Book Club Reflection: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

26 May

The date for my book club meeting got changed at the last-minute but me, my husband, and another member still decided to meet on the original date so we could discuss Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. I wonder what the other group thought of this book.

The title comes from a Biblical quote, 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” To the characters in this book, a scanner is a surveillance camera, like what we think of as a security camera. So the title is referring to the obscurity when looking at things through a lens or camera. I’m reminded of the scene where Bob sees Donna’s face melt on the screen. It’s obscured, in this case by what he remembers seeing and what he thinks he will see again. It’s only face to face that we can see the truth. We thought the scramble suits made this impossible for Bob most of the time.

The woman who joined us grew up in the 60s and she said she related to the characters whereas I did not. She recalls that the drug culture in Detroit was not quite like that described in California but had some similar elements. Perhaps I would have liked this book more if I’d grown up during the time it was referencing. The setting seemed very real, not quite the SciFi I saw in Blade Runner when I watched that film. We suspected that was because the real advanced technology, which was referenced one or twice, was reserved for the rich and elite of the society while our characters were more working class and poor.

The first part of the book was a lot of character development, which is where I lost interest. These characters were men in their late 20s or early 30s that weren’t the type of people I would want to associate myself with. It made the progression from Bob in his right mind to Bob beyond help very stark, but I felt it went too slowly. My husband pointed out the slip between first and third person points of view as Bob’s brain started to disassociate and have ‘cross-chatter.’ I guess it’s odd that I found this part so dull.

Barris was the primary secondary character. Bob viewed him as this crazy villain who had secrets and a gun and who could hurt the rest of them if he put his mind to it. But Barris saw Bob in a very similar light. He’s very skeptical of everything Bob does and knows about the gun under his desk. Bob’s secrets could have done in Barris as well. They were similar characters.

With all the bad things Bob did, why did we like him? What did the reader have to grab on to that could make us cheer for such a person? I guess we thought he would recover. We thought there would be a happy ending until he got to New Path. He seemed to lose track of everything by the end and we felt bad for him. The hemisphere separation which caused him to speak in German and interrupt his own thoughts with it was disturbing to read. The scenes where he saw the drug-addled girl’s face melt into Donna’s were confusing, but we felt we figured out a good grasp on them. Our theory is that the first time, he thought he saw it in a dark room in a drug-induced state. The second time, his brain had deteriorated further and because he thought he’d seen it the first time, he saw it again, whether it happened or not. At this point, we knew he was going nowhere good.

We had two different interpretations of the last paragraph of the book. Here it is reprinted,

Stooping down, Bruce picked one of the stubbled blue plants, then placed it in his right shoe, slipping it down out of sight. A present for my friends, he thought, and looked forward inside his mind, where no one could see, to Thanksgiving.

My interpretation was that he was taking some of the drug to share with his friends who are also addicts back at the New Path facility in the city. He wants to abuse the drug again. He’s become a druggy. My husband thought it meant that he was going to show it to Donna and the other narcotics officers to show them where the drug was being grown. Now I’m not really sure what to think about it because I think it could be interpreted either way! What do you think? We were surprised that it was a naturally growing plant because the investigators were always making a big fuss about it being synthesized in a lab.

I was surprised that the government was running the drug ring. I wasn’t expecting that twist. Though it was very convenient to have drug-abused minds growing the drug that had ruined their lives. It made you wonder why the government would sacrifice officers to investigate the drug when it was government-run.

Our favorite cop character was Hank. And we have a theory. It’s a big one, are you ready? Donna is Hank! Yep. Think about it. She knew not to get into a romantic relationship with Bob because she knew he was a cop who was trying to bust her and it could get messy. She knew Fred was Bob because she knew his friends, had seen Fred and Barris in the same room, and knew Luckman was too far gone to be a cop. Thinking back on it, it makes perfect sense to me and I’m not convinced this is true. At the time of reading the book, we were blown away that she was an officer, but it now makes more and more sense. We wondered if she lied about her age because she was described as ‘too young to buy’ but if she was a cop, might have been older than she looked.

My husband, who really enjoyed the psychology of this book, told us a little about the history of psychology and what he saw of it in Dick’s book. Psychology was a very young discipline in the 50s and by the 70s, when this book was written, it was making great strides in the study of the brain. He conjectured that the ‘advanced tests’ the doctors were running were part of Dick’s best guess at where psychology would be another 20 years later.

The authors note touched us all in different ways. One thing that struck us was how much Dick continued to associate himself with those he was in the drug scene with. Many people we knew who had been into drugs in younger years no longer associated with the people who participated in those activities and have moved on to different aspects of their lives. Buck Dick, after achieving so much success, still associates with these people. There’s speculation that he is the ‘Phil’ referred to in the list and if that’s so, maybe it was their permanent damage that linked them: their shared pain after the drugs were gone.

I’m excited to get back to the bigger group. Our next book is Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane which I finished just a bit ago and I think will make for a great discussion.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!


3 Responses to “Book Club Reflection: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick”

  1. mari May 26, 2015 at 3:46 PM #

    Watch the movie, Sam, for the “Hank Reveal.” 🙂


    • Sam May 26, 2015 at 7:35 PM #

      I did!! Did I miss that in the book somehow or was that all added? I felt so smart but the movie took it all away.


      • mari May 26, 2015 at 7:47 PM #

        If you missed it in the book, so did I. Doubt we both did.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: