by Philip K. Dick
Robert Arctor halted. Stared at them, at the straights in their fat suits, their fat ties, their fat shoes, and he thought, Substance D can’t destroy their brains; they have none.
Maybe I have a thing for drug-induced stream of consciousness novels.
Anyway, as I’m sure everyone remembers, this novel by acclaimed SF writer Philip K. Dick was fairly recently released as a film starring Keanu Reeves (2006). The film (although I never got to see it, the concept still intrigued me) brought my attention to the book. So when I saw my brother reading it last year, I asked to borrow it. Instead he got it for me for Christmas. Yayshum.
The story is about a new drug, Substance D, or Death. The main character, Bob Arctor, is an undercover cop. His job is to stand as a Substance D user and attempt to climb the dealer hierarchy and find out the source of the drug. However, to pass as an addict, he must become a user.
Although classified as part of the SF genre, I would say this story is anything but. Sure, it has fancy, futuristic technologies (well, fancy and futuristic back in 1977) but those are merely the vehicles for delivering the main message to the reader: what drugs do to you.
A semi-autobiographical work, A Scanner Darkly intimately shows the reader the effects of mind-altering drugs. It’s not merely the highs and lows that the characters go through, but their fragile mental state. The delusions, the paranoia. Dick absorbs you into that mode of thinking; as the reader you constantly question not only Arctor’s housemates and friends, but the “good guys” too. No one in this world can be trusted, and Dick follows this theme through beautifully. He doesn’t launch the reader into it; instead the novel follows Arctor’s decreasing mental state.
Perhaps what I enjoy most about this novel is that although you, as the reader, may empathise with Arctor’s situation, Dick makes it clear that these have all been choices that Arctor has made: “Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car.” But, and this is what makes it special, with no moral judgement, it is truly about the consequences of decisions that these people have made. They tried to enjoy life and face the consequences of it.
The only thing I might warn potential readers about is the stream of consciousness form of writing. It can be hard to get a grip on and sometimes you read one paragraph and go “uh, what just happened?” But that is the tone of the novel, and it would suffer without it.
However, behind all this drug use, there is a story here, and the ending is depressingly perfect.
Rating: four out of five books