A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

Vertigo

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A Scanner Darkly is set in a near future police-state California (actually the past now; written in 1977 it was set in 1994) where undercover narcotics agents are everywhere and even their bosses don’t know their identities (protected by ‘scramble suits’) and targets (anyone with the slightest interest in drugs) were likely to have scanners (video bugs) hidden throughout their homes. The reality is that ‘near future’ setting was only a very thinly disguised present day that allowed Dick several plot devices like the police state and a new super dangerous drug called Substance D – SD or Slow Death. Otherwise, everything is pure ‘70s California from the slang, to the behaviours, to the attitudes, to the drug abuse.

This is a profoundly sad story of the dangers of drug abuse without ever becoming preachy about it. Particularly sad because, as Dick notes at the end of the book, this is the world he inhabited and most, if not all, of his friends from that period either died or seriously damaged their bodies and/or minds through excessive drug use, Dick himself included. A world I too inhabited if a little more peripherally; I was fortunate not to ever get involved in the heavier drug scene, but I had, and lost, friends not so lucky. Dick never condemns but rather warns of the risk of losing yourself.

Identity and losing your identity are common themes in Dick’s writing and there is plenty of that here as the story follows the main protagonist, Fred, who is a ‘nark’ working undercover monitoring that activities of a bunch of heads. His bosses not knowing his undercover identity, specifically tell him to monitor one character, Bob Arctor, who is, in fact, his undercover persona; he must monitor and report on his own activities! This combined with the drugs he takes in his undercover role results in the two characters becoming two completely separate individuals in his head. Making for a disturbing and distinctly spooky read.

I often rail against the misogyny so prevalent in early science fiction but not usually in books published quite as late this, but this one is filled with it. Every appearance of a ‘foxy’ girl is typically accompanied by a description that focuses on her figure, how much flesh is on display and whether she is wearing a bra, even from the girl’s perspective; “Everybody bangs me. Tries to, anyhow. That's what it's like to be a chick.” Is Dick highlighting it as something bad? I would like to think so, but mostly it is just presented as normality. Were we that bad back in the late ‘70s? I really hope not but I am, truthfully, not too sure!

Although A Scanner Darkly is not really science fiction it is Dick at his best, with writing that is disturbing, uncomfortable and questioning. I cannot say I really enjoyed reading it, but I found it profoundly affecting.

5/5 stars
 
I think Phillip K Dick did a really good job of combining the failures of ordinary life with the most outlandish situations. I think he did a good job of showing how technology would create a lot of problems for the ordinary person. That is something a lot of people still haven't figured out. Personally, I think that the digital generation (no age limit) thrives on the concept that what isn't nailed down, is free to take advantage of. I don't think his characterizations were deep in a personal sense, but the situations the characters found themselves in could be sink holes leading into the depths of the universe. Is it even possible to have intense characterizations with up to 60 characters in a single story, written in less than a year.

Like a lot of writers, his style was influenced by the world around him. The question is, can we read what he is trying to say without getting bogged down by the fine details that aren't needed for the story to be successful as a vehicle for getting the word out. Drugs are tools as well as vehicles of intoxication, seems like most just want to put the pedal to the metal, and as they speed on by, it doesn't matter what the scenery looks like or the side of the street they are on.

People were, and still are treated as objects to be taken advantage of. We never seem to be able to get everyone on the same stage at the same time. That said, what can turn a reader away, can be anything from portrayal of characters to the inclusion of reality, which seems to be completely determined by the personal likes and dislikes of the reader, which in itself hardly seems to be able to justify the criticism, but does work for individuals and anyone who might care to share the same beliefs.

For example, including environmental issues in a work of fiction, meant to be entertaining, can definitely turn readers off. At the same time, people who want to read about current day issues in their fiction will not be turned off. With 8 billion people, the market is huge, and both styles can be successful. The problem is reaching the right audience. While self publishing has removed some of the gatekeepers, the actual path to reaching the readers is still blocked by advertising, which cost money. Instead of catering to publishing house editors, who have been replaced by popular opinion, writers have to cater to social media editors, in order to get through to their respective audiences.

