A Scanner Darkly  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A Scanner Darkly is a 1977 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. The semi-autobiographical story was set in a dystopian Orange County, California in the future of June 1994. The book includes an extensive portrayal of drug culture and drug use.


The protagonist is Bob Arctor, member of a household of drug-users, who is also living a parallel life as Agent Fred, an undercover police agent assigned to spy on Arctor's household. Arctor/Fred shields his true identity from those in the drug subculture, and from the police themselves. (The requirement that narcotics agents remain anonymous, to avoid collusion and other forms of corruption, becomes a critical plot point late in the book.) While supposedly only posing as a drug user, Arctor becomes addicted to "Substance D" (also referred to as "Slow Death," "Death," or "D"), a powerful psychoactive drug. An ongoing conflict is Arctor's love for Donna, a drug dealer through whom he intends to identify high-level dealers of Substance D. Arctor's persistent use of the drug causes the two hemispheres of his brain to function independently, or "compete." Through a series of drug and psychological tests, Arctor's superiors at work discover that his addiction has made him incapable of performing his job as a narcotics agent. Donna takes Arctor to "New-Path," a rehabilitation clinic, just as Arctor begins to experience the symptoms of Substance D withdrawal. It is revealed that Donna has been a narcotics agent all along, working as part of a police operation to infiltrate New-Path and determine its funding source. Without his knowledge, Arctor has been selected to penetrate the secretive organization.

As part of the rehab program, Arctor is renamed "Bruce" and forced to participate in cruel group-dynamic games intended to break the will of the patients. The story ends with Bruce working at a New-Path farming commune, where he is suffering from a serious neurocognitive deficit after withdrawing from Substance D. Although considered by his handlers to be nothing more than a walking shell of a man, "Bruce" manages to spot rows of blue flowers growing hidden among rows of corn, and realizes the blue flowers are Mors ontologica, the source of Substance D. The book ends with Bruce hiding a flower in his shoe to give to his "friends" – undercover police agents posing as recovering addicts at the Los Angeles New-Path facility – on Thanksgiving.


A Scanner Darkly (film)

A Scanner Darkly is a 2006 film by Richard Linklater based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. The film tells the story of identity and deception in a near-future dystopia constantly monitored by intensive high-technology police surveillance in the midst of a huge drug addiction epidemic.

The animated film A Scanner Darkly was authorized by Dick's estate. It was released in July of 2006 and stars Keanu Reeves as Fred/Bob Arctor and Winona Ryder as Donna. Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson co-star as Arctor's drugged-out housemates. The film was directed by Richard Linklater, and the animation was directed by Bob Sabiston.

The animation was accomplished via the process of rotoscoping using Bob Sabiston's own Rotoshop software, a process employed in Linklater's earlier movie, Waking Life. First shot in live-action, the footage was then painted over, with attention to stylistic consistency — a lengthy undertaking that caused the film to miss its initial September 2005 release date by an entire year. The film is a fairly faithful adaptation, with the majority of the scenes, characters, and dialogue taken nearly verbatim from the novel, though much of the novel's 1970s “hip dialogue” was updated to make the movie more comprehensible to modern viewers.

Scenes from the movie were used to create a graphic novel adaptation of the movie. An audio book of A Scanner Darkly, read by Paul Giamatti, was released in the summer of 2006.


Dick twists American society into a very surreal setting, by expanding on several social problems of growing interest during the 1960s, including:

  • police surveillance - in the novel, highly technologically advanced, blurred frontiers between the underworld drug commerce and law enforcement agencies (cf. 2 brain hemispheres),
  • Drug use - in the novel, involving widespread drug-use-induced mental collapse that is treated in numerous and widespread rehab clinics that amount to a nationwide, non-governmental but federal-government-entangled, institution,
  • The blue flowers are a central, recurring symbol in German romanticism, closely tied to the associated youth movements,
  • The intentional destruction of another human being to achieve a "greater good"

In addition, Dick's common themes appear here:

The character types seen in A Scanner Darkly are nearly universal to his work and tend to follow similar roles: the downtrodden protagonist finds himself at odds with a large and complicated plot, not specifically against him, but in which he becomes inadvertently entangled, who is then alternately aided by, confused by, and maliciously harmed by the dark-haired woman, is helped indirectly by the fatherly old man (whose warnings often go unheeded or come too late), and faces the spokesman of the evil conspiracy, who is mysterious, powerful, well-informed, and more or less undeniable, leaving the downtrodden hero with little or bittersweet success. Generally, multiple explanations for the nature of the events, the outcome of the story, and the nature and identity of the evil spokesman are available, especially if drug use or other psychic complications blur the lines of reality. Generally speaking, the narrator participates in the perspective of the characters, so whether what they experience is a drug-induced delusion or a bona fide event is left vague for the reader. Ultimately, the reader is left to wonder what actually happened in the real world of the story and is left with few clues, in much the way a person rehabilitated from extended drug use might look back at the recent months of his life and wonder what was real, what was misinterpreted, and what was false.

The theme of construction of reality in consciousness is central to the novel. The most obvious example is the dilemma of the main character who simultaneously assumes two identities and often loses track of reality. Also, many of the characters excessively taunt each other, are rendered paranoid by drug use, and understand the world through conspiracy theories. Because of the surreal, almost absurdist style of the novel, readers are left wondering if their own perceptions reflect reality or paranoia. Also, the device known of as the "scramble suit," a layering of simulacrum used by narcotics agents as a means of distorting their appearance to avoid recognition and identification, serves as a metaphor for the mutual lack of trust amongst not only the users and dealers, but between most people as a whole, adding to Dick's recurring preoccupation with constructing an immensely paranoid atmosphere as well as the inherent deception of most situations in the book.

Dick also uses Fred/Arctor to explore the symbiotic relationship between police officer and criminal; how each is defined by and reliant upon the existence of the other. The New-Path clinic's duality reflects this ambivalent relationship.

Dick explains in the author's note how he, himself was one of the people who "played the game." Of course, he meant drug misuse and how it affects humans. He says that such misuse left him with permanent pancreatic disorders.

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