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Double fantasy

July 02, 2006|David L. Ulin

WHEN Philip K. Dick died on March 2, 1982, he left a legacy in disarray. Of his 40-plus books, most were out of print. Yet over the ensuing quarter-century, Dick has undergone an astonishing revival, fueled, in large part, by Hollywood. Beginning with "Blade Runner" (which was released three months after his death), more than half a dozen movies have been based on his writings, which use the conventions of science fiction to get at the most elusive philosophical concerns.

The latest Dick title to reach the screen is his 1977 novel, "A Scanner Darkly" (Vintage: 278 pp., $12.95 paper), which has been reissued in conjunction with the new film's release. It's a prototypic effort, the story of a narcotics officer named Bob Arctor who, in going undercover as an Orange County drug dealer, gradually becomes his own prey. Arctor is in the grip of a particularly nasty drug called Substance D, which splits a user's brain function, until right and left hemispheres operate as separate entities.

At the heart of the book -- as with much of Dick's writing -- is the issue of identity, authenticity, who we are and how existence works. Like most Dick protagonists, Arctor can't trust anyone, even (here's the brilliant twist) himself. As the drug rewires his consciousness, the two sides of his brain lose track of each other, until he's no longer sure whether he's the pursuer or the pursued.

More to the point, he has no idea what's real: from his friends, who may or may not be informers themselves, to his perceptions, which are often undermined by the endless hours of surveillance tape shot by scanners in his home. "What does a scanner see?" he reflects. "Does [it] ... see into me -- into us -- clearly or darkly? I hope it does ... see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone's sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we'll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too."

Dick considered "A Scanner Darkly" a cautionary fiction, a parable of the drug culture and its discontents. "What a way to live a life

That's a tragic story, and it underlies "A Scanner Darkly" like an animating spirit, a reminder that reality is fleeting at its core. In such a framework, experience cannot help but be subjective, only knowable in pieces, and even transcendence carries far too high a price -- if, that is, it comes at all.

-- David L. Ulin

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