A Scanner Darkly
“I have seen myself backward.”
― Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
This book tested my ability to follow the story of a protagonist with a deteriorating personality and relate to the culture of drug usage and addiction that led to that. I was unsuccessful relating to that culture in spite of the author's marvelous imagination and his ability to make the descent of the protagonist believable.
The protagonist is an undercover narcotics agent who poses as drug user Bob Arctor. Bob shares his house with two other users, Barris and Luckman, and has a girlfriend, Donna, who is a small-time dealer. Bob is addicted to Substance D—the “D” standing primarily for Death—and is ostensibly using Donna to find the source of this drug. Bob, using the alias Fred, is assigned to monitor the group at Bob’s house, but by necessity, that means he must monitor himself as Bob or blow his cover. The use of "scramble suits" that modify what others see when someone wears them, and allow Bob to masquerade as Fred, is the primary science fiction element in the novel.
When surveillance of Bob’s house intensifies because of suspicious behavior, so do acts of sabotage occurring against Bob. When the government installs monitoring equipment in his house, Bob and his housemates almost die from somebody tinkering with his car. As Fred, he finds himself reviewing the recordings of Bob and his friends, and in so doing finding himself in difficult discussions with his supervisor and fellow agents about the results. Fred also becomes disassociated from Bob, reaching a point where his/their mind is unable to guess each other’s actions. The title of the novel refers to the surveillance tool and the consequences when Bob/Fred cannot comprehend what he sees. It is also an allusion to the biblical phrase "through a glass darkly" (1st Corinthians 13:12).
The author is at his best in depicting how Substance D has damaged Bob's brain, splitting his personae and resulting in a decline into a state near brain death. Just as this process starts, Barris comes to the police and offers information that will get Bob busted as a major drug dealer-conspirator. Fred’s cover is blown, and he is placed in a detoxification program of "New-Path", where he takes on the name Bruce, his mental functions severely deteriorated.
The novel is loosely plotted, often going on tangents that help reinforce a sense of the drug community’s frame of mind (such as it is!). Along that line, the paranoia that Bob/Fred suffers is never confirmed. Was Barris the one sabotaging Bob’s belongings? Dick refers time and again to the capricious behavior of people on drugs and how one betraying whim does not necessarily link to others. Further, why is New-Path growing Substance D—outright greed and opportunism, or perhaps a means of gaining control of people who otherwise would resist being told what to do?
This is both a story about a community of drug users and one about the split personality of one man. The first chapter focuses on a friend of Bob who must cope with hallucinatory aphids, mirroring Bob’s own descent at the end. In an author’s note, Dick dedicated the book to friends from his own drug-using community, not condemning their choice but fully cognizant of the consequences they suffered. This is a book I would recommend only if you have already read some of Philip K. Dick's better novels like Ubik and The Man in the High Castle (my favorite).
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, 2006(1977)