima numero uno drug of choice, Substance D aka Death or Slow Death. Among its many side effects is the risk of split brain phenomenon, where a user will develop two identities and have one side of their brain talk to the other as if two different people in conversation. And cut with bad ingredients, in a matter of months, Substance D can cause a sixteen year old girl to look like a scraggly old lady with grey hair falling out. But the supercharged high produced outweighs the possible side effects by far. Oh, wow!

3. The Setting: Sprawling air-conditioned Southern California nightmare, an unending repetition of McDonald hamburger stands, strip malls, gas stations and freeways. Main character Robert Arctor reflects: "They (McDonald's) had by now, according to their sign, sold the same original burger fifty billion times. He wondered if it was to the same person. Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread out father in the form of neon ooze."

4. War: It's straights vs. dopers since the dopers can't stomach the air conditioned nightmare and just want to turn on and drop out but the straights think all the neon ooze is as American as grandma and apple pie. And those straights include fully armed Birchers and Minutemen, city police and federal police, army forces and unidentified forces. If you are a doper and caught off guard, you will quickly be eliminated via jail or bullet or even worse, a federal clinic. In this war, the straights don't take any prisoners since, for them, dopers are disgusting filth, not even on the level of mangy dogs.

5. Scramble Suits: An underground cop will report gathered information wearing a futuristic scramble suit, a full body, head to toe covering, a piece of technological magic, rendering the wearer a vague blur. The police chief receiving this information will also wear a scramble suit. Thus concealment and secrecy are maintained on all levels.

6. Surveillance: In this futuristic world the police possess powerful technology to spy on dopers in all sorts of ways, including scanners that can zoom in and out in 3-D. Feeling paranoid? There might be good reason - smile, you are on candid camera.

7. Robert Arctor, One: Bob was once a straight, living with his wife and two little girls out in their three bedroom house, working as an investigator for an insurance company, but one day Bob hit his head in the kitchen and all instantly came clear in a flash: his entire life was a sham, nothing but a deadly routine and he hated all of it. Soon thereafter Bob gets a divorce and shifts into the doper life.

8. Robert Arctor, Two: To support his drug habit and live in his now rundown doper house, Bob takes on the job of undercover narcotics agent. The drug world, Arctor recognizes, is a murky world were dopers work for the cops and cops posing as dopers get hooked on dope and might even become full-time dealers. And Robert Arctor gets hooked on a bunch of dope, most notably on Substance D. Arctor escaped his drab, humdrum, straight family life but can he be sure his new doper life will turn out to be any better?

9 Robert Arctor, Three: Bob reports to his boss Hank in his scramble suit where he assumes name and identity as Frank. But, then, Bob has to deal with the crazy effects of Substance D causing his personality and identity to split in two. Oh, my spacey hallucinations! - an undercover agent living two lives with two different names experiencing split brain phenomenon. A custom-made phenomenon for the one and only PKD.

10. Dopers Friends: We are provided detailed glimpses into the inner and social lives of the two doper dudes living at Bob's house: supercool Ernie Luckman and supersmart Jim Barris. There is also Arctor's heartthrob - young, superfoxy Donna Hawthorne. Hey, wait a toker minute. Is Luckman or Barris or Donna what they appear to be? How many of them are also living a double life? As noted above, the drug world is a murky world. And that includes government agencies more than happy to slide into a sinister double life to achieve their goals. Read all about it. Remember PKD IS this novel. What a trip.

“The tragedy in his life already existed. To love an atmospheric spirit. That was the real sorrow. Hopelessness itself. Nowhere on the printed page, nowhere in the annals of man, would her name appear: no local habitation, no name. There are girls like that, he thought, and those you love most, the ones where there is no hope because it has eluded you at the very moment you close your hands around it.”
― Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,542 followers
October 11, 2019
This was a fascinating story (if somewhat terrifying) about LA in the 90s (seen from the 70s) and the future is grim. In a lot of ways, PKD's predictions have not bourne out: we don't have scattersuits and no one was using cassette tapes anymore because of the CD. However, the long-term effects of hard drug use are not that off mark. I suspect that Substance D (or "death" as it is known on the street) would today be some kind of crystal meth like Heisenberg's on Breaking Bad, but ingestible with tablets. Its widespread use and devastating impact on users is certainly not understated. That being said, there is also a narrative about spies and counter-spies and how governmental institutions dehumanize agents and occasionally sacrifice then willingly. The overall feeling of the book was kind of like Fight Club meets Naked Lunch or something. I felt it was a great read and prefer it over "Electric Sheep" from PKD.

I really enjoyed how he described the scramble suit using cubist painters, that was a nice touch. I also saw an interesting parallel to Fight Club with the split personality of the protagonist.

I felt that his descriptions of people freaking out on LSD or D, particularly the bug episode, were extremely well done. I can't help but think that DFW's descriptions of addiction and delirium in Infinite Jest and The Pale King were at least partially inspired by PDK although DFW said he had never taken the hard stuff.

I also have owned Linkletter's animated film of the book since the DVD was released and - although I have not watched in in several years - I recall it being quite faithful to the book and that the animation was groundbreaking at the time. I highly recommend both that one and A Waking Life by Linkletter (and Slacker of course!)
Profile Image for Warwick.
824 reviews14.5k followers
January 4, 2019

In 1971, Philip K Dick's fourth wife, Nancy, left him and took their little daughter with her. Dick was left alone in a four-bedroom house in Santa Venetia, ‘in a state of complete desolation and despair, and suicidally depressed’, as he later put it. In an attempt to surround himself with life and activity, he turned the property into a kind of open house for what he called ‘street people’ – drug-users that he knew through his amphetamine habit, although many of them were on much harder drugs than he was.

Dick's new housemates stopped him from killing himself, but a lot of them weren't so lucky themselves. ‘Toward the start of 1972,’ he remembered, ‘I woke up one day and noticed that all my friends either were dead, had burned-out brains, were psychotic, or all of the above.’ And these were people he had become very close to; indeed he thought he was in love with one of them.

This was the genesis of A Scanner Darkly, in which Dick, grounding his metaphysical speculations in the real environment of the California doper scene, finally produced an out-and-out masterpiece. The novel's motivation is hinted at when its protagonist looks around at the drug addicts and drop-outs around him:

In wretched little lives like that, someone must intervene. Or at least mark their sad comings and goings. Mark and if possible permanently record, so they'll be remembered. For a better day, later on, when people will understand.

This is the colossal impulse of sympathy animating the book. Though it's obviously and openly about the California of the late 60s, Scanner is set, by genre convention, in the then-future of 1994, a distancing technique that Dick uses merely to blow up contemporary issues. Characters still use 60s slang, quote Timothy Leary, watch Easy Rider and listen to Hendrix and Janis Joplin on cassette; but they do it in a society where 60s paranoia about a ‘police state’ has been realised, where surveillance technology is advanced and all-pervasive, and where anyone, even your best friend, could be a narc in disguise.

Our main character is one of them. As Agent Fred, he is responsible for infiltrating and monitoring a house full of drug addicts, using hand-wavy technology which means that no one, even his superiors, knows what he really looks or sounds like. His bosses tell him to focus on one guy in particular, Bob Arctor, not realising that Bob Arctor is Fred himself.

The problem is that Fred/Bob is taking a lot of drugs in the line of duty, and he starts to become unsure of his real identity. As Bob, wandering about his house, he frets paranoically about the possibility of surveillance equipment in the walls; as Fred, he studies the tapes of Bob's activity and wonders who this guy is and what he's hiding. As the book goes on, the two increasingly fracture into separate entities.

What's great about this is that Dick has always been fascinated by identity crisis and ontological instability; but whereas in previous books these are generated by sci-fi magic, here they are all rooted in a real evaluation of what drug addiction does to the human brain. Indeed he saw A Scanner Darkly as being, essentially, his great anti-drug novel, telling friends he wanted it to do for hard drugs what All Quiet on the Western Front did for war.

I don't see it working quite that way; to me its genius is not located in its moral message, which is anyway not as strong or unambiguous as I think Dick thought it was. Unlike most of his other novels, it's also very funny. There is a great ear for dialogue in this book, with whole conversations reproduced very naturally – you feel like you're eavesdropping on these people as they crack jokes, talk bullshit, get confused, freak out, get high and negotiate relationships.

“You want a ride where you're going?”

“You'll bang me in the car.”

“No,” he said, “I can't get it on right now, these last couple of weeks. It must be something they're adulterating all the stuff with. Some chemical.”

