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REVIEW: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

REVIEW SUMMARY: The most annoying book I ever forced myself to finish.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A narc goes undercover to spy on himself.


PROS: Um, er…

CONS: Disjoint, frenetic narrative; uninteresting story; way too much “what is reality?” theme; characters you don’t care about.

BOTTOM LINE: Disappointing.

Philip K. Dick has always infused his stories with a sense of paranoia, but A Scanner Darkly has to take the drug-laced cake.

The plot is intriguing enough: There’s this undercover narcotics officer who goes by the name of “Fred” only nobody knows his real identity, see, because Fred wears a scramble suit that prevents anyone from seeing the real him. One day Fred is assigned to bust a drug pusher named Robert Arctor. Arctor is taking a nasty, mind-altering drug called Substance D – D as in “Death”. Substance D makes it hard for its users to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. In fact, users are constantly “rolling their own” fantasies. Bob Arctor’s girlfriend and supplier is named Donna and she provides Bob and his drug-addicted loser friends, Jim Barris, Ernie Luckman and Charles Freck, with the killer drug. So Fred’s got his hands full, right? Well, here’s the catch: Fred is really Robert Arctor. As the story unfolds, Bob has problems distinguishing between reality and fantasy, even though “Fred” has installed holo-scanners throughout Bob’s place as a surveillance measure.

I’m being intentionally smarmy here because (1) I don’t often get a chance to be smarmy, and (2) this book left me annoyed. I’m going to try and approach this fairly, but I gotta tell you, this was the most annoying book I ever forced myself to finish.

The book’s premise sounded interesting to me but that’s about where my enjoyment ended. The secret identity of Fred/Arctor is no secret – the book jacket introduces the dilemma right from the get-go, so there’s no surprise plot twist in that regard. But the plot is fertile ground for Dick’s signature paranoia and reality as well as issues regarding identity, privacy, and police surveillance. I just wish something more was done with it.

Arctor is a user as well as a pusher, of course, so drug culture is a prominent part of the book. It was only marginally interesting to me, though. Maybe because I was never into drugs? But wait! Maybe the characters were interesting? Nope. The characters were just there; neither likable nor dislikable – just there.

The narrative used in the book simulates Arctor’s “what is real” dilemma by annoyingly switching context back and forth between reality and fever-dream. As a result, the book is smothered by its own frenetic, paranoia-infused writing – the very same style that I believe was intended to add flavor to the situation. Instead, I’m left with the feeling you get when you’re trying to make sense out of a rambling, incoherent drunk.

We are meant to care about Arctor’s real-life confusion but are given no handles onto what that reality is. And then, as if to throw salt in the wounds, the author dangles all sorts of references to imposters, warped realities, and brain hemispheres causing two different realities – things of that nature. Do we need to be reminded that we are in the dark? Or is that supposed to be the point, no matter how un-entertaining? Forgetting the Corinthians reference, is it supposed to be meaningful when Fred hopes that the holo-scanners installed in Bob’s house, whose tapes he must review, scan clearly rather than darkly so Fred can finally learn who he really is? Bah!

Sadly, I found this book to be of minimal entertainment value, wondering several times throughout whether I should just stop and move on to another – any other – book. I seriously cannot believe that of all the decent (forget about good) science fiction books in existence, Hollywood picked this as the basis for a movie. For the movie’s sake, I hope it diverges in storytelling style from the book.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

17 Comments on REVIEW: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

  1. ouch…so i take it you are not a big fan of K Dick?

  2. Wow. Quick response!

    On the contrary, I liked at least some of the other books of his I’ve read like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon (short story collection). (Note careful sidestepping of a related can of worms. D’oh!) I also read Solar Lottery (his first book) and A Maze of Death, though I don’t remember what they were about or whether I liked them.

  3. It’s a while since I read it but I remember being similarly disappointed. Whilst it’s good that Dick is now recognized for his contributions to SF, it has given publishers an excuse to reprint his whole corpus, the bulk of which is turgid rubbish. I don’t really buy the whole nutter-genius thing and suspect that – like Kerouac – if he had got his shit together he would have produced something truly amazing.

  4. I think you’ll find that you’ve switched realities and are in fact wrong.

  5. Oh thank GOD! I was afraid I was a bad person because I couldn’t make myself finish this book. I just couldn’t get into it like I can most literature. I guess being groundbreaking is not the same as being good.

  6. Weeellll…just to be one of the odd folks out, this is one of my favorites by PKD, along with “Sheep” and “Flow, My Tears” and “High Castle”.

    Go figure.


  7. To each his own, eh Fred? Just curious, though…when you read this book were you hopped up on goofballs? šŸ™‚

    BTW, RedChurch has spun this review into an interesting post over at his blog, Quantum Storytelling.

