A Scanner Darkly: The harsh and trippy 1970s California drug scene

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Reposting to include Stuart’s new review of the book and film.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsA Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Whether unjustly or not, no other science fiction author has been as closely linked to the 1960s drug culture — at least in the public eye — as Philip K. Dick … and understandably so. From the San Francisco bar in The World Jones Made (1956) that dispensed pot and heroin, to the Bureau of Psychedelic Research in The Ganymede Takeover (1966); from the amphetamine and LSD use in Ubik (1969) to the afterlife description in A Maze of Death (1970) that Dick mentions was based on one of his own LSD trips; from the time travel narcotic JJ-180 in Now Wait For Last Year (1966) to the drugbars in Our Friends From Frolix-8 (1970); from the Can-D and Chew-Z drugs in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1966) to the outré acid trip featured in Lies, Inc. (1983); from the discussions on LSD, peyote and “magic mushrooms” in The Zap Gun (1967) to the mescaline trip depicted in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974), no other sci-fi author has ventured to incorporate so many mind-altering substances into his oeuvre as Philip K. Dick.

And Phil, of course, knew whereof he spoke. His prodigious output of the mid-‘60s was assisted by prescription amphetamines, a dependency that later morphed into a speed addiction, and, as mentioned earlier, the man also dabbled in psychedelics (acid, mescaline) and was a casual smoker of pot and hashish. In between marriages (and Phil ultimately married five times), Dick would often consort and cohabitate with a motley collection of drugees, with whom he apparently enjoyed “partying hearty.” But disillusionment soon set in, as the drug casualties around him mounted, leading to a change of heart in Dick as regards recreational substances, and the creation of his 32nd sci-fi novel, A Scanner Darkly. As revealed in biographer Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions, Dick wrote this scathing anti-drug novel from February to April 1973 and revised it extensively in the summer of ’75; the book was ultimately released in ’77 — his first since Flow My Tears and his last work before the VALIS trilogy, which was completed shortly before his untimely death in 1982 — and stands as one of its author’s most heartfelt works, though its claims to belonging to the sci-fi genre are only slight.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn the book, which transpires in the futuristic SoCal world of, uh, 1994, we meet an undercover narc whose name may or may not be Bob Arctor. So literally undercover that even his fellow police officers cannot see his face (in one of the book’s few sci-fi trappings, Arctor wears a so-called “scramble suit” to conceal his identity from both his coworkers and any possible department infiltrators), he is given the assignment of spying on the home of …Bob Arctor, a drug user who lives with two other suspicious characters, Barris and Luckman. Arctor, it seems, is addicted to the new drug of choice on the street, Substance D (short for “Death”).

And if spying on his own house and roommates for the cops, with the assistance of 3-D holographic scanning devices, weren’t enough of a problem for Arctor, his plight is made even worse when Substance D starts to divide the two hemispheres of his mind, leading to a very skewed perception of reality, to put it mildly! As he rapidly approaches the burnout point, unable to get assistance from his drug-pushing friend Donna Hawthorne or his other, equally toasted acquaintances, Arctor has the devil of a time figuring out what is “real” and what is not; yes, still another Dickian character caught up in the tricky predicament of peering behind the curtain of “reality” to ascertain a possibly deeper truth. But can poor Arctor do so before the point of ultimate mental fizzle?

Although it deals with Dick’s pet theme of the elusiveness of “reality” while taking a 180-degree turn in its outlook on drugs, A Scanner Darkly does not touch on several other of its author’s favorite topics. There is no mention of cigars or divorce, and only one mention of opera/classical music (a passing reference to the Mime character in “Siegfried”), although Dick’s penchant for the German language IS given a thorough workout here, with many Arctor ruminations in that language. And for some obscure reason, Dick seems to have a mania for cars in this work, and includes many discussions amongst Arctor and his pals regarding automotive repair; various types of cars — be it an MG, Karmann Ghia, Torino, Dodge, Corvette, Oldsmobile, Ranchero, Falcon, Ferrari, Chevy, Camaro, “Ford Imperator,” Aston Martin, Henway, Mustang or Lincoln — are casually mentioned throughout the book.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDick seems to have had a “thang” for young brunette women, especially those of the precocious teenage variety, and here, the Donna character makes a fine addition to Dick’s brunette pantheon. Besides his own drug history, Dick seems to make reference to his legendary “pink light incident” of 2/20/74 (“some small thing seen but not understood, some fragment of a star mixed with the trash of this world”) and his own problems with “pyloric spasms.” As usual with him, he creates his own futuristic slang words (such as “dingey” and “gunjey”), although the drug passingly referred to as “quaak” just might be an homage to the substance called “quap” in the 1909 H.G. Wells masterpiece Tono-Bungay.

As mentioned, A Scanner Darkly is passionately written by its author, with several beautifully composed passages and tender moments. Take, for example, the small scene in which the aloof Donna, with whom Arctor is hopelessly in love, touches his hand:

In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away. That one touch of her hand.

Happy to say, A Scanner Darkly does not contain as many “Dick boners” as usual, from this notoriously sloppy writer. Still, a close reading DOES reveal some. The sun is said to be shining at 2 a.m. in one early scene; a “cephscope” is said to cost $900 in one section and $1,000 in another; and Donna expresses a desire to see all 11 (!) Planet of the Apes flicks, which are playing at a drive-in from 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. Only 12½ hours for an 11-movie marathon?

But these are minor matters, in a book that turns out to be so very humorous in parts (some of the stoned-out conversations are as hilarious as they are sad) and deeply touching in others. Dick even manages to work in three genuine surprises toward his novel’s end, as regards the Donna character, the rehab clinic where Arctor winds up, and the provenance of Substance D.

A Scanner Darkly may be a hard book to love, filled as it is with mostly unlikable characters, grim situations and a fairly downbeat ending — the book also seems to be rather loosely put together — but as always, Dick’s sympathy for his “little-man” characters comes through winningly. And in a coda almost as touching as Steven Spielberg bringing out those real-life Holocaust survivors at the tail end of Schindler’s List, Dick gives us his own list of 15 of his friends who had met ill ends because of their drug use (“To Gaylene, deceased; To Ray, deceased”) … including himself (“Phil, permanent pancreatic damage”). This is a book, Phil tells us in his Author’s Note, narrated “from the deepest part of my life and heart.” For all the drug casualties that he had known, Phil dedicated this work; as Arctor ponders with what little mind he has left, “In wretched little lives like that, someone must intervene. Or at least mark their sad comings and goings. Mark and if possible permanently record, so they’ll be remembered. For a better day, later on, when people will understand….”

~Sandy Ferber


A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIf you were choosing any Hollywood actor to narrate a Philip K. Dick audiobook about dope users in Southern California in the early 1970s, who would you choose? Random House Audio got Paul Giamatti to read A Scanner Darkly, and who could better? I tried to distill the vibe of the book in the following passage:

What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better, because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again.

A Scanner Darkly is a deeply personal fictional depiction of PKD’s early 1970s living in Marin County (setting changed to Southern California in the book) with a bunch of stoners in a big house after his fourth wife Nancy left him. There are moments of hilarity (mainly centered on two crazy housemates named Barris and Luckman), tragedy, pure horror, and then long stretches where stoners just ramble on about random stuff. Bob Arctor is a minor drug dealer and user living in Anaheim with a few other dopers who spend their days trying to score dope, hash, mushrooms, and other chemical substances. Most don’t seem to have any gainful employment except Bob’s friend Donna, who is a dealer of psychedelic drug Substance D, aka Death. But unknown to them, Bob is also Fred, an undercover DEA agent assigned to spy on the house and track down the suppliers of Substance D. The problem is, the drug also causes the two hemispheres of the brain to bifurcate until the user has two separate personalities that are unaware of each other. And since all narcs use scramble suits to disguise their identities, the DEA doesn’t know that Fred is also Bob Arctor. Bob himself doesn’t recognize the situation, but suspects something is strange.

Eventually Phil’s surveillance collapses after watching hours of himself and his roommates. His handlers discover his drug addiction and send him to the New Path rehab facility for drug addicts, but this is also loosely based on some real-life experiences of PKD. A Scanner Darkly suddenly turns into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as Bob becomes a brain-fried mental patient trapped in the facility, and an elaborate conspiracy is revealed, but this feels forced and not consistent with the main story of Bob Arctor and his stoner friends living their self-destructive, carefree and tragic lives.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSince this is so autobiographical, you might wonder why it needs to be SF. In fact, PDK felt it would be hard to market it as a mainstream novel, so his editor at Ballantine Books helped him add SF elements, particularly the scramble suits that are integral to preserving the deception of Bob/Phil’s split personas. Of note, the inspiration for the scramble suits is explained as an accidental discovery by an employee of Bell Laboratories that was experimenting with “disinhibiting substances” and experienced “a disastrous drop in the GABA fluid of his brain.” This caused him to see an ultra-rapid series of modern abstract paintings from a Leningrad art museum projected on the wall of his bedroom via “lurid phosphene activity.” This is actually a real hallucination that PKD experienced in 1974 as part of his religious interactions with VALIS. But I digress.

The language of A Scanner Darkly is pure 1970s hippie/stoner/counterculture slang, and the world he depicts is pretty close to what I imagine 1970s Southern California was like. And herein lies a problem. If you’ve never been a part of this subculture, these stoner conversations are just as ridiculous as the real versions they were based on. And while literature exposes readers to all kinds of unfamiliar worlds, this one can get fairly tedious at times. The junkie mentality is perfectly depicted in its total fixation on getting the next fix at any cost, and there is no hesitation to steal, betray, or even stand by idly as your other junkie friends choke on a piece of food, die from overdoses, or go through painful withdrawals. But for us straights who aren’t hip to the stoner life, you may have trouble feeling sympathy.

In fact, the most powerful message is the afterword dedicated to all PKD’s friends who have suffered from their drug use, resulting in “death, permanent psychosis, and brain damage.” As he states clearly, “some people were punished entirely too much for what they did,” and “drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to move out in front of a moving car.” This was rampant in the 1960s and 1970s and sadly still persists to this day, as depicted in television drama series like The Wire and Breaking Bad.

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Click to watch trailer

The 2006 movie version is directed by Richard Linklater, an indie filmmaker from Austin, Texas. It stars Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor/Fred), Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman), Robert Downey Jr. (James Barris), and Winona Rider (Donna Hawthorne). It is done in digital Rotoscope, a process which animates live-action film footage, creating a unique look to the film (the earlier non-digital rotoscoping technique was used for A-ha’s classic 1985 video “Take on Me”, Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and Wizards, and parts of 1982’s Heavy Metal. Considering the mind-altered states of the characters in the film, it is the perfect visual medium to depict their slippery grasp of reality. It makes each scene fresh and interesting to look at, and yet all the actors are unmistakably themselves. The casting of Harrelson and Downey are absolutely spot-on as Bob’s totally paranoid and ridiculous junkie roommates, and the bug-eyed looks and uncontrolled body ticks of Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck) are hilarious and scary.

Having read the book before watching the film, I felt like all of the best scenes of the book were picked up for the film while the some overlong stoned conversations ended up on the cutting room floor. My favorite scenes in the book were done to perfection, like Freck getting pulled over, the discovery of the still-lit joint, the stolen mountain bike, the home-made silencer, and the clowning around of Luckman and Barris were brilliantly captured by Downey and Harrelson (I wonder, did PKD write the parts just for them, seeing into the future?). The screenplay (also by Richard Linklater) also interspersed more hints of the New Path rehab clinic earlier in the film to make the final part of the film more cohesive than in the book. It also made a crucial change in the real identity of one of the main characters (no spoiler from me, don’t worry), which made the ending more believable perhaps. And Keanu Reeves? Well, most people lambaste him for his wooden, emotionless delivery, but who better to play a conflicted, schizophrenic undercover cop and heavy drug user. He is perfect in the role. Another important decision was to modernize the language so it doesn’t sound like 1970s hippie slang, but still preserves the tone and intent of the author. I even think I detected the distinctive red stripe of a Costco superstore when they were driving along the highway. Far out, dude.

~Stuart Starosta


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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8 comments

  1. Sandy, I learn so much from your reviews! Thanks!

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Happy to share, Kat!

  3. Thanks for this; very interesting

  4. Sandy Ferber /

    My pleasure, S.C.!

  5. The dedication/afterword of this book broke my heart. If I remember right, there’s a point where he says something like, “People ask me if I’m in this novel. I am this novel.” And I thought he captured the funny-horrifying state of being around people who are nearly always stoned precisely.

  6. Absolutely, Marion. The afterword is so stark and tragic, just a list of victims of the drug culture, that it makes you question the casual attitude towards drug use in popular culture today.

  7. Glad you mentioned the Linklater film adaptation. I don’t think it gets the love it deserves, and is, if I may say so, more faithful to the novel than Ridley Scott was to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I also loved Downey Jr. and Harrelson’s performances, and fully agree the rotoscopic style perfectly complements if not enhances the story being told.

  8. Yes, the Linklater film is great fun, visually brilliant, and very true to PKD’s source material, much more than any other PKD film adaptation as you said. Blade Runner was a great film in it’s own right thanks to Ridley Scott, but was wildly different in tone and story from the book. Steer clear of Radio Free Albemuth, that just was DOA but it’s an unfilmable story anyway.

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