A Scanner Darkly: Philip K. Dick's thematic obsessions
Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Leonard Pierce: Philip K. Dick—often marginalized when he was alive, and now canonized after his death—was, like many writers, a man of vast talents and noticeable flaws. And like many writers, he was consumed by very specific themes (or, in his case, obsessions) that managed to work their way into almost everything he wrote. A Scanner Darkly is no exception; in fact, with one major exception I'll mention later, it may be considered the essential Dick novel in the way it combines the themes that characterized almost all his noteworthy works.
On Monday, Zack Handlen launched a discussion of the novel's focus on drugs, a theme which featured into dozens of PKD's books. On Tuesday, Todd VanDerWerff started our talk about the theme of fractured identity, perhaps A Scanner Darkly's most powerful focus, and essential to understanding Dick's work. So I'll be giving those themes short mention here, though I'll be joining in the conversations in their posts to help place them in the context of Dick's canon and the world of similar writers. But that still leaves me with some important thematic elements, common to all of PKD's best books, that appear here in spades, and manifest in important ways throughout.
The first of these, related to the notion of splintered identities, is the idea that the world is not as it seems. This theme appears in almost of all of Dick's fiction, in one of many guises: alternate history (The Man In The High Castle), vast conspiracies that exist just beyond the reach of human consciousness (VALIS), and the continuation of reality in ways unthinkable to those experiencing it (Ubik), as well as many others. He wastes no time here in immersing readers in the idea that the world isn't what it appears to be: from the very outset, even leaving aside the fact that we are dealing with characters who are either mentally ill, saturated with drugs, or both, Dick pulls the earth from under our feet with actions as simple as Jerry's bug hallucinations and Charles Freck's tendency to zone out in the middle of his actions and experience little cinematic fantasies which we aren't tipped to for several paragraphs. (Freck even speculates, early on, that the source of Substance D is an alien planet, perhaps existing in another reality altogether.) By the time the book comes to its dire conclusion, the interplay of double and triple agents, of lives led and lives imagined, has placed it well within the spectrum of Dick's worlds within worlds and realities inside realities. At the New-Path Clinic, Concept Time involves the discussion of competing natures of God and reality, and overheard snippets of conversations suggest that Bob Arctor isn't the only person whose mind is in more than one place.
Related to this is the theme of paranoia and madness. This isn't surprising, considering the rest of what's going on in the works of Philip K. Dick: When your characters are out of their minds on drugs, completely unsure of who they are, surrounded by war, oppression and death, and not even certain what world they live in or whether they're alive or dead, paranoia almost seems like a reasonable response, and madness is only a stumble away. It's very easy to get carried away with the temptation of comparing the themes in an author's work to the author's life, but in Dick's case, it's downright impossible. PKD himself was a drug addict throughout most of his adult life, he had serious issues with personal identity, he lived in fear of war and the police, and he later became convinced that he was living in an alternate reality where the Roman Empire had never lost power. Is it any wonder that people suspected that he was himself insane? Certainly the characters in the book, even the ones who themselves are teetering on the edge of insanity, seem keenly aware of the physical damage they're doing to their brains; they speak to one another about the consequences of Slow Death in almost clinical terms. Their inevitable descent into madness is something they seem to anticipate, but not exactly dread; madness may be a relief.
The final theme shot through most of Dick's great novels is an overwhelming dread of the effects of war, and while that isn't fully present here, neither is it invisible. The fear of war, after all, is a fear of death and annihilation at the hands of abusive authority, and where elsewhere (High Castle and Dr. Bloodmoney, among others) it appears in an obvious manifestation, here—and in other works like Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said; Minority Report; and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?—it comes in the guise of an intense antipathy toward the police. While Raymond Chandler wrapped his distrust of the law in terms of contempt and scorn, Dick expressed it in sheer terror; Bob Arctor's hatred for the solid citizens of Orange County is matched only by his fear of his bosses at the Narcotics GHQ. When he frets that he might as well not even exist—that he's little more than a puppet controlled by anonymous hands and voices behind the wall of authority—he is projecting his own future. Whether expressed literally (as in Charles Freck's terror, familiar to any casual drug user, that a cop is following him, when in fact the cop has taken no notice of him at all) or metaphorically (as in Bruce's story at New-Path of the black-and-white wolf that was both respected and feared by its prey), Dick's fear of the police, and the war-hungry state authority that props them up, was never hard to discern.
Few writers wore their thematic obsessions on their sleeves as visibly as PKD, but then, few writers were as adept at incorporating them into their narratives and making them work in service of the story. Beyond that, Dick was able to pull off the greatest writerly trick of all: he was able to infect his readers with the drug-madness, paranoia, fear, uncertainty and doubt that his characters felt. One of the reasons A Scanner Darkly is one of his best novels is not just that he so skillfully incorporates his pet themes; it's that he implants them in us, as well.
Donna Bowman: As someone who has never read a Philip K. Dick novel before —an omission which this longtime science fiction fan can only explain with lame excuses about how my most prolific SF reading was done before I was really mature enough to tackle him—I really appreciate this summary, Leonard. Let me just talk briefly about the alternate-history theme. It was my impression from the Dick movie adaptations I've seen (and maybe from book covers, those oh-so-reliable ways to judge the contents!) that the SF was pretty far out there. One of the wonderful shocks of Scanner for me was how close to our own reality it is. Dozens of pages would go by without any sense that we were not talking about characters with whom we share a world; they drove our cars, listened to our music, talked our lingo. Then Fred would put on his scramble suit or watch a hologram, and snap—something had been added to our world.
