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August, 2006 : Criticism:

Drugs and A Scanner Darkly

Was Philip K. Dick Against Drug Use?

A Scanner Darkly, the latest movie based on Philip K. Dick's work, may open up discussion about drug use in America again, but rather than presenting a broad canvas, Dick's narrow, dark, and paranoid perspective is ever present. Director Richard Linklater's treatment of the book gives us one of the truest of the many Dickian film adaptations (compared to the liberties taken for such films as Screamers, Paycheck, and Minority Report), and deals with some of Dick's most central themes. This is not the Utopian dreaming of San Francisco or the 1960s, but rather a warning about some of the hard lessons learned during those times. The messages of the movie and the book from which it is adapted are contradictory. Though true to the spirit of Dick, the movie misses the opportunity to comment about the state of the war on drugs. To find an answer to the question of whether Philip K. Dick was in favor or against drug use, it is necessary to delve deeper into his books.

One of A Scanner Darkly's main science-fictional elements is its "scramble suit," which allows a person to disguise himself as anyone. Narcotics agents like Bob Arctor can put on the suits and appear as anyone and their appearances on the screen are constantly shifting. The effect is unnerving and ugly, with all sorts of people appearing in place of the disguised investigators. These shifting forms capture the unease and paranoia resulting from the message that while drug use is "okay" with many, the snitches are out there, and who knows what form they might take.

The film also features another of Dick's preferred tropes: a Dystopic future, in this case Anaheim, 2013. Linklater's fascinating film is filled with dark and unsettling animation that makes the harsh realities of the book even starker and uglier. A rotoscoping format was used with animation painted over live action, a technique Linklater employed in his earlier film Waking Life. It looked like there were a million pictures telling the story, but they were often drawn with too dark, too thick lines and paint-by-number patches. Sometimes the shifts in lighting were missed. One could hardly argue that the film is ever pleasant to look at; there are no drug-inspired visions of beauty here.

Dick wrote about the near future with foreboding but also humor, both of which the film captures. The animation does lighten the story in parts, and the main characters are partly cartoons themselves, caricatures such as the brainy and kooky Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), dudesque Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and spaced out Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), appearing at times like the three stooges. While on drugs they are often distrustful and bickering, adding to the movie's humor. Rather than simply hanging out or slacking, the trio is often at odds with each other. Rory Cochrane plays mostly comic relief as the bewildered Charles Freck, and his is probably the most memorable performance.

Linklater's script is socially responsible; it demonstrates the potential dangers of using hard drugs, here in the form of the dangerous psychotropic "Substance D." But is it the whole story? What's unfortunate about the treatment of the book is its discussion of "drug terrorists" (a term not used in the book) rather than efforts to decriminalize marijuana (which people attest to the wonders of). And what of Dick's own perspective in all of this? If the film had been made while he was alive, then rather than simply being an entertaining adaptation it might also have commented upon the conflict between the medical marijuana movement and the federal crackdown issued by the Supreme Court. The film might also have addressed issues of the potential benefit of legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, marijuana. It could be taxed to create new revenues, and the new status might also take some burden off law enforcement. However, Substance D, as in Death (or, in the movie "Dumbness, Despair, Desertion . . . and finally Death"), the drug at the heart of Scanner's plot, is a far cry worse and more dangerous than marijuana.

Written in the early to mid 1970s, A Scanner Darkly (which Dick would later call "himself") was published in 1977 and could be viewed as Dick's reaction to the 1960s and the drug culture. Dick dedicated this deadbeat tale to his friends who had "too much fun" and paid a too big price for it. Some died, some developed permanent mental problems, and some (like "Phil" on the dedication list) developed permanent health problems. Dick emerges as a survivor of those times, documenting the toll these drugs had on him and his friends. But he wishes that his friends would have fun again, maybe somewhere in heaven, where Dick thought he himself would also be because he had found God.

Dick's writing was a combination of psychology (he was schizophrenic), paranoia, science fiction motifs, political critical response, drug use reflections, humane concern, environmentalism, eastern philosophy, theology, and humor. He sought to challenge the dominant consensus reality, and political ideologies, which during the '60s meant brutal governement and chaos. Dick was famous for his embodiment of the 1960s image, but A Scanner Darkly is hardly an attempt to defend the values of those times. Instead it is an in-between novel that recounts some of the exploits of his too-wild days between his early marriages and his later theological quests. A Scanner Darkly was born out of the "paranoia" he experienced during his stay in San Rafael at the advent of the 1970s.

His anti-drug stance came later in his life. He had been turned on to durg use while living in Berkeley, spurred by difficult times in his childhood that continued through his adult life: his parents divorced and moved him around when he was young; his sister (his only sibling) died when they were young; he did not fit in at school; he did not make it through a term of classes at UC Berkeley; he never realized his lifelong dream during his life of being a successful mainstream writer; and he never found his "soul mate." He was in some form of psychiatric treatment through most of his life.

