A Scanner Darkly
is a science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick, first published in 1977. It is semi-autobiographical, set in the then-future June of 1994, in a dystopian Orange County, California. It was adapted into a film in 2006 and remains one of Dick’s most well-known works.
The story is about drug abuse, and tells of one addict’s strange belief that he, Jerry Fabin, is infected with a biting bug. His addict friends pick up the delusion, including Charles Freck, who helps Fabin collect bugs in jars. Then Freck runs into Donna Hawthorne, a drug dealer, at the mall. He buys some Substance D from her, a “slow death” drug that is very popular and created synthetically.
Bob Arctor, Donna’s boyfriend, is an undercover narcotics agent. He gives a speech to the local Lions Club about the dangers of drugs, wearing a scramble suit disguise to hide his identity. This invention projects a new identity onto the wearer every nanosecond. While Arctor is trying to elicit sympathy for addicts, he is summoned to a police meeting. He tries to buy drugs from Donna, who tells him that the device he uses for relaxation, called a cephalochromoscope, is broken. It might have been sabotaged. Arctor is assigned to search for a new drug dealer at a rehab clinic. When he arrives, he is met with a barrage of insults, the typical treatment. Arctor leaves without getting any information.
Jim Barris is Arctor’s roommate. He shows Freck how to get cocaine out of sunscreen, and tells him to use cocaine to seduce Donna. Barris has a home lab, and wants to write a book on making drugs.
Arctor learns that someone has been making anonymous calls to the police, naming him as a suspicious person. Hank, another agent in disguise, assigns Arctor to spy on himself. He oversees the installation of surveillance cameras in his own house. On the way home, he crashes his car, which was sabotaged. Arctor believes Barris is out to get him. Arctor is summoned to police headquarters again. Doctors tell him he is displaying split-brain dementia symptoms, caused by Substance D, and do some tests on him.
Arctor, disguised as Fred, watches Barris secretly, and grows more suspicious. Arctor visits Donna, they smoke some hash and plan to go to a movie. Arctor says he loves her, but Donna rejects him, saying he’s too ugly, and she could never marry him. Arctor is furious and leaves. Later he brings home a “needle freak”, Connie, and has sex with her, pretending she is Donna. Later he watches a tape of Connie sleeping and watches her face morph into Donna’s. He wonders if he is going crazy. He also sees Barris setting him up with a bounced check, and refusing the creditor when he calls for the money.
Arctor tracks down the creditor and pays the money quickly. He notices that Barris’ forged signature is surprisingly convincing, and then remembers that he wrote that check during a night of heavy partying. Arctor starts reciting Germany poetry at odd moments, and sometimes speaks German without realizing it.
Freck tries to kill himself but takes psychedelic drugs instead of poison. A creature from another dimension appears to him to read all of his sins aloud from a scroll, which will take a thousand years.
Arctor and Fred split; they are now two separate beings. Fred watches the surveillance tapes, and is disgusted by the mindless blabber that he has to listen to. He is brought to Room 203 again for more psychological testing. He is found to have a completely split brain, in which the left hemisphere, which is normally the dominant side, has become damaged. Now, the right side, the typical assistant half, is trying to takes over. He is told that his situation is hopeless.
Barris has come forward as the caller who plotted against Arctor. Barris plays forged tapes of Arctor and Donna discussing plans to steal weapons. Hank arrests Barris for providing false information, and discharges Fred for becoming addicted to drugs.
Donna picks Arctor up in her car and drives him to the rehab clinic he visited previously, New Path. They stop along the way to smoke some hash, but a police car shows up. Donna gets the officer to leave by flashing her badge. She is revealed to be an undercover agent for the federal government.
At the rehab clinic, Arctor is renamed Bruce, because he can’t remember his real name. He befriends the counselor, Mike. Mike goes on an errand one day, and meets Donna. They discuss their plans to reveal the truth to Arctor: that New Path plays a role in the creation of Substance D. They both feel badly about setting Arctor up, so Mike gets Arctor reassigned to work in Napa Valley, on a farm run by New Path. Arctor arrives at the farm and sees blue flowers hiding in the corn fields. He realizes that this is how substance D is made and hides one of the flowers in his shoe. He plans to tell Mike about his discovery when he sees him again on Thanksgiving.