Saturday, 22 October 2016
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
I saw the rotoscoped movie of A Scanner Darkly, which I remember enjoying, but it hadn't stuck with me very well. So when I sat down with the book, I felt more or less like I was starting with a fresh slate. I have not delved very far into Dick's oeuvre, beyond Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but I enjoyed both of those earlier forays, so I was fairly excited about dropping my brain back into what promised to be trippy as possible.
I was not disappointed. There's a good reason A Scanner Darkly is one of his best known titles, and if you want a ride through drug culture that is both somewhat askew and merciless in consideration of the impact, look no further. There's a healthy dose of anti-corporatism here as well.
In the afterword, Dick talks about this being a story about his own experiences with drugs, devoid of any morals, particularly those he identifies as bourgeois. I agree that there aren't bourgeous morals in here, but I'd like to quibble with the idea that there isn't a moral warning in here at all. It's just not aimed at people who take drugs, their behaviours, or aftermaths. It's directed at those who make money off of the process, a warning that moneymaking operations, of whatever variety, are out to maximize profits. There are other codes of ethics than the bourgeois, as Dick terms it, and I think they're on display.
I was pleasantly surprised by how the plot of the book progressed - the back of the book makes it sound like Fred, the undercover policeman, had already experienced the split that left it impossible for him to understand he was also Bob, the drug addict and dealer. I enjoyed much more what was actually here - getting to watch that split happen over the course of the book. Fred starts off knowing full well his undercover identity is Bob, and slowly loses that recognition as the book goes on.
That's brilliant in many ways because, instead of being a twist that these two guys are actually the same guy!, it's a much more subtle look at the process of dissociating from the self, and honestly, that's far, far more interesting to me. (*cough*ChuckPalahniuk*cough*) We get to walk with Fred as he goes from knowing what his undercover identity is to the point where he has no idea, and it's fascinating.
Watching that descent, and the associated paranoia, and the ways thinking is distorted as life changes around you and you try to keep a centre that is being rapidly eroded...I really liked this book. There was a moment where I started to think that maybe every addict was also an undercover policeman, a la Man Who Was Thursday, but although there is more than one, it didn't go quite that far.
It's interesting how much this is and isn't science fiction. Much of it is not - it's pretty much the suits that allow Fred/Bob to conceal his identity when he goes to report in, the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of the facial features of millions, shattered into small pieces, that are the only really over science fiction nods. Fragmented identity lurks in the technology.
I've been ranting a lot about twist endings recently, and how little I've liked them, and made reference above that I'm glad Fred's identity wasn't a twist. However, there is a bit of a twist ending, one I did remember vaguely from the movie, about where the new drug on the streets comes from, and that's the kind of twist I do like. It's subtly laid down, and makes things make more sense rather than less. It might be shocking, but there's also a bit of an inevitability to the answer.