To survive in this fascist police state, he thought, you gotta always be able to come up with a name, your name. At all times. That's the first sign they look for that you're wired, not being able to figure out who the hell you are.
A Scanner Darkly (1977) was the product of a difficult (if not unusually so) period in the life of Philip K Dick (1928-1982). For two years after his fourth divorce in 1970, he lived in a state of continual amphetamine dependence, with a group of teenage drug addicts for company in his home. Although he went into rehab in 1972, his drug-use continued, and as the 70s progressed he became increasingly plagued by paranoia, believing there to be an FBI-led conspiracy against him.
The novel that emerged from these experiences is understandably intense, told in a narrative voice at once tripped out and stripped bare, grappling for meaning and the very foundations of identity amid untrustworthy junkie associates, undercover police operations, double-crosses galore and an addiction that brings madness before it kills. Yet at the same time, most of the themes and devices on display are characteristically Dickian - (un)reality, perception, conspiracy, overweening and irresistible authority - just a little more crazed and, perhaps, a little closer to home.
The plot - set just slightly in the future - centres around a deadly new drug known as Substance D, aka Death: its users, its enemies, its (much more shadowy) creators. The narrative takes the side of a loose group of addicts, and we see the world through their (often hallucinating) eyes. Sometimes the difference this perspective makes is slight, and subtle; occasionally it is explicit (and funny):
Fixing its many compound eyes on him, the creature from between dimensions said, "We are no longer in the mundane universe. Lower-plane categories of existence such as 'space' and 'time' no longer apply to you. You have been elevated to the transcendent realm. Your sins will be read to you ceaselessly, in shifts, throughout eternity. The list will never end."
Know your dealer, Charles Freck thought, and wished he could take back the last half-hour of his life.
It is a world of crippling paranoia and the unbearable strain of finding the next fix; a world in which the only people who matter are addicts, their dealers, the police trying to take them down, and the state rehab facilities that takes in those with nowhere left to go. The rest of society is an undifferentiated mass, dismissively referred to as 'straights', largely ignored except as a source of items worth stealing and selling (to the addicts), or as an abstract concept to be protected, or promised protection (to the police).
The protagonist is Bob Arctor, aka Fred, an undercover cop who has himself become inextricably addicted to Substance D in his mission to undermine its supply. It is through Bob that the novel's themes of identity, consciousness and the construction of reality are explored, to an effect equal parts comic and disturbing. As Bob Arctor, he lives an increasingly scattered and hand-to-mouth life in his house with some junkie sort-of friends. As Fred, he reports to and receives orders from a superior, and gives inspirational talks to straights about the war on Substance D. But - in one of several indications of an official paranoia to match the addicts' own - the link between the two selves must be kept utterly hidden, even from his superiors:
He paused meaningfully. "You see, there is a dire risk for these police officers because the forces of dope, as we know, have penetrated with amazing skills into the various law-enforcement apparatuses throughout our nation, or may well have, according to most informed experts."
Thus, all his activities as Fred are conducted in a 'scramble suit', an outfit that completely anonymises him - face, body, voice - by projecting a random series of images to any external viewer. The result is that Fred is so undercover that even his own bosses have no idea who he is; and, at length, he is assigned to investigate himself, Bob Arctor. Highly-advanced surveillance equipment - the scanners of the title - are installed at his house one day when everyone is out. From then on, Fred/Bob must sift through hours of playback of his own alter ego: a self he doesn't recognise, and becomes increasingly prone to referring to in the third person.
This dislocation is exacerbated by his use of Substance D, which creates brain damage to the tune of making the brain's hemispheres compete: two sides of his mind, each perceiving and comprehending the world in subtly different ways, battle for control of his consciousness, to be the sole source of his mental construction of reality. The question that plagues him, as the cognitive gulf between his two identities widens, is: who is he really? how can he tell? will the scanners give the objective picture that he is no longer capable of? does such an objective picture even exist?
What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me - into us - clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone's sake, the scanners do better.
But what he sees is Bob Arctor doing things he doesn't remember doing, and having conversations he doesn't recall having (demonstrating Dick's command of the fine art of the nonsensical non-sober dialogue), until he loses almost all awareness of the connection between the self on the tapes and the self watching them.
Arctor said, "I drove by the Maylar Microdot Corporation Building."
"You're shitting me." [...]
"How large is the Maylar Microdot Corporation Building?"
"About an inch high."
"How much would you estimate it weighs?"
"Including the employees?"
Fred sent the tape spinning ahead at fast wind. When an hour had passed according to the meter, he halted it momentarily.
"--about ten pounds," Arctor was saying.
This damage and cognitive dissonance extends far beyond Bob, to a whole network of intersecting (and often directly, but unwittingly, conflicting) undercover police activities, and beyond even that to the authorities' entire approach to Substance D. Here are the self-perpetuating contradictions of the war on drugs writ large: Bob and his ilk feed the system by funding low-level dealers (and dealing in their turn) in order to reach a hazily-conceived 'bigger target', a dealer worth expending the resources to take down; they even, through their second identities as users and dealers, make the problem appear bigger than it is, requiring the diversion of further funds and personnel into combating their own activities.
Just as the addicts believe that "every pay phone in the world [is] tapped" and that the police are out to get them just because they enjoy repressing people, so the criminal investigation system promotes the belief that Substance D is an external threat to America - a conspiracy, aimed at undermining the country. (It goes deeper still, in fact, but I won't spoil the ending). This is flavoured with more than a dash of jingoistic Cold War paranoia, as seen in the response of the 'straights' to a scramble-suited Bob/Fred's speech on tackling Death:
"The identity of the purveyors of the poisons concocted of brain-destructive filth shot daily, orally taken daily, smoked daily by several million men and women - or, rather, that were once men and women - is gradually being unravelled. But finally we will, before God, know for sure."
A voice from the audience: "Sock it to 'em!"
Another voice, equally enthusiastic: "Get the commies!"
Applause and reprise severally.
In the final analysis, however, what emerges from the novel - equally as strongly as all the real-and-imagined conspiracy, the whacked-out silliness and the mysteries of the main character's mind - is a sense of pity for those helplessly entangled in such addictions. It is not for them as innocents - as the author comments in his afterword (commemorating those he knew who died, or were irreperably damaged), "drug misuse is not a disease, but a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car". Rather, the pity is aroused by what Dick saw as the disproportionate punishment society attached to such a choice, when in the end that choice carried punishment enough on its own:
All these guys walked one game board, stood now in different squares various distances form the goal, and would reach it at several times. But all, eventually, would reach it: the federal clinics.
It was inscribed in their neural tissue. Or what remained of it.