All right, this retro review from August 18, 2006 may be hyperbolic. I have not read every Dick novel.
The occasion to read it this time (and I’ve read it three times — and I rarely re-read) was just seeing the movie adaptation.
And, as I’ve written elsewhere, this is one of the books that changed my life.
Review: A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick, 1977.
This is Dick’s best novel. A drug novel, yes, but there is no glorification or moralizing here, just cause and effect and the high price paid for some good times, compassion and tenderness as well as stoner humor and paranoia. And it’s the ultimate paranoia of fearing and doubting yourself that gets Dick’s best novel length treatment here. Special Agent Fred eventually forgets the man he is watching on surveillance tapes is his undercover ego Bob. It’s a conceit successfully pulled off starting with metaphorical alienation, to the disguises Fred’s work requires, to the literal brain damage rationalized by quotes from scientific articles on split-brain research.
And there are the usual Dick motifs: God in the gutter and trash of our world, the insect as metaphor for the spiritually dead, the ethical dilemmas, and the religious allusions — not the least being the title which echoes Saint Paul.
And, unlike many of his novels, Dick maintains control of his plot to the end. One senses this novel was plotted start to finish and not ad hoc like some of his work seems to be. And that ending is a strange mixture of cynicism, vague utopianism, and a contemplation of human loss and sacrifice. As usual with Dick, even the villains have our understanding if not sympathy.
This remembrance of his friends and younger days has Dick’s blackest humor. And the friend’s touch Arctor remembers to his dying day is at the center of this novel.