Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Murk outside; murk inside

The plot of the science fiction novel A Scanner Darkly incorporates drugs, undercover policing, surveillance, paranoia and betrayal. But it's the novel's humanity and melancholy that make it the masterpiece it is.

The novel is based on author Philip K Dick's experiences of the effects that drug use had on his circle of friends in 60's America. A list of the real-life dead and damaged in the novel's epilogue is the final nail in the coffin for drug use as escapism.

But the novel is also suffused with pessimism about life even for "straights" who haven't suffered the effects of drug misuse. Dick says in the epilogue that drug misuse is "a speeding up, an intensifying, of the ordinary human existence". So the novel also speaks about that ordinary human existence, and what it says isn't pretty.

Those people burned out by drug misuse in the novel become like "an insect that clacks and vibrates about in a closed circle forever. A reflex machine, like an ant. Repeating his last instruction." Burned out "heads" endlessly throw balls up in the air in futile attempts to juggle them, or forever fail to figure out how to wax a floor.

But how different is this from ordinary human existence? We straights also repeat the same actions over and over in futile hope of miraculously achieving a desired outcome that we never attain. We get shitfaced in the pub on Friday night. We go clothes shopping. We ditch our partner and find someone new. We read the next book. We visit the next country. Does any of it help?

The novel's main character, undercover cop Bob Arctor, hopes that surveillance equipment installed to monitor the people he's living with will do a better job of understanding them than they themselves can manage:

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. Into the head? Down into the heart? [...] I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can't any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk.

How clearly do any of us see ourselves? Aren't we all always searching for someone to explain us to ourselves, in the form of self-help books and tutorials and TED talks? And novels?

In this novel, dealers prey on or co-opt users for their own ends, and users similarly prey on each other. But capitalism more broadly is also implicated in the same process: Arctor muses that "Someday it'll be mandatory that we all sell the McDonald's hamburger as well as buy it; we'll sell it back and forth to each other forever from our living rooms."

How far removed is this from modern capitalism, in which person A convinces person B that they really need the sofa person A is selling, so that person A can afford to buy the new suit they really need that person B is selling? Or person C's cocktail, or person D's holiday.

The novel isn't proscriptive or prescriptive about any of this. As Dick says in the epilogue: "it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were". Nor does it offer an alternative coping mechanism to drug misuse or consumerism more generally. It doesn't pretend to have better answers. It's too honest for that.

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