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A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is a 1977 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. The semi-autobiographical story was set in a dystopian Orange County, California in the then-future of June 1994. The book includes an extensive portrayal of drug culture and drug use.

Synopsis

The protagonist is Bob Arctor, member of a household of drop-out drug-users, who is also living a parallel life as Agent Fred, an undercover police agent assigned to spy on Arctor's household. Arctor/Fred shields his true identity from those in the drug subculture and, ironically, from the police themselves. (The requirement that narcotics agents remain anonymous, to avoid collusion and other forms of corruption, becomes a critical plot point late in the book.) While supposedly only posing as a drug user, Arctor becomes addicted to "Substance D" (also referred to as "Slow Death," "Death," or "D"), a powerful psychoactive drug derived from a small blue flowering plant, Mors ontologica. An ongoing conflict is Arctor's love for Donna, a drug dealer through whom he intends to identify high-level dealers of Substance D. Arctor's persistent use of the drug, which causes the two hemispheres of the brain to function independently, or "compete," produces the strange scenario in which Arctor and Agent Fred do not realize they are the same person. Incapable of combining what each persona knows, Fred begins spying on himself, Arctor, more passionately. Through a series of drug and psychological tests, Arctor's superiors at work discover that his addiction has made him incapable of performing his job as a narcotics agent. Donna takes Arctor to "New-Path," a rehabilitation clinic, just as Arctor begins to experience the symptoms of Substance D withdrawal. It is revealed that Donna has been a narcotics agent all along, working as part of a police operation to infiltrate New-Path and determine its funding source. Unknowingly, Arctor has been selected to penetrate the secretive organization.

As part of the rehab program, Arctor is renamed "Bruce" and forced to participate in cruel group-dynamic games intended to break the will of the patients. The story ends with Bruce working at a New-Path farming commune, where he is suffering from a serious neurocognitive deficit after withdrawing from Substance D. Although considered by his handlers to be nothing more than a walking shell of a man, "Bruce" manages to spot rows of blue flowers growing hidden among rows of corn; and realizes the blue flowers are the source of Substance D. The book ends with Bruce hiding a flower in his shoe to give to his "friends" - undercover police agents posing as recovering addicts at the Los Angeles New-Path facility - on Thanksgiving.

In the novel, use of Substance D over an extended period can cause the user's consciousness to separate into two distinct parts. The drug also appears to facilitate the inducement of shared delusions, manifesting as folie à deux. The source of Substance D remains a mystery throughout most of the novel, though various theories are proposed. It is speculated that Substance D is imported from the U.S.S.R. as a Communist scheme to destroy American resistance to Communism; that it was sent to Earth by aliens intent on either enlightening mankind or reducing humans to a zombie-like slave race; that it is involved in a government or corporate plot. At the end of the book, we find out that Substance D is an organic substance, derived from little blue flowers that are grown on large plantations, hidden between rows of corn as cover. Ironically, the drug is harvested by the brainwashed inmates of Substance D drug rehabilitation centers who are suffering from neurocognitive deficits as a result of their drug addiction.

The title is a reference to a passage in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 13, which states:

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
The book's protagonist is required to view clips of his life on a "scanner," a holographic recorder/projector. In Chapter 13 of the book, the protagonist muses that he has seen his life with a scanner, but came no closer to properly perceiving his life than St Paul with his primitive mirror (or "glass"). True understanding, he suggests, will come only when "death" is defeated.

The initials of Scanner Darkly are also the initials of "Substance D," which the characters refer to as "Substance Death," "Slow Death," or "D."

In Chapter Eleven of the novel, the novel's central character, Bob Arctor / Fred / Bruce, thinks to himself:

What does a scanner see? I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner … see into me — into us — clearly or darkly? I hope it does see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone's sake, the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we'll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

Philip K. Dick also gives the name of the species of the flower, which helps to show the relevant meaning of the story and the nature of both the drug and the character's struggle. The name is Mors ontologica, which translates as "ontological death," that is "death of being," or more loosely "the being of death itself."