  8. I’m with you John. I read this book in advance of the movie. I wanted to like it. I actually like the idea of the plot, but … a lot of the book is drugged-out, brain-damaged people having ridiculous, nonsensical conversations. It’s like you’re the only sober person in a room full of drunks, but not in an amusing way. I skimmed a good bit of nonsense to get to the rare points where the plot moved forward. I did enjoy the twist at the end. But like you, I thought the whole Bob is Fred should have been a nice twist early on rather than being revealed it on the dust jacket. I am still interested in seeing the movie. I am hopefully that they eliminated the endless scenes of pointless drug induced conversations and kept to the plot and perhaps added to it. That’s just me. I was hopeful about the Starship Troopers movie until I saw that load of crap. So maybe I am just too optimistic.

  9. Hopped up? Nah. Working 40 hours a week while attending college full-time and sleep-deprived? Yep.


    Seriously…maybe I would not be affected as much the second time around (I read it in HC when it first came out), but the decline of the main character, especially the last couple of chapters, really affected me at the time. Maybe it just caught me the right way, at the right time.

    Sometimes when you revisit a book that affected you greatly in the initial reading you fail to find the magic again. Other times you find the magic, or a deeper magic. I’ll have to bump this onto the TBR pile and see what happens a second time through.

  10. “… a lot of the book is drugged-out, brain-damaged people having ridiculous, nonsensical conversations.”

    You know, that is probably one of the things that caught me (in a positive way) about the book. When I read the book I was in college. I did not “do” drugs, but had a lot of friends who did. Smoking pot was a big thing. So, I experienced a lot of nonsensical conversations. Dick captured that, so could be another reason I enjoyed it.

    I also find a lot of PKD’s work to have a dreamlike or nightmarelike quality to it. You know nothing makes sense, but you go along for the ride. I’ve found a similar quality to much of A.E. van Vogt’s work as well. Nothing makes sense when you step back, but while you’re in the story, you’re having a good time.

  11. I see where everyone is coming from… I just want to put my two cents worth in. First of all, in response to the first review, I don’t think that Bob and Fred being the same person was supposed to be a “twist” (in fact it is clearly defined in the beginning, and blurs as the story progresses). The rambling narrative was effective in telling the story, while confusing me at the same time, helping me sympathize with the characters who could not clearly distinguish reality (for this reason I don’t think it is necessary to have done drugs to enjoy this story, seeing as how I don’t and never have). The fact that the characters “are just there, neither likeable or unlikeable” demonstrates the effects of the drugs making individuals into mindless drones. This in addition to Bob’s mental deterioration make this book a commentary on psychology more than a science fiction story. For this reason I can understand why readers may be disappointed if they expected PKD science fiction, but I thought it was a fascinating (and confusing) novel.

  12. Kristen // June 21, 2006 at 9:16 am //

    I appears my hopes may have been dashed. AintitCool has a review of A Scanner Darkly and it sounds like faithful adapatation of the book.

    “Mostly you’re watching Robert Downey Jr. and Woody from Cheers laying around in an apartment or sitting in a diner pretending to be real high and getting confused about stuff.”

    Perhaps I will wait for it to come out on DVD which really means I may never see it since I rarely ever get around to renting movies.

  13. Mescaline // January 1, 2007 at 2:10 am //

    bottom line? Unable to see, feel or understand. You’re an imbecile, that’s all. Stick to Harry Potter, that’s your league.

  14. I’ve just finished reading the book. This is my first Dick novel and here are just a few thoughts about it:

    I was drawn to his work mainly by his amazingly poetic book titles.

    I found a scanner darkly to be very funny and very sad at the same time. A hip futuristic detective story turning into a requiem for the author’s lost friends. If this book was too psychodelic for you I suggest you never touch anything by Bouroughs or Kerouac.

    Basically, my opinion about the book is the opposite of yours. How can a conscious being not be interested in this thing called reality? The author makes the point that it’s this totally natural interest in alternatives to the ‘bourgeois’ views of the world that made his friends and himself ‘play’ with mind altering substances and that the punishment for that was way too hard. If you are not interested in those other perceptions of reality you might also have problems feeling for the people in the book.

    I did feel a lot with the novel’s protagonists who in search of the blue flower (blaue Blume – the symbol of german romanticism) got lost.

    The idea of posing as a great impostor, aside from being funny, is a great metaphor for taking the shortcut to a heightened reality through drugs.

    You might revisit your opinion a couple of years from now. Until then, do a lot of reading and playing, but take care.

    Good luck on your way!

  15. A Scanner Darkly has been with me for almost thirty years.

    This book is one of the touchstones of my life, and for many others too.

    Your review was insulting, childish, and very, very wrong.

    This book is a masterpiece; end of story.

    The fact that you fail to recognize this tells me all I need to know about your critical capacities.

    Please go back to playing with your Transformers and jerking off to your Star Wars DVDs.

  16. For the record, they’re VHS tapes.

  17. I have just spent an afternoon reading PKD and it has given me all the inspiration I needed to get writing asap. I couln’t possibly write as badly if I tried my very hardest.

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