Customer Reviews: A Scanner Darkly
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on February 23, 2002
There is an old adage about writing: "Write what you know"--as quoted verbatim from Hemmingway, among many others, this proverb is a key to mastering the craft. One's best work originates from principle experience, core emotions; the rest is just window-dressings, technique for transition. Philip K. Dick, one of the most prolific authors of science fiction for the later half of the twentieth century, wrote about what he knew: paranoia, `big brother', psychological disruptions, drug abuse; and the sci-fi `trimmings' of aliens, techno-dystopias, etc. usually served as interesting backdrops. As a mad, bad, meth-snortin' horsemeat lovin' pulp master, the dominant themes Dick experienced during his relatively short(ened) life appear again and again in the bulk of his work, though rarely so coherently expressed as in his tragic masterpiece, _A Scanner Darkly_.
The `basics:' Bob Arctor is a drug dealer who is also Fred, a narc working undercover with the LAPD to bust a big time drug dealer named...Bob Arctor. Bob/Fred's drug of choice, Substance D(eath), gradually splits the user's brain into two separate halves, corroding the interaction between the hemispheres and rendering one a split-personality veering chaotically close to schizophrenia. Bob doesn't realize he's Fred, and vice-versa (except in moments of rare epiphany). As anyone who has read VALIS can attest, the real-life events from which this story is based occurred to Dick in the beginning of the `70's, and most of his fiction afterward were attempts for him to glean and get down the life-shattering experience. _A Scanner Darkly_ was debatably his most successful attempt, and certainly his most lucid.
For all the futuristic flourishes, the bulk of _A Scanner Darkly_ basically describes the everyday existence of Orange County drug users. The dissipation of the body and slow decay of the mind; the rupturing of the moral core for the immediate high; life on the downward spiral--it's all documented here, in harrowing fashion. Among the endless repetitive conversations and breakdown-ruminations, there are a few moments of outstanding imagery-the Connie/Donna face-melt and the flower-field being the most prominent in recollection--the first hideous, the second serene--both chilling to the bone given the circumstances.
Never a literary stylist, Dick's simple prose veered from elegant to downright amateurish, making some of his lesser/cryptic works a bit of a slog, yet in this particular volume, the author's heart can be found in the characters, environments, and overall pathos; the feel of catharsis is prevalent throughout and made abundantly clear in the coda:
"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."
A melancholic, mad masterpiece.
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HALL OF FAMEon November 9, 2002
I have always felt that PKD was the type of author who could really blow me away with his mind-expanding ideas. Unfortunately his other novels that I previously read struck me as overrated, as the ideas failed to gel into coherent stories. However, he hits the bullseye with "A Scanner Darkly" which has to be one of best novels. Taking place in a dysfunctional near-future, the story revolves around the new drug called Substance D. (The only glitch in this book is that PKD places the story in the 1990's, and PKD's vision of the future from back in the 70's is a bit distracting in its inaccuracies). Substance D causes a disconnect between the left and right sides of the brain, causing a split personality syndrome in which both of the user's selves are active simultaneously and compete with each other. The main character, Bob Arctor, is an undercover cop who poses as a dealer, and his undercover self has been assigned to watch his dealer self. At first he realizes the bureaucratic mistake, but as he falls deeper and deeper into the world of Substance D, Bob can no longer perceive the difference between his two selves and descends into a schizophrenic nightmare. Bob's deteriorating state becomes a very disturbing tract from PKD on the nature of one's identity, the destruction of the self through drug abuse, and the reality or un-reality of the self's replacement. Also, in PKD's future the drug war becomes a class war, as the "straights" need the users as a class of non-persons to manipulate and to experiment on. This may just be the way users see the world, and PKD shows us that it may not be a farfetched conspiracy theory. This is a truly troubling look into the world of damaged and ruined minds, from a man who just may have been there himself.
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on November 16, 2011
This would have to be one of the most unsettling books i've read in a while. The plot revolves around a drug addict who is growing increasingly unstable and paranoid do to his heavy use of "substance D" a synthetic narcotic of the future which fries the brain permantly after it addicts the user to a life of misery. The main carachter is hunted by an undercover cop who is having his own problems keeping a grip on reality. After a while the true relationship between the two becomes clear to the reader and the whole thing gets even stranger.
If you enjoy fiction that makes you think sideways then this book is for you. This is the first book by Phillip K Dick i've read and i intend to read more of his work on the basis of this book's quality.
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VINE VOICEon April 12, 2007
The movie version of "A Scanner Darkly" was one of the most original films I saw last year. I loved it; the animation was innovative and fascinating, while the movie itself was hypnotic. Philip K. Dick has been responsible for writing the novel versions of several recent great films (including "Minority Report") and I was curious to read some of his work. After reading "A Scanner Darkly" I discovered why Richard Linklater made the film version the way he did. The subject matter of the film, its atmosphere could be caught in a live-action film; but I doubt it would have been as good. The book is great! Whether it's better than the movie or not, I really can't say...I barely paid attention to the plot of the movie, it was the animation that kept my eyes glued to the screen. The book is very close to the movie; Fred is an undercover narcotic agent trying to bust Bob Arctor, a man who's believed to be a big-time drug dealer of Substance D (as in death), a drug that causes split personalities in people. Scanners (hidden cameras) have been installed in Arctor's house so the police can have 24-hour surveillance; There's only one problem; Fred is Bob Arctor. He's doing surveillance on himself. His fellow workers don't know this because employees where a scramble suit (a suit which scrambles their facial features and vocal patterns, the movie couldn't have done a better job with it). Bob's life is relatively simple; He hangs out at his house all day dropping D with his two drug-addicted roommates James Barris (the most memorable character in both film and novel) and Ernie Luckman and hangs out with his drug-dealing girlfriend Donna. The only real BIG differences between novel and film are that in the movie, a character named Charles Freck (who plays a small but memorable role in the book) takes the place of a character named Jerry Fabin. And the ending of the book is more drawn out than it is in the film. Hopefully, I've made it clear that this is not a novel of science fiction but rather a novel about drugs. Science fiction does play a small role, but it doesn't deserve top billing. But drugs aren't 100% of it either. The book also captures the paranoia people felt after the Watergate scandal and it does all of it so well. This is a terrific book and is worthy of a read. I guarantee that if you see the movie you'll realize how good the translation to screen was.

