What a trip! Philip K. Dick does a deep dive into the world of an L.A. narcotics bureau where undercover agents are tasked with finding the manufacturer of a powerful new drug. Substance D — the name of the fictional drug — has wide-ranging effects that seem to mimic all known drugs put together, and hardcore users of Substance D usually end up in a state of psychosis after prolonged use. Some undercover agents have to wear these futuristic identity scrambling suits as a way to disconnect their true identities from not only the subjects they are investigating but also their professional colleagues. The suits create a sort of double-blind experiment scenario as scramble suit agents sit in rooms with each other and discuss leads from their mass surveillance operations.
Written during the psychedelic throes of the ’70s (but taking place in the early ’90s), A Scanner Darkly is both a commentary on the war on drugs as well as a science and philosophy-fueled trip into questions of identity. As readers, we’re thrust into the perspective of one such undercover agent named Bob Arctor who is somewhat forced into Substance D use himself while investigating his own circle of “friends.” We get to witness first-hand the very gradual degradation of Arctor’s mental capacities as he slowly becomes “one of them.” So gradual, in fact, that as a reader it’s hard to forget what is actually happening, and you truly believe that our good friend Bob Arctor has been acting his normal self since the beginning, just as Arctor himself believes.
There’s not really anything bad I can say about this book. It’s Philip K. Dick, after all. After reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I knew his writing style was something special and masterful. A Scanner Darkly had me cracking up sometimes over the drug-induced banter of some of the characters. And his subtle use of sci-fi elements is what makes his books timeless.
I watched the movie adaptation of A Scanner Darkly long ago and I didn’t understand it one bit. Now that I’ve read Philip K. Dick’s original, however, I think I’m ready to tackle the movie again and see if it really even does the book justice.