Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Scanner Darkly: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress entitled Philip K. Dick in Orange County, in which I read each of the novels that acclaimed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, and write book reports about them.  This is part of a larger project that will become an art exhibit/zine release in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

A Scanner Darkly is the first novel that Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, that is also set in Orange County.  Like Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, A Scanner Darkly presents a future, dystopian U.S.A., a fascist police state.  Unlike Flow My Tears, in which the police state is overt and obviously repressive (represented by numerous army/police checkpoints and forced labor camps), the police state of A Scanner Darkly is more subtle.  Rather than being overtly oppressed, the characters in A Scanner Darkly are being surveilled and destroyed from within (through drugs, technology, and the occasional secret agent).  For this reason, the world of A Scanner Darkly is much more recognizable and familiar.

The main character of the novel has two personas: Fred (an undercover narcotics officer), and Bob (a drug addict).  Fred the officer is given the assignment to monitor and electronically surveil Bob the doper (aka himself).  The split personality of Fred/Bob reflects a larger schism that has happened in society.  The world of the novel seems evenly divided between two main categories: the straights (conservative establishment) and dopers (liberal subculture).  Because of his position as both a “straight” and a “doper,” Fred/Bob gives us (the reader) insight into both worlds, and into the deeply divided society that the novel portrays.

Before moving to Orange County, Philip K. Dick spent the 1960s living around Berkeley, the heart of “hippie” subculture.  Then, in the early 1970s, Dick moved down to Orange County, the heart of “conservative” reaction to the 1960s social movements.  Through the split personality of Fred/Bob, Dick is also representing the vast cultural divide between 60s Berkeley and 70s OC—two extremes of American society.  

As in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, there is a sense in A Scanner Darkly that the liberal, socially conscious dream of the 1960s has died, and been replaced by something dark and sinister—drugs and paranoia—a society rotting from within.  In the alternate world of Flow My Tears, people turn their brains off with bad TV.  In the alternative world of A Scanner Darkly, people turn their brains off with drugs.  The book laments the early deaths of such 60s icons as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, tragic victims of 60s drug culture.  Whereas, in the 1960s, drugs were seen as liberating and part of a larger social movement, by the 1970s, drugs had replaced social consciousness and become a world unto themselves, a swirling morass of death and despair.

By presenting a cast of main characters who are “dopers,” Dick’s sympathies clearly lie with the subculture, rather than the establishment.  This is represented in a scene in which “Fred” is giving a presentation to a roomful of “straights” at the Anaheim Lions Club.  Fred is supposed to give a canned speech about the “war on drugs.”  As readers, however, we get access to his inner thoughts, Bob’s thoughts, and we see how much he detests his audience: “The straights, he thought, live in their fortified huge apartment complexes guarded by their guards, ready to open fire on any and every doper who scales the wall.”  As Fred struggles to get through his speech, he says actually says, deviating from the scripted speech, “..because this is what gets people on dope…This is why you lurch off and become a doper, this sort of stuff.  This is why you get up and leave.  In disgust.”

As the novel progresses, Bob/Fred struggles to keep his two identities intact, but things ultimately fall apart.  The hypocrisy of his life, like the hypocrisy of the society in which he lives, becomes too much for him to bear.  

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