Top critical review
"Well," Fred said, "funny thing happened to me on the way to the grave."
Reviewed in the United States on October 23, 2018
PKD was a visionary. And a master storyteller. He truly was one of the greats. But even the greats can't turn every at-bat into a home run.
For me, "A Scanner Darkly" is PKD's missed at-bat. It begins with a solid premise that makes a few predictions about technology and social development (with the promise of accompanying commentary) that's flavored by scenes of drug use. However, it quickly devolves into psychology and thinly veiled (or not veiled at all) references to PKD's own experiences with drugs, at times eschewing the plot altogether. The flimsy narrative that desperately wants to connect the disparate scenes of drug use and altered perceptions grows more and more anemic as the novel progresses. By the end of the book, it's no longer a story complimented or accentuated by situational recollection; it's a pseudo-memoir with a strangled, dystopian ending tacked on to complete the symbolism. Or metaphor. Or... whatever it was.
I'm willing to accept that this book is a genuine 'misunderstood' classic and that I was just one of the saps who couldn't appreciate it for the masterpiece that is. That statement was made with no sarcasm, by the way; that's an honest assessment of my own limitations regarding the appraisal of this particular brand of literature.
For me, "A Scanner Darkly" works as a sci-fi flavored version of "Fear and Loathing." In terms of strange, surreal randomness, it's tough to beat. As an exercise in facing down his drug-induced demons from days gone by, I can only imagine the degree of success PKD felt he had upon completion of this novel; I hope it helped. This was clearly an ordeal he had to work through, which is made all the more sobering in the book's afterword (which, by the time you've taken the journey the story puts you through, is pretty brutal).
Many of his observations are still remarkably on point, however. Here are a few for good measure:
"If I had known it was harmless I would have killed it myself."
"The guilty, he reflected as he drove amid the heavy late-afternoon traffic as carefully as possible, may flee when no one pursues- he had heard that, and maybe that was true. What for a certainty was true, however, was that the guilty fled, fled like hell and took plenty of swift precautions, when someone did pursue: someone real and expert and at the same time hidden. And very close by. As close, he thought, as the back seat of this car."
"If you were diabetic," he said, "and you didn't have money for a hit of insulin, would you steal to get the money? Or just die?"
"To survive in this fascist police state, he thought, you gotta always be able to come up with a name, your name. At all times. That's the first sign they look for that you're wired, not being able to figure out who the hell you are."
"He liked that; he liked to get rid of time."