Reviews of A Scanner Darkly (1977) and related work

A Scanner Darkly (1977Text)

Philip K. Dick (writer), Tessa Dick (writer).

Read in 2019.

Using an identity-concealing “scramble suit” to file his reports, a 1990s undercover police agent pretends to be a junkie to spy on junkies, while also having to pretend not to be the specific junkie he really is. The chronic brain damage makes the last part easy.

In 2017, officers from the 11th and 12th precincts of the Detroit police department got into a fight. One group raided a house where the other group posed as drug dealers. Luckily, there were no fatalities or shots fired. Some reports falsely claimed the officers raiding the house were themselves undercover, posing as buyers.

On 2019-04-16, the BBC reported on a Keith Cutler, summoned to jury duty. Cutler contacted the Jury Central Summoning Bureau to be excused, but they misunderstood his complaint and told him to contact the resident judge instead. At the time, Cutler was the resident judge of Salisbury Crown Court where the trial would be held. He had been summoned to his own jury.

A Scanner Darkly is a nightmare version of the Detroit cop-on-cop raid and the case of Keith Cutler. To pick a similar anecdote from before the book was written, when the “Panther 21” were arrested in New York in 1969, that group of Black Panthers was infiltrated by three policemen. It is unclear whether the infiltrators were even aware of one another’s true identity as they provoked the group from the inside to extreme acts of violence that the Panther 21 themselves would not otherwise have attempted. Dick loved such stories, where authenticity and secret knowledge collided with the abuse of authority.

In this book, the pretence of hypertechnology and social extrapolation fade away from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Ubik (1969) to reveal the drug-fuelled hallucinations, self-loathing, personal decay and distrust that inspired the author all along. This is the true face of Dick.

The SF conceits are not gone, and they’re still bigger than those of Dhalgren (1975), but they are diminished in scale. The scramble suit and ludicrous informant scheme abuse science fiction in the same way as the larger inventions Dick used in his earlier, loftier works to approach his real interests less directly. His interests are constant across these books. A Scanner Darkly certainly feels more honest in its methods, probably because he wrote mostly from experience as an addict, to eulogize Timothy Leary’s hippie generation. It’s darker as a result, but there are good jokes lighting up the gloom: Eleven Planet of the Apes movies by the 1990s was not very far off, and in this universe, Trader Joe’s has come to specialize in fine wines.

As bourgeois capital-L Literature, A Scanner Darkly probably has more merit than anything else Dick wrote. It certainly has enough autobiography and biblical allusions. As science fiction, it’s an OK read.

References here: Star Wars (1977), Valis (1981), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Opposition (2017).

text fiction

A Scanner Darkly (2006Moving picture, 100 minutes)

References here: Story of Science Fiction (2018).

moving picture adaptation animation fiction