“That's a neat-o line, but I've heard it before. Everybody bangs me.” She amended that. “Tries to, anyhow. That's what it's like to be a chick. I'm suing one guy in court right now, for molestation and assault. We're asking punitive damages in excess of forty thousand.”

“How far'd he get?”

Donna said, “Got his hand around my boob.”

“That isn't worth forty thousand.”

Scanner is full of great scenes, many of which can make you feel acute sadness and laughter all at the same time. It's also one of the best portraits of this milieu that I've read, and holds its own alongside other products of the 60s US counterculture – The Crying of Lot 49, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In some ways the patina of science-fiction means it does a better job of explaining it all than any of them.

And as the title warns you, it's not an upbeat tale. It spirals into a dark place, and then leaves you there. In a heartbreaking Afterword, Dick lists the friends he knew at that time and records the damage that was done to them. One of the names is his own. Most of the others simply say ‘deceased’.

We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terribly brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief; even when we could see it, we could not believe it. […] These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven.

‘You won't believe how screwed-up reality is actually, John, until you read SCANNER,’ Dick wrote to a friend; ‘I had no idea myself.’ You can feel that shock reverberating through the novel, alongside his curiosity, his sympathy, his horror. It's like all his gifts and obsessions finally had something real through which to be refracted – and the results may be dark, but they're also brilliant.
Profile Image for carol..
1,535 reviews7,875 followers
November 24, 2020
I've started and restarted this review a number of times. With that in mind, I'm going to take a page from mark monday (http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/13...) and share a multi-perspective review.

The .gif summation:


Recipe for A Scanner Darkly:

1. Take moderate amounts of the drug of your choice (recommend one with highly hallucinogenic and paranoiac qualities)
2. Allow to simmer while reading Less Than Zero
3. Stir in a random amount of a second drug (preferably one with potential for permanent brain damage--current versions of the recipe recommend bath salts)
4. Allow to cook in brain pan on high heat
5. Watch Rush, the movie. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102820/
6. Rinse and repeat until brain fully cooked

The literary critic:

Wandering, borderline incoherent narrative. Half-hearted attempt to tack on conspiracy theory at the end, which might have been effective had there been more building earlier. The story did surprise me in a couple of places, notably which, while genius, does miss the consequence point he seems to want to make; and in the plot twist at the very end. Like the main character, Bob Arctor/Fred, PKD seems of two minds about the book: does he want to tell a story of extreme consequences to deliberate recreational drug use, or does he want to tell a mystery noir, with undercover agents, spying, illegal drug running, and conspiracies?

That said, character creation was brilliant. Each has his own way of interacting with drugs, his own purpose and own experience, and the intersections were fascinating. Barris with his experimental genius. Luckman with his pursuit of pleasure, Donna with her strangely drawn and arbitrary drug-use lines (ha-ha), and Charles Freck with his sad effort to self-medicate mental illness. I'm sure several of the conversations came out of real life; they are too absurd not to.

The psychological evaluation sections were interesting, and a clever device to give the reader insight into the world and Arctor, although the mumbo-science passed through my own tired brain. Stylistically, the language was essentially prosaic, but occasionally a phrase would catch my attention and stop me in my tracks with meaning:

"It will be a hindsight I won't even get to have. Somebody else will have to have it for me."

"And then he thought, Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then, briefly. Under very specialized conditions, such as today."

The personal:

Been there, done that. I get PKD and his motivations, I really do. His Author's Note was quite powerful, especially when he says "these people wanted to keep having a good time forever." Except it his book skipped the good time, the gentle slide into drug dependency, the slip of control from choosing to needing, personal charm eroded into manipulation. Had he done so, my sympathy for the characters would have been greater and my connection to the story deeper. I would have enjoyed it more if there had been more than the tiniest shred of redemption, some elements of joy and abandon to show the sheer delight of the "children playing in the street."

Three and a half tabs stars.

Cross posted at http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2013/0...
Profile Image for Baba.
3,560 reviews857 followers
June 24, 2022
2020 view
SF Masterworks 20
: A dystopian world where one half of society spends nearly all their time acquiring and using drugs, especially Substance D, the most toxic, addictive and lethal(!) drug ever. Deep undercover police 'Fred' whose identity is secret even from the police, is startled to find that the next person he has to investigate is his own undercover self!

In a world where there are countless undercover officers, paid narcs and multitudes on the verge of Substance D derangement or death, can 'Fred' keep his head straight and find out whose after him? A delightful dystopia written deep in counter culture era, can you dig it? Dick's first hand experience with the said culture, is there for all to see, with the beautiful, but inane conversations of the stoned; and behind it all he creates a suspense ridden thriller. This is some fine work by the master! 8 out of 12. Dick dedicated this book to 15 of his friends whose lives were negatively impacted by what began as recreational drug use.

2010 view
“Everything in life is just for a while.”
Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
The most lethal and toxic drug to ever hit the streets of L.A. - Substance D leads to irreversible brain damage! Deep undercover agent, Bob Arctor is after the supply chain.. but when you get to close to the fire!

Like a number of PKD works, the scene setting is great, the characterisations a bit soulless and most of all I struggle to get engaged with the story. Overall with PKD I sometimes feel his legacy and gravitas outweigh his actual output! 5 out of 12.

2020 read; 2010 read
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,688 followers
March 5, 2017
Be happy NOW, for tomorrow I will be writing.
Take the cash and let the credit GO
I'll write MY review tomorrow.
Let US all be happy.
And play AGAIN.



So, I wrote a review I was really proud of today during lunch. Four or five paragraphs. I liked it a lot. So, I was rather disheartened when my computer froze and I had to do a hard-boot to unfreeze it. Lost everything but the vague outlines of what I wrote. Even those vague outlines seem difficult to grasp right now. I'm kinda demoralized. Alas, I can probably make some bridge to how THIS loss (MY loss) of data...this unrecoverable review...this remorse over the ebbs of life dovetails quite nicely with some of the themes of A Scanner Darkly. But right now I just don't care. I'm still pissed about the loss and have a hard time seeing through the glass at all.

So, I'm going to give review resurrection a shot:

'A Scanner Darkly' fits well on the addiction/drug/alcoholism as literature shelf. It needs no subsidy to sit next to Infinite Jest, Tender Is the Night, Under the Volcano, Less Than Zero, Naked Lunch, On the Road and the rest. This list is basically unending.

It seems like all novels about drug abuse, alcohol addiction, etc.., almost inevitably become a form of science fiction. They surf those disjointed, dream-like spaces -- seducing man from the first time he got buzzed from eating, drinking, or smoking something deliriant. These dope trips aren't rational, they aren't lucid, etc., but they still have a certain narrative coherence. It is like science fiction was created (in the beginning) by some belladonna-infused deity and formed into a perfect literary template to explain/capture all the paranoia and weirdness of the trips highs and lows.

It is impossible to read a novel about addiction without recognizing the author's fingerprints all over it. These novels are all memoirs of sorts. Their pages hold more truth than the Library of Congress. They are funky road trips through hell and PKD is the perfect acid artist for this vicious trip.


As I read 'A Scanner Darkly', I was haunted by the open wounds in the dialogue, the festering beauty of his prose. These weren't scenes created ex nihilo. These pages all resonate like some haunted Totentanz. They chill like a Vanitas dream you can't quite escape. I can't remember what I wrote. The words, the melody, even the beat of what was once alive is now dead... and waiting for a trippy resurrection.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,969 followers
May 15, 2019
Re-read 5/15/19:
I'm continually surprised, now with my third read, how much fun I have with this novel. How much fun I have with the bugs. Or how much fun I have with the missing gears on the bike. Or how much fun I have with Bob, Fred, or whoever the hell the main character is. :) By the end, he is entirely nameless.

Freaky cool.

I think, more than anything, I love the philosophy that is snuck in at random moments or explored in long stretches without a direct reference. PKD's afterward is very nice and also very sad, but the core idea is not lost.

We were all just kids not wanting to grow up, but the punishment was entirely out of scope with that crime.

This is, ostensibly, a novel about drugs, but it is also something much deeper.

It is a novel about ennui, confusion, paranoia, and the senseless horror of living a world that cannot know what it wants, or if it does, refuses to give an inch when it comes to forgiving itself. You might say it is a hell of our own creation. Deep? Not really. Kinda obvious. But so obvious that we continually forget the fact and get caught up in our continual confusion until we utterly forget it. And then, when we have someone pipe up with the pithy observation that we're living in a hell of our own creation, we laugh and get a hammer and kill the poor fool or get him hooked on drugs or send him to a mental institution or we follow him around like some guru and shave our heads and no one pays him any mind anyway.

