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Literature / A Scanner Darkly

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This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed - run over, maimed, destroyed - but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it...
A Scanner Darkly, afterword, Philip K. Dick

A classic 1977 darkly comic dystopian Science Fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. Dick dedicated the book to numerous people he personally knew that died, became insane or irreversibly ruined their health because of drugs. Among that list he placed himself, as his own early 70s drug use had destroyed his pancreas and eventually caused his premature death in 1982.

Bob Arctor, the protagonist, is an undercover narc in the war on Substance D, a drug which gradually destroys a person's ability to think or perceive reality. Substance D deteriorates a person's mind, until they are obsessed only with the drug, and endanger themselves and others going after it. It seems to be made in only one place, but the narcs just can't seem to find that place or stop the flow.

When Arctor appears in public, doing anti-drug talks or comparing notes with other narcs, he wears a special suit that hides his features completely by changing how he looks every second and removes the affect from his voice. His supervisor and colleagues simply know him as "Fred". This is supposed to be to protect the narcs from internal corruption; not knowing what your fellow undercover agents look like makes it much harder for a crooked cop to sell out to the cartels.

Bob only wears this suit when he's in straight society. In the world he's infiltrating, a world of poverty and crime, he uses no disguise. As Bob, he blends in well, fitting in more with the people he scopes out than with the straights. He even uses Substance D, the better to blend in. The narcs are aiming for the big dealers, and they hope that Arctor will lead them to the people they're hunting for by hanging out with the small fish.

But Arctor's drug use is starting to impair his thinking. His current case, strongly suspected of being a major Substance D dealer, slips out of his grasp by entering a rehab center. The rehab centers give the people who enter completely fresh starts, and our protagonist's attempt to get confidential info from the one that suspect entered simply wrecks the chance of his using it again, either for info or for rehab.

So Bob talks, in disguise as "Fred", with his superior, also in disguise, to get his next case. The boss seems understanding about his losing his quarry. So they discuss all the Substance D users in the neighborhood; this requires him to talk about "Arctor" as if he were someone else, since doing otherwise would make it clear who he was and make him a direct target for corrupt cops. His boss determines that the "Arctor" he reports on is behaving suspiciously and getting large amounts of money at irregular intervals; it's actually reward money from Bob's successful tips, but, not knowing "Arctor" is a narc, the boss thinks he might be a dealer... and so "Fred" is given the assignment of spying on himself. Which doesn't make things easier on his drug-addled brain.

In 2006, it was adapted into a movie by Richard Linklater, starring Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., and Winona Ryder. Neither a traditional live-action nor animated feature, the movie was recorded on digital video and then rotoscoped to create a graphic novel-like visual effect, in a similar style to Linklater's earlier film Waking Life. Both versions of the story are well-loved, although some significant elements of the film are different from the novel.

