Science fiction as literature Oct 21, 2008
A Scanner Darkly is a thought-provoking piece of literature. You might already know that, of course. But if you?re like me and have, until now, (a) never read anything by Philip K. Dick and, despite this utter lack of exposure, (b) kind of pooh-poohed the mere notion of reading his books, you might want to reconsider.
A Scanner Darkly is classified as science fiction. When it was published in 1977, perhaps it more closely fit with this genre. However, after encountering this book nearly 30 years later, I find that literary fiction is a more apt classification. Scanner subtly embraces some devices typically associated with science fiction: imagining a totalitarian-leaning future, complete with a few outlandish inventions used by the authorities to rule or subjugate the masses. But this futuristic science isn?t what drives the fiction, which is heavily character-focused and exposition-reliant. Additionally, the contemporary literary canon increasingly exhibits a taste for the fantastic. Recent critical and popular darlings like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Never Let Me Go?fictions that are also fantasies?are prime examples of science fiction?s migration into what many consider to be more respectable territory.
Dick is one of many science fiction authors who struggled for acceptance, largely because of his chosen genre. It looks to me like he was writing before his time, at least concerning A Scanner Darkly. This book is a story of drug use, abuse, and overdose. It drops you into an average Los Angeles neighborhood. But the house you inhabit in this subdivision is the filthy, ramshackle home of a band of dopers, and one of the addicts, Bob Arctor, happens to be an undercover drug enforcement officer who has assumed a new identity and infiltrated the drug scene in order to expose and bring down syndicate leaders.
From a distance, the initial set-up is somewhat cookie-cutter. The intrigue and artistry occur when Dick addicts the would-be narc to Substance D, an organic, overwhelming drug that, over time, surreptitiously leaves Arctor with a kind of man-made multiple personality. Because, in his line of work, drug use is both job requirement and hazard, Arctor feels he doesn?t have much choice than to go with it. Through the course of the novel, therefore, Arctor devolves from someone who is lucidly aware of the dualities of his agent-addict life to two someones who happen to inhabit the same cranium. And it?s fascinating to be an intimate witness to his devolution.
Arctor?s mind is slowly ravaged by Substance D, until the reader is left wondering how the last 20 percent of the novel might play out. (I was very happy that it didn?t become anything like Naked Lunch, which is the worst trip I?ve ever had.) It?s not the plot I expected from Dick. But I never lost interest in Arctor or the story that enfolded him, especially moments involving a very trippy roommate named Jim Barris?the sort of guy who impassively enjoys watching another roomie choke to death.
Scanner?s execution isn?t perfect, and some of it certainly comes off as dated (for example, the repeated and very-1977 references to ?foxy? ladies). But the novel was insightful and as well-written as other good literature I?ve encountered recently, like Ian McEwan?s highly absorbing Saturday. I hate to admit it, but I previously wouldn?t have considered these two books to be in the same class. So now I see how Dick?s skillful writing has influenced my own brain: It?s a mind-expanding drug without all the lingering (and toxic) aftereffects.