“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. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone`s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, 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, A Scanner Darkly ~~
I once read somewhere, that if you don`t know Philip K. Dick, you don`t deserve to live; to exist without knowledge of such a great painter of the imagination would be a cardinal sin. What is so interesting about A Scanner Darkly is the undoubted autobiographical nature of the beast; it`s a chronicle of 70`s hippie drug culture basking in the eternal sunshine of southern California, where the lights are never switched off, and even darkness is banished by the garish glare of the strip mall and flickering television screen. External darkness has been banished into sepia drenched memory washed clean by illegal chemical cocktails and the 24 hour consumer society. Darkness is now internal; the twilight of the gods of self awareness, memory and sanity. The darkness of insanity sits upon every shoulder; a subliminal shadow, a pitch black crow, picking at the entrails of mind and body, with jaws as wide as hell.
Bob Arctor is a specimen of humanity on the fringes of society; a man who hates his suburban existence, and trades it for life as a hippie dropout among the acid heads of Orange County. But as a perfect example of the schizophrenic culture which he inhabits, Arctor is also Agent Fred, an under cover narcotics officer, who`s identity is hidden from his police handlers by a “scramble suit” which makes him appear as a memory blur. The screwed up nature of modern society is further unveiled through an administrative error, as Agent Fred is assigned the case of monitoring Bob Arctor; spying on himself leads him into a downward spiral of low level schizophrenic behaviour, compounded by his scramble suit`s propensity for disintegrating the cerebral cortex, resulting in mental break down and loss of reality.
“I think, really, there is nothing more terrible than the sacrifice of something, a living thing, without it`s ever knowing. If it knew. If it understood and volunteered. But – ” She gestured. “He doesn`t know; he never did know. He didn`t volunteer – “
Arctor/Fred has the odd, and disorientating experience of keeping watch over his own activities through the scanning equipment that gives this mind popping novel it`s title. It`s a late phase Dick novel, a time of drug abuse, brought on by his trying to understand a series of visions he experienced under the effects of sodium pentothal after dental work; the result of his colossal drug intake was a series of mental disorders, all of which contributed to the imaginative value of his later writing. Dick knows about the drug scene; he moves easily into the landscape of narcs and victims, as we follow Agent Fred on his quest to find the source of the very drug he is strung up on. We witness the slow journey of his mental disintegration; the picture we see of the eventual unravelling of the conspiracy behind “Slow Death”, or Substance D, is sad and powerful.
“The vacuum in him grew. And he was actually a little glad.”
The life of Bob Arctor is actually Dick`s over a two year period, from 1970-72; his wife Nancy had walked out on him, he was restless, moving through relationships, jobs, and cities. He was alone, so he filled his house and life with drifters, fell into their way of life and did drugs. His creation falls beyond his creator; Arctor is in thrall to Substance D, he can`t unhook himself from it`s soporific embrace; his life is collapsing, family, friends and work are going. He slides between the cracks of an unforgiving and dispassionate society, which sees him as just another bum; broken, exploited and weak at the very bottom of the social heap. He finds that no one gives you a hand up out of the gutter.
A Scanner Darkly can be read as a sci-fi novel, or as a commentary on modern society`s often times merciless attitude towards the weak, and those who need help. It pushes us down into the depths and darkness of the human soul, and leaves us there to fend for ourselves.