Monday 16 May 2011

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

"How'd you like to gaze at a beer can throughout eternity? It might not be so bad. There'd be nothing to fear." 

From the very first sentence I just knew that A Scanner Darkly would turn out to be something special. Dick's writing style may not always be the most consistent; in terms of narrative structure, his stories can be frustratingly erratic and do not always make sense -- it consistently feels as if he is writing under the influence of hallucinogens and is attempting to furiously get down everything in his head before losing a train of the thought. He is a man with a wild imagination and fascinating ideas that tends to overshadow the quality of writing. However, with this novel he is at the top of his game. The convoluted narrative is surprisingly structured in a meticulous way that flows cohesively, the quality of writing embraces the new-wave aestheticism of experimental sensibility that subverts the conventions of pulp science-fiction. Thus, not only is it an exceptional piece of science-fiction but should also be revered beyond its genre classification as a distinguished piece of great literature.

Philip K. Dick struggled with drugs for a large part of his life and many of his close friends died through rampant drug abuse. Thus, this novel is incredibly personal for him and remains his most emotionally resonant. Forget Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting or Hubert Selby Jr.'s Requiem for a Dream, Dick has written what is quite possibly the most original, peculiar, entertaining and intellectually captivating anti-drug novel of the 1960's or quite possibly, ever. Mesmerizing in its creativity, this is a powerful story teeming with a plethora of ideas concerning social, political, cultural, philosophical and religious ideologies of an American dystopian society (or perhaps one that is all too familiar) that is struggling to control the aggressive drug trade.The vast population is falling victim to psychological derangement caused by the highly addictive and lethal Substance-D as it floods the streets of California and causes a wide-spread pandemic. The D.E.A. is powerless to stop the flow of drug-trafficking but with the introduction of "scrambler suits" (a fascinating technologically advanced body suit), agents can be better protected as they go undercover to infiltrate the main drug smuggling circles. A Scanner Darkly cleverly explores the role of subjectivity and the concept of self-identity. The protagonist, Bob Archer, is a member of the D.E.A. and assigned by his superiors to investigate none other than himself who also happens to be addicted to Substance-D. Furthermore, mental illness, reality, illusion, the fragility of human consciousness and gnosticism are examined within the narrative context of drug abuse.
A noteworthy aspect of the novel is PKD's ability to effectively portray the flustered mind of someone undergoing a drug-induced hallucination along with writing convincing and witty dialogue, which is a large part of the narrative. The effective way characters play off each other through drug-induced banter is funny as much as it intricately designed to shape this cognitively estranged dystopian world (as opposed to just resorting to info-dump and endless descriptions)  as well as emphasizing the underlying social commentary. Even though the novel maintains a certain level of comedy there is also a pervasive sadness to it all. One could even enjoy this novel strictly on an entertaining level as a science fiction neo-noir detective thriller but I think it is a much more rewarding experience to peel the layers and focus on the thematic structural framework. A sci-fi masterpiece that demands to be read and cherished.

Read April 11, 2011

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