This book provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Situation: Freck's suicide attempt is his last appearance in the story, so it may have actually worked or he may really be hearing his sins, in shifts, for eternity.
  • Arc Words: If I had known it was harmless, I would have killed it myself.
  • Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?: Invoked by Luckman and Arctor to irritate Barris, who's working on the car, and to terminally confuse Freck.
  • Artistic License Chemistry: Local Know-Nothing Know-It-All Barris claims "benzocaine" is actually cocaine but under a different name to disguise its true nature. While benzocaine and cocaine have similar structures and share some effects (including numbing of pain, hence the shared -caine root), the two are different substances.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The title is a modern spin on the famous quote by St Paul in 1 Corinthians, (to see imperfectly) "through a glass, darkly".
  • Becoming the Mask:
    • So much so, Bob forgets that he's also Fred, while Fred forgets he ever used to be Bob...
    • Also in a secondary sense, the mask of "Bob" the druggie and "Fred" the narc also become solely his identity as he loses who he was before. His brain becomes so dissociated from who he has become that it speaks to him in German.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Going almost into Downer Ending territory. By the end of the book, Bob/Fred's Substance D addiction has caused him such catastrophic brain damage that he completely loses his sanity and sense of self, and he's shipped off to the only rehab center for Substance D in existence. Only it turns out that the people running the rehab center are the ones growing the flowers that Substance D is distilled from, and that Donna was really an undercover cop who purposely pushed Bob/Fred into his breakdown so she'd have a mole in their organization. The only thing keeping the book from looking too down is that Bob/Fred retains enough presence of mind to bring the evidence back home to his superiors...
  • Black-and-Gray Morality:
    • The cops are using questionable means, the drug dealers are pushing a drug that kills people, and the rehab clinic is growing the drug it claims it's trying to stop. No real good guys here...
    • The rehab clinic and the people who run it are pretty much the only side in the entire book that have the word "BAD" clearly written over them in big black letters.
  • Black Comedy: Dick's deadpan, almost nonchalant presentation of the most bizarre and terrifying events. A character tries to commit suicide by washing down a lot of pills with a very expensive bottle of wine. It may or may not have worked, but either way the character hallucinates that he spends thousands of years having his sins read to him by a bizarre alien. His response is "At least I had the wine."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Bob's psychiatric evaluators keep dropping hints that he should give Donna some flowers to help kindle romance. It's a ploy to plant the idea of retrieving flowers from New Path's farms once he's been turned into a Manchurian Agent.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: Barris is humorous but a self-serving sociopathic bastard, both as written but especially as played by Robert Downey Jr.
  • The Conspiracy:
    • Evil Plan — New Path are the ones making and distributing Substance D. Given their size and power they have had the laws changed so they can't be investigated by the police and are thus verging on a Government Conspiracy.
    • Covert Group — A number of the police force are certain that New Path are the ones responsible for Substance D and are working undercover to bring them to justice. Doing so requires... questionable methods.
  • Corporate Conspiracy: New Path, the company that runs the only existing rehab centers for Substance D addicts, is actually the one growing the plants the drug is distilled from, and is Manufacturing Victims to give them a convenient source of patients and slave labor.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Given that their business plan appears to be "manufacture enough Substance D to get the majority of the US hooked on it, so that the government will grant us even more power," it's safe to say that the bosses at New Path are all this. Named in the book is Donald, the Executive Director.
  • Creator Cameo: In and out of universe, both in regard to the scramble suit. The suit works by mixing and matching facial and body features constantly, but very very randomly, the face of the inventor will pop up complete on the face of the suit. In the movie, at one point, Philip K. Dick's face makes its way onto the suit.
  • Dating Catwoman: Subverted. Bob/Fred says he loves Donna and would love to date her, but never ultimately does. She claims she doesn't date. He does have sex with someone and hallucinates that it's Donna, though...
  • The Dead Have Names: The epigraph names the author's friends and their ultimate grim fates following heavy drug use, some of whom directly inspired particular characters.
  • Deep Cover Agent:
    • Mike, the friend Bob makes at New Path, has been there under the cover of a patient so fearful of relapsing that he cannot be let back in to society. He's actually a federal agent.
    • At the very end, Arctor to the point that even he's not aware of it, as his mind has been thoroughly addled by his Substance D usage - but he retains the subconscious thought that he should send one of the flowers back to his friends.
  • Descent into Addiction: Arctor grows addicted to Substance D as part of his cover.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: As seen in the page quote, disproportionate punishment was Dick's assessment of the impacts of their drug use.
  • Domestic Abuse: Bob visits an old acquaintance who's kicked her physically abusive boyfriend out. She seems to cave when he returns outside the building, despite knowing that he's likely going to murder her. Bob is helpless to save her from herself.
  • Driven to Madness: Arctor by the dichotomy of spying on himself, which slowly cleaves away his sanity... and then eventually the reader.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Deconstructed. Though it clearly shows that the drugs are destructive, it asks the question: if the reality without drugs isn't a world you want to live in, what's the point? It shows the payoff: a brief life of dark instability where wonderful moments can still happen, terminated quickly by damage, psychosis and death; or a world of straight living where nothing changes and routine just whiles away the interminable time of your long life. That entire struggle is manifest in Arctor's decision to become an undercover cop, and then in the identity split between Fred and Arctor. In line with Dick's dystopian view of reality, the question is discussed vigorously and never answered. The afterword, detailing the long list of Dick's now dead, dying or incurably insane addict friends, essentially screams "NOT WORTH IT".
  • Empty Shell: Arctor becomes a hollow shell by the end of the story, as a result of Substance D.
  • Everybody Knew Already: Though not the one doing the revealing, Fred is informed by Hank that his identity as Bob Arctor is already known. Donna, being a federal agent, also knows.
  • Fantastic Drug: Substance-D. Though, as Dick said, "Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw."
  • Full-Body Disguise: The scramble-suits mask an agent's identity commpletely.
  • Future Slang: Subverted. Dick used the language of the Berkley drug culture, the language his friends spoke with. But to those out of the know, and anyone reading nowadays, it sounds like Dick is trying to pull A Clockwork Orange.
  • Hallucinations: Another side-effect of Substance D. The opening scene details a character who is convinced he's surrounded by aphids, to the point where he thinks they're crawling over him and has to scour his skin off. He's eventually committed into an asylum.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Fred being instructed to spy on Bob, with the catch that Fred starts to forget that he's Bob and at one point considers him the prime suspect.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Barris makes a homemade suppressor out of tinfoil and foam rubber. It blows up and only manages to make the gun louder.
  • The Infiltration: Bob/Fred is trying to find the source of Substance D by associating with junkies and dealers.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Everything that goes through Barris' head, ever, is insanely illogical to anyone other than him.
  • Imagine Spot: On his way to meet Barris, Freck spots a police car following him and has a paranoid sequence where he's pulled over and shot because he can't remember his name.
  • Jekyll & Hyde:
    • Arctor's druggie persona and his narc persona separate more and more as the story goes on. Ultimately, he forgets he's narcing on himself, until a psychiatrist reminds him.
    • Donna warns Bob that he acts like a crazy person whenever Barris is around.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Barris talks like he's a scientist, but what he confidently spouts is pure bull.
  • List of Transgressions: Freck's suicide attempt results in a hallucination where he's read every trangression he's ever committed. To quote the film version —
    Narrator: The next thing he knew, a creature from between dimensions was standing at his bed, looking down at him disapprovingly.
    Freck: You gonna read me my sins? Eh, it's gonna take a hundred thousand hours.
    Creature: Your sins will be read to you ceaselessly, in shifts... throughout eternity. The list will never end.
    Creature: (begins reading) "The Sins of Freck."
    Narrator: Charles Freck wished he could take back the last half hour of his life.
    Creature: "... theft of fingernail clippers..." "... you did knowingly and with malice..." "... punched your baby sister, Evelyn..." "... December, theft of Christmas presents..." " billion lies..."
    Narrator: One thousand years later, they had reached the sixth grade, the year he had discovered masturbation.
    Creature: "... November fourteenth, Percodan... Vicodin... Cocaine..."
  • Literary Allusion Title: It's a reference to a bit about "a mirror, darkly" in The Bible. There's also a Title Drop.
  • Magic Brakes: Borderline example. It's the accelerator pedal that's broken, and won't come up from the depressed position, causing the car to keep accelerating until the protagonist rips the key out of the ignition.
  • Manchurian Agent: Bob Arctor is turned into an agent by way of drug addiction. He's prompted to pick Substance D flowers to give to his friends when he returns from the farm.