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on May 9, 2006
Ironically, this book was the first by PKD written not under the influence of any nefarious narcotic substances. He said that he expected to not be able to write completely sober but that he found the writing experience to be exactly the same as when he wrote on speed.

About the book. As most already know, the story is about a man named Bob Arctor who works as a nark with the alias "Fred" and gets the assignment to surveil himself (because of "scramble suits", the identities of superiors and other undercover agents are all hidden from each other). He is then able to watch and listen to himself and his two roommates secretly. Meanwhile he continues taking his drug of choice - Substance D, which with extreme use separates the two hemispheres of the brain. Soon Fred is unable to distingish himself from Bob.

This is an outrageous premise for a story and PKD does not fail to deliver clever, funny and mindbending sequences at a rapid rate. The three main characters are all very different personalities and Dick does not just describe these junkies as being identical, which is what an uninspired mainstream writer would do. Each character is very unique and entertaining. The use of science and technology by Dick is rampant here, but he doesn't overdo it as to bore you. He simply describes how the brain functions or how certain surveillance equipment works so you can understand what is happening.

A Scanner Darkly is, as you clearly find out over the last 50 or so pages, an anti-drug book. By showing how the characters interact and how the drugs they all take cause each one to fail in their lives, Dick basically says that when you are using, you are being used - by the drug and by everyone around you who is using also and that this is a miserable, depressing existence that always ends badly.

As a fan of PKD's work, I found this book to be much different than his other work in that the characters were more real and believeable to me. The dialogue was always interesting and nothing seemed forced or fake. Maybe this is because he based most of these characters on people he had known in his life and was just having them act as they would in real life. Whatever the reason, I was very much into the characters and the story as a whole.

The only drawbacks to the book was the ending, which, while necessary, was just a little drawn out. Like he was hammering you over the head with it. Also, this was supposed to take place in 1994 and he didn't really take into account money and other things like music. Everyone was listening to Simon and Garfunkle and the Stones, etc. Sure the Stones are still somewhat popular but I think that you shouldn't use real pop culture names in stories that take place in the future. Plus you should triple the cost of everything, depending on how far into the future we're talking about. This isn't nitpicking because suspension of disbelief is crucial and things like the above can bring you back to reality quickly.

Overall, a fascinating look into the drug culture with a very bizarre twist that will leave you anxious for what's coming next and very amused up until the end.
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on September 14, 2000
Reading this book is akin to the pleasure of being lost in the city you live in and suddenly realizing that you are only three blocks from home. After every page in this novel, I was dragged further from coherence and deeper into the split ego of a cop who is an addict trailing an addict who is a cop. The very fiber of reality is arbitrary; good and evil tango to a song hummed by insanity. As one follows Arctor's attempts to reconcile his addiction, his past and his future, it seems that ultimately we are empathizing with madness: it is impossible to offer consolation, just learn what you can and get the hell out.
I have never experimented with mind-altering drugs, and after reading this I don't think I have to. In the 3 or 4 days it took me to read this, I was completely submerged in the world in which Arctor plodded, eager to reach resolution. If you are looking for a narrative style like none other and characters that seem to stare at you from the pages, get this book. Be forewarned: Stories of this kind have been known to cause compulsive reading habits.
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on September 12, 2012
IMHO this is Dick's best novel. The themes of mental illness/drug addiction/unstable reality are found in a lot of Dick's work, but I think Scanner is both his most heart-felt exploration of them, and also his best prose. Dick's style usually takes a back seat to his ideas, but the writing here is excellent, and a great fit with the story. If the dedication at the end doesn't move you, you need a heart transplant to replace the cold stone in your chest. The movie adaptation is but a pale shadow of this great book. I feel sorry for people who've seen the movie but not read the book, as if they do pick up the book, they may have trouble getting the movie's imagery out of their minds. Two main problems with the film anyone moving to the book should understand: 1) the acting was too broad -- the characters are meant to be more subtle, and less overdrawn archetypes. Recast it in your mind with less scenery-chewing players; 2) the rotoscope animation was totally wrong for the thematic -- the story should have been presented in the most realistic style, because it is all about the everyday reality of the characters, which is no less concrete for them as experience for being elusive in its meaning, and filled with drug-fueled paranoia. Of course, the novel works as allegory for the way many of not most of us find ourselves situated in the social world these days -- it's impossible know who the good guys are, lines between right and wrong look awfully blurry, and our grip on our humanity becomes as fragile as our grip on what is actually going on around us. The book is really quite sophisticated, and one might even say 'deep' in depicting the protagonist's (our) stuggle with the larger forces enveloping him (us). It neither sugarcoats the situation with a cheap heroic victory, nor lapses into cheap nihilism where evil triumphs. It makes you think, as PKD usually does, but it's also moving in a way few SF books (by Dick or anyone else) manage. Highly recommended!
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on January 25, 2001
The first time I read this book left me with somewhat ambivalent feelings. I was and still am a great fan of Dick's work, and Scanner Darkly is clearly one of his best, brimming with black humour and insane plot concepts. However, I was somewhat irritated by some of its elements, which sounded like a typical ex-addict's attempt to evade all responsibility by blaming drugs. "It wasn't my fault that I wrecked my whole life and hurt everyone around me, it was those horrible drugs! I'm going to write a book about them so that everyone will see how bad they are!" Evil drug dealers injecting hard drugs into innocent girls who then deteriorate into old hags in six months... just like the stuff I heard in school, but not necessarily true. Later I realized that the novel is far deeper than that, though. First of all it isn't a document, but rather a depiction of how it felt to be involved in the disaster that was 60-70's drug culture, and of the agonies of addiction. And second, it showed the true tragedy of the hippie era. In the book, everyone's basically either a head, wasting their brains with a plethora of substances and burning their life away, or then a straight, existing in a plastic limbo that cannot properly called a life at all. Bob Arctor chose the career of undercover narc when he realized how empty his proper life was, and his comment about the Lions Society (?) he was lecturing to about drugs was quite revealing too. "Substance D cannot destroy their brains, because they have none" (taken from memory) So I think the book is a criticism aimed at the emptiness of society which drove masses of bright young people to drop out and play around with power tools without care... and with results that the book depicts disturbingly well. Luckily there is a third way, but I don't think it was a real option for most people then.
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on April 3, 2012
I first saw the movie starring Downey Jr and Keanu Reeves a few years back and have been looking for the book ever since. Aside from the movie changing a few character roles around, there isn't a lot of difference. Of course, the book has MUCH MORE going on in the story than the movie does (as with any movie based on a book). Some of the reading can be a little too...intellectual(?) for my reading level, but the Kindle makes it easy with that included dictionary. A great, engaging story that will leave you thinking about what this world could be like in a not too distant, dystopian future.
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on November 1, 2004
Though sometimes crushingly depressing, A Scanner Darkly also hums with humor, humanity and deep insight. And although I felt, at times, deep contempt for the dingy, drug-obsessed lives of the characters in this novel, I was also regularly surprised by their tenderness toward one another. Their strange considerations and unexpected priorities. The underlying intelligence of even their most drug-addled conversations. The moments of naivete from even the most hard boiled characters.

By showing us how each charcter is slowly (or not-so-slowly) losing their mind to Substance D, Philip K. Dick is also implying that there is *much* to be lost. That even in their most depraved state--individuals are complex, surprising, and mysterious, even to themselves.

The effect, ultimately, is that it's impossible not to compare their lives to your own. What are the risks and rewards of *your* most compulsive behaviors? How do you justify them to yourself? What have you lost as a result of your compulsions?

And finally, the oldest question of all: what is reality? Is a recording of life an accurate depiction of it? Or does our inevitable need to manipulate that recording mean that we will forever struggle to know what is real and what isn't?

Philip K. Dick asks these questions through character depictions that are both chilling and heartening. I highly recommend this book for readers who are unafraid to explore the darker elements of human nature.
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