Hello, Phil! Oh wait, you died right after you FINALLY got out of poverty when they made Blade Runner. You lived in abject poverty all your life... and now we have movie after movie after movie made from your legacy.

Yep. Sounds about right. Welcome to the Empire. It never ended.

Original Review:

This is my second time reading this wonderful novel, and I see no reason to revise any of my initial impressions. It's still very enjoyable... Again. Maybe I have a soft spot in my heart for all those wonderful novels that either deal with the nature of reality, of conscious identity, of drug use, or just plain consequences of one's actions.

Fortunately for me, I've got so many of my favorite themes in one novel. To me, it builds on the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and only mildly resonates with any overt SF gadgethood. Instead, it speculates wildly about the people who use and the people who suffer, showing us all how much worse the punishment is for what is, in effect, a victimless crime.

A discussion about Pot? If so, it is rather early in the turning of the wheel. We're shown people having fun despite the darkness of their lives and despite the heavy consequences, whether by huge mental instability, outright madness, incarceration, brainwashing, and last but not least, inequity of justice.

Maybe the last isn't as obvious until you read the author's afterward, or maybe it'll bash you over the head as you roam the fields. Either way, Death is only an inversion of self, and the faster a person runs toward fulfilling themselves through drugs or hedonism, the faster they lose everything that matters in their lives.

PKD's dark universe and exploration of the mind falling apart, of draconian measures tearing harmless people apart, of the absolute irony of the end of the novel... all of it is a testimony of heartbreak in the midst of humor.

I happen to know a bit about PKD's life. He wasn't the drug fiend that people made him out to be. He smoked some pot and dropped a few tabs of acid in his life, but he was also a man of his times. He WROTE as a man of his time. He was more interested in philosophy and the nature of reality, religion, and the mind that most writers, but that's not to say he was anything other than paranoid. He was. And that was the main feature of most of his great novels. Counterculture was his passion. So was questioning the fabric of reality.

Some of his last novels exemplify this. A later brain tumor cannot explain away the devotion to these threads of themes, although I think we can all agree that it did make him a bit obsessive about it.

Regardless, this was first and foremost a deliberate novel set out to deliberately show the blurred definitions between the norms and the abnorms, the crazies and the sane, the users and the clean. Everything was merely a reversal in the glass. Narcs and pushers were practically the same, and the funniest bits of the book had to be either the antics of the friends or the deliciousness of having our MC ironically persecute himself every step of the way.

What a beautiful novel. Not my absolute favorite of his works, but it is crazy good.

Now, off to re-watch the great Linklater film!
Profile Image for Vicky "phenkos".
144 reviews96 followers
September 1, 2020
Philip K. Dick's work has had a tremendous influence on me. Although I don't read much sci-fi these days, any time I go back to one of Dick's books, I feel as if I retreat into an enclosed space deep inside me - a space that I recognise and cherish, yet sometimes lose or forget.

Finding oneself - losing onself...

A Scanner Darkly is probably not the best known of Dick's works. It lacks the brilliance of Do Androids or the depressive atmosphere of Three Stigmata. Yet, it offers a sneak peek in Dick's psyche, partly because of the subject matter and partly because of a postface where Dick explains why he wrote the book. A Scanner Darkly has some autobiographical elements; Dick wrote it after he broke up with his wife Nancy and was left to live on his own in a three-bedroom house which he soon filled with a rotating coterie of drug-using friends and acquaintances. It is his own and his friends' mental deterioration during this period that Dick documents in his book. Of course, in true Dickian style, this account is never realistic or sociological; Dick never moralises or regrets his choices. But at the end of the book, a deep pain makes itself felt - a pain that engulfs the reader and shows something of what life must have been like for Dick at the time.

As the blurb says, the book is about the effects of Substance D or 'slow death', a toxic drug that causes severe brain damage to its users. Bob Arctor, the main character of the book, is addicted to Substance D, as are several of his friends and house-mates. Unbeknownst to them, however, Arctor is also an undercover narcotics agent who tries to identify drug dealers in a bid to stem the flow of the drug in the US. This character has a dual identity; known as Arctor to his friends and his dealing girlfriend, he is known as Fred to his superiors. In addition, when he works as an agent, Arctor/Fred wears a suit which scrambles his facial and bodily features so that anyone who sees him in his suit cannot form a clear impresion of him. Thus, the suit makes him unidentificable to the police and anyone he comes into contact with. This sounds like a super-weapon but it has a side-effect whose sinister importance becomes clearer as the plot thickens. The suit protects Arctor from exposing his own addction to his superiors, however, it also means that to protect his identity he has to report on his own self as well as his mates and the dealers he chases. His superiors know, of course, that in order to infiltrate the drug-dealing underworld Fred has to pretend he is a drug user (and perhaps more than "pretend"). It is, therefore, common knolwedge that one of the people Fred reports on will be himself, however this is accepted as necessary in the course of his duties. The problem is that under the influence of Substance D, which causes the two hemispheres of the brain to stop syncronising their operation, Arctor/Fred loses any sense of who he is. Fred watches Arctor through the scanners installed in his home for surveillance but gradually fails to register that he is himself Arctor. The split in the two hemispheres of his brain becomes a split into who he is, with the result that he is no longer able to even recall his name.

In the postface, Dick dedicates the book to those of his friends who died or suffered irreparable damage from drug-taking. Yet, he does not blame them. Instead, he says they paid a very heavy price for what they did, which was go against the prevailing mores of the time. These people, he says, wanted to "play" instead of toiling, but were punished disproportionately for this.

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. In Greek drama they were beginning, as a society, to discover science, which means causal law. Here in this novel there is Nemesis: not fate, because any one of us could have chosen to stop playing in the street, but, as I
narrate from the deepest part of my life and heart, a dreadful Nemesis for those who kept on playing.

There is no redemption in this novel. All there is is a list of names. "These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven." But the "enemy" was not the narcotics agency, the state, the underworld of dealers or the drug itself. The "enemy", says Dick, "was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy." Towards the end of the book, other undercover agents reveal that Substance D is not some synthetic drug made in a lab like heroin but an organic flower called mors ontologica. Ontological death. Connecting this with what Dick says in the postface, I believe he wants to impress on us that the people he talks about in his novel, his comrades who wanted to "play", did not simply make a mistake which could have been avoided if the supply lines of the drug were disrupted. Instead, these people were ontologically different from the others, the "straights", those who live their lives as they're supposed to. Fred himself was a "straight" who could not bear his life any longer. One day, he knocked his head against a shelf and it just hit him; he abandoned his wife and two daughters and went to live far away. Dick's desire for a more authentic life, his own desire to "play", as well as his mysticism, becomes apparent here. Let us recall that the phrase "a glass darkly" derives from St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. What Fred sees when he watches Arctor and his drug-taking friends through the surveillance scanners is not naked "reality" but something else. Whether it is possible to see things clearly, though, outside the distorting effect of the scanner, is completely uncertain...
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews867 followers
March 27, 2020
We are exchanging too much passive life for the reality outside us.

There were a couple of times when I felt that A Scanner Darkly, a story about an undercover narc agent who narcs on himself before being sent to rehab, should have been one of PK Dick's short stories. However, just when I thought PKD had played out his hand, the scene would change and we would return to one of Dick's central tenets in a new way: how do we know what is real. That is followed by characters trying both to figure out their (twisted) reality and who they are (or might be). PKD makes sure it's never an easy call. A Scanner Darkly got better as it continued and kept pushing the boundaries of reality and identity. Finally, the epilogue to A Scanner Darkly is more moving than I remember an epilogue ever being.
Profile Image for Paul O’Neill.
Author 3 books174 followers
March 28, 2017
God, how dark it is here, and totally silent. Nothing but me lives in this vacuum…

Philip K. Dick’s darkly atmospheric novel about drug culture and how drugs affect society is a well written, impactful story. It’s a realistic view of how drugs affect the mind and relationships.

The story follows the character of Bob and his friends, who are both using and selling a mind-bending drug called Substance D. We also follow Fred, a cop who works for a form of drug bust squad. The hook is that Bob and Fred are the same person. Substance D alters the mind so much that Bob/Fred’s personality fractures and that’s the main narrative that we follow.

Dick was a drug user himself. Because of this, he is able to paint a hauntingly realistic picture of the life of a drug user and the constant haze they live in.

Written in 1977, it still holds up today and points must go to Dick for one of the best titles for a book, ever.

Great opening

The opening sequence had me hooked. It’s a perfect example of how to draw in an audience. It starts by showing how drugs have pretty much demolished Jerry’s mind, a great introduction to the events to come.