  • Mandatory Twist Ending: Well, it is Philip K. Dick. Hank already knew Fred's real identity. The police had really been after Barris, who was doing much worse things than selling drugs. Donna is a federal agent. Substance D is organic, not synthetic, and it's grown by New Path rehab so that they keep Manufacturing Victims.
  • Manufacturing Victims: New Path, the company that runs the only existing rehab centers for Substance D addicts, is the organization that's been manufacturing Substance D all along. It's implied that they created the drug specifically to destroy addicts' minds so that they'd have an easy source of slave labor who wouldn't rat them out.
  • Mind Screw: Welcome to the universe of PKD's writing, will you want to pay for your insanity with cash, check, or credit card? We have a special discount on dissociative identity disorders, if you're interested?
  • The Mole: Drug dealer Donna is actually a federal agent.
  • Mood Whiplash: Charles Freck's suicide attempt involves combining drugs and alcohol. He hallucinates being read every single sin he's ever committed, including discovering masturbation in sixth grade.
  • Painting the Medium: Played with — the book is written in Third-Person Limited perspective, but a lot of the narration is Bob/Fred's direct thoughts, to the point where the reader might forget the book isn't written in first person. As a result, like Bob/Fred forgetting that he's watching himself, the reader can't keep track of if they're in Bob/Fred's head or outside it.
  • Perpetually Protean: Undercover police officers are required to exist in an electronic version of this state: in order to protect their identities while in public or at headquarters, they wear full-body "scramble suits" that constantly cycle their appearances through a million and a half fractal identities - noses, eyes, mouths, etc. Consequently, the wearer is impossible to identify and is said to resemble a "vague blur."
  • Poison and Cure Gambit: New Path is behind Substance D, while providing rehabilitation for its addicted users, which includes doing farm work-growing more of the drug.
  • The Reveal: The leaders of New Path have been manufacturing Substance D at their rehab clinics all along. Also, Donna's a federal agent.
  • Ridiculous Future Sequelisation: At one point, Donna asks Bob to take her to a drive-in to see a marathon of all 11 of the Planet of the Apes films. Even counting both reboots, the franchise is still only up to nine as of 2023.
  • Sanity Slippage: Bob/Fred loses touch with reality as Substance D takes its toll on him.
  • Split Personality: Bob and Fred are the same person, but having taken so much Substance D, they've forgotten that they are.
  • The Sociopath: Barris displays a complete lack of empathy for the people around him, completely ignoring Luckman while he chokes almost to death. Comes off a lot funnier in the film due to Downey Jr.
  • Straw Nihilist: Inverted and subverted with Bob/Fred. His bleak outlook on life is a reflection of the events he perceives happening.
  • Suspicious Spending: Part of the reason the police suspect Bob Arctor is a drug dealer because he gets more income than his supposed day job would provide. The thing is, Bob Arctor is Fred's undercover persona, and said income is actually reward money the police gives for successful busts. Unfortunately, due to regulations, Fred can't clarify he's actually Bob and explain the matter, and he winds up being assigned to spy on himself.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The more drugs Arctor takes, the less sense everything makes. The few brief times reality is seen through Freck's eyes, all sanity takes a leave of absence.
  • Title Drop:
    "What does a scanner see? I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner? See into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it does see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone's sake, the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we'll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too."
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Barris's toxicity spreads to his housemates, as Donna notes his influence on Arctor's behavior.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: 1994 or 1995 in the book (Luckman was born in 1962 and is said to be 32).
  • With Friends Like These...: Barris is a horrible friend. Let's look at some of the ways he conducts himself:
    • He not-so-subtly implied to Freck that he's tried to come on to Donna and been repeatedly rebuffed.
    • He provides Freck with some cocaine so as to get into Donna's pants. Even Cloud Cuckoolander Freck is surprised at this as he's got no interest in her sexually and just wants to buy D from her.
    • He forges recordings to try and rat out Bob and Donna as being terrorists plotting murderous rampages.
    • He wires up Bob's house with surveillance cameras in the movie, a tape recorder in the book (without asking Bob first of course) and then to make sure they're tested leaves the front door unlocked with a note on it to tell prospective burglars to come on in.
    • He stands idly watching as Luckman is choking to death and makes the least effective emergency call ever. Luckman figures Barris would loot his pockets if he'd actually died.

