It's Week 5 of the Summer of Sci-Fi Challenge, and this week's book is, as I hoped, a major departure from the sci-fi offerings we've read so far. Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly is a glimpse into a possible future, one in which society is so saturated with drug use that it has become a self-perpetuating industry.
The book demonstrates the vast range of the science fiction genre. It's more a study of the destruction of one man's mind than it is a typical technology-laden sci-fi adventure. Of course there are science-y elements, but the plot doesn't hinge on them the way it would in most sci-fi novels.
The main character is actually living his life as two different people: Fred, an undercover narcotics officer, and Bob Arctor, a drug user and dealer. At the beginning of the book, Fred/Bob knows he has two personas and can manage them both pretty well. However, Bob's drug of choice is Substance D, which has the unfortunate side effect of splitting the user's mind into two distinct, warring halves. As time goes on and Bob ingests more and more of his pet substance, he loses the thread of his two identities and forgets that the man he is informing on is himself.
It's a fittingly trippy premise for a book that itself reads like one long, bad trip. The narration isn't first-person, but it still feels like we're trapped in Fred/Bob's increasingly chaotic mind, listening to rambling paranoid delusions and long-winded musings that are probably supposed to sound deep but just come across as crazy. Dick not only exposes the tragic effects of drug use, but the kind of society (maybe eerily similar to ours?) that promotes and propagates it.
One minor issue that I found amusing: Dick published the book in 1977, but the action is set in 1994. Reading the book now as a person who lived through the real 1994 made for a few funny moments. Obviously I don't expect Dick to have been able to predict the future, but it probably wasn't the best choice to use a bunch of trendy slang phrases from the '70s. They immediately dated the dialogue, and I found I had to keep reminding myself it was the '90s even though the feel of the book was all '70s, all the time. (Did he really think people would still be walking around town in 1994 asking their friends if they can “dig it”?) Dick was also a bit optimistic about the staying power of the no-bra fad; he probably would have been disappointed to learn that by 1994 not nearly as many women as he thought would still be cavorting about with their goods bouncing freely.
As always, I welcome your comments here or on Goodreads or Facebook. What did you think of A Scanner Darkly? And if anyone has seen the movie, I'm curious to hear about that too. Is it worth watching? Is any movie starring Keanu Reeves worth watching?
Summer of Sci-Fi continues next Sunday with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the biggest cult hit of the sci-fi genre on our list. It seems like everyone and their dog has read this book, so I'm looking forward to jumping on the bandwagon and seeing for myself what all the fuss is about.
And finally, if you've been participating in the Challenge and want to brag about it to the world (as well as show your support for this site), you can click here to purchase your very own Summer of Sci-Fi T-shirt, in a glorious (and very science-y) green.
See you next Sunday, sci-fi readers!