Dick’s writing creates such a dark atmosphere. For me, it’s the best thing about this book. It sucks you in and you can imagine what it’s like in the situation the characters find themselves in. Dick also writes the tragic elements of the story very well.

Here are some of my favourite examples of what the writing is like in this book:

Happiness, he thought, is knowing you got some pills.

What did any man, doing any kind of work, know about his actual motives?

To see that warm living person burn out from the inside, burn from the heart outward. Until it clicked and clacked like an insect, repeating one sentence again and again. A recording. A closed loop of tape.

I resemble that worm which crawls through dust, lives in the dust, easts dust until a passerby’s foot crushes it.

Notable issues

The writing does ramble on in places. To me, I would have chopped some chunks out of this book to make it even shorter. His use of German irritated me whilst reading it also as Dick doesn’t always translate it into English. I know it doesn’t make a huge impact to the story and in fact it’s there to some something about the psyche of our main character but it irritated me all the same.

Final thought

A great book with a dark, ominous atmosphere which rolls off the page and into your head. The story is fascinating and echoes parts of the real world so closely that it’s scary! Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Ron.
387 reviews89 followers
November 10, 2017
3.5 stars rounded to 4 after the epilogue.

One day I figure out all of a Philip K. Dick novel. Ah, who am I kidding, lol. Truthfully, I like the challenge. Love the ideas. The guy was brilliant. But let me tell you, some of the situations and conversations I experienced in this book could possibly be the wildest I’ve come across – since reading my last Dick novel. In an epilogue, he offers his reason for writing A Scanner Darkly. It is poignant to say the least. He adds that there is no moral to his story. With drugs, there are only consequences. He tells this from personal experience. “I am not a character in the novel. I am the novel.” Maybe no moral, but definitely a message: Drugs take no prisoners. Fittingly, he named the drug in this book “Substance D” - death for short.
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
545 reviews147 followers
December 17, 2021
This is exactly what living with addiction feels like. Unwell delusion at odds with unstoppable consequences. Sick thinking that comforts as it kills.

Beyond that gritty and discomforting topic, which already makes it well worth reading, it's a damn good science fiction story. Entangled in paranoia, PKD delves into the seemingly hardwired "Us vs Them" dynamic while featuring strange technology that extends real social ills out to their most striking metaphorical forms.

5 stars. Raw, intense, engrossing
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews782 followers
November 5, 2015
My favorite PKD books tend to be those published in the 60s when he was writing wacky fun reality warping sci-fi like Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep etc. Of his 70s books that I have read Flow My Tears the Policeman Said is my favorite, whereas VALIS I could not (as yet) finish. I think the later PKD novels tend to be more serious and introspective though the weirdness is always present.

A Scanner Darkly is one of his early 70s books and I find it more grounded than his earlier books, less insane and a little less fun to read. It is also semi-autobiographical and more melancholy than his other books that I have read. Set in the “near future” of 1992 (it was the future at the time) in a grubby, dystopian California where the general standard of living appears to be very poor and drug addicts possibly outnumber the non-addicts. The novel is mostly centered on Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics officer who lives among three addicts in a rented house and has a girlfriend who is a small time pusher. Bob’s cover is of course as another addict and his mission is basically to glean enough info form his junkie friends and his girlfriend to locate and arrest the producers of a powerful and popular drug called “Substance D”.

The trouble is Bob is too deep under cover and has become an addict himself, consuming copious amount of this drug which messes up his head to the extent that he begins to have an identity crisis and lose his capacity for clear thoughts. As a police agent, Bob goes under the name Fred and always wear a “Scramble Suit” which prevent people from remembering his appearance so his true identity is known only to himself.

This novel reads more like a thriller or drama about drug abuse than science fiction. The sci-fi elements like the scrambled suit and holographic photos seem to have been shoehorn in to make the novel legitimately sci-fi, because for some reason Dick did not want the book published as a “mainstream” book, possibly because sci-fi is his comfort zone or to avoid alienating his regular readers (just my conjecture).

Fans of PKD’s weird goings-on will find enough to please themselves here I think. There are even some hilarious moments in the book such as the bizarre story of a motorized man-shaped block of hash told by one of the junkies.

Dick is often criticized for writing inelegant prose, I never notice this myself as I have always liked his uncluttered prose, the right tool for the right job of telling his bizarre stories. Flowery or lyrical narrative style seems to be very unsuitable for his material. That said A Scanner Darkly seems to be more well written than his books from the 60s; on the other hand there is much more swearing in this book than I can remember from his earlier books. There is also a little bit of romance, considerable compassion, kindness, and sadness. Elements I do not usually associate with PKD’s works. The saddest part of the book is actually the author’s Afterward at the end of the book.

I would recommend reading this novel then watch the 2006 faithful movie adaptation for maximum appreciation. Not my favorite PKD as there are dull patches here and there but overall a very worthwhile read and one of his more “important” novels.

And now a mini-review of A Scanner Darkly, 2006 movie

It is a good movie with a unique look and good performances by the actors. However, I wish the filmmaker Richard Linklater has shot the movie conventionally instead of employing the "interpolated rotoscope" technology to make the movie look like animation. On the plus side, the movie does look suitably surreal, like junkie's drug addled perspective. Unfortunately, the animated look puts an additional layer between the actors and the audience and causes an emotional disconnection.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,447 reviews7,542 followers
January 24, 2018
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

Not even February and I’m already behind on 2018’s reviews. Good thing I didn’t tell myself I’d lose weight! The one thing I have always told myself is I need to read a Philip K. Dick story. Imagine my surprise when I cued this one up on the ol’ Fiat’s Bluetooth and heard that it was written by Philip K. Dick. I’m not sure one book can be a quantifier for his entire set of works, but in the immortal words of Larry David, this was . . . . .

Whoops. I mean . . . .

Since I listened to it, I don’t have any quotes to provide. I can tell you the story is sort of a “scared straight” type of tale – all about the perils of drug addiction. Our MC, Bob Arctor, is a small-time dealer looking to go big with the new drug of choice known as Substance D. He’s also an undercover agent known as Fred who is trying to bust a small-time dealer looking to go big known as Bob Arctor. Nope, you didn’t read that wrong. You see, one of the side effects of Substance D is that it causes your mind to break from reality. Bob is Bob when he is Bob, but thanks to Bob imbibing in some of his own wares he is also Fred trying to bust Bob when he is Fred. There’s a bevy of supporting characters that make this story more than worth the price of admission added in for good measure. Classified as “Sci-Fi” – a genre I don’t typically steer myself toward – would probably have been the right classification back in 1977 when A Scanner Darkly was originally published. Today? It’s pretty freaking realistic. Aside from the scanner suit, it’s like Philip K. Dick was a real soothsayer with regard to the future of drug use in America.

4 solid stars thanks, in part, to Paul Giamatti on the audio . . . . .

Not interested in reading or listening to the book? Good news! There’s a real trippy film version that’s like live action with a cartoon overlay (wayback machine has teenie bopper Kelly saying just like the A-Ha video!) starring Keanu Reeves . . . .

And an all-star supporting cast . . . .

Profile Image for Stuart.
718 reviews267 followers
November 28, 2015
The weird and trippy 1970s drug scene in California ala PKD
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
If you were choosing any Hollywood actor to narrate an audiobook of PKD about dope users in Southern California in the early 1970s, who would you choose? Random House Audio got Paul Giamatti to read A Scanner Darkly, and who could better? I tried to distill the vibe of the book in the following passage I assembled on my own. Imagine him reading it if you will:

Hey man, it’s not easy for a doper trying to score and get high in a world of chickenshit straights with their dead-end jobs, not to mention narcs trying to bust you. You’d rather light up with some mellow heads and foxy chicks dropping tabs, grooving to acid rock, talking about random shit endlessly, and rolling joints. Once you flash onto this, man, and roll a fantasy number in your head, you’ll be fine unless you run into some psychotic paranoids with a grudge out to kill your buzz. Or even worse, you might get hooked on Substance D and your two brain hemispheres might split into Bob Arctor, doper extraordinaire, and Phil, undercover DEA agent. Things get even more messed up when you do surveillance on…yourself. It’s enough to drag even the most hip cat down.

A Scanner Darkly is a deeply personal fictional depiction of PKD’s early 1970s living in Marin County (setting changed to Southern California in the book) with a bunch of stoners in a big house after his fourth wife Nancy left him. There are moments of hilarity (mainly centered on two crazy housemates named Barris and Luckman, played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson in the Richard Linklater film version), tragedy, pure horror, and then long stretches where stoners just ramble on about random stuff.