When I think "alternate history," I think of one of those if-Hitler-won-the-war dealies, a divergence from the way things actually went rooted in some set of contingencies going otherwise than what they did. Maybe my use of the term is too limited. But Dick seems to be doing something different, as you say, Leonard: suggesting that there could be more behind the scenes of our world, or that if we layered on a particular technological capability to governmental authority, here's how things would be. Clearly in Scanner, it's not that the government acts any differently, or that the effects of addiction to Substance D are qualitatively distinct from addiction to other narcotics. It's a different kind of what-if game: If the police had this tool, keeping their known methods and philosophy the same, what would it be like? If there were a new substance with these properties and profile, keeping the culture (both junkie and straight) otherwise the same, what would happen? The bits that are different from our world, then, almost feel like bleed-through from the other side of the glass, as if we might wake up and find that we had temporarily forgotten about them.
Ellen Wernecke: Like Donna, I am also new to Philip K. Dick with this book, so I appreciate the opportunity to place A Scanner Darkly within the context of his larger body of work, which I’m definitely interested in checking out now.
The way I see the theme of the alternate history in A Scanner Darkly is sort of a national version of what happens to Bob Arctor/Fred throughout the book, in the way the ‘drug society’ abuts the straight culture for which Bob has such disdain. The normalcy of his world in some respects imposes a sort of chilling effect when you pause to consider how, even in the addicts’ state, we get these glimpses of another society which are so starkly different from the axis of withdrawal and satiety around which they rotate. Clearly beyond the boundaries of this book, despite the government’s surveillance plans and the wreckage caused by Substance D, people are going to college, having children, making collection calls for locksmiths.
That locksmith episode was one of my favorite scenes in the book, not only because it forces Arctor to retrace the steps that Jim Barris took to falsify his identity (making it clear to us that Arctor has plunged deeper into the drug culture he is surveying than he quite realizes), but also because of that innocent brush with the outside. Arctor expends tremendous energy trying to play a well-meaning but forgetful guy who had a key made and paid with the wrong account, his mind reeling all the while with the possibilities of who’s out to "get" him—but it’s him we follow out of the shop; we don’t stay inside with the locksmith. Maybe Dick shares some of the addicts’ disdain for the "straight" world, maybe not, but instead of an alternate history at play, it’s an alternate temporal space, whose edges briefly touch and then break away.
Zack Handlen: I was talking with my roommate about Scanner, and he mentioned something I'd like to touch on here, in terms of paranoia and a distrust of the law. All the drug addicts in Scanner are paranoid to some extent or another, partly from their illegal lifestyle, partly for the strange stuff they lay on their brains. Their paranoia is arguably justified, because people are watching them, and the cops in the book don't seem to have much concern for due process. Where it gets interesting is how rarely the specific concerns of the paranoiacs and the reality of the conspiracy against them actual intersect. It's one of the book's best, sickest jokes: Barris is super-obsessive, and all of them are constantly overthinking and living in fear of getting pulled over, but they fail to recognize the details. Almost like the cops are in one reality, the heads in another, and Bob goes crazy trying to bridge the gap.
Donna and Ellen, you both said you haven't read much PKD before. Definitely check out more, but you should be aware that, apart from a few non-science-fiction novels of his that I've never read, Scanner is Dick's most down-to-earth book. His other stories tend to lay on the metaphysics and twists, and while they're surprisingly easy to read (he never completely loses sight of his pulp roots), they get weird. Which is why I like reading them so much, I guess. I enjoy the themes, but I really just get a kick out of hitting the mid-point of a story and not really having a clue where it's going to go next.
Todd VanDerWerff: I'm not sure what I can possibly add to this discussion. A lot of Dick's work, to me, boils down to "They're watching you… But they can't be, right? No, they're definitely watching you." To his credit, he almost always puts this theme over (especially in this book) and puts readers in a place where they aren't immediately certain that life is exactly as it seems to be, that something else could come bursting out of the wall at any minute. In the best works by Dick, he makes this whole thing seem incredibly moving, as if giving a sense of the way these paranoid machines gobble people up and spit them out. In some of his lesser works, it all just seems unfounded and kind of free-floating.
I'd say Scanner splits the difference. There's definitely reason to be paranoid here, and the way the book portrays the way a drug addict's mind heads off into weird little hallucinations of what might or might not happen is always well-done. (In particular, I loved the whole segment with the locksmith mentioned above, but I also loved all of the suspicion that grew up around the broken cephscope and just who broke it, which led to many of the book's best paranoid ruminations.) But that constant state of paranoia also holds the characters at a bit of a distance from the readers until the truly moving conclusion. There's a temptation to read much of the work as, "heh, heh, heh, ain't drug addicts funny?" and while I'm sure Dick intended SOME humor, it's clear he didn't intend that to be the overriding message.
Still, the book leaves the reader in a wonderfully skin-crawling kind of place. It's far too easy to read this book and become convinced that your own home is monitored, that you are somehow spying on yourself in an apartment just down the block. And then there are all of the ways that Bob's paranoia comes to be proved accurate, though a large portion of this may be the latent Fred bits of his brain poking up to say hello. Zack gets into this above, but the old saying goes that you still can be paranoid even if they're really out to get you. In the works of Dick, they almost always are, and that's a wonderfully discombobulating sense to leave the reader with.