After separating from his fourth wife, Philip K. Dick opened the doors of his newly-empty home to potheads, tweakers, junkies – you name it. He had already been using amphetamine to assist in the writing process (living off pulp novels means shooting out pages like a photocopier,) and now let his addiction run rampant among this crowd.
(Brief aside: this origin story may sound familiar to fans of the Mountain Goats, as John Darnielle's experiences in a similar environment were the foundation for We Shall All Be Healed.)
Eventually kicking the kids out and joining a group-recovery program, the result of this two-year-long nadir was A Scanner Darkly. Plot-wise, it is the story of Bob Arctor, an undercover vice officer whose junkie persona, Fred, splits off, and the troubles this causes for both Bob, and his attempts to narc on himself. The cause for the split is Substance D – a highly addictive and amorphously ingested narcotic, resembling amphetamine. D (for death, D for doom, D for despair, D for desertion) causes the hemispheres of the brain to no longer recognize each other as being part of a single entity.
ASD is not only a tour of the drug culture of ca. the 1970s, but is still pretty damn relevant today. Here we have the cover of the first edition:
This cover encapsulates both the themes and issues within ASD. Arctor's/Fred's split personality is presented in the most cliched way possible, but the simplicity works. Note the contrast between the needle and the old-school sheriff's star. The hand signals, too, are poignant. Fred is momentarily holding back with the junk while Bob is holding back and pointing out his authority. They're both wearing dead-eyed, annoyed expressions; they've interrupted each one another's existence.
However, before noticing any of that, you probably noticed something else: the incredible outdatedness of the photo. It screams 1977, even though the book is supposed to take place in the far-flung future of 1994. It is reminiscent of the second scene in James Cameron's Terminator. Contrasting the first scene's “2029” caption, the latter reads “TODAY.” Then, the caption vanishes and the film proceeds to take place, absolutely unmistakeably, in 1984.
Reading, you'll notice that this cover forebodes the content. ASD, much like Dick's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning The Man in the High Castle, is more speculative fiction, rather than science fiction. Certainly, there's technology we still don't have (MitHC's cross-continent passanger rockets and ASD's cephalochromoscope – a barely-explained entertainment device,) but outside of those details the only changes are slight-and-paranoid modifications to the local government and economy. Written in 1977, ASD's speculative-ness reflects the world of 1977. As the characters are all members of the counterculture, they speak the street argot of the time. If you haven't read the novel, imagine if the hoods in The Wire spoke like the cats in Superfly – anachrotastic! Fortunately, there's just not enough futurity in ASD to make this a fault.
One of my pet peeves regarding the popularity of ASD is the tendency (by whom? A Wikipedia editor might ask) to take the novel (and film) in the same vein as Requiem For a Dream: occasionally tender, but ultimately disasterous. No, no, no. Personally, I break it down like this: 50% Requiem, 25% 1984 and a good ole 25% Cheech and Chong. The scene above is practically vaudeville. Although stemming from tragedy – the Substance D has robbed the characters of their ability to comprehend how a gear train works, the result is a clownish back-and-forth where even the straight man (straight couple, rather) are sucked into the routine.
Speaking of routine, the film omitted my single favorite comic scene from the novel. I'll admit, it is a long conversation which would have slowed down the deliberate pace of the film. However, I was a bummed to see it cut. So, as a favor to the community, I reproduce, in full, Barris' scheme to get “two billion” dollars of hash through customs:
"Barris had his other way to smuggle dope across the border. You know how the customs guys, they ask you to declare what you have? And you can't say dope because--"
"Well, see, you take a huge block of hash and carve it in the shape of a man. Then you hollow out a section and put a wind-up motor like a clockworks in it, and a little cassette tape, and you stand in line with it, and then just before it goes through customs you wind up the key and it walks up to the customs man, who says to it, 'Do you have anything to declare?' and the block of hash says, 'No, I don't,' and keeps on walking. Until it runs down on the other side of the border."
"You could put a solar-type battery in it instead of a spring and it could keep walking for years. Forever."
"What's the use of that? It'd finally reach either the Pacific or the Atlantic. In fact, it'd walk off the edge of the Earth, like--"
"Imagine an Eskimo village, and a six-foot-high block of hash worth about--how much would that be worth?"
"About a billion dollars."
"More. Two billion."
"These Eskimos are chewing hides and carving bone spears, and this block of hash worth two billion dollars comes walking through the snow saying over and over, 'No, I don't.'"
"They'd wonder what it meant by that."
"They'd be puzzled forever. There'd be legends."
"Can you imagine telling your grandkids, 'I saw with my own eyes the six-foot-high block of hash appear out of the blinding fog and walk past, that way, worth two billion do!lars, saying, "No, I don't." 'His grandchildren would have him committed."
"No, see, legends build. After a few centuries they'd be saying, 'In my forefathers' time one day a ninety-foot-high block of extremely good quality Afghanistan hash worth eight trillion dollars came at us dripping fire and screaming, "Die, Eskimo dogs!" and we fought and fought with it, using our spears, and finally killed it.'
"The kids wouldn't believe that either."
"Kids never believe anything any more."