Book Thirteen: A Scanner Darkly

“This has been a novel,” says Philip K. Dick in the Author’s Note, “about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.”

I always see this book shelved in the science fiction section at bookstores, and I know that Dick is a renowned science fiction author, so when Tristan recommended it to me, I thought I’d be reading another run-of-the-mill science fiction novel. However, given that Dick has quite a reputation, I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to read it, and it might be an interesting experience. I am always interested to read works by famous authors in an attempt to figure out what, exactly, makes them so great.

A Scanner Darkly started out slowly, and I found myself wondering, at first, about why Tristan had spoken so highly of it. A dystopian vision of our future, to be certain, but I wasn’t sure how interesting it was going to be. And then, like the main character, I found myself pulled under and utterly absorbed, almost without realizing it had happened, and then several hours had gone by and the book was done and I was slightly startled.

I think that anyone who has watched people slip into drug addiction will probably see something they recognize in A Scanner Darkly, and the book is a striking commentary on drug use, and on our culture. Indeed, I couldn’t help but recognize many of the people in the novel; although it may have been written 30 years ago, people are still doing the same damn thing, and they are still throwing themselves away.

This is not an uplifting novel. Indeed, it left me rather depressed, especially after reading Dick’s note to the readers at the end. It’s not one of those science fiction novels that fills you with hope in humanity, showing a possible way out of a terrible fate. Instead, it’s just sad. It’s about the slow disintegration of humanity, and about the terrible things that we do to each other.

And that makes it exactly my kind of book. I can understand why it was recommended to me, because it dovetails so brilliantly with my currently pessimistic worldview.  To think that nothing has changed since 1977 is rather saddening, and it is also sobering to realize that we will keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Dick has this to say in his note:

Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular life-style the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying,” but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory. It is, then, only a speeding up, almost an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence.

I sort of want to paint this in giant lettering on every wall I can find.


A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick. Published 1977, 220 pages. Science Fiction.