Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly based on his experiences living in the so-called ‘hermit house’ in Orange County with a rotating cast of drug dealers and users in the early ‘70s after his divorce from his fourth wife Nancy. Although he stayed away from harder drugs of the kind that inspired A Scanner Darkly’s brain-destroying Substance D (amphetamines were Dick’s drug of choice for many years before and during this time), he witnessed how drugs ruined the minds and lives of heavy users coming out of the 1960s.
Dick’s brilliant conceit for an anti-drug novel involves undercover narc Bob Arctor assigned to observe himself through holo-scanners hidden in the house where he and his doper friends live. As ‘Fred’ he watches himself while wearing a scramble suit so that his cover isn’t blown, but he also abuses more and more Substance D until he loses all sense of his identity. In the end he no longer recognizes that he is actually Bob Arctor and is sent to a clinic for barely functioning addicts.
Richard Linklater’s film based on the book is one of the best PKD adaptations. Winona Ryder was recovering from a high-profile issue with drugs at the time as was Robert Downey, Jr. who is particularly great (pre-Iron Man) as Arctor’s weaselly roommate Jim Barris. The movie perfectly captures the paranoia of Dick’s work, and A Scanner Darkly is Dick at his most paranoid. Both are hilarious (the movie is very faithful to the book) but also bleak, since Dick wants to make it clear drugs will unavoidably consume your life until there is nothing left.
Cast of characters
- Bob Arctor aka Fred aka Bruce – an undercover narcotics agent
- Jerry Fabin – an addict at the beginning of the book who sees (and feels) aphids everywhere before he gets sent to a Federal Clinic
- Charles Freck – a doper in Bob’s circle of friends
- Donna Hawthorne – Bob Arctor’s girl and the small-time dealer he’s working
- Jim Barris – Bob’s roommate
- Ernie Luckman – Bob’s roommate
- Hank – Fred’s superior
Other things to know
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. – 1 Corinthians 13:12 (King James Version)
This Bible verse, which has inspired the titles of many works including this one, comes at the end of 1 Corinthians 13 when Paul is discussing the importance of love. ‘Glass’ here is often translated as mirror. Now we see things imperfectly, but at the end of time (or when we meet Jesus or whatever), everything will be made clear.