I had never read Philip K. Dick before. My friend had been recommending him, and I recall getting intrigued by the plot of the movie, Minority Report. Therefore it was with quite some excitement I started off `A Scanner Darkly’ with it’s Kafkaesque starting line “Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair”.
The story is set in a futuristic Southern California where drug abuse is rampant among the population. One particular drug is Substance D, also called Slow Death among it’s users, which seems to be highly addictive. The protagonist of the novel plays two parts; one of Bob Arctor who is a big time doper living with other dopey roommates, while the other role is that of a narcotics agent, Fred, who supposedly has been planted as Bob Arctor to reach the big drug dealers in order to nab them. No one knows that Fred is Bob, since Bob wears the ‘scramble suit’ which scrambles his voice and appearance to the outside world. (That probably is the only sci-fi-gadget in this novel.)
Which one of Bob/Fred is real and which one is the fake persona, is a question which becomes progressively muddled as his dependency and addiction to D increases. This reaches a height when Fred is asked by his superior, Hank, to keep an eye on Bob. This is done by bugging Bob’s house with holographic scanners (another gadget) via which Fred observes the goings-on. Bob/Fred’s mental health deteriorates, and he soon is discharged from investigative duties, and checked into New Path, the rehab facility for D-users. Out there, Bob, who is known as Bruce at New Path, is shown in a vegetative state, although with certain flickers of intelligence. At the very last chapter, Bob is taken to the farming facilities of New Path, where we discover that New Path actually grows the flowering crop which is used in the manufacture of Substance D. Bob is allowed to see all this since he is thought to almost brain dead, although, at the last line we see him plucking a flower and tucking it into his shoe as a thanksgiving present to his `friends’.
I am note sure if this is the best work of PKD (as I have seen being claimed by many). Although the plot is solid, the development pace seemed a bit haphazard. The book seems to have two distinct parts: Chap 1 to 13 which is Bob/Fred’s life and decay, and Chap 14-18 which is his role at the New Path. The last four chapters are probably the smallest chapters in the book, although they develop a whole new facet to the plot. It felt that this part could’ve been developed more. This feeling of rather abrupt events are peppered throughout the book. For instance, the decline of Bobs mental health. He seems a cogent person when he first introduced to the reader, but in the span of two chapters (11-13) he becomes completely cerebrally unresponsive. The character of Donna, Bob’s ‘girl’, also seems to have been developed rather unilaterally when suddenly springing her true identity on the readers. The Barris character is the one which is developed quite well, but his role ends rather abruptly, and at least to me, a little unsatisfactorily. It almost feels that the author had probably written a lot more, but a heavy, indiscriminate rushed editing session led to this final product.
A few words about the movie, for I watched it almost immediately after reading the book. It almost captures the chapters scene by scene although leaving out quite a few which leads to less character development than the book. Other than that, two things are quite jarring: (a) they make Hank to be Donna, which I don’t think the book does, and (b) Keanu Reeves doesn’t seem brain dead at all in the last scene at New Path. In fact, he resembles Neo. I wish he had done a better job there. No, the book is definitely better than the movie.