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A Scanner Darkly
Philip K. Dick
Millennium paperback £6.99

review by Mike Philbin

A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K. Dick's later novels and as such it hit me right between the eyes like a punch from a featherweight, it didn't knock me unconscious but my eyes started to water and my legs turned to jelly. I nearly puked at one point as the punches came in from all sides but I didn't go down. I knew all's I had to do was stay on my feet. I knew that as long as I turned the pages and followed Robert Arctor to the end of the book as if he was my guide through 'how to fuck your head with drugs' then I'd be okay and the book would have a comfortable payoff at the end that made all the horror and confusion that had come before it seem somehow relevant, worthwhile...
   A Scanner Darkly is a very adult book. Look at the early Dick works, favourites like Ubik, Time Out Of Joint, Dr Blood Money, and Solar Lottery - yeah they're a bit weird and off-kilter from the 'normal' sci-fi space romp or techno threat but they're within legal parameters for books or serials of that era. They are full of wonderful enlightenment in the form of novel ideas but they don't cut to the quick - some of the concepts and theories and linear extrapolations in these earlier novels are down right embarrassing. But Philip K. Dick has a unique charm, a singular ability - you can look away.
   Yes, Philip K. Dick makes you look away - look away from normality, look away from what you know to be the truth. It's the ultimate suspension of disbelief trip - for in a suspension of disbelief con to work things have to stay mostly normal and you throw a narrative or psychological spanner in the works on top of that. Dick doesn't even bother with the spanner; he starts off with a handful of blue flowers on the cover of this supposed detective novel.
   In many ways, A Scanner Darkly felt early on like a Blade Runner - but A Scanner Darkly was written long before Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and there was none of the was-he or wasn't-he a replicant really played out in the screenplay so scratch that - it's just a bizarre coincidence then? Dick teaches us that nothing is a coincidence, nothing happens by pure chance, we are all part of a wonderful psychedelic animal whose every move is pre-deterministic and set in stone. We can't escape what we allow ourselves to become.
   A Scanner Darkly is pure dialogue. Pure set piece. Pure routine. This 'great' book is the writer's equivalent of William S. Burroughs' Junky - simple, clean, straight to the point descriptions about what it's like to be addicted to some drug (in this case Substance D or 'Death' to give it its street name). Robert Arctor lives in this rundown shit-hole with his drug buddies Luckman and Barris. There's this girl in his life and the authorities are scoping his house. Arctor is part of his own investigation. Of course, there's a futuristic shimmer of 3D holographic scanners and the identity shrouding scramble suits but these are just a gloss. The book is about drugs and what they do to both sides of the brain, how they tear the man from his chemicals.
   I was wondering half way through the book if Hank (Arctor's bureau boss) was one of the housemates. Whether they were all in on it. That's how the book makes you feel - it's sort of like a detective novel but not in the normal sense, you're not reading who killed who, you're reading who's pretending to be who, whose screwing with who's head and why you can still get it all wrong if you don't have enough information to process the truth. You can't know the truth. The truth is too big; too corporate.
   Classic Dick - but the best thing about this book is that it's funny. All the way through. The trippy banter between the junk buddies is absolutely the best I've ever read in a book before. It's funny. It's skittish. It's like you were really there. But in a totally made up world. The world inside Dick's brain. There's lots of foul language and it always seems appropriate. It has just the right cadence in the orchestra of the narrative's exposition. You go, 'Yeah, that'll be how junkies talk. They're real funny. Dumb-asses.' But you'll love them. You'll hope Arctor gets it right, figures it out before it's too late.
   You'll want Arctor to win.
A Scanner Darkly

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