A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is perhaps my favorite novel by Philip K. Dick. Published in 1977, it is one of the later books Dick wrote before his death in 1982. The novel depicts a drug culture set in the future of 1994 and is based on his own experiences living with drug users in the early 1970s. The main character, Bob Arctor, is both a drug user and an undercover agent tasked with finding the source of a drug called “Substance D,” slow death.

I first read this novel in 1980 when I was getting into going to book stores and starting my collection of books. The novel is interesting and fast paced, and I spent the night reading the book in my basement in one long session. Over the years I lost that first copy of the novel, but I later purchased a re-issue. I think over the years I have re-read this novel four or five times. I saw the movie they made of this that came out in 2006, but the movie would have been impossible to follow without having read the book.

A Scanner Darkly is in many ways an indictment of the drug subculture and portrays drug users in a realistic and unflattering light. The novel is an allegory of the drug using population and the rehabilitation centers that profit off the misery caused by addiction. It is ironic that the ultimate source of Substance D is also the rehab center where the brain damaged addicts are sent by the government. In the end nothing is done about the drug, as the agent who discovers the source is at that time so damaged by his own addiction that he can do nothing meaningful with his knowledge.

In some ways I wish I had never read this novel, and in some ways it was prophetic for my own life. I have had many of my own experiences with drug users and can see parts of my own life in this novel, but in the end, addiction is nothing but the pointless destruction of life. Slow death is a good way to describe drug addiction. If I could have learned vicariously from reading this book, it might have been better than the path of madness I followed in my own life. In the end, it is better that I had the experiences I did and that I learned from my own mistakes.

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