A Scanner Darkly: Turn on, Tune in, Drop out

In the 1950s, they flocked to the suburbs. Hand in hand, man and wife, 2.2 children and a dog.  It was a time of unrivaled optimism for White America. Everything was great, everything was just, swell.

After the second world war, the pharmaceutical market exploded in a way that it never had before. Drugs seemed like they could do anything, solve any problem. Musicians became embroiled with psychedelia and felt inspired by it. Drugs were cool, man. But fast forward to the 70s and it became quickly apparent that something was very very wrong. From growing dissatisfaction with society, a radicalised counterculture was born.

At the height of drug culture in America, it was said that 1 in 10 people used drugs on a regular basis, and it had its toll on the American people.

Philip K. Dick, the writer of the 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, knew all too well the lasting effect that drugs could have on the mind. He was one of them. After his fourth wife, Nancy, left him in 1970, Dick “got mixed up with a lot of street people, just to have somebody to fill the house”  and because of that he “got mixed up with a lot of people who were into drugs.”

This is what A Scanner Darkly is all about. It’s about a culture of disenfranchised drug abusers that are slowly losing their identity in a world that doesn’t seem to care about them.

This isn’t a science fiction novel too detached from the present. It isn’t about a fantastical idea in a far flung future, it takes place close to home. It takes that destructive drug culture and imagines what it would be like taken to the furthest extreme.


Through the hallucinatory thoughts of Jerry and the bugs that just won’t wash off, and the states of paranoia that Charles Freck goes through, we are introduced to the various stages of dissociation caused by “Substance D”(the D standing for death), before we are ever actually introduced to the main character, Bob Arctor.

The book is filled with this kind of set up. All aspects of the effects of drug use are told to the reader before they are actually seen in the main character. The medical examiners tell him all about hearing voices, the split personality and the changes in languages. We know, as the readers, that this is going to happen to him. We just have to watch as this undercover police officer spirals into the descent which society knows all too well. It’s a common story, really.

Of course, there is a lot of misdirection in this, or else the story would fall flat. Sometimes it is difficult in this story to tell what is reality and what is not, because the characters themselves have such problems in perceiving the reality around them. It is unclear what keeps happening to Bob’s equipment for a long time. Is it sabotage or is it a sign of his upcoming psychosis? This is what keep the story interesting.

It seems strange to call him Bob Arctor. He is that, of course, but he is also Fred and Bruce and whatever he was before he ran away from his marriage. He is all of these things at once. His original personality, whatever that was, has been wiped clean by his drug use. It doesn’t matter any more what he was, because the drugs have changed him. We meet him as Bob and that’s the only thing he has ever appeared to be. The drugs have defined him and as the novel progresses, they also bring him apart.

Initially the characters of Bob and Fred are completely distinct, and Dick makes an effort at the start to show that even when he is being Fred, it’s really Bob on the inside. The line between the two blurs together completely until he begins to watch himself on the scanners and something else emerges. Bob and Fred become completely separate from each other, unaware of each others motives and thoughts, and suspicious of the others activities.


The issue with perception is something that the book tackles often, which is why the scanners in the title are so important. They tell an objective story, or so Bob hopes. This is what the book title is about. Bob desperately hopes that the scanners see clearly instead of darkly, because he is unsure what is true. As he says himself: “any given man sees only a tiny portion of the total truth, and very often, in fact almost perpetually, he deliberately deceives himself about that little precious fragment as well. A portion of him turns against him and acts like another person, defeating him from inside. A man inside a man. Which is no man at all”

This statement, which he says aloud, doesn’t seem to be something that he consciously comprehends, but we know as the reader that this is something that is actually happening to him. The two aspects of his personality are completely turning against each other.

This is further reinforced by the sections of writing that interrupt the normal narrative. First they are just difficult to understand psychobabble, but this later devolves into things in German. These are a good indicator of Bob’s troubled state, his inability to focus on any one thing and the distance forming between his two identities. But this is where it gets more interesting, as these feature quotes from the likes of Goethe’s Faust, an untitled poem by Heinrich Heine and the libretto of Beethoven’s Fidelio. This quote in particular stands out in support:

Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast,

And one is striving to forsake its brother.

Unto the world in grossly loving zest,

With clinging tendrils, one adheres;

The other rises forcibly in quest

Of rarefied ancestral spheres.

This reinforces the idea of two identities waging war within one person.

Identity and the way that it interacts within a drug addled mind  is one of the central themes of the novel. Not only the identity that you view yourself as, but also what you project at other people, and these are very different things, especially when all the main characters are addicted to drugs. Barris pretending to be smart and trying to create things while obviously being an idiot, Donna seeming warm and kind while feeling cold on the inside, Chuck chastising Barris about his comments about women while thinking about the things he would like to do to their waitress. Everyone has layers of their personas. Donna and Fred are cops, Barris is trying to become an informant, Mike from the rehab centre is also undercover. Basically half of the main cast are actually undercover in some capacity.

But they can’t sustain their personas, it’s “taking on a symbol and a reality that outweighed her” as Donna says.


The world does not care about Bob Arctor. To them he’s just a drug addict. I feel like this is something that Dick really feels passionate about. He knows how uncaring people are about a drug addicts problems. Think, for a second, about what it’s like to be a drug addict. Maybe something was wrong with your life, maybe you fell in with the wrong crowd, maybe it’s the way that you were brought up. But now you’re hitting the pills, and you just can’t seem to stop. Maybe you move on to something else, it progresses to the point where you don’t even know who you are anymore. You need help, you need some sort of support in your life but everyone you knew has turned their backs on you. It’s “your own fault”, which of course doesn’t help anyone and it only makes the addict worse.

It’s the same way that everyone in this novel is treated by “the straights”, the people who aren’t addicted. Like these people are trash. These people are never going to be the same again and the novel doesn’t waste a breath in telling you how permanent these damages are. It doesn’t help that all of the people that are supposed to be the “good guys” are just using Bob. The chief of police uses him until he’s broken, Donna uses him to get access to the farm.

There is no hope for these people. As the quote goes, “There’s hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” Bob is already a drug addict, the boat has sailed on him. But for the people of the next generation? That’s who Donna and Hank (the police chief) are fighting for. Those people at least have their purity. So they use Bob, they wring him for all they can. It’s something that they feel like they have to do. We know Donna doesn’t want this, we know she cares about Bob at least a little bit. It hurts her, it’s cruel and it’s uncaring but at least they’re trying to do good.

So when Bob, or Bruce, puts the plant in his shoe to give to the police, my thoughts do not go to him, but to the millions of lives that it could save. He didn’t choose to ruin his life, but I wonder, would Bob be happy if he had the modicum of brain power to feel it?

One thought on “A Scanner Darkly: Turn on, Tune in, Drop out

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s