From somewhat early on in his career, Dick became notorious as a writer who used drugs. Though thought an acid head, according to Emmanuel Carrere Dick didn't really like acid. His novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, about an intergalactic drug, was actually inspired by a bad acid trip and H.P. Lovecraft's intergalactic horrors, with the drug being the "monster" from outer space.

Deus Irae, written with Roger Zelazny, describes a particular view of drugs as having the ability to expand consciousness if used under the right circumstances:

If one was careful, one could concoct a potion, several drugs taken in conjunction; one became disoriented, but a certain expansion or heightened lucidity also occurred. Green little methamphetts, shiny red 'zines, white flat disc of code segmented sometimes into halves, sometimes when stronger into four parts, tine yellow elves . . . he had gathered an inventory which he carefully kept hidden. No one but himself knew of this trove which he hoarded . . . and, while collecting and hoarding, he experimented.

He believed that the so-called hallucinations caused by some of these drugs (with emphasis, he continually reminded himself, on the word "some") were not hallucinations at all, but perceptions of other zones of reality."

The drug-using weirdos of A Scanner Darkly evoke Dick's own home on Hacienda Way in San Rafael, California, a wild place filled with young people, transients, and "freaks", where drug users, passersby, and slackers spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around and using. The rumor was you could always find dope at Phil's place, and he was often the concerned host.

Dick's drug use and mental instability fueled the paranoia that can be seen throughout his work and his life. He bought a large safe to hide his valuables. But when someone used explosives to break open the safe, Dick did not understand nor did he find the party to blame. Emmanuel Carrere writes, in I Am Alive and You Are Dead, "It now seemed to him quite plausible that an elite force working for the military-industrial complex had been rummaging through his papers to find out whether he knew more than he had let on in conversation."

The authorities treated the break-in like a normal burglary, and told him that he was bringing a bad element into San Rafael. They even suspected him of breaking into his own safe. But stranger things than a plot against Phil Dick seemed perhaps believable, especially in light of the political connivance leading to the impeachment of Richard Nixon (whom Dick considered a personal enemy). But Dick also questioned himself and wondered if he, himself, Phil, Horselover Fat, was the one responsible for executing the break-in of his safe. Dick also realized that he was an informant of sorts, giving out information about the counter culture through his writing.

It is from this psychological dilemma, Carrere writes, that Bob Arctor, the double agent of A Scanner Darkly, arises. Arctor finds himself spying on himself, wondering if he should arrest himself as a drug dealer even though he needs to be undercover as a drug dealer to find the criminals higher up the supply chain. Substance D had separated the left and right lobes of his brain, creating separate identities, which were now competing. A Scanner Darkly is not Phil's best work (someone could say that about any of his more than thirty novels, with us each having personal favorites), but it is one that can be understood despite its probably paranoid and perhaps glib message. The government may not be able to combat drugs all the time, but they are probably not in the business of producing them.

In the afterword to the reissued work Dick writes, "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. . . . These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The 'enemy' was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy."

Despite being adored by those fascinated with the drug-using values of the 1960s, Dick ultimately found the excesses of such a life problematic: "I was like the rest of them, trying to play instead of being grown up, and I was punished. . . . Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car."

This "car" is a system that deprives our visionaries, thinkers, and artists who seek to evaluate society from a different or estranged or critical perspective. The "car" is also being driven by American society, which Dick explored the extremes of in his many dark, dystopian tales. These "cars" also sometimes drive on the frontage road near the Great Highway by the ocean in San Francisco, where if one does not watch out after having a few "debilitating" brews by the sea, they may get run over by drivers who do not always give the deviant-looking pedestrians the right of way.

Dick lived through a time when drugs were considered cool and were more widely used. Rather than making their users dumber, they opened their eyes to the brutality of war and abuse of governmental power. One need remember the lyrics from the musical Hair: "In these times we rediscover sensation", "How dare they try to end this beauty." These "users" created great art, with Dick being a prime example. Drug users were also critical of government, and then they became enemies of the establishment.

Some consider the '60s a failure, those who would remind us that there have been wars since Vietnam, and certainly more assassinations and coups. The brutality of the world called into question those ideological values, but served as a reminder that they were needed. The drug culture sought freedom.

A Scanner Darkly is at times a dumb doper book and movie. Though entertaining, it is a step back. Dick became more conservative after his time in San Rafael, having been through drug rehabilitation programs, but if still alive today he probably would be able to consider some of the nuance that is lost in anti-drug rhetoric, and to write about the positive effects of things such as medical marijuana. Substance Death is darker than acid or marijuana. The users of Subtance D never seem to have had a fun time, even if it mellows them out. There appears to be a clear anti-drug message here, and there is also an indictment of the various shady characters on the chain who benefit from the use of the drug, including some in law enforcement. Dick wrote in Radio Free Albemuth that he did not want to take a "pro-drug stand." Having gained notoriety for using drugs and having been through rehab, Dick's writing is science fiction which explores the contradictions of life.

