The Use of Setting in P.K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly

by Frank C. Bertrand


An intriguing thesis advanced by William Righter in his book Logic and Criticism (1963) is that the value of criticism is not in the conclusions it reaches but in the interest it arouses on the way towards a conclusion. If this is so, I find little to titillate, let along arouse, along the way towards those conclusions reached so far about science fiction. To paraphrase Wordsworth, habit now rules an unreflecting herd, the herd being, in this case, those professional purveyors of scholarly explication that "operate" on works of science fiction with the same old dull critical instruments. They would do well to heed Polonius’s advice to Laertes in Act I of Hamlet: "be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar."


Consider, for example, the numerous and varied conclusions reached to date about certain novels by Philip K. Dick. He, along with Ursula K. LeGuin, are apparently the causa sine qua non without which most of the proliferating academic attention accorded science fiction would not exist. Here and overseas, in France and Japan in particular, Philip K. Dick is the subject of an increasing number of recondite books, essays, monographs and Internet attention, with two special issues of Science Fiction Studies, several erudite works by Poland’s Stanislaw Lem and philipKdick.com leading the way. This is not to contend that the current generation of science fiction scholars are incapable of fresh, invigorating exegesis. As an exercise in critical perspicacity, however, it would be intellectually refreshing and stimulating to read critiques of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories that focus, for a change, on such elements as style, tone and/or setting.

The latter aspect would be an excellent one to use in exploring Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly (1977). If one grants the premise that setting often reflects or influences plot and characterization, i.e., characters in conflict with or in rebellion against their surroundings, the landscape of A Scanner Darkly exhibits several explicit and implicit effects. The times and places, or locale, in which the actions of A Scanner Darkly take place occur almost entirely within the Los Angeles/Orange County area of California, circa summer 1994. But, rather than ask right away why California, Los Angeles, summer, and 1994, ponder the familiarity generated by Dick’s choice of setting. He did not select an alien planet or alien population center in the distant past of far future. Instead, one finds the not too distant future (at time of writing) and a well known urban American environment, both of which help to inculcate a stronger verisimilitude than would have otherwise been possible with alien surroundings. The "ordinariness" of Dick’s southern California in 1994, however, is "different" from southern California in 1999. There are elements present of what R.H. Stacy terms "defamiliarization." As explained in his book Defamiliarization in Language and Literature (1977), the distinguishing feature of defamiliarization is that "something ordinary, commonplace, or familiar is, in one way or another, made to appear unfamiliar." (p. 8) And this is accomplished via four possible combinations, i.e., a realistic or non-realistic treatment of realistic or non-realistic subject matter. His second category, realistic language and non-realistic content covers science fiction, utopias and the supernatural. (p. 11)

In A Scanner Darkly examples of unconventional content described with conventional, everyday language are not hard to find. Three "commonplace" instances are: regular gas costs $1.02 per gallon, a stamp fifteen cents, and an electric Timex wristwatch twenty dollars. These are little removed from today’s world and out society. Less ordinary, and thus more divergent or defamiliar, are eleven planet of the apes movies, a Porsche with tow engines, robot computer voices at the drive-in window of a San Diego bank, and patty melts which consist of melted imitation cheese and fake ground beef on special organic bread.


Though one could plausibly argue that the latter two do not diverge that much from the present, there is enough of an overtone of defamiliarization to make them distinctive "props" of the setting(s) in A Scanner Darkly. But, the eleven ape movies really stand out. They are shown at a drive-in movie theater from 7:30 P.M. to 8:00 A.M. and the last one is "where they reveal that all the famous people in history like Lincoln and Nero were secretly apes and running all human history from the start." Noting the two examples of "famous people in history," Lincoln and Nero, one a president best known for freeing slaves, the other a roman emperor (54-68 A.D.) who had his mother murdered, it’s obvious that this particular prop is for satirical effect via exaggeration and ironic contrast. Note also that the first four actual ape movies total six hours and thirty-two minutes running time, leaving less than six hours for the other fictional seven.

Yet, these are incidentals, albeit provocative and stimulating, that function as supportive "seasoning" for the "concocted" setting(s) of A Scanner Darkly. Two props with far more inherent significance are the giant shopping malls surrounded by a wall and the fortified huge apartment complexes. One can not enter the shopping malls unless they have a credit card and pass it through an "electronic hoop." To ensure compliance there are "uniformed armed guards at the mall gate checking out each person. Seeing that the man or woman matched his or her credit card and that it hadn’t been ripped off, sold, bought, used fraudulently." The fortified huge apartment complexes are also protected by armed guards "ready to open fire on any and every doper who scales the wall with an empty pillowcase to ripoff their piano and electric clock and razor and stereo that they haven’t paid for anyhow." The pronouns their and they here refer to "straights," those individuals who shop at the guarded shopping malls and live in the guarded apartment complexes.

There is much in this to speculate about. One petty point is how a doper would manage to ripoff a piano, let along a stereo, in a pillowcase. Then there is the dichotomy of straights vs. dopers. But most important is the question of why the straights shop at and live in protected places. It is mentioned early on that they long ago vacated a tract area of cheap but durable plastic houses. Why move, then, to guarded areas? Is it to protect against the dopers, or to insure continuance of their own status through isolation?


One answer is that these guarded places are meant as analogues of the characterization of the straights, to help generate the differences between the straights and dopers, and to reinforce the two personna’s of the main character – he being presumably a doper when functioning as Robert Arctor and a straight when functioning as S.A. Fred. That is, the shopping malls and apartment complexes are a symbolic image of the enclosed place, a place of withdrawal, which represents, in effect, one-half of the schizoid mind. An alternative would be to classify the aforementioned facets of the setting(s) in A Scanner Darkly as exotic and then juxtapose them with those that are mundane: 7-11 grocery stores, thrifty drugstores, McDonaldburger stands, a blue chip redemption stamp center, and a rock concert at Anaheim stadium. The most evident thing about this juxtaposition is that it is a juxtaposition, that there is conspicuous contrast and not uniformity, which substantiates the point made earlier about contrarieties.


A third approach would be to note which of the various setting-aspects receive emphasis. Throughout A Scanner Darkly more specifics are given about dopers and their environment than the straights and theirs. There is a character named Kimberly Hawkins who lives among senior citizens and the other poor in a slum-housing areas: "the Cromwell Village series of buildings and related garbage dump, parking lots, and rubbled roads." Here there are "urine-smelling stairs" and "the windows of the small, untidy apartment were broken. Shards of glass lay on the floor, along with overturned ashtrays and Coke bottles." Or, there is Bob Arctor’s house which is described by one character as rundown and typically "doper dirty" with heaps of weeds and rubbish in the back yard. And, the Englesohn Locksmith Shop, a store that had "an old wooden quality…like a doper’s place." Compare these with one example of the straights environment, room 203 at the Orange County Civic Center: "an all-white room with steel fixtures and steel chairs and steel desk, all bolted down, a hospital-like room, purified and sterile and cold, with the light too bright." And, this description of a straight: "he beamed, this man wearing his pink waffle-fiber suit and wide plastic yellow tie and blue shirt and fake leather shoes…" These contrasts rather pointedly characterize the dopers as dirty, untidy, and poor while the straights are purified, sterile, and cold; this holds true for their respective environments as well. The settings here have become extensions of and commentaries on the characters, what Wellek and Warren, in Theory of Literature (1956), term "metonymic, or metaphoric, expressions of character." Or, what Robert Liddell in his A Treatise on the Novel (1947) terms symbolic setting, a setting that stresses a tight relation with action, i.e., schizophrenic happenings take place in schizophrenic places. In addition, a particular atmosphere, or mood, is generated by and radiated from these settings, one of futility and despair for the dopers, one of isolation and fear for the straights.

A different kind of setting(s) emphasis might also be assessed, that of exterior vs. interior. In A Scanner Darkly interior settings hold a clear advantage. Most of the action and scenes take place within a building or room of some sort, from the opening scene in Jerry Fabin’s house, to S.A. Fred’s speech before the Anaheim Lions Club, to Arctor’s house, to Samarkand House. Two notable exceptions occur near the end of A Scanner Darkly, the first being the scene where Donna is in the process of taking Arctor to New Path and pulls off the road. Here, outdoors, "they could see the lights below, on all sides." The second is the scene at the New Path Napa Valley farm facility where "Bruce" observes the mountains and small blue stubbled flowers. These exceptions notwithstanding, the preponderance of interior settings help to generate and reinforce the doper’s mood of despair and futility by establishing a feeling of being continually closed in, on the inside looking out. This holds true even more so for the straights who live within fortified apartment complexes and shop within fortified shopping malls.

In conjunction with whether interior or exterior settings predominate one might also ascertain the authenticity and specificity of the setting(s). In determining the former, however, a problem arises – how does one authenticate (at the time he wrote A Scanner Darkly) the future? The settings in A Scanner Darkly occur some five years in the past from now and to adjudge them genuine or not involves, again, the notion of verisimilitude. What appears familiar and real in the 1994 of A Scanner Darkly will not necessarily be so in our time because of the inherent SF trait of extrapolation. Even so, it is not unfeasible to find aspects of 1994 that are plausibly innate to 1994 within, of course, the overall context of A Scanner Darkly. Given "dopers" and "straights," their respective dwellings are no doubt real, though not at all specific, in particular those of the straights. It is not explicitly indicated how or why the straights change from "cheap but durable plastic houses" to "fortified huge apartment complexes," though the implied reason is because of the dopers. Nonetheless, analogues of both types of housing exist today in prefab houses and apartment units along with guarded housing developments and apartment buildings. Familiar precursors exist in our time, as well, for the McDonaldburger stands, stroke-book magazine, rock concert, and planet of the apes pictures in A Scanner Darkly; in these instances it is but simple extrapolation with a few neologisms added. Emphasizing these particular elements, however, suggests a cynical outlook of societal evolution in that the aspects mentioned are so deeply ingrained in our society as to insure their continued existence into 1994 with little or no meaningful change.

The authenticity and specificity of other facets in A Scanner Darkly are not so easily determined. No known prototypes now exist for a scramble suit, cephalochromoscope, or E-E-tropic shells; these have, in effect, been invented rather than based on extrapolation. Their believability, therefore, depends almost entirely on how well they relatively fit into the larger setting(s) of the 1994 depicted in A Scanner Darkly. Given, again, dopers and straights, their respective abodes, and at least a semi-fascist police state government, these invented setting props do not seem that much out of place; they appear more genuine than spurious to the 1994 of A Scanner Darkly. But, as with the extrapolated-neologized items, the specificity of scramble suits, etc. is minimal; the hows and whys of their existence is at best implicit. In any final analysis, therefore, their authenticity remains unresolved.


There are at least two other means by which one could explore the use of setting in A Scanner Darkly. First, which of our five senses predominate in the various setting sensory details and, second, do the settings dominate at all, to the extent that we are presented at length with the manners and customs, the social and economic forces of a specific locality. A third possibility, however, has more inherent significance for this novel or any other science fiction work – would the story have been as meaningful if its action had occurred in another time and/or location? That is, what kind of world would have had to exist for Dick’s novel to have taken place?


Earlier discussion about Dick’s choice of the near future and a well known urban American environment for setting rather than an alien planet or alien population center pertain to this question. In fact, all of the foregoing is pertinent. Of central importance, though, is the aspect of verisimilitude mentioned in connection with Dick’s choice of setting and the authenticity/specificity of same. In this instance the nature of the action (story) has determined choice of setting(s) in A Scanner Darkly. They are closely interrelated and together generate a strong atmosphere of verisimilitude.

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