A Scanner Darkly
by Philip K. Dick
This book is about a man who is a junkie and an undercover narcotics agent. It is a book about identity, and anyone who has asked themselves a question like "Who am I?" would find this book interesting.
As a junkie, he is Bob Arctor. As a cop, he operates with the identity Fred. In the course of the novel, he has cause to question his identity. "Which one is me?" he asks. What he is asking is, when does the acting stop? Is a cop pretending to be a drug user, or a drug user occasionally acting in the capacity of law enforcement?
The trouble begins when he, as a cop, is assigned by his superiors to monitor himself, as a junkie. To this end, an electronic audio/visual monitoring system, the titular scanner, is installed in his home, without his knowledge. That is, without Bob Arctor's knowledge. Of course Fred knows. The split in identity necessary to make this feat believable to his superiors, without revealing his identity to them, perhaps begins the total breakdown of identity that he undergoes throughout.
Arctor begins becoming (justifiably) paranoid that he is being hunted. Fred, meanwhile, becomes (justifiably) suspicious that Arctor is not who he appears to be; that is, he is more than a junkie (which is true; he is a cop). Both of the sides of the same man see the same thing (either in person or through the scanners), and develop unsound, albeit accurate in some sense, fears. This is explained metaphorically in several ways through the novel: as a left-hand glove versus a right-hand glove, as a photograph with the words reversed. The problem isn't that what he's seeing is wrong, just his perception is backwards.
To complicate matters, Fred isn't the only one who becomes suspicious of Arctor. His roommate, Jim Barris, at first subtly, and with increasing directness, act maliciously towards Bob, ultimately attempting to turn him in to the police, including Fred.
Eventually Bob breaks down. He ceases to realize that he is acting at all, and loses the ability to recognize his own duality. He is sent to a rehab clinic, which as we discover in the climax, is run by the same people who manufacture the drug that he was addicted to.
In several ways, the book is an allegory of self. The three roomates, but especially Bob and Jim, are the different impulses within the author. Jim is pure malice, and can only act destructively. He is a hunter. Bob is a victim. As the Fred component of Bob diverges, it initially attempts to protect Arctor, and then turns against him, at some point actually cooperating with Jim.
I think the play on words with Arctor's name is pretty obvious.
The title of the book is a paraphrase from the Bible:
I Corinthians 13:12: "for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then
face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am
This line is talking about the failure of images; specifically, the inaccuracy of mirrors, although it's really an analogy about truly knowing God. In the novel, instead of mirrors, his characters use scanners, police surveillance equipment. And the title is ironic, because it isn't the scanners that fail, that produce inaccurate images: it is the mind of Bob Arctor, and how he uses those images, that fails.
Although A Scanner Darkly encompasses some elements of science fiction, the work is not particularly science fiction-y. It is a study of character, and a exploration of the limits of identity. The characters all drive regular cars, with wheels, not jets. The only science fiction elements that have any regular bearing in the novel are the invention of Substance D, the drug to which Bob is addicted, and the scramble suit, a device Fred uses to hide his identity from his superiors, even when reporting to them.
This book is hard to read. Not because the words are long, or the sentences tangled, but because it takes you in a very intimate and painful journey with a man who is losing his ability to determine who he is. It is a headfuck, I suppose. The book is also extremely funny, mostly in the several conversation scenes between two or more drug-addled junkies. But the humor is significantly classier than that found in the modern culture of drugsploitation flicks, like Half Baked.
Correction of facts:
Update: Richard Linklater is now involved in making a film with Keanu Reaves and others.