Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sulzer SF/F- A Scanner Darkly

Why would they ever use any other
For the March meeting of the Sulzer Science Fiction & Fantasy Bookclub, we discussed Philip K. Dick's “A Scanner Darkly” (1977). Among his more surreal and...pharmacological works, “Scanner” follows an undercover narcotics agent as he attempts to find the source of “Substance D” even as he becomes increasingly addicted to, and damaged by, that very drug.

The group consensus was that this was a tough read. As the book progresses, it's increasingly non-linear and non-rational, with our unreliable narrator(s) having a hard time telling reality apart from hallucination. It's also just kind of grim and sad, and we thought that Dick's closing dedication—a long list of friends who were killed or damaged by drug use—explained much of the tone of the novel.

That said, we had a great discussion. Possible spoilers below!

The hallucinegic, drug-addled energy of the book reminded us a bit of Pynchon's “Inherent Vice”(2009) or even Burroughs' “Naked Lunch”(1959), but we were most fascinated with the ruminations on consciousness and specifically the possibility of separate right/left brain personalities. We noted that this stuff was very much in the air around this time, and briefly sketched out the theories of Sagan's “Broca's Brain” (1979) and Julian Jaynes' “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”(1976). That latter, by the way, is strangely influential in SF circles—I find myself referring to it all the time. It's also a wonderful, fascinating read, even though it's core theory probably isn't correct in a strong sense.

We spent a lot of time discussing the split-brain in “Scanner”, and the way that Fred (the undercover agent) diverges from, and forgets he's identical with, Bob Arctor (his cover). It was pointed out (brilliant observation!) that this is the opposite of Palahnuik's “Fight Club” (1996, Fincher film adaptation 1999) and many other multiple-personality tales: rather than the realization and possibly reintegration of the different personalities being the major climax, here the personalities start together and slowly drift apart, without either side quite realizing what's happening.
One of the hardest parts of reading the book, and the most interesting in talking about it, is figuring out what's “real” or not. The Donna hallucination is a great example—Arctor has a vision of a woman he slept with briefly morphing into Donna, his love interest (and, unbeknownst to him, another agent). He has this vision in person, and dismisses it as a possible hallucination—but then later sees the same transformation while reviewing surveillance tapes of his own house. But then dismisses that as a possible manipulation of the data by outside forces. But then we know, as readers, that Donna has access to “scramble suits” that can change her appearance. So what's the deal? No way to tell.

A scramble suit from Linklater's adaptation.
We loved the scamble suits, incidentally, and along with the titular scanners (holographic recording devices) they are some of the only science fictional elements. There are hints of big societal changes—like the shopping districts that require a certain kind of card to even get in (reminding me of story in Lethem's highly-recommended 2004 collection "Men & Cartoons"), but the settting mostly seems to line up with a normal 1970s California.

I was also glad to see Donna's role change at the end, when we get her perspective and get a sense of her power & agency. Otherwise, this a pretty sexist read—every single female character is evaluated as a sex object by our various male points of view.

There's something uniquely horrible about reading at length about people who've been changed for the worse by heavy drug use. We talked about that aspect for a bit, also noting the repeated use of insects and also the reduction to insect-like behavior (repetitive, mindless) as an unsettling technique. In the philosophical discussion of free will, there's an interesting term--sphexishness--that refers to being blindly mechanical, and the horror of thinking humans might be in that state. The name comes from the behavior of the sphex wasp, and I couldn't help thinking of that throughout "A Scanner Darkly". See Dennett's "Elbow Room" (1984) etc. for more on that if you're interested.

We found the "New Path" super-creepy. Even creepier to me now, after we talked about how it's probably based on actual drug-rehab groups that turned into killer cults. HOW IS THAT A THING. See for instance Synanon--Dick briefly attended a Canadian variant of that called X-Kalay.

Talked for a bit about Dick's other work, noting his general concern with identity, reality, and ambiguous doubling. And we talked about this in connection to the general evolution of SF in the 60s and 70s--an increased interest in reality & illusions, different perspectives and modes of storytelling, imports of Eastern Mysticism, and the psychedelic movement. Even talked about how often illusion & perception were major plot points in the original Star Trek series. Wound up talking about the New Wave & Feminist SF, as well as that pro/anti-Vietnam ad that SF authors signed as an indication of the schisms and developments happening there, reflecting a general cultural shift.

We also talked about more sinister reality-controlling, like in the "Manchurean Candidate" (Condon novel 1959, Frankenheimer film 1962), Orwell's "1984" (1948), and its homage in the Star Trek: TNG episode "Chain of Command" (s6e11, 1992). When coupled with the institutionalization that Fred/Arctor finds himself trapped in--both the New Path group and, arguably, his own law enforcement agency--this made us think of works like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (Kesey novel 1962, Forman film 1975), Doris Lessing's "Briefing for a Descent Into Hell" (1971) and Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" (1976). Fun stuff!

Also I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend Richard Linklater's 2006 film adaptation, which is remarkably faithful. It uses rotoscoping--hand-drawing over each frame of film--to create a constantly shifting, psychedelic feel that works perfectly with the material. Linklater had used the same technique (and many of the same areas of interest) in his 2001 quasi-documentary "Waking Life". His "A Scanner Darkly" also just nails it on the script & cast, particularly Keanu Reeves as the disjointed, melancholy, paranoid Fred/Arctor, and Robert Downey, Jr. as the weirdly-malevolent Barris.

And with that, I leave you! Sulzer's next SF/F meeting will be May 17th, when we'll discuss Naomi Novik's "His Majesty's Dragon".

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