I cannot say I really enjoyed reading it, but I found it profoundly affecting.
For me, that is a big issue. The first requirement for writing a story is to make it enjoyable. Personally, I don't agree with that, but not following that rule can result in creating a story people aren't going to read. It also depends on why one is writing. If one wants a big audience, one has to write for them. If one is only interested in getting published, then one can write anything, in any style, that they want to. I am practicing writing and art without a large audience, and at times, it is equivalent to advertising without a product. Maybe I am talking to myself. What the heck, plenty of people are doing it, you can see it on every street corner, smart phone in hand, voice a little too loud, its 15 minutes of fame, every day, for the rest of our lives.

Trying to illuminate information people don't want to encounter in their escapism reading can be very difficult. It has to be turned around upside and put in a setting where it becomes a prop, a curiosity, otherwise it becomes unreadable, upsetting the pool of tranquility that the escapism reading is generating for the reader to slip into and forget about the world around them for awhile. I think if the enjoyability of the action surpasses a particular point, the ability of the action to change anything in a meaningful way is greatly reduced.
 
I'm not sure I completely agree about the need to make a story enjoyable, or maybe I'm unsure about the meaning of enjoyable. I think a story can be moving, instructional and even emotional without actually bringing joy to the reader. A good example of this for me would be 1984; another book I did not find enjoyable but still consider it a great book. I've never read it but I suspect enjoy would not be a word used to describe Dante's Inferno! So I'm not sure 'enjoyable' is a necessary quality of a good work of fiction. That said I certainly couldn't read too many unenjoyable novels back to back!
 
I'm a long-term fan of his work, although a lot of it has to be read with the caveat of his mental state. I 'liked' TASD for the sense of dislocation it managed to impart - the main character viewing the surveillance footage of himself as an entirely seperate entity - and for the frustration you get from the only-non-stoned-person-in-the-room conversations. Back in the 70s I had long hair, broad-brimmed black felt hat, custom-made black leather jeans, etc. so was accepted on sight by the biker/stoner fraternity, even though I was at best a fellow traveller.
 
I'm not sure I completely agree about the need to make a story enjoyable, or maybe I'm unsure about the meaning of enjoyable. I think a story can be moving, instructional and even emotional without actually bringing joy to the reader. A good example of this for me would be 1984; another book I did not find enjoyable but still consider it a great book. I've never read it but I suspect enjoy would not be a word used to describe Dante's Inferno! So I'm not sure 'enjoyable' is a necessary quality of a good work of fiction. That said I certainly couldn't read too many unenjoyable novels back to back!
There are some moments of comedy, moments where the protagonists are relaxed with chems - bike gears and walking men of marijuana spring to mind, but I agree this is not a whimsical tale. It's filled with a dark pathos. The list of PKD's friends at the end had me in tears.

But it is one of my favourite books of all time. And the only book that after I had read it, I immediately turned back to the start and read it all again.
 
There are some moments of comedy, moments where the protagonists are relaxed with chems - bike gears and walking men of marijuana spring to mind, but I agree this is not a whimsical tale. It's filled with a dark pathos. The list of PKD's friends at the end had me in tears.

But it is one of my favourite books of all time. And the only book that after I had read it, I immediately turned back to the start and read it all again.
You are right there were moments that seriously resonated with my university days and had me laughing out loud, but they were outweighed by, as you say, the dark pathos! And yes that list at the end (which included himself) was so sad and seriously put the whole book into context.
I've been enjoying the tv version of The Man In The High Castle. Not a book of his I've read, though. Need to track it down. It won the Hugo Award in 1963.
That wasn't one of my favourites of his books to be honest, partly because I generally don't much like alternative history novels, but also because I disliked the almost fawning reverence for the Japanese conquerors, amongst other things. I've not seen the TV series but I understand that it did correct most of the aspects I was uncomfortable with, so maybe I should give it a try!
 
A close family member committed suicide shortly after his sixteenth birthday. Drugs were involved. PKD's note at the end helped my family and me cope.

This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed- -but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it. For example, while I was writing this I learned that the person on whom the character Jerry Fabin is based killed himself. My friend on whom I based the character Ernie Luckman died before I began the novel. For a while I myself was one of these children playing in the street; I was, like the rest of them, trying to play instead of being grown up, and I was punished. I am on the list below, which is a list of those to whom this novel is dedicated, and what became of each.

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.

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. I myself, I am not a character in this novel; I am the novel. So, though, was our entire nation at this time. This novel is about more people than I knew personally. Some we all read about in the newspapers. It was, this sitting around with our buddies and bullshitting while making tape recordings, the bad decision of the decade, the sixties, both in and out of the establishment. And nature cracked down on us. We were forced to stop by things dreadful.

If there was any "sin," it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever, and were punished for that, but, as I say, I feel that, if so, the punishment was far too great, and I prefer to think of it only in a Greek or morally neutral way, as mere science, as deterministic impartial cause-and-effect. I loved them all. Here is the list, to whom I dedicate my love:

To Gaylene deceased
To Ray deceased
To Francy permanent psychosis
To Kathy permanent brain damage
To Jim deceased
To Val massive permanent brain damage
To Nancy permanent psychosis
To Joanne permanent brain damage
To Maren deceased
To Nick deceased
To Terry deceased
To Dennis deceased
To Phil permanent pancreatic damage
To Sue permanent vascular damage
To Jerri permanent psychosis and vascular damage

. . . and so forth.

In Memoriam. These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The "enemy" was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.
 
A close family member committed suicide shortly after his sixteenth birthday. Drugs were involved. PKD's note at the end helped my family and me cope.
Yes that was a great after word. Non-judgemental, just laying out the consequences. The 'Phil' third from the end of the list is PKD himself.
 
I'm not sure I completely agree about the need to make a story enjoyable, or maybe I'm unsure about the meaning of enjoyable. I think a story can be moving, instructional and even emotional without actually bringing joy to the reader. A good example of this for me would be 1984; another book I did not find enjoyable but still consider it a great book. I've never read it but I suspect enjoy would not be a word used to describe Dante's Inferno! So I'm not sure 'enjoyable' is a necessary quality of a good work of fiction. That said I certainly couldn't read too many unenjoyable novels back to back!

Enjoyment is a very subjective thing; many of us enjoy things that others find terrible, or that includes a certain degree of pain. I think the sense of "enjoying" a book is tricky in that we tend to conflate the senses of "this is blissful" and "this is rewarding" - this isn't a blissful book, at least not for most, but it is rewarding. It reminds me of one of Dick's quotes:

“That was terrible, where can I get some more”.

In any case, very good review (better than my own truth told) and I agree.

Re The Women's Descriptions - I noticed it too and was unsure what to make of it. Ultimately, I think for Dick, this was probably him showing it is how it is, neither condemned or condoned. It's a bunch of overgrown kids just wanting to play all the time, and sex is part of playing, so everything is sexualised all the time. Which I think is broadly even with all the characters treat each other. Everyone's just a part of the play set - unless they're outside the world, then they're mostly just a tool. I have to say, that much as I rewarded by the book, Dick didn't exactly persuade me they were the comrades I'd have desired...
 
Dick didn't exactly persuade me they were the comrades I'd have desired...

...well, Bob Arctor was trying to "infiltrate" that social circle in order to find out more about their drug suppliers and work his way down the chain. I suppose he had to work with what he had been given with!

However I believe PKD based most of the main characters on people he knew, but no doubt he changed them a bit to fit the story.

As for his protrayal of women. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of PKD's protagonists were men, and although I think he didn't had a problem with women, he obviously felt more comfortable protraying the 'everyman' at the centre of his wierdnessess rather than the 'everywoman'.

And one has to remember that, although the late 60s and early 70s can be remembered as some sort of radical revolution that saw feminism, free love and other such concepts burst forth and destroy the old order, in everyday society for the vast majority this was something you read appalled/sniggered at in the newspapers. Misogyny and other ills of a sort, that would turn a millenial's hair white with shock, would have been reasonably commonplace. If PKD is indeed putting a little of his memories of that time into the book then one could argue he is just recording what was acceptable at the time, as you stated.
 
It's the one science fiction book that truly moved me to tears at the end. I can honestly say it played a factor in me making a lot of changes in my life. Phil's best novel by far, at least to me.
There was another for me; Flowers for Algernon. I was in full blubber mode for that one! Though some felt Keyes laid it on a bit too thick.
 

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