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A Scanner Darkly

  Genre Novel – Science Fiction
Philip K. Dick
Publisher Publisher Gollancz
First Published US 1977

The concept of mind-bending drugs and the importance of being human is essential to the core of Philip K. Dick's hugely influential science fiction stories. A Scanner Darkly is a novel that cuts closest to the bone, drawing on Dick's experience with hallucinogenics and on that of his friends, who died through their misuse. This is a black caricature, full of surreal and comic conversations between people whose heads have been screwed by sudden flights of jittery logic and bad trips.

Substance D - also known as Death - is the most dangerous drug on the market. It cancels out the link between the hemispheres of the mind, leading eventually to irreversible brain damage. Trying to find a lead to the source of supply, narcotics agent Bob Arctor is soon as dependent as the other addicts. He is forced into a war of split personalities, observing his own gradual collapse from an objective viewpoint, as futuristic narcotics agent ‘Fred’, face blurred by a high-tech scrambler, spies on the suspect drug dealer Bob Arctor.

His disintegration under the influence of the insidious Substance D is genuinely tragi-comic. Arctor lives so many lives, he loses contact with himself, placed in such a deep cover operation that even his superiors don't know his identity, he is assigned to report on a suspicious drug-player - himself. As he tries to make sense of it, he slips into a state of paranoia, worsened by an addiction to the same drug he is policing. There is no way off Substance D. What awaits at the bottom of the downward spiral may be his redemption.

A Scanner Darkly is by no means an easy read, as you are drawn into the minds of the central character. Once you catch on, it becomes one of the deepest, most moving books ever written by Dick. His ability to immerse the reader into the psychological heart of paranoid narcotics abuse has never been so apparent.

It seems that the author is reliving his past and thereby setting a warning example. It is a book that explores the dual life that many drug users experience. The theme of disconnected hemispheres reinforces this, as does the idea that social schizophrenia originates in the mind. The conclusion provides an interesting view on the sources of abuse. I am sure that people who have been there will find the parallels between fiction and real life quite unnerving. This is a novel that makes you feel more and more paranoid with every page you turn. Dick’s ideas about what it feels like to have the cerebral hemispheres separated from each other is fascinating, but Arctor's psychosis should have been described in further detail.

Disturbing, convincing, and with a haunting twist, A Scanner Darkly is unforgettable.

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Read review of Minority Report (also based on Philip K Dick story)

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