A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick [A Review]

Philip K Dick is rightly a legend of the science-fiction genre. Prolific and concise, he has had an enormous impact on pop culture. A Scanner Darkly is the first of his books that I have read and was not what I expected. An early indictment on the war on drugs, it’s setting is far more contemporary than his sci-fi reputation would have you believe.

A Scanner Darkly

I am certainly not a frequent reader of science fiction, but I have always thought that Philip K Dick would be my kind of science fiction writer. I say this based on the films that have been adapted from his stories – Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report. His work has also been cited as influential in many other similar works such as Gattaca, Looper and The Matrix. Such films explore the moral and existential dilemmas provoked by new technology as well as individuals manipulated by large organisations. I like this Orwellian aspect of his fiction above the focus on adventure, war or fantasy of much other science fiction. A Scanner Darkly contains a little of these elements as well but is set in a future world much nearer our own.

A Scanner Darkly is set in 1994 (the book was first published in 1977) where a new drug – known as Slow Death, Death, or Substance D – has emerged and brought widespread destruction on society. Highly addictive, the drug leads inevitably to psychosis and death. But mystery surrounds the source of the drug. It is uncertain whether it is organic or synthetic, how it is manufactured and distributed or where. It is being produced in such large quantities and sold at such low prices that, paired with its highly addictive nature, it has pushed the consumption of cocaine and heroin to record lows and their prices to record highs while destroying those who consume it.

A Scanner Darkly’s main character is Bob Arctor; an addict who is also an undercover narcotics agent. Having walked out on his family years ago, Arctor is a man who has difficulty with loyalty, purpose and responsibility. He lives in his house with other addicts in the hope that one will be able to give him a lead on a source for Substance D.

Anonymity is essential for Arctor and other agents. When he visits the narcotics agency’s headquarters to report to his superiors or review footage from hidden cameras (scanners) planted in his home, he wears a ‘scramble suit’. Pretty much the only futuristic technology in the novel, the scramble suit projects a variety of quickly-changing fragments of images of faces, bodies and clothing to keep its occupant obscured.

Increasingly addicted, the drug is beginning to affect Arctor. As well as becoming paranoid and listless, he is struggling to maintain his two identities as the drug begins to separate the activities of the two hemispheres of his brain.

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself.

A Scanner Darkly is a later novel by the prolific Philip K Dick who died following a stroke in 1982 shortly before the release of Blade Runner. It is the first of his work that I have read and it won’t be the last but it was not what I expected. Though published in 1977 it was written in the early 70’s, just after the countercultural bubble had burst. It, therefore, could be considered an early cautionary tale about the dangers of drug use and addiction. Descriptions of the pleasurable effects of the drug are absent. It also seems to be a very personal story for Dick; it has been described as semi-autobiographical and was a very traumatic experience for him to write. Some of the characters are based on people in his life and, in a note at the end of the book, he lists those he knew who died or suffered permanent psychosis or brain damage from their drug use.

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 […] but continued to play anyhow […] and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe 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 judgement. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style.

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.

Dick may not have intended the story to have a moral, but I feel there is one. The moral is that the greatest impact of drugs on society is to create casualties. There are the self-inflicted casualties of the drug users, though, many are an avoidable consequence of the activities of the drug manufacturers against whom those casualties should count. But the law enforcement agencies, in trying to fight the industry, also create casualties. Arctor, though a narcotics agent, will have his health and wellbeing sacrificed, dismissed as collateral damage, in pursuit of the greater good. It is a moral dilemma his handlers struggle with.

It requires the greatest kind of wisdom, she thought, to know when to apply injustice. How can justice fall victim, ever, to what is right? How can this happen?

The film of A Scanner Darkly is very miss-able. Directed by Richard Linklater, now best known for his epic Boyhood, the film uses an animation technique called interpolated rotoscope, where animation is drawn over original live footage. While it follows the plot of the novel fairly closely, the acting is not great. Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson come across as playing stereotypes not far from what we are used to seeing from them. Keanu Reeves, never a strong actor, fumbles a couple of scenes. The biggest failing of the film is that it condenses two parts of the novel that Dick deliberately elongates to create a greater sense of the passage of time and the slow evolution of the outcome.

Though I enjoyed my first experience of Philip K Dick’s storytelling outside of the film adaptations of his writing, this is not a book that would be placed near my favourites and I am not inclined to see it as an enduring work. As a cautionary tale into the effects of drugs on society it may have been surpassed by other works and its science-fiction elements are limited. Still, for those wanting an overview of drug culture fiction or, more so, of the oeuvre of a writer who is among the most influential on pop culture, A Scanner Darkly would be essential reading for both reasons.


  1. I’m near the end of this novel. I previously read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man in the High Castle. I enjoyed them both, but A Scanner Darkly is more difficult for me. A Scanner Darkly is a little confusing, but makes me grateful I never took drugs! Yes, there is definitely a moral lesson here regarding drugs. Who would want to lose his or her mind in such a manner? I’m going to read Ubik next. Good review!

    Liked by 1 person

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