Themes

Dick twists American society into a very surreal setting, by expanding on several social problems of growing interest during the 1960s, including:

  • police surveillance - in the novel, highly technologically advanced, blurred frontiers between the underworld drug commerce and law enforcement agencies (cf. 2 brain hemispheres),
  • Drug use - in the novel, involving widespread drug-use-induced mental collapse that is treated in numerous and widespread rehab clinics that amount to a nationwide, non-governmental but federal-government-entangled, institution,
  • The blue flowers are a central, recurring symbol in German romanticism, closely tied to the associated youth movements,
  • The intentional destruction of another human being to achieve a "greater good"

In addition, Dick's common themes appear here:

The character types seen in A Scanner Darkly are nearly universal to his work and tend to follow similar roles: the downtrodden protagonist finds himself at odds with a large and complicated plot, not specifically against him, but in which he becomes inadvertently entangled, who is then alternately aided by, confused by, and maliciously harmed by the dark-haired woman, is helped indirectly by the fatherly old man (whose warnings often go unheeded or come too late), and faces the spokesman of the evil conspiracy, who is mysterious, powerful, well-informed, and more or less undeniable, leaving the downtrodden hero with little or bittersweet success. Generally, multiple explanations for the nature of the events, the outcome of the story, and the nature and identity of the evil spokesman are available, especially if drug use or other psychic complications blur the lines of reality. Generally speaking, the narrator participates in the perspective of the characters, so whether what they experience is a drug-induced delusion or a bona fide event is left vague for the reader. Ultimately, the reader is left to wonder what actually happened in the real world of the story and is left with few clues, in much the way a person rehabilitated from extended drug use might look back at the recent months of his life and wonder what was real, what was misinterpreted, and what was false.

The theme of construction of reality in consciousness is central to the novel. The most obvious example is the dilemma of the main character who simultaneously assumes two identities and often loses track of reality. Also, many of the characters excessively taunt each other, are rendered paranoid by drug use, and understand the world through conspiracy theories. Because of the surreal, almost absurdist style of the novel, readers are left wondering if their own perceptions reflect reality or paranoia. Also, the device known of as the "scramble suit," a layering of simulacrum used by narcotics agents as a means of distorting their appearance to avoid recognition and identification, serves as a metaphor for the mutual lack of trust amongst not only the users and dealers, but between most people as a whole, adding to Dick's recurring preoccupation with constructing an immensely paranoid atmosphere as well as the inherent deception of most situations in the book.

Dick also uses Fred/Arctor to explore the symbiotic relationship between police officer and criminal; how each is defined by and reliant upon the existence of the other. The New-Path clinic's duality reflects this ambivalent relationship.

Dick explains in the author's note how he, himself was one of the people who "played the game." Of course, he meant drug misuse and how it affects humans. He says that such misuse left him with permanent pancreatic disorders.

Autobiographical nature

Between mid-1970 (when his fourth wife Nancy left him) and mid-1972 (when he entered the X-Kalay program; see below) Dick lived semi-communally with a rotating group of mostly teenage drug users at his home in Marin County. During this period, the author ceased writing completely and became fully dependent upon amphetamines, which he had been using intermittently for many years. The character of Donna was inspired by an older teenager who became associated with Dick sometime in 1970; though they never became lovers, the woman was his principal female companion until early 1972, when Dick left for Canada to deliver a speech to a Vancouver science fiction convention. This speech, "The Android and the Human," serves as the basis for many of the recurring themes and motifs in the ensuing novel. Another turning point in this timeframe for Dick is the alleged burglary of his home and theft of his papers.

Because of his firsthand experience, Dick captures the language, conversation, and culture of drug users in the 1960s with a rare clarity. This is further explained in the moving afterword, where Dick dedicates the book to those of his friends—he includes himself—who suffered debilitation or death as a result of their drug use. Mirroring the epilogue are the involuntary goodbyes that occur throughout the story—the constant turnover and burn-out of young people that lived with Dick during those years.

In the afterword, he states that the novel is about “some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did” (apparently referring to the disproportional damage that drug use causes on the user) and that “drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to move out in front of a moving car.”

After delivering "The Android and the Human," Dick became a participant in X-Kalay (a Canadian Synanon-type recovery program), effortlessly convincing program caseworkers that he was nursing a heroin addiction to do so. This is portrayed in his 1988 book The Dark-Haired Girl (a collection of letters and journals from this period, most of a romantic nature). Presumably, this is a source for the vividness and accuracy with which the novelistic clinic is portrayed. It was at X-Kalay, while doing publicity for the facility, that he devised the notion of rehab centers being used to secretly harvest drugs (thus inspiring the book's New-Path clinics).

Writing process and publication

A Scanner Darkly was one of the few Dick novels to gestate over a long period of time. By February 1973, in an effort to prove that the effect of his amphetamine usage was merely psychosomatic, the newly clean-and-sober author had already prepared a full outline. A first draft was in development by March. This labor was soon supplanted by a new family and the completion of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (left unfinished in 1970), which was finally released in 1974 and received the prestigious John W. Campbell Award. Additional preoccupations were the alleged mystical experiences of early 1974 that would eventually serve as a basis for VALIS and the unpublished Exegesis journal, a screenplay for an unproduced film adaptation of 1969's Ubik, an occasional lecture, and the Roger Zelazny collaboration Deus Irae.

Because of its semi-autobiographical nature, some of Scanner was torturous to write. Tessa Dick, Philip's wife at the time, once stated that she often found her husband weeping as the sun rose after a night-long writing session. Tessa has given interviews stating that "when he was with me, he wrote A Scanner Darkly [in] under two weeks. But we spent three years rewriting it" and that she was "pretty involved in his writing process [for A Scanner Darkly]. Tessa confirmed in a later interview that she "participated in the writing of A Scanner Darkly" and said that she "consider[s] [her]self the silent co-author." Philip wrote a contract giving Tessa half of all the rights to the novel, which stated that Tessa "participated to a great extent in writing the outline and novel A Scanner Darkly with me, and I owe her one half of all income derived from it.

There was also the challenge of transmuting the events into "science fiction," as Dick felt that he could not sell a mainstream novel. Providing invaluable aid in this field was Judy-Lynn Del Rey, head of Ballantine Books' SF division which had optioned the book. Del Rey suggested the timeline change to 1994 and helped to emphasize the more futuristic elements of the novel, such as the "scramble suit" employed by Fred (which, incidentally, emerged from one of the mystical experiences). Yet much of the dialogue spoken by the characters used hippie slang, dating the events of the novel to their "true" time-frame of 1970-72.

Upon its publication in 1977, A Scanner Darkly was hailed by ALA Booklist as "his best yet!" Brian Aldiss lauded it as "the best book of the year," while Robert Silverberg praised the novel's "demonic intensity" and deemed it "a masterpiece of sorts." Sales were typical for the SF genre in America, but hardcover editions were issued in Europe, where all of Dick's works were warmly received. It received no Nebula and Hugo Awards but was awarded the French equivalent (Graouilly d'Or) upon its publication there in 1979.

Adaptations

The animated film A Scanner Darkly was authorized by Dick's estate. It was released in July of 2006 and stars Keanu Reeves as Fred/Bob Arctor and Winona Ryder as Donna. Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson co-star as Arctor's drugged-out housemates. The film was directed by Richard Linklater, and the animation was directed by Bob Sabiston.

The animation was accomplished via the process of rotoscoping using Bob Sabiston's own Rotoshop software, a process employed in Linklater's earlier movie, Waking Life. First shot in live-action, the footage was then painted over, with attention to stylistic consistency — a lengthy undertaking that caused the film to miss its initial September 2005 release date by an entire year. The film is a fairly faithful adaptation, with the majority of the scenes, characters, and dialogue taken nearly verbatim from the novel, though much of the novel's 1970s “hip dialogue” was updated to make the movie more comprehensible to modern viewers.

Scenes from the movie were used to create a graphic novel adaptation of the movie. An audio book of A Scanner Darkly, read by Paul Giamatti, was released in the summer of 2006.

Alternative covers

  • http://www.philipkdick.com/covers/scanner.jpg
  • http://www.philipkdick.com/covers/tb-scanner.jpg
  • http://www.philipkdick.com/covers/scanner11.jpg
  • http://www.philipkdick.com/covers/scanner7.jpg

Notes

References

  • Sutin, Lawrence. (2005). Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. Carroll & Graf.
  • Bell, V. (2006) Through a scanner darkly: Neuropsychology and psychosis in 'A Scanner Darkly'. The Psychologist, 19 (8), 488-489. online version
  • A Scanner Darkly Reviewed at The Open Critic

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