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.