Bob Arctor is a minor drug dealer and user living in Anaheim with a few other dopers who spend their days trying to score dope, hash, mushrooms, and other chemical substances. Most don’t seem to have any gainful employment except Bob’s friend Donna, who is a dealer of psychedelic drug Substance D, aka Death. But unknown to them, Bob is also Fred, an undercover DEA agent assigned to spy on the house and track down the suppliers of Substance D. The problem is, the drug also causes the two hemispheres of the brain to bifurcate until the user has two separate personalities that are unaware of each other. And since all narcs use scramble suits to disguise their identities, the DEA doesn’t know that Fred is also Bob Arctor. Bob himself doesn’t recognize the situation, but suspects something is strange.

Eventually Phil’s surveillance collapses after watching hours of himself and his roommates. His handlers discover his drug addiction and send him to the New Path rehab facility for drug addicts, but this is also loosely based on some real-life experiences of PKD. The story suddenly turns into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as Bob becomes a brain-fried mental patient trapped in the facility, and an elaborate conspiracy is revealed, but this feels forced and not consistent with the main story of Bob Arctor and his stoner friends living their self-destructive, carefree and tragic lives.

Since this is so autobiographical, you might wonder why it needs to be SF. In fact, PDK felt it would be hard to market it as a mainstream novel, so his editor at Ballantine Books helped him add SF elements, particularly the scramble suits that are integral to preserving the deception of Bob/Phil’s split personas. Of note, the inspiration for the scramble suits is explained as an accidental discovery by an employee of Bell Laboratories that was experimenting with “disinhibiting substances” and experienced “a disastrous drop in the GABA fluid of his brain”. This caused him to see an ultra-rapid series of modern abstract paintings from a Leningrad art museum projected on the wall of his bedroom via “lurid phosphene activity”. This is actually a real hallucination that PKD experienced in 1974 as part of his religious interactions with VALIS. But I digress.

The language is pure 1970s hippie/stoner/counterculture slang, and the world he depicts is pretty close to what I imagine 1970s Southern California was like. And herein lies a problem. If you’ve never been a part of this subculture, these stoner conversations are just as ridiculous as the real versions they were based on. And while literature exposes readers to all kinds of unfamiliar worlds, this one can get fairly tedious at times. The junkie mentality is perfectly depicted in its total fixation on getting the next fix at any cost, and there is no hesitation to steal, betray, or even stand by idly as your other junkie friends choke on a piece of food, die from overdoses, or go through painful withdrawals. But for us straights who aren’t hip to the stoner life, you may have trouble feeling sympathy.

In fact, the most powerful message is the afterword dedicated to all PKD’s friends who have suffered from their drug use, resulting in “death, permanent psychosis, and brain damage.” As he states clearly, “"some people were punished entirely too much for what they did," and "drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to move out in front of a moving car." This was rampant in the 1960s and 1970s and sadly still persists to this day, as depicted in drama series like The Wire and Breaking Bad.

The 2006 movie version is directed by Richard Linklater, an indie filmmaker from Austin, Texas. It stars Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor/Fred), Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman), Robert Downey Jr. (James Barris), and Winona Rider (Donna Hawthorne). It is done in digital Rotoscope, a process which animates live-action film footage, creating a unique look to the film (the earlier non-digital rotoscoping technique was used for A-ha’s classic 1985 video “Take on Me”, Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and Wizards, and parts of 1982’s Heavy Metal. Considering the mind-altered states of the characters in the film, it is the perfect visual medium to depict their slippery grasp of reality. It makes each scene fresh and interesting to look at, and yet all the actors are unmistakably themselves. The casting of Harrelson and Downey are absolutely spot-on as Bob’s totally paranoid and ridiculous junkie roommates, and the bug-eyed looks and uncontrolled body ticks of Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck) are hilarious and scary.

Having read the book before watching the film, I felt like all of the best scenes of the book were picked up for the film while the some overlong stoned conversations ended up on the cutting room floor. My favorite scenes in the book were done to perfection, like Freck getting pulled over, the discovery of the still-lit joint, the stolen mountain bike, the home-made silencer, and the clowning around of Luckman and Barris were brilliantly captured by Downey and Harrelson (I wonder, did PKD write the parts just for them, seeing into the future?).

The screenplay (also by Richard Linklater) also interspersed more hints of the New Path rehab clinic earlier in the film to make the final part of the film more cohesive than in the book. It also made a crucial change in the real identity of one of the main characters (no spoiler from me, don’t worry), which made the ending more believable perhaps. And Keanu Reeves? Well, most people lambaste him for his wooden, emotionless delivery, but who better to play a conflicted, schizophrenic undercover cop and heavy drug user. He is perfect in the role. Another important decision was to modernize the language so it doesn’t sound like 1970s hippie slang, and still preserve the tone and intent of the author. I even think I detected the distinctive red stripe of a Costco superstore when they were driving along the highway. Far out, dude.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,377 reviews2,253 followers
October 13, 2021

Wow. This has got to be one of the most paranoid novels I've ever read.
Also one of the most addictive of recent times, which had me reading it in one afternoon. One hit. One highly compulsive, nerve-pulling, heart-pounding, paranoid inducing hit. A novel looking at the horrors of drug addiction yes, and the pessimistic, downward spiral, desperate world that goes hand in hand with it - flashes of Requiem for a Dream - but has a depth to it that raises issues other than just drugs, with some of it also being pretty humorous too, which I wasn't expecting. But, despite this, it was still first and foremost so blisteringly sad. If it was his aim to serve up empathy towards his characters; especially Arctor, then he absolutely nails it here. Didn't even know it's based on some of his own experiences - I knew zero about PKD beforehand other than him being a writer - so somewhat of a fictional memoir I guess. If I wasn't finding it engrossing enough already, then the plot level is increased even further when agent Arctor's police colleagues, from whom his identity is protected, get him to run surveillance on himself. So if not on Substance D, then he’s actually watching videos of himself on it. The love interest, Donna, and housemate Barris, I thought were two of the best written supporting characters I've come across in ages too, and with such fluid prose throughout and great use of dialogue I'm struggling to find any faults. All in all a brilliant and devastating piece of work that shouldn't really be dumped in the sci-fi genre but rather with that of someone like W.S. Burroughs. I can now see - even after just one PKD book - why so many readers regard him so highly. The Man in the High Castle will probably be my next, but I won't be looking to blitz through all his other novels, as much as Ioved this, as I'm not really really a fan of anything happening in outer space, or on other planets. Only our own.
Profile Image for Matthias.
107 reviews338 followers
March 19, 2016
What a great book. I had read other works by Dick (Blade Runner and Flow my Tears, The Policeman Said), which were both good, pleasant reads, nice and compact. Nothing too heavy, not overly deep, but I could sense there was more to this author than that. This book has confirmed my suspicions and exceeded my expectations, and so Philip K. Dick has managed to take me by surprise even when I was expecting to be surprised by this author at some point.

Before reading this book, I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought this would be some dystopian novel, where drugs controls people and the drugs is controlled by the people who are supposed to be taking care of the people. Brave New World kind of thing. But "A Scanner Darkly" is much more personal, and feels much more profound as a result. It's not describing the collapse of a society but the collapse of a mind. Dick allowed me a tour in the minds of drug users in such a convincing way that if I would ever have had the desire to try hard drugs as an experiment, this book would have given me my fix. He is a safari guide with scars of lion attacks on his back, an eye missing and a sad look in the one remaining. In essence, a guide who knows and feels what he's talking about. And it shows. But despite the weight of this heavy topic, the author finds a balance between the gay and the sad, the asides and the profound, the thinking and the feeling, the despair and the hope.

"A Scanner Darkly" lures you in with truly funny stories, and slowly shows the sadness behind them. This book is about drugs, this book is drugs. But only in the good way. I will need to return to this book or it's going to be very cold in Turkey. A must-read for anyone, everyone, and those inbetween and outside of those two.

It also made me spin my own little fantasy reel, as follows below...


I play a fantasy number in my head.

I'm walking down a sunny street, with the hot summerheat beating down on me. People are hustling and bustling all around me, there's noise, NOISE, noise, make it stop. I'm being pushed and shoved down a street I don't want to be in to a place I don't want to go to, and I get angry looks. The stares are icy cold but the sun keeps beating and heating me, burning me up.

In the corner of my eye, I see my salvation. A small alleyway, a neon-lit sign, "A Scanner Darkly", flash flash, illuminating the cool shadows. I'm going in, I think. It's what I should do, I know. Under the sign there's an open door, so getting in is easy. All I need is a little taste for adventure and one more angry look down from main street.

Here I go.

I'm in a long hallway. I hear laughter all around me, but there's nobody around, nobody I can see anyway, just voices of merriment. The voices feel real, and generous and sincere. I go further, intrigued, looking for the source of all this joy. The hallway is nice and cool, the beating sun is already half-forgotten.

I keep walking, losing myself in a train of thought. I'm going left. Straight ahead. Left again. This tunnel is taking me places, I know it. I'm on to something here! A solution is around the corner, every passage gets me to thinking and then I reach a decision and take a corner and every corner takes me into a new direction and I have to start over again but not really. Returning is not an option, I'm starting to forget where I'm coming from, which way I went, but the solution is nearer to the end than to the beginning anyway so I have to keep on going and be patient, persevere, but the thought tunnels are starting to wear me down. They're not cool anymore. But cold.

Relief I see an intersection with another passageway, running to my left and running to my right. I feel the relief more than see it, as a warm breeze wafts through it, through my hairs, through my fingers. This is passion and it feels good. There's bars that prevent me from going in, the only way I can go is straight ahead. Too much of this hot air would burn me anyway, the bars protect me. Even if I wanted to go in I couldn't, so after enjoying a bit of warmth, I find myself walking further through my tunnels of thought, leaving behind the warmth of the passion passageway, looking for a little laugh, an answer maybe, to any question, take a pick, then take a another turn around another corner.

This goes on and on for I don't know how long until I reach a small room which I imagine is in the middle of all these tunnels. I know what it is. Insanity. A lonely, dark and cold and all other kinds of bad place, surrounded by tunnels of reasons and reasoning, circular and colliding. There's a chair in the middle of the room where I could rest, but no, I can't sit down, I'm too scared. Too scared it's too late. I turn around, run run run back out. Tap tap tap through the tunnels. Flick flick flick through the pages. They burn my fingers and soothe my soul. Light. A flower in a shoe. Hope.

Upon leaving the tunnel system, back into the alleyway, I fish some stars out of my pocket. If you throw them high enough, they can warm up planets and souls. One, two, three, four, five. I throw them in the tunnels I hold so dear, hoping they bring warmth to the laughter and light to the questions. Thank you, "A Scanner Darkly", for having me as your guest.
Profile Image for notgettingenough .
1,026 reviews1,182 followers
October 21, 2013
I had a whole lot of fun reviewing this...


But there is a serious side:

In the novel, Fred’s mind and brain are regularly tested by police department psychologists, owing to the stress of both maintaining a dual identity, and taking drugs as part of his undercover life. Dick avoids the off-the-shelf cliché’s of ink-blots and electric shocks, as the author describes realistic test scenarios and recognisable neuropsychological tests. Worryingly for Fred, the results of divided visual field and embedded figures tests suggest that his cortical hemispheres are becoming functionally separate, as they gradually lose the ability to communicate and fail to integrate information.

Here, the author melds science-fiction with science-fact, with an inspired reading of Sperry’s work on split-brain patients. Dick was fascinated by Sperry’s discovery that patients with surgically disconnected cerebral hemispheres (a treatment for otherwise untreatable epilepsy)seemed to show a dual or partitioned consciousness. Where previously it was thought that the right side of the brain was largely ‘silent’ and relied on the dominant left, new research suggested that each hemisphere “appeared to be using its own percepts, mental images, associations and ideas” (Sperry, 1993). In Dick’s novel, ‘Substance D’ induces a similar splitbrain disconnection (directly referencing Sperry in some passages), providing an explanation for the protagonist’s increasingly fractionated and incoherent self-consciousness.

Far from being a fantastical notion of a far-flung plot, the idea that psychosis might result from a disengagement of the hemispheres was subsequently discussed in the scientific literature and is still influential today. Dimond (1979) for example, compared patients diagnosed with schizophrenia and split-brain patients, arguing that in both conditions “there is a fundamental failure of in the transfer of information between the two hemispheres”, suggesting “split-brain symptoms are present in schizophrenia”. Although the resemblances between psychosis and the effects of split-brain operations are no longer regarded so highly, clear evidence for differences in the structure and function of the hemispheres in psychosis remains (Gur and Chin, 1999; Pantelis et al., 2003). Perhaps ironically, ideas that many people might have dismissed as imaginative plot, turned out to be reasonable and well informed scientific speculation.

It is from Bell, V. (2006) Through A Scanner Darkly: Neuropsychology and psychosis in Philip K. Dick's novel "A Scanner Darkly". The Psychologist, 19 (8), 488-489. You can see the whole article online: http://cogprints.org/5021/1/VaughanBe...

Profile Image for Jayakrishnan.
488 reviews167 followers
March 3, 2022
A brilliant book. I remember back in 2006, I took printouts of this book from the internet at work to finish it. I was reading it on some website because the book was not available in Indian bookstores. It was that good. It was funny. This is one of the funniest books that I've read in my life. It is a book about the most helpless and harmless people on earth. It is a book about the weak. But it was fucking hilarious too.

The part where Arctor holds Donna's hand and feels like he would never forget that moment for the rest of his life. The part where Donna hits that Coca Cola truck and realizes her own insignificance. Charles Freck hoping to be found dead with a book (Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, which would prove he had been a misunderstood superman rejected by the masses and so, in a sense, murdered by their scorn and an unfinished letter to Exxon protesting the cancellation of his gas credit card). Wonder whether Dick lifted that from Muriel Spark's The Drivers Seat. The book is filled with such intense moments.

I love this book. It is like my best friend. It hooked me in right from the first page with that guy who thought he had aphids in his hair and on his body.
January 6, 2013
A dark, haunting masterpiece. A Scanner Darkly isn't just a great book, it's an IMPORTANT book!

Phillip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly follows the journey of Bob Arctor, an undercover police officer (code-named "Fred") trying to ingratiate himself into the drug culture in an attempt to bring down the suppliers of Substance D, a highly addictive mind-altering drug that can eventually cause permanent brain damage. Tragically, Arctor himself becomes an addict, first only taking Substance D to earn the trust of the people he's trying to take down, then taking it more and more to relieve the stress of his job. Eventually, Substance D poisons his mind to the point that he truly believes "Fred" and Bob Arctor are two separate people! What follows is a sad but compelling portrait of a sympathetic hero's slow descent into madness.

What makes this book so powerful is that PKD does such a masterful job of detailing the horrors of drug addiction. This book is a classic example of "show, don't tell". PKD doesn't simply hold us by the hand and tell us that using drugs is wrong. Instead, we watch the slow burn going on inside Bob Arctor's mind. Arctor becomes increasingly paranoid. He begins to suffer hallucinations and time distortion. Random thoughts having nothing to do with current events start popping up in Arctor's narrative with no explanation. And what makes this even more jarring is that while we understand what is happening to Arctor, he does not. By giving us a direct view into Arctor's slowly deteriorating mind, PKD perfectly depicts just how tragic the life of a drug addict truly is.

A book with subject matter this bleak would be hard to get through without any lighter moments. Fortunately, PKD manages to inject a lot of dark humor throughout the story, most of which comes from Bob Arctor's bizarre roommate, Jim Barris. From his invention of "the world's loudest silencer", to his rather unique line of deductive reasoning in determining that his forgetting to turn on a tape recorder proves there was an intruder in the house, Mr. Barris provides laugh-out-loud moments that are far funnier than most books you'll find in the "humor" section.

I labeled this book important, not just because of the powerful anti-drug message, but also because of how influential it is. Considering how many elements of this novel are still used in literature today, it's often easy to forget this was written back in the 70s (except maybe for Arctor's tendency to say, "I can dig it"). Writers like Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis owe a great deal of debt to PKD for showing them the way!

An incredibly compelling and powerful novel, A Scanner Darkly does exactly what classic literature is supposed to. It makes you care about the characters, it invokes your emotions, and it stays with you long after you've put it back on the bookshelf!
Profile Image for Jan Philipzig.
Author 1 book262 followers
December 27, 2015
Science fiction classic from 1977 that explores the complex and ultimately deadly interplay between capitalism, surveillance, mental illness and drug addiction, predicting the much more corporate controlled, disciplinary, panoptical, drugged society we live in today. It reveals the absurdity and hypocrisy of what would become known as the "war on drugs," as it uncovers the corporate roots of the whole cynical enterprise.

One of my all-time favorites.
Profile Image for StefanP.
163 reviews75 followers
October 25, 2020

U današnje vrijeme, s ovako izopačenim društvom u kome živimo i sa obespravljenošću pojedinca, svakoj osobi koja nešto vrijedi treba pištolj, u svako doba. Da se zaštiti.

Ko je čitao "Ubik" i "Tri stigmate Palmera Eldriča" neće mu biti nepoznata genijalnost Filipa Kindreda Dika, a naročito kada se uzme u obzir i ovaj roman koji po svom udešavnju i tematici ima velike sličnosti sa navedene dvije. Ličnost Filipa K. Dika je vrlo zanimljiva i originalna, posebno po njegovim teološko-filozofskim pogledima, kao i nekim sociološkim aspektima bitisanja. Pisati o 3D projekciji sedamdesetih godina 20. vijeka nije samo neki futuristički utopizam već konzistentna ostvarenost.

Tek kada sam završio knjigu počeo sam sve više da stičem utisak da je priča cijelo vrijeme treptala u mjestu. Da se ništa konkretno nije desilo, da se junaci nisu ni pomjerili iz svoje referentne tačke. Monotonija i statičnost je polje u kome obitavaju njegovi junaci, a beznadežnost i otuđenost im je krajnja putanja. Kao što i sam pisac reče, ovo nije knjiga iz koje se izvlači naravoučenije, već je više indikativna. Dik želi da nam otkrije ono što je sakriveno, ali na jedan pomalo uvrnut način, a koji se ogleda u tome da agenti u borbi protiv dilovanja supstance S postaju dileri, a dileri postaju agenti. Tako da kada vidite neke pompezne agencije koje su žestoko u borbi protiv nečega "nelegalnog" npr. CIA, znajte da one samo žele da ukrote konkurenta. Evo primjera ,,A kad bi ma koji drugi policajac koji nadzire Berisove aktivnosti vidio ono što ću ja vjerovatno vidjeti, zaključio bi da je Arktor najveći trgovac drogom na zapadu SAD i preporučio bi trajno uklanjanje."

Naziv knjige "Tamno skeniranje" proizilazi iz duševnog sumraka u kome živimo. Spolja sve blješti, jedan neugasivi oganj kao: reklame, okićeni ljudi, prodavnice brze hrane i tako dalje, a iznutra hlad, tama i praznina. Masovna proizvodnja, konzumeristički i hedonistički život ne izostaje ni u ovom romanu: ,,Oni su dosad, prema vlastitom natpisu, prodali jedan te isti originalni burger pedeset milijardi puta. Pitao se da li su ga prodali istoj osobi." Mnogi njegovi junaci su obmanuti i svijet u kome žive im postaje tajanstven i tuđina, a taj svijet ne razumije njih, i tako se oni ne raspoznaju. Oni kao da ulaze u novi život do tada njima potpuno nepoznat, dok im prethodni potpuno iščezava, kao da nije ni postojao.

Jedan od takvih je i Bob Arktor, šifrovano ime Fred. Usljed korišćenja supstance S, Bob Arktor će postati ambivalentan. Njegovo cijepanje će da odvoji njegov "autentičan" lik Boba Arktora od šifrovanog imena Fred. Iako se radi o istoj ličnosti, Bob Arktor će da osjeti kopiju sebe sa izmjenjenom sviješću. Pa će tako Arktor htjeti da uhapsi Freda, što će reći samog sebe.

Odvojenu stvarnost u čistom egzistencijalnom opažanju, Dik objelodanjuje u sljedećem: ,,Ukoliko Arktor ima toliko da krije. To nije dokazano." "Arktor možda krije poprilično. Prikupili smo i obradili mnoštvo novih informacija o njemu. Nema ozbiljne sumnje: on je lažnjak, novčanica od tri dolara. On je prevarant. Zato ga drži na oku dok ne padne, dok ne budemo imali čvrstih dokaza da ga uhapsimo." [...] "Arktor je osuđen na propast, reče Fred."

Ova knjiga podvlači i sljedeće riječi: špijunaža, svijet droge i narkomana, simultanost desne i lijeve moždane hemisfere u kojima se odvija zaseban proceš mišljenja, gubljenje ličnosti i identiteta.
Profile Image for Chloe.
349 reviews539 followers
September 18, 2014
I've made it. I have finally reached the summit of the second Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick books, Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s. With my flag firmly planted atop the snow-capped peak of this book I can look back upon two weeks of paranoia, time travel, authoritarian governments and more experimental drugs than you can find outside of a Merck testing lab, with the self-satisfied air of a man who has plumbed the depths of speed-induced psychosis and made it through the other side. What better reward could I ask for, though, than to have finally allowed myself to read a book I knew I would love from the moment I saw the film, A Scanner Darkly?

I have wanted to read this book since the first time I heard of it, way back in the heady year of 2004 when I was working the front desk of a hostel in Prague and running a traveler's lending library of english-language literature. I was fresh off of Man in the High Castle and was handed a tattered paperback by a Welshman along with the benediction that this book would "utterly melt your mind." With a recommendation like that, I was immediately interested. Unfortunately that copy was soon lost among the ever-changing residents of the hostel and an opportunity was postponed. I've read nearly two dozen of Dick's books in the time since then but for one reason or another have never returned to A Scanner Darkly until now. The wait has made it even more delectable.

Bob Arctor is an undercover cop investigating the sale of a drug known as Substance D, a heavily addictive drug its users lovingly refer to as Death because the end result of long term use is always either the big D itself or a fugue state in which the user's basic motor functions and cognitive abilities are stripped away, leaving a husk of a person behind. To infiltrate the organization making this drug, Arctor has become addicted to Substance D and is living in a bacchanal of a drug pad with 3 other users and attempting to make time with his dealer, Donna Hawthorne. He reports back to his office under the pseudonym of "Fred" and wearing a scramble suit to anonymize his identity, because no one knows the extent to which the police department has been corrupted by the drug syndicate, which leads to his superiors deciding that the user Bob Arctor is worthy of deeper investigation as he seems to have access to larger amounts of money than a man of his background should have and many hours where he simply disappears without a trace (of course, these are the times when Arctor is checking in with the department as Fred).

So Arctor begins investigating himself in a move so biting it could have been culled from one of Kafka's nightmares. Sitting in a secret facility, reviewing hours and hours of surveillance tapes, and hearing all of the inane blather that only a house full of junkies can think is profound, Arctor's consciousness begins to fragment down the center until his cop persona Fred begins to suspect that Arctor is in business with some very shady people and becomes determined to bring him down.

It's always a relief to me when a book manages to live up to the expectations I have, especially when it's a read I've been looking forward to for a number of years. The dialogue was spot on, so many of the conversations between Arctor and his roommates, Barris and Luckman, seem as though they could have easily been taken from real life. Especially considering that at the time he was writing this, Dick had essentially opened up his home in Berkeley to the ever-shifting tide of drug users, political activists, and wanderers that were all moving through the Bay Area in the early 70s. The paranoia that is a hallmark of every Dick work reaches its pinnacle here as Arctor races against his own failing mind to collar his crook in time, who just happens to be himself.

This read ranks up there with Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as one of Dick's finest. It is easily worthy of the praise which has been heaped upon it, and it was really nice to find proof that one of Dick's books had finally been adapted to film in a manner that did justice to the source material. The only disappointment I feel is that I no longer have this book to look forward to, though I am certain that I will return for a reread at least once or twice in the years to come.

Thus ends my Dick binge of 2012. I've made it through a good number of the author's books by this point and the only major work still remaining are his Exegesis books (VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which I will get to at some point down the road when my mind is on more firm ground than it is after devouring five reality-shifting books.
Profile Image for Ajeje Brazov.
703 reviews
October 16, 2019
1994: una nuova droga serpeggia per le strade, la sostanza M. Un agente della narcotici cerca di stanare i produttori e prendere qualche spacciatore con le mani nel sacco. Per farlo dovrà mettersi...