The Film of the Book also provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the book, Bob Arctor storms out of his platonic girlfriend's apartment after she refuses to sleep with him because she says he is too ugly. This is not mentioned to Keanu Reeves' character in the film.
  • Adaptational Distillation:
    • The movie version of Bob Arctor's speech to the social club is pretty close to the novel version, with a few differences. In the book, he's addressing the Anaheim Lions Club, while in the movie, it's a chapter of the fictional Brown Bear Lodge. The movie also leaves out some parts where he describes dealers getting people addicted to drugs by slipping them into their drinks and (probably sarcastically) claims that Murder Is the Best Solution when dealing with drug dealers.
    • The scene where Barris brings home an 18-speed bike and he and his friends think he's been scammed out of some gears plays out pretty closely to how it happens in the novel, but they don't include the parts where a man explains that an 18-speed bike actually has only 10 gears and the two psychologists grill Arctor over it.
  • Artistic License Geography: The driving scenes were shot in the actual locations around Orange County described by the characters. When the characters are driving south from Anaheim to San Diego on Interstate 5 and break down at Culver Avenue in Irvine, you can see the correct landmarks for this area. When they're driven back in a tow truck, they correctly pass landmarks of Irvine and Tustin that are just north of Culver. However, anyone familiar with the area will notice that they pass by the same locations several times, obviously a result of using various different takes.
  • Cast as a Mask: Mark Turner plays "Hank", who is later revealed to be Winona Ryder's character, Donna.
  • Casting Gag: Robert Downey Jr., who's infamous for his highly publicized drug problems (which he was just recovering from at the time the movie came out) is cast as a drug addict living in a household full of them.
  • Composite Character: In the book, Jerry has a freakout where he thinks there are bugs crawling all over his body and his dog, tries to wash them out in the shower to no avail, and "collects" them into a jar, with Freck along to give him support. The movie gives these scenes to Freck, with Jerry being Adapted Out.
  • Cutting Back to Reality: Arctor's perspective is occasionally overwhelmed with hallucinations but just as often changes back to normal in cuts, usually while his eyes are closed or his back is turned. In one of the most prominent ones, Arctor rolls over in bed and finds that the woman he's just slept with has transformed into Donna Hawthorn - the woman he really wanted to have sex with; Arctor is confused and alarmed, but in the following cut, he looks again and finds that Donna has turned back into his bedmate.
  • Deep Cover Agent:
    • Donna is actually Hank who is actually Audrey, part of a cabal of police officers covertly investigating New Path.
    • Mike is Audrey's colleague and although he's been successfully infiltrating New Path for years he's been unable to get access to the farms where he suspects Substance D is being manufactured.
  • Deranged Animation: One of the greatest benefits of rotoscoping the film was that it became easy to seamlessly blend realistic imagery into This Is Your Premise on Drugs. Freck's "aphids" freakout is the first example and it only gets worse from there...
  • Dirty Mind-Reading: Although it's only part of his own drug-induced hallucinations, Freck is able to see Barris's thoughts as he fantasizes about a pretty waitress undressing herself.
  • Dull Surprise: Keanu's infamous wooden acting strikes again. It manages out to work surprisingly well though. In this movie, he plays an undercover officer whose mind is gradually worn away by Substance D, and Keanu's dull delivery makes his character seem suitably disconnected from reality.
  • Fan Disservice: The opening scene of the movie is a young man having an extended Shower Scene...except he's hallucinating there's insects crawling all over him and is decidedly having a very, very bad time.
  • Fanservice: The film shows Bob having sex with a woman, whom he hallucinates is Donna when watching a recording of it.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • "Hank", Bob/Fred's superior in the police force, drops some subtle foreshadowing about The Reveal at the end when he's telling "Fred" how his investigation will work. He says "No one in the police force will know who you are. You could be Jim Barris, Ernie Luckman, or even Arctor himself. Hell, you could be Donna for all we know..." At the end, it turns out that "Hank" was a disguised Donna all along.
    • Contemplating his neighborhood, Bob/Fred speculates that at the rate McDonald's sales tally is going, everyone will wind up selling the same hamburgers back and forth to one another. Because Donna is actually Hank, the drugs she's been selling Bob/Fred are most likely the same ones he's been turning in to his superiors, over and over.
  • Hollywood Silencer: Realistically averted with Barris' homemade silencer, which completely fails to work, but for a logical reason. His cheap homemade silencer might actually have worked normally (the principles behind silencers aren't rocket science, the Pillow Silencer actually works in real life), but he's putting it on a revolver, which normally can't be silenced due to gas exploding from the cylinder in addition to the barrel (with a few very specific exceptions such as the Russian Nagant pistol).
  • If You Can Read This: A surveillance console displaying a lot of scrolling small text is actually scrolling through Blade Runner's screenplay.
  • Mood Whiplash: On the one hand, the movie shows the utter destruction of a man's life because of drugs. On the other, watching the stoners fool around can be hilarious.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: New Path and its entaglement with the courts and law enforcement is based off of real life rehab program turned cult, Synanon.
  • Noodle Incident: One of the characters makes a vague reference to Leonardo DiCaprio hitting an "Elvis phase", hinting that he has a career-ending breakdown some time in the near future.
  • The Reveal: [["Hank" is actually a disguised Donna.]]
  • Shout-Out:
    • The reference to an unnamed Leonardo DiCaprio movie about DiCaprio's character "pretending to be other people".
    • One of the brands advertised in the liquor store is "St. Ubik".
    • At one point Bob sees his flatmates partly change into huge cockroaches, which is what happened to The Protagonist of Naked Lunch.
  • Sinister Surveillance: A keystone of the plot, and shown ostentatiously at the start of the film when Bob phones Donna to buy some drugs. We cut to an operative at one of a hundred surveillance consoles where the phone conversation is voice-IDed to Donna, and then cycles through half a dozen CCTV cameras to pin down Bob Arctor as he walks down the street.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Charles Freck's suicide attempt is clearly a Bungled Suicide in the film, as he's later seen in rehab. In the book, he never appears again after his suicide attempt, leaving it open as to whether he lived or died.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The very first scene states that the story takes place "seven years from now", which turns out to look kind of like the '70s (when the book was written), the early '90s (when the story was set), and the early 21st century when it was made... all scrambled together. Justified insofar as the characters are living in a rundown part of town that likely hasn't been renovated in decades.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Mike, Donna/Audrey and Bob's psych evaluators intentionally get fellow officer Bob hooked and completely nuked on Substance D so he can be used as a sleeper agent to unknowingly infiltrate New Path's farms.


Video Example(s):


I'm Who?

Undercover police officer Bob Arctor begins cracking up following long-term use of Substance D. By the time his boss interviews him on the subject, Arctor is hallucinating, exhibiting false memories of a family he never had, and suffering from a growing state of anxiety. Also, immersed for too long in the double life of an undercover cop, he fails to recognize his own name.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (10 votes)

Example of:

Main / SanitySlippage

Media sources: