Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” (1977)

Those of us tuned into popular culture are familiar with David Simon’s critique of the so-called “War on Drugs.”  In brief, he argued through his journalistic writing and the television series The Wire that the War on Drugs targeted the minority underclass and the urban working poor, created dysfunctional police systems, ruined individual lives as well as the urban institutions more and more of us rely on.  The tragedy, Simon points out, is that deindustrialization is making us less necessary to the economy at the same time that the institutions that could defend us became corrupted and criminal.  Like Zygmunt Bauman, he sees a larger number of “wasted lives.”  More and more human kipple, to borrow Philip K. Dick’s term from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  I mention him, because as important as Simon has become to contemporary social criticism, Philip K. Dick was exploring many of these same themes in the 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, which is his investigation of the “War on Drugs.”

I do not recall seeing the term used in A Scanner Darkly.  The history of prohibition of drugs and alcohol is old in this country, but the modern war on drugs began sometime in the 1970s with the creation of national drug enforcement agencies and new national laws on drugs that trumped local enforcement (and accommodation) efforts.  If this was in the newspapers and TVs of the 1970s, I do not know.  They certainly were by the 1980s.  As the epilogue to A Scanner Darkly makes clear, Philip K. Dick was deeply affected personally by the counter culture’s use of drugs.  He had largely turned from it, in disgust, by the 1970s.  A Scanner Darkly shows that Dick clearly thought drugs were a horrendous evil.  He goes so far as to make the street name for his new drug “Death.”

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The plot of A Scanner Darkly explores the descent of an undercover drug enforcement agent known to his friends as Bob Arctor.  His use of Substance D (“death”) leads to his inability to properly interpret reality, dividing his consciousness into the police officer and the drug addict.  Eventually he is used up by the system and sent to a rehab clinic, which is actually a cover for the production of Substance D.  The film version of this novel is follows the book quite well (being the only major film adaptation of a PKD work to do this).

One thing we can say right away is that there seem to be three groups at play in the novel.  The first group is the disempowered people scraping by, addicted to drugs, but surviving at the margins of the economy.  This group is represented by Arctor and his friends Barris and Frink and his girlfriend Donna (also an undercover agent it turns out).  Like in later cyberpunk novels, this underclass appears to be quite large.  The second group is the police and the enforcement agencies.  This is the same situation we saw in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. The police have resources and powers, but are committed their energies to the destruction of this large underclass of drug addicts.  (Here we see the same critique as David Simon would later make.)  A third group, examined only in the background is the “square” public who support the police state with their taxes and political energy.  They are fearful of the expansion of the drug culture and want to protect their families.  Bob Arctor begins the novel meeting with a group of these paranoid citizens.  As we rarely see them again, we can suspect they live in gated communities and suffer few, if any, of the negative consequences of the war against Substance D.

Individuals in the underclass see their life destroyed.  Arctor (at least his drug addicted side) will live out his life with a fried brain in a rehab clinic.  Frink tries to kill himself.  In the macro sense, it is hard to argue that the police are winnings.  Drugs are easily available on the streets.  The underclass has its own networks and institutions as well.  As with the current war on drugs, it was a war of attrition that rarely brings clear victory.  If it is unwinnable, what is the purpose of fighting the drug culture?  In part it is a media event.  A major bust to put the public at ease and help defend the institutions of the police.  Of course, it is tragic for all of those directly involved, police and users.

Another theme in the novel is the relationship between a surveillance society and paranoia.  This is made most clear with Bob Arctor again, who is paranoid all the time about being watched and it also the watcher.  In fact, all sides in the drug war are paranoid.  The users and dealers are always on guard against police actions, the police need to be careful about the motives of every informer, and the people in the gated communities are fearful that the next knock on the door will be an armed drug addict looking for cash.  Some of this paranoia (maybe all of it) is justified.  In the case of Arctor and his friends, there are police watching them.  The house is bugged.  They are not even capable of purchasing a bicycle without paranoia (of course some of this is the drugs).

We should also note that the affect of Substance D on people is not so unlike the effect liquid modernity has on people.  It splits our mind, divides our attention, causes displacement, a lack of solid grounding, paranoia, odd and irrational behavior.  Substance D users embrace liquid relationships as well.  Many of the themes in Dicks novels from the 1960s emerge again, but in this novel they are expressed as the consequence of the use of a horrible drug.  Sadly, as the fate of Bob Arctor shows, the purpose remains some baseline economic exploitation.  Thinking back to my earlier posts on Dick (this is number 29), I cannot think of any example where a liquid material reality has a purpose other than exploitation.

Philip K. Dick, “Now Wait for Last Year” (1966): Commitment, Marriage, and Politics

Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year puts in an Earth stuck involved in a Cold War like conflict between two superpowers. In this setting, however, the Earth is not one of the major powers. Instead the Earth is a vassal state of one of the major belligerents. This is, of course, the place millions of humans found themselves in between 1945 and 1990, forced to chose between two odious alternatives. Through this position, Dick explores the consequences and obligations of commitment at the geopolitical stage and in personal relationships.

Our hero is a surgeon named Eric Sweetscent. who constructs artificial organs and transplants them into patients, often old and rich people who can afford this expensive procedure. He works for Virgil Ackerman, the boss of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which used to make consumer goods through a replication process using microorganisms that tend to copy nearby objects. The company has been recruited into serving the needs of the war. For, Earth has been recruited by the ‘Starman in their war against the non-humanoid reegs. The ‘Starmen, although fully authoritarian, seemed a better ally because they looked human. Eric’s estranged wife is a likely adulterer and certainly uses drugs. Her job is to create replicas of earlier times by collecting antiques. Consumerism has merged with nostalgia and Katherine Sweetscent is an expert.

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Soon, Eric is asked to work for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Gino Molinari (The Mole). His job is to keep him barely alive. The Mole is a laughable figure. Politically savvy enough to become the leader of humanity, but he presents himself as chronically ill and a fool. In fact, The Mole is an ideal figure to navigate the horrible position the Earth is in. The ‘Starmen want to fight to the last man and the Mole attempts to save as many lives as possible. In one humorous meeting, Molinari dies at a critical moment at a negotiation in order to avoid committing 1.5 million humans to almost certain death in the war effort. The context is horrific, but the only resistance is through absurdity. Perhaps there is some truth to this dilemma. We often try to resist our bosses and overlords but forget Melville’s lesson. “Now, as you well know, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours- watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straightway against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he had a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.” Like the slave feigning ignorance, Molinari evades human being made into a little heap of dust.

At the same time, Katherine become addicted to a new drug called JJ-180, which has the interesting effect of moving the user along the timeline, but often in parallel universes. It gives the user some predictive powers. Molinari uses it to help see the consequences of his political decisions as he tries to either get the Earth out of the war or switch sides without facing the wrath of the ‘Starmen. This drug is highly addictive and leaves its victims in a debilitated state with significant brain damage. Eric uses these to locate a cure for the addiction (which exists in the future) and gain information on the war effort. All of these political machinations fail, however. At the end of the novel, the ‘Starmen invade to prevent Earth from defecting to the reegs and the war changes to a struggle against occupation (although this long struggle is only foreshadowed).

The core of the novel is the struggle over two promises. Earth’s promise to the ‘Starmen and Eric’s promise to Katherine. Dick seems to think that one of these is illegitimate and the other is absolutely essential. The ‘Starmen acquired the help of the humans through some physiological manipulation and maintained their authority through brute power. They looked on humans as simple fodder for their war and were willing to use or break Earth law to get their way. In their view Molinari’s purpose was simply to stamp their policies on behalf of the humans, who are all but slaves. Dick argues that this type of relationship must be resisted. The promises made under these conditions are illegitimate. Eric’s embrace of the resistance against the invading ‘Starmen symbolizes Dicks support for opposition to authoritarian power and slavery.

Eric and Katherine’s relationship seems at first glance no less exploitive. Katherine makes more money than her husband but still overspend, depending on this salary. Katherine uses her sexuality to make her husband jealous. She uses drugs, breaks the law, and torments her husband at work. She is the typical PKD succubus. Yet, by the end of the novel, Katherine is completely dependent on Eric for basic survival. Eric resists an affair (again we see his insistence on serial monogamy) and almost kills himself. In the final, touching scene, Eric discusses his situation with an automotive cab. The cab (a robot) suggests he stay with his wife because “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”

However, we can ask, how is the relationship that different. Did Eric choose to be tormented by a psychological abusive woman, a wastrel for a wife? In the same way, Earth did not know they were entering in on the losing side of a war. Like Eric, they entered the abyss without all the information. Could not robot’s same logic apply to Earth? Yes, you want to switch side in this war now that the going is rough. By what right do you have to change reality to suit your needs? You should remain committed to your choices?

In truth, I am not satisfied that there is a huge difference here. But in the subtlety exists a thin but deep divided between these two situations. It is imprecise, but it makes all the difference. Eric’s commitment to his wife at the end has less to do with the vows he shared years before. Instead it is about the basic necessity of human solidarity. At the end, the cab does not call Eric a “good and loyal husband,” he calls him a “good man” for sacrificing himself for another person.