Un oscuro scrutare è un libro davvero strano, nel senso, un romanzo che può disorientare, soprattutto nelle prime decine di pagine. Così successe a me, anni addietro, lo iniziai con i migliori auspici, ma neanche a 100 pagine lo abbandonai, anzi direi che lo accantonai per tempi migliori, sperando che il futuro si rivelasse più foriero di impressioni su di esso. Così feci ed ora che l'ho ripreso e letto, posso dire con certezza che questo libro è tra i migliori scritti da PKD.
Perchè? Prima di tutto, la scrittura, così intensa, mi ha ricordato Valis, infatti parliamo del Dick degli ultimi anni, Un oscuro scrutare è datato 1977, Valis 1981. In quest'ultimo periodo, della bibliografia dell'autore, troviamo un argomentare più mistico, spiritualeggiante e dove gli spunti di riflessione sono più interiori che esteriori. Dove in romanzi o racconti della prima fase, rileviamo una ricerca di riflessioni sull'ambiente naturale e sull'ordinamento sociale in atto, nella seconda fase leggiamo di sconvolgimenti dell'apparato mentale e psichico che stravolgono la realtà delle cose, oppure no? Dilemma dickiano per eccellenza!
Insomma nella prima parte di Un oscuro scrutare mi son ritrovato a pensare ad un altro libro: "Le porte della percezione" di Aldous Huxley e mi prefiguravo in mente e soprattutto davanti agli occhi i frattali, miriade di frattali che mi vagavano davanti agli occhi.
La seconda parte è qualcosa di straordinario, riflessioni a gogo, grande Dick, mi hai davvero sbalordito, ancora più che altre volte!

Che cosa vede una telecamera? si chiese. Voglio dire, che cosa vede davvero? E fin dove? Anche dentro la testa? Anche giù dentro il cuore? Può una passiva telecamera a luci infrarosse, come quelle in uso un tempo, o un'olocamera tridimensionale, del tipo che si usa oggi, l'ultimo tipo, può vedere fin dentro di me, fin dentro di noi, in modo chiaro? O in modo confuso, oscuro? Io spero possa, vedere con chiarezza, perchè io non riesco a vedermi dentro oramai. Io sono solo tenebre. Tenebre tutt'intorno; tenebre dentro. Spero, per il bene di ciascuno, che le olocamere facciano meglio. Perchè, se all'olocamera è dato solo un oscuro vedere, nel modo in cui a me è dato, allora nostra è la maledizione, e ancora siamo maledetti, come lo siamo sempre stati, e così saremo tutti spinti verso la morte, conoscendo poco o nulla, e quel poco, e quel nulla, conoscendolo male."

Io, Atlante infelice, tutto un mondo,
il mondo intero del dolore io reggo,
quel che non è sopportabile lo porto
e il cuore mi si vuole rompere nel petto.
Profile Image for Dan.
318 reviews62 followers
August 15, 2007
In this novel there are two types of people, those who are addicted to substance D, and those who haven't tried it yet. Substance D is the ultimate high, and highly addictive. This book is the story of Fred, the narcotics agent, and Bob Arctor, the substance D dealer, who he is investigating. Of course, Fred and Bob Arctor are one person who is having his personality split apart by copious abuse of substance D.

This book is simultaneously hilarious and heart breaking and it is a really excellent portrayal of drug addiction. Supposedly this book is pulled heavily from Philip K Dick's personal experimentation with drug abuse and his friends who died. Accordingly the characters are brilliantly and believably depicted. And when they succumb to their sins, it is really sad.

The book explores many themes including the interdependency of law enforcement and criminals, government surveillance and privacy issues, drug abuse and addiction, and mental illness.

Philip K Dick is an excellent writer, and this book is some of his best writing. The plot is interesting and compelling. The characters are amazingly well done and believable. The prose is brilliantly rendered, in some places poetic even. The book was easy to read yet beautiful. I quick and quality read.

I would characterize this book as science fiction of the proto-cyberpunk subgenre. This book has many cyberpunk elements that come up in the post Neuromancer explosion of cyberpunk literature. And certainly if this book were written in the 80s instead of the 60s it would be considered part of that genre.

I read this book because I saw the movie trailer and it looked so awesome, but I never like watching movies without having read the book first.
Profile Image for Pam Baddeley.
Author 2 books45 followers
May 17, 2018
This book, published in 1977 but set in an early 1990s California, falls into the SF category because of some of its trappings which, even now, have not come about, such as scramble suits which allow undercover agents to report to their bosses in person with both participants unable to see the true appearance of the wearer. This leads to an almost laughable situation in which the main character, Bob Arctor, who works for an anti-narcotics unit in Orange County is ordered to keep himself under recorded surveillance, evoking shades of Kafka. And the air of paranoia increases as it becomes clear that someone close to him is trying to assassinate him or cause brain damage. The scramble suits are necessary because law enforcement agencies have been compromised as is clear from the prevalence of a new, highly addictive drug, called Substance D and nicknamed 'death'. The drug is being supplied in vast quantities and seems to have a single source - it is derived from an organic material, not synthetic - and yet whatever it is grown from appears to be widely available.

In this imagined 'future' drug taking is almost universal among the have-nots in society, people who don't have credit cards or live in gated communities. Those who have such privileges are termed straights and they view the rest of society as druggies and criminals who deserve what they get. Those whom Bob lives and moves among - he shares a house with two other men and has a girlfriend who takes cocaine, but also pushes the even more destructive Substance D - are suffering increasingly mental confusion, and increasing braindamage from the cocktail of drugs they are taking. The story actually begins with one character who suffers a permanent hallucination of being bitten by aphids - he goes to extreme measures such as standing under a hot shower for hours at a time to combat the pain - which are actually a product of the brain damage caused by Substance D and other illegal substances.

Bob is not immune from this either: it becomes clear that he is slowly suffering a meltdown in which his sense of identity is destroyed, because Substance D eats away at the connections within the brain which allow a sense of one identity despite the different functions carried out in the two brain hemispheres. Extracts from research publications available in the 1970s emphasise that without those connections, there are in effect two 'voices' within the head, and it is this confusion which makes Bob, in his 'Fred' guise - which is the name he uses to report to his employers - view Bob Arctor as possibly being one of the higher level dealers of Substance D whom he has been trying to locate.

The question of identity and of the nature of reality is a theme that comes up in quite a few of the author's novels; here it is put in question by drug taking rather than a breakdown of one reality into another. The book conveys well the mad logic of drugged up people, with disjointed and rambling conversations that lead to nonsensical decisions. His afterword makes it clear that it is based upon his own experiences and people he knew and on whom some of the characters are based: the role call of those left in permanent psychosis and/or brain damaged or dead is sobering reading. Interestingly, he calls drug taking a choice, though this is contradicted by the novel itself, where quite a few of the women talked about have been tricked or forcibly abused into taking D.
Profile Image for Britton.
361 reviews62 followers
November 27, 2020

I've been planning to re-review this book, but it seems that a lot of people really enjoy the old review...but I do hope that you guys can enjoy this new review, because I feel that I scratched the surface when I did my first review on this book.

I'm not easily impressed when it comes to science fiction. I love the genre, yet I hate where the genre has gone, either becoming rip offs of older, superior material, or YA romps that focus on teenage drama rather than the ideas that make science fiction so great, though I've seen authors such as Andy Weir who've managed to break that mold and try something new, but I have to search long and hard for those books and even Weir can't seem to escape his flaws. But then there's authors like PKD who reminds me why I love science fiction so much. He's one who quite literally cracks my head open with the twists and turns that define his work.

Scanner is not a book that I'd lightly suggest from PKD, or any authors in general, much like how I wouldn't suggest VALIS lightly. But, unlike VALIS, Scanner is much more focused and straight-forward, getting weird but not losing sight of the story asides from a few tangents. PKD's involvement in kicking off the New Wave of Science Fiction is often overlooked, with many people crediting Michael Moorcock for starting it. It's true that he had a big role in starting the New Wave movement, but PKD was really the one who planted the seeds in the garden that would become the New Wave. But unlike Moorcock, who wants to get rid of the old tropes of classic science fiction and try something new, PKD embraces the tropes of old science fiction, while not being afraid to try something new with his work. Dick's work is more personal, while also spilling out imagination on every page.

As for the book itself, I'd describe it as a much more somber and reflective version of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But while Thompson revels in the chaos of living in the moment and satirizes it, PKD is a somber old man, having lost many friends to 'living in the moment' in the form of drugs, as he attempts to reach out to his audience and warn them that drugs aren't cool, and he's not telling you this because he's the concerned parent that wants to keep you safe, he's telling you because he lived it, and he doesn't want anyone to end up like him, somber and regretful of many of their life choices.

A Scanner Darkly is hilarious, endearing, heartbreaking, and introspective. Dick knew that it was too late for him in the sense that the drugs and his increasing mental illness was taking its toll on him, but at least he wanted to tell other people of his and so many other people's stories, in a way to where it wasn't his story, but at the same time it was. As he put it.

"Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular life-style the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying.” But the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory. It is, then, only a speeding up, an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence. It is not different from your life-style, it is only faster. It all takes place in days or weeks or months instead of years. “Take the cash and let the credit go,” as Villon said in 1460. But that is a mistake if the cash is a penny and the credit a whole lifetime."- Phillip K. Dick
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