A Scanner Darkly

From Academic Kids

For the 2006 film under this title, see A Scanner Darkly (movie).

A Scanner Darkly, is a 1977 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. The semi-autobiographical story is set in a dystopian Orange County, California in the future of 1994. The book can be considered Dick's master statement on drug abuse, in light of his extensive portrayal of drug culture and drug use.



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A Scanner Darkly

The main character is both Bob Arctor, part of a household of hippie drug-users, and Agent Fred, an undercover police agent assigned to spy on them. Arctor/Fred shields his true identity both from those in the drug subculture and, ironically, from the police themselves. The requirement that narcotics agents remain anonymous, to avoid collusion and other forms of corruption, becomes a critical plot point late in the book. While supposedly only posing as a drug user, Arctor becomes addicted to Substance D (known simply as Death), a powerful psychoactive drug. An ongoing conflict is Arctor's love for Donna, a drug dealer through whom he intends to find the uppermost source of Substance D. Arctor's persistent use of the drug, which causes the two hemispheres of the brain to function independently, leaves him unable to distinguish between his roles as a drug user and a policeman. Incapable of combining what each persona knows, Fred begins spying on himself, Arctor, more passionately. Through a series of drug and psychological tests, Arctor's superiors at work discover that his addiction has made him incapable of performing his job as a narcotics agent. Donna takes Arctor to "New Path", a rehabilitation clinic, just as Arctor begins to experience the symptoms of SD withdrawal. It is revealed that Donna has been a narcotics agent all along, working as part of a police operation to infiltrate New Path and determine its funding source. Unknowningly, Arctor has been selected to carry out the sting. As part of the rehab program, Arctor is renamed "Bruce". The story ends with Bruce working at a New Path farming commune, where he is suffering from a serious neurocognitive deficit after withdrawing from SD. As he slowly begins to regain cognitive function, Bruce realizes that New Path's funds are from sales of Substance D itself, grown using the labor of the brain damaged former users that populate the communes. Readers are left uncertain, if not pessimistic, about Bruce's prognosis, and the chances of reporting his discovery to the police.

Substance D

Use of SD over an extended period can cause the user's consciousness to separate into two distinct parts. The drug also appears to facilitate the inducement of shared delusions, manifesting as folie deux. The source of Substance D remains a mystery throughout most of the novel, though various theories are proposed. It is speculated that: SD is imported from the U.S.S.R. as a Communist scheme to destroy American resistance to Communism; that it was sent to Earth by aliens intent on either enlightening mankind or reducing humans to a zombie-like slave race; that it is involved in a government or corporate plot. At the end of the book, we find out that Substance D is an organic substance, derived from little blue flowers that are grown on large plantations, hidden between large rows of corn as cover. Ironically, the drug is harvested by the brainwashed inmates of SD drug rehab centers who are suffering from neurocognitive deficits as a result of their drug addiction.


The "scanner" of the title is a holographic recorder/projector on which the main character views clips of his own life but doesn't recognize them. It is also a reference to a Biblical verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that includes "we see as through a mirror darkly", and thus refers to the main character's weak grasp on reality. SD, the initials of Scanner Darkly, are presumably clipped from LSD, and are also the initials of Substance D.


Dick twists American society into a very surreal setting, by expanding two social problems of growing interest of the 1960s, namely:

  • police surveillance - in the novel, highly technologically advanced
  • drug abuse - in the novel, involving widespread drug-abuse-induced mental collapse that is treated in numerous and widespread rehab clinics that amount to a nationwide, non-governmental but federal-government-entangled, institution.

In addition, Dick's standard themes appear here:

The theme of construction of reality in consciousness is central to the novel. The most obvious example is the dilemma of the main character who simultaneously assumes two identities and often loses track of reality. Also, many of the characters excessively taunt each other, and rendered paranoid by drug use, understand the world through conspiracy theories. Because of the surreal, almost absurdist style of the novel, readers are left wondering if their own perceptions reflect reality or paranoia.

Dick also uses Fred/Arctor to explore the symbiotic relationship between cop and criminal; how each is defined and reliant upon the existence of the other. The New Path clinic's duality reflects this ambivalent relationship.

Autobiographical Nature

Dick, a frequent drug user and quasi-hippie himself, captures the language, conversation, and culture of drug users in the 1960s with a rare clarity. Curious readers can gain considerable insight into the culture by reviewing the extended conversation on "microdots" in this book.

The autobiographical nature of the novel is explained in the moving afterword, where Dick dedicates the book to those of his friends—he includes himself—who suffered debilitation or death as a result of their drug use. This is mirrored in the involuntary goodbyes that occur throughout the story.

In the afterword, Dick states that the novel is about “some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did” and that “drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to move out in front of a moving car.”

Dick was himself a participant in X-Kalay, a Canadian Synanon-type recovery program at one point, as is portrayed in his 1988 book The Dark-Haired Girl. Presumably, this is a source for the vividness and accuracy with which the novelistic clinic is portrayed.


The movie, A Scanner Darkly (2006), was authorized by Dick's estate. It is scheduled for release in March, 2006.de:Der_dunkle_Schirm fr:Substance mort


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