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Saturday, May 06, 2006

What Does the Scanner See?

First off, I want to thank Riaz for his comment and recommendation of Jacqueline Rose's "The Question of Zion." Further reviews of that book are available here.

In anticipation of the upcoming film release of A Scanner Darkly, I felt the urge to re-read the original novel by Philip K. Dick (published in 1977) and discuss it.

A Scanner Darkly is the story of a man come apart.
Philip K. Dick’s protagonist lives on the dividing lines of a society coming apart at the seams. The major element of the plot is the epidemic of a new narcotic, Substance D, which has become a systemic plague on American society. The drug is so powerful and so profitable at all levels that undercover narcotics officers have been forced into a new standard operating procedure: they live as dopers under their own names, buying and selling (and often using) Substance D and other drugs, but while they debrief in police offices they wear ‘scramble suits’ that mask their voices and appearances and they use code names so that no one in law enforcement can leak their true identities to the dopers with whom they cohabit.

The emphasis on protecting their true identity goes to such extreme that the law enforcement officers must not reveal who they are within their circle of drug addicts and dealers that they infiltrate. They must maintain the illusion that they could be any one of the network of Substance D users on whom they report. And thus they must file reports on themselves as potential suspects. Philip K. Dick is intent on taking the interdependent relationship between cops and criminals to a new level. Our protagonist is such a narc, and at the beginning of the novel he already begins to show signs of disassociating his law enforcement pseudonym from his drug-dealing identity.

Parallel to this trial, the protagonist is also informed that his use of Substance D has impaired his brain's precept and cognate abilities. Part of the drug’s effect is to destroy the membranes and tissues connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, causing them to function more and more independently. This means that the protagonist's brain receives and processes information along two different paths, neither of which consults with the other. It is as if, a neurologist in the novel explains, he is driving a car with two gasoline gauges reading different amounts, neither one more reliable than the other.

We readers are witness to this separation of cognitive ability, the separation of cop and criminal identity, and we witness it not just in the protagonist but in his circle of junkie friends as well. These characters are all in different stages of their dissociated functioning, which is sometimes comic but more frequently disturbing.

The title of the novel derives from a specific development where the protagonist has audio and video holograph scanners installed in his house to better monitor the suspects he lives with. As a result, he must go to new lengths to disguise exactly which one of them he is from the scanners. And when he replays the holograph recordings for his own data research he begins to think of himself more as a suspect and less of a job or a part of his identity. Ultimately, the protagonist’s dissociation from his ability to cognize and discern, added to his continuing use of narcotics, leads him to live in a blurrier world. So when he reminds himself that he is being recorded, he wonders:
what does a scanner see?... I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, 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.

These semi-psychotic wonderings and near-total self doubt are characteristic of Philip K. Dick's protagonists. They are generally less than simple anti-heroes with questionable moral judgement; they are simply not heroes and morality isn't a question. This certainly noir aspect of detective and crime fiction was put to new use by Philip K. Dick as he combined dark-souled (perhaps soul-less) protagonists with disorienting futuristic settings. Dick was paving the road to the more clearly noir-influenced genre of later authors, such as William Gibson, that would be cyberpunk.

The genre of science fiction and all that it entails generally comes in two forms: the epic and the experiment. It is in the latter form that Dick’s creative genius thrives. Dick picked up experimental science fiction from his forerunners, namely Isaac Asimov. For these authors, the genre was a medium for the exploration of new ideas, hypotheses on existential issues that required certain narratives and settings in order to be fully realized. These authors imagined technological innovations and galactic discoveries that necessitated the re-evaluation of our presuppositions.

Take for instance, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This novel, which would become the film Blade Runner, essentially asks a simple question: what kind of androids would humans build? Dick proposes that we might choose to make them in our own image. As such, we end up with violent, self-serving, self-preserving creations seeking to free themselves from their slavery as androids and live among humanity as equals. At the same time humanity is finding ways to automate itself, introducing a device that induces emotion in its user, simply by twisting a dial. The answers we get from Dick’s experiment are harrowing: that as flawed beings, we create flawed beings; that as flawed beings, we fear our creations; that as flawed beings, we constantly seek improvement, transforming our best qualities into fetish commodities.

One of Philip K. Dick’s many short stories, The Minority Report, raises the question of predestination. The film starring Tom Cruise touched the surface of the issue, but didn’t delve as deeply into the paradox as Dick’s fiction. The question isn’t merely “what happens when we know our own future?” but rather “what happens to prediction when we know our own future?” The film asks the former, wherein Cruise is informed that he will commit murder and he spends the movie running and flying and being chased in an effort to avoid predestination. The short story asks the latter: when the prediction comes in, does it take into account the chance that the prediction will cause a change in the future, rendering the prediction invalid? These types of questions regarding humanity, creation, and predestination are more