A depressingly good read
I found that the best way to summarize the book was with the author's own words, as I'm at a loss to put it in any better way.
A Scanner Darkly was published in 1977 and takes place in 1994 — so while the setting was written to be in the future, it actually takes place in the past, (get it?) and follows the events surrounding an undercover narcotic's agent named Robert Arctor.
The plot, however takes numerous turns. Bob Arctor leads two lives, one as a drug addict and one as a cop, whose duty is to capture drug addicts. Eventually, Arctor winds up so burned out by the drugs he takes on and off duty that he forgets who he is entirely, and doesn't realize he's spying on himself.
With a description like that, it's a little hard to really appreciate the content of the book. Although it seems as if the central moral behind the novel is “drugs are bad,” there is far more to it. The book takes on, at first, a very psychological tone, actually using essays explaining different theories about the physiology of the brain and its inner workings that determine personality.
Dick drops essays and other formal quotations on the reader sometimes in the middle of a character's sentence. Effectively, this is usually done when a character takes a hit of one drug or another. Later on Dick does something similar with other seemingly random, but quite appropriate works (German poetry makes multiple appearances later on when Arctor is on some particularly severe trips).
The book also has a spiritual feel to it — the name itself comes from a biblical verse in 1 Corinthians 13, which suggests, basically, that humans can only see themselves through glass, darkly — and, although backed by scientific suggestion, you can't help but feel as if the character is struggling more for his soul than a proper level of his neurotransmitters.
The book's thematic messages are extremely human and there are paragraphs in the novel where you read them extra slowly, put the book down, think about what is being said and read the paragraph over again.
Dick expertly explores physical lust and its place in love, mistrust of a state toward its people, class separation, social and individual responsibility, the matter of choice versus fate, the consequences of betraying your friends, the consequences of trusting your friends too much, and of course, drugs (though the message is more about how they can hurt you, the author, a former drug addict, does admit some of their virtues through his characters, though perhaps only to further his point).
Dick somehow manages to do all of this as well as allow the book to have a very strong presence of humour. This only makes the book's messages stronger as, while it may be presented in a funny way, a suicide attempt is still a suicide attempt (to name an example). The humour also makes it more entertaining for the casual reader as well as those reading deeper into it. It's obviously a very dark humour, but there are undeniably funny things about the story.
I'm one of those people who just can't decide what his favourite anything is, but I really have to say that this book is right up there. Dick proves to be a wonderful writer with this wonderfully written novel. My only warning to potential readers is that this is by no means an uplifting story (not that that makes it any better or worse of a story). I actually wonder if they should have attached a razor blade to the spine of every copy to slit your wrists with when you're done. This, however doesn't take away any of the beauty in the book.
So, although quite depressing, A Scanner Darkly remains intelligent, entertaining and very enlightening.