Saturday, April 7, 2012

On "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick *****

I enjoyed this novel of Dick's more than any of the previous one's I've read. Here are some reasons I think this might be so: (1) I saw the movie and liked it first; (2) it's more like a regular book than a sci-fi novel; or (3) it's about drugs and includes some cool plot devices.

The movie, directed by Richard Linklater, is an animated feature--or really, it's a live action theater that has been traced over with ink. Such seems appropriate in a way for the trippy subject matter. Starring Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves, Wynona Ryder, and Robert Downy Jr., the piece had no shortage of big names attached to it. Downy was the highlight of the film to me, and his character James Barris is a highlight of the book as well--extremely funny. Would he have been as funny in the book if I hadn't seen Downy's portrayal first? I don't know. Unlike many a film adaptation, this one actually seems to have followed the book fairly closely, so I've been hard pressed to say whether I actually like one more than the other. I can't even say they're that different, other than the fact that they are different mediums.

The tale itself has barely any tie to science fiction. The main reason it could be classified as such: a suit that police investigators wear that allows their identities to be hidden. The suit essentially changes its appearance several times a second, so you can't really describe a single person. At the time of the book, this was probably fantasy; today, it's likely possible, since it's possible now to wear a suit that would make you invisible. Cool technology.

Other than that, however, this is a book about druggies and about the police who try to catch them. But like many a noir novel, the line between the two is not very easy to see. Police engage in drug deals in order to work their way further up the drug chain; they take drugs themselves to fit into the culture. And because they work undercover and don't know their identities, many are the times when one agent is investigating the drug-related activity of what turns out to be yet another agent, who is also simply trying to find people higher up the pecking order to bust. In fact, one gets the sense that the entire system might be run by some kind of drug conglomerate.

In the middle of this is Bob Arctor (think Actor--he after is one of the police/druggie posers) or Fred or Bruce. Bob, as in the novel The Big Clock is eventually assigned the job of investigating himself. But in the process, he begins to lose his mind: Is he Bob or Fred or Bruce? Is he all three?

This gets back to a continuing theme in Dick's world--namely, that of identity. While Jason Travener, in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, loses his identity completely to the world, Bob loses his identity to himself. In both works, Dick seems to be suggesting that personal identity is at the least significantly created by the society around it rather than within the individual. The individual, ungirded from that social link, is nothing. Conversely, I suppose, one could argue that Travener has an identity because he spends the novel trying to regain it. Here, in A Scanner Darkly, however, Bob/Fred/Bruce isn't working to regain any one of those identities. At his core, he doesn't know who he is, and he comes apart as a result.

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