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Have You Read …?

Lydia Chagolla

“A Scanner Darkly”

By Philip K. Dick

“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.”

What is Substance D and where does it come from? It has been speculated that SD is imported from Russia as a scheme to destroy American resistance to Communism; that it was sent to Earth by aliens intent on either enlightening mankind or reducing humans to a zombie-like slave race. Prolonged use of Substance D (also known as “slow death”) has been known to cause the user’s consciousness to separate into two distinct identities. The drug also appears to facilitate the inducement of shared delusions and powerful hallucinations. In some cases, withdrawal from SD may send an addict’s body into a state of such severe shock that it could culminate in death.

In Philip K. Dick’s novel, “A Scanner Darkly,” Fred is an undercover police officer who is assigned to infiltrate and spy on a household of drug-users, mainly on their supposed ringleader and suspected Substance D dealer Bob Arctor. What Fred doesn’t realize is that he is Arctor and that his own drug use has caused the two hemispheres of his brain to function independently, splitting his personality and leaving him unable to distinguish between his roles as user and policeman. Essentially, he is spying on himself and he doesn’t know it. Although he appears on surveillance tapes as Arctor, his colleagues never catch on due to the fact that Fred, like all undercover agents, wears a high-tech scramble suit that constantly changes his appearance. When his Substance D abuse begins to take its toll on his neurological system, his paranoia and erratic behavior captures the attention of the wrong people. For Fred/Arctor there’s no way off the addict’s downward escalator, but what awaits at the bottom is a kind of redemption – there are wheels within wheels and his life may not be entirely wasted.

Because of its semi-autobiographical nature, some of “Scanner” was torturous to write. Dick’s wife at the time once stated that she often found her husband weeping as the sun rose after a night-long writing session. He captures the language, conversation, mannerisms and culture of drug users in the 1970s with a rare clarity due to his first-hand experience with this world. This is explained in the moving afterword where he dedicates the book to those of his friends who suffered permanent debilitation and, in some cases, death because of their excessive lifestyles and drug use. In the afterword, he states that the novel is about “some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did” and that “drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to move out in front of a moving car.” Many of the characters in “A Scanner Darkly” are based on real people from the two years Dick spent addicted to amphetamines, living semi-communally with a rotating group of mostly teenage drug users at his home in Marin County. During this period, he ceased writing completely.

Philip K. Dick died in 1982, the result of a string of strokes accompanied by heart failure. Since his death there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in his writings, which were mostly ignored outside the sci-fi community during his life. Beginning with director Ridley Scott’s 1982 release of “Blade Runner,” based on Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, eight feature films have been made based on his work, including the recently released “A Scanner Darkly.” That’s an average of one movie every three years since Dick’s passing, a rate of cinematic adaptation surpassed only by Stephen King.

– Lydia Chagolla is a sales associate at Neighbors Bookstore.


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