I'm not much of a sci-fi reader. As a general rule, if something is filed under fantasy/science fiction and it's not called Lord of the Rings, I steer clear. Even many classics of the genre, such as Neuromancer and Snow Crash have left me completely cold. So I was a little hesitant to read A Scanner Darkly--a science fiction classic to be sure, but still. Science fiction. After finishing it, I think I can safely say that not only is it worth the read, it's one of the most devastating books I've ever read, in any genre.
The protagonist of A Scanner Darkly is Robert Arcter, an undercover drug cop who has spent the last several years of his life living like an addict, among a variety of other junkies, some of whom are amusing, some of whom are scary, and some of whom are just insane. Of course, keeping up his cover mean s indulging himself in drugs, particularly Substance D, an organic compound that has the unfortunate side effect of splitting users, after extended usage, in two, effectively severing the connection between their right and left brains and leaving them as crazed husks.
I don't want to talk to much about the plot, since watching it unfold gives the novel a lot of its power, but I would like to focus on a couple aspects I really appreciated. First, this isn't some dour navel-gazing narrative. In spite of the devastation, the characters have some absolutely hilarious interactions:
Arctor said, "I drove by the Maylar Microdot Corporation Building."
"You're shitting me."
"And," Arctor said, "they were taking an inventory. But one of the employees evidently had tracked the inventory outdoors on the heel of his shoe. So they were all outside there in the Maylar Microdot Corporation parking lot with a pair of tweezers and lots and lots of little magnifying glasses. And a little paper bag."
"Any reward?" Luckman said, yawning and beating with his palms on his flat, hard gut.
"They had a reward they were offering," Arctor said. "But they lost that, too. It was a little tiny penny."
Luckman said, "You see very many events of this nature as you're driving along?"
"Only in Orange County," Arctor said.
"How large is the Maylar Microdot Corporation building?"
"About an inch high," Arctor said.
"How much would you estimate it weighs?"
"Including the employees?"
Fred sent the tape spinning ahead at fast wind. When an hour had passed, according to the meter, he halted it momentarily.
"--about ten pounds," Arctor was saying.
The other thing is, and I already touched on this, A Scanner Darkly is absolutely heartbreaking. In possibly the most effective afterword ever written, Dick dedicates the book to his friends and family who've been destroyed by drugs, listing their names and afflictions like a wartime death roster. He includes himself in this list. The quote that opens this review sums it up better than 1,000 more words would do. Ignore the science fiction label--A Scanner Darkly is about people, not spaceships.