And so it is a contradiction that we cannot say whether he was fully for or against drugs. Dick says, "There is no moral in this novel: it is not bourgeois; it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled, it just tells what the consequences were. . . . the punishment was far too great." Dick would say that he wrote about drugs.

A Scanner Darkly demonstrates that there are dangers in being involved with drugs and drug users, but one is not out on a limb when they use their First Amendment right to express the opinion that drug use should remain illegal. A Scanner Darkly does the right thing by warning potential users to think twice about getting involved, and Dick would have wanted them to take care, but it also hurts the efforts of those with the vision and motivation to create a more Utopian world.

Works Referenced

Carrere, Emmanuel. I am Alive and You Are Dead, A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. New York: Picador, 2004.

Dick, Philip K. A Scanner Darkly New York: Vintage 1977.

———. Radio Free Albemuth. (1985) Avon: New York.

Dick, Philip K. and Roger Zelazny. Deus Irae. Londong: Sphere, 1976.

Sutin, Lawrence. Divine Invasions, A Life of Philip K. Dick. New York: Citadel Twilight, 1991.

———. The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Copyright © 2006, Ryder W. Miller. All Rights Reserved.

About Ryder W. Miller

Ryder W. Miller edited From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas Between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis. He is also the co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He has published stories at Myth Circle and the Lost Souls website. He is currently working on an anthology of constructive environmental science fiction stories called Green Visions. He can be reached at


Aug 9, 17:48 by IROSF
Another thread for A Scanner Darkly, but this time with commentary on Miller's analysis.

The article can be found here.
Aug 15, 11:53 by Mike Emery
I thought the film very well done. It remained true to PKD's themes & is the most faithful film adaptation we may ever have of his work. Working out of the early 21st century, the filmmakers had to make adjustments to the story, but it has some elements that are accurate of the '70s as well. While watching it, I couldn't stop thinking of one of my favorite statements Dick made (I'm paraphrasing): "I'm not afraid of my neighbor, I'm afraid of my neighbor's lawn." In that spirit, it's no surprise that the film ends in a field of plants.
Aug 25, 16:28 by Michael Andre-Driussi
caricatures such as the brainy and kooky Jim Barris (Morton Downey Jr.),

I believe that should be _Robert_ Downey Jr.
Aug 26, 11:36 by Carey McGee
I believe that should be _Robert_ Downey Jr.

Yikes. Fixed.
Aug 29, 23:21 by Joe Prisco
How much funnier though, with Morton Downey Jr. ;-)

While we must cringe at all the supposed Dickian adaptations in recent years, I hadn't expected this one, and will check it out. Meanwhile, I thought TOTAL RECALL to be a fair adaptation (admittedly, I only read the short story after seeing the movie), and that the movie's additions had some of the spirit of PKD's work (e.g., the three-breasted barfly), if not quite his kind of ending.
Mar 22, 10:45 by Ryder W. Miller
They have made his work so full of explosions and chases, but his novels are far more sensitive. hifrommike65, great story.
Sep 12, 15:43 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
A Scanner Darkly is less a cautionary drug tale and more a cogent exploration of the paranoia inherent in a society where one can never know who their accusors are. The twin devices of the scramble suit and remote audio/visual surveillance remove the right of the accused to face his accusor. Modern society, of course, already has one of these things.

While there are subtexts of caution against drug abuse (but not use), Substance D is merely Dick's device to allow the ultraparanoia of Arctor to develop. Arctor's absurd position can only occur because of the unique properties of Substance D, although the same effect could have been created by some other device. Dick's decision to make it a drug provided him with a ready made infrastructure of government to rail against.

That is Dick's main theme in A Scanner Darkly. The novel is neither pro-, nor anti-drug. It is anti-government (or at least the repressive elements of government). While Miller raises a number of interesting points in support of his thesis, I feel it his argument is misdirected.

A Scanner Darkly is frequently commented on as either a pro- or anti-drug novel, as is Stanislaw Lem's The Futuralogical Congress. Both novels deal primarily with the repression exercised by governments on their populace rather than drug use. I would recommend reading Lem's The Futuralogical Congress to anyone interested in a clearer understanding of the use of drugs as a device to allow commentary on governmental systems. Any reader of A Scanner Darkly will benefit from reading Lem.
Aug 19, 21:29 by Ryder W. Miller
Part of PKD's success is due to his exploration of the counter culture of the 1960's. A Scanner Darkly gave a twisted take on the future of the drug culture and law enforcement, but it also reflected the government oppression of his time. A Scanner Darkly is so effective because of people's interest and concerns about drug use.
Aug 24, 17:05 by Luke Jackson
Part of what Philip K. Dick so interesting is that he was so personally conflicted and contradictory. For example, some people identify him with the 60s counterculture, and he was paranoid about the FBI agents who came to visit him, but he was equally paranoid about Stanislaw Lem's invitation to travel to the Warsaw Pact countries, and provided that request to the FBI. He was much the same re drugs-- whereas many countercultural figures had a rather idyllic view of drug use, A Scanner Darkly represents the flip side of that coin and reveals the disaster it can wreak in people's lives.

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