A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K. Dick's semi-autobiographical science fiction novelss. It is set largely in Berkeley, California, in a dystopian time, presumably in the 1970s, his then near-future. A number of Dick's books extensively portray drug-involved consciousness, and A Scanner Darkly can be considered his master statement on drugs.

The "scanner" of the title is a holographic recorder/projector on which the main character views clips of his own life but doesn't recognize them. It is also a reference to a Biblical verse in I Corinthians 13 that includes "we see as through a mirror darkly", and thus refers to the main character's weak grasp on reality. SD, the initials of Scanner Darkly, are presumably clipped from LSD, and are also the initials of Substance D, the drug that is one of the stars of the book.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers.

The novel twists American society into a very surreal setting, by expanding into all-encompassing proportions two social problems of growing interest as he wrote it in the 1960s, namely:

  • police surveillance - in the novel, highly technologically advanced even viewed as of 2003
  • drug abuse - in the novel, involving widespread drug-abuse-induced mental collapse that is treated in numerous and widespread rehab clinics that amount to a nationwide, non-governmental but federal-government-entangled, institution.

The main character is both one of a house of hippie drug-users, and an undercover police agent assigned to spy on them. He must shield his true identity both from those in the drug subculture and, ironically, from the police, who apparently must be presumed to include corrupt elements and/or double agents. He takes drugs in part so he can fill his reports with satisfyingly subversive activities, but he has fallen in love with his drug. His drug intake leaves him unable to distinguish any longer among himself, his job, and the frauds he uses to combine them, leading to mental breakdown. He deteriorates into spying on himself, without realizing it, and eventually enters the rehab-clinic system.

The novel captures the language and conversation and culture of drug users in the 1960s with a rare clarity. Those who have ever wondered what it was like in those days can gain insight by reviewing the extended conversation on "microdots" in this book.

The autobiographical nature of the novel is explained in the moving afterword, where Dick dedicates the book to those of his friends—he includes himself—who suffered debilitation and/or death as a result of their drug use. This is mirrored in the involuntary goodbyes that occur throughout the story.

Dick was himself a participant in a Synanon-type recovery program at one point, as is portrayed in his 1988 book The Dark-Haired Girl. Presumably this is a source of the vividness and accuracy with which the clinic is portrayed.

Dick's standard themes appear here:

  • the construction of reality in consciousness,
  • an admirable, fascinating, but unattainable and marginally insane woman,
  • humaneness in extreme situations

Readers should be prepared for a very depressing, but gripping, entertaining, and easy, read.