19 December 2007

One of Dick's stronger, more coherent novels

A Scanner Darkly
Philip K. Dick
Vintage, 1991

"What is identity? he asked himself. Where does the act end? Nobody knows." (p. 29)

One of PKD's better novels, A Scanner Darkly tells the story of an anonymous narc, Officer Fred, who lives a second life as Bob Arctor, an addict to "Substance D." This drug has the horrifying side effect of splitting the user's mind into two separate and antagonistic personalities. Of course, this being a PKD novel, the side effect takes hold within the protagonist's mind, and so the reader finds Officer Fred spying on Bob Arctor without realizing that he is following himself. The issues of identity that Dick raises alone are worth the price of the novel.

This novel, like many works in Dick's oeuvre, is a work of literature disguised as SF genre fiction. Which is to say that those looking for conventional SF should look elsewhere; the few SF elements in this novel are mere window dressing. (The one possible exception is his description of "straights" in their gated, guarded communities--talk about prescient.) Those looking for a thought-provoking exploration of thorny epistemic issues will find much to chew on in this novel.

Also like most of Dick's works, this novel leaves many loose ends unaddressed, and the ending definitely comes from out of left field. That said, the story is far more coherent than many of his other novels, and the writing (especially the dialogue), coming as it does from Dick's own experiences with addicts, addiction, and possible insanity, is much more personal and direct than in his other novels.

(This review was originally written May 7, 2006.)

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