Monday, March 27, 2006
A Scanner Darkly
[Now Experiencing] [Literature] [Film]
I just finished reading A Scanner Darkly, which is in my opinion the best book ever written by Philip K Dick. Or more accurately, re-reading; having originally read it about three years ago (and loved it), I returned to it this month in the light of becoming suddenly and unexpectedly excited about the upcoming movie directed by Richard Linklater and starring Keanu Reeves. (Click the link, check out the gorgeous trailers.)
It's just as good the second time around, if not better. The story follows one Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics agent of the near future. Arctor has taken on the life of a drug addict in a group house as part of a government initiative to find the source of distribution of a deadly new drug known as Substance D, or Death. He dates Donna Hawthorne, his girlfriend and dealer, simultaneously trying to win her heart and uncover the next dealer up the chain.
Unfortunately the police system is totally corrupt; for his own safety Arctor reports to his superiors under the codename "Fred", and wears a blur suit, a device which totally obscures his identity, presenting him as a moving composite of unidentifiable images. Not even the police know his true identity.
As the story starts, one of Arctor's friends, Jerry Fabin, a long-time user, has crossed the line from "eccentric" to "crazy". His brain badly damaged by drug use, Fabin is convinced that his body, his house, and all his visitors are infested with a species of intelligent parasite; in an attempt to foil their plans he seals his house and releases bug spray throughout it, with himself and his friends inside. His suicidal actions are thwarted and he is hauled off to rehabilitation, but it is clear to his friends that the "good days" of their circle are over, and the downward spiral of addiction towards death has begun.
Meanwhile, "Fred" is informed by his superiors that they have a lead on the source of Substance D - one Bob Arctor. Fred is instructed to install surveillance cameras throughout his own house and monitor them to provide evidence of his own guilt.
Suffering an increasing level of dissociation from the bizarre nature of his own job, badly stressed by girlfriend Donna's course towards self-destruction, and targeted by a sequence of dangerous mechanical sabotages that might be the act of off-kilter housemate Barris or the result of his own subconcious urges, Arctor is no longer able to trust the perceptions of his own drug-damaged brain, and must instead rely on the evidence of the scanners throughout his house. But does a scanner see clearly - or darkly?
The novel is an intensely personal one for Dick, and is the second-last one written before his own suicide. It unites the long-running themes of his work; reality, empathy, and social disconnnection, but (almost uniquely) melds them into a significantly more realistic setting than any of his other works, with a cast of characters populated from his own life.
From the author's note at the epilogue of the book: "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 - run over, maimed, destroyed - but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terribly brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it."
The book reads as a combination of a science-fiction work and a drug culture odyssey; in its final scenes it becomes transcendent as a raft of surprise twists interact with powerful, moving, and desperately tragic characterisation. I recommend it to anyone; it's one of my favourite books of all time and it's worth a look no matter what your opinion of Philip K Dick.
For all those who've already read this book, can I recommend you go out and re-read it - and then read Dick's last novel, Valis, immediately afterwards? Dick's phenomenally strange last novel, in which he casts himself as the protagonist in search of a meeting with an unknowable extraplanetary sentience, is an absolutely masterful read and adds a new level of relevance to A Scanner Darkly; do yourself a favour and get a copy at the first opportunity.
I'm now going back to re-encounter A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords as preparatory reading for A Feast of Crows by George R R Martin, which I see is up for a Hugo award. AJ will be happy; he can finally discuss it with me without worrying about spoilers.
Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I need to thank Shrydar for helping to set up a Livejournal syndicated feed for The Dust Forms Words, which will apparently start actually showing meaningful information any day now (bookmark it now, avoid the rush). This apparently makes me easier to read for you LJ individuals, or something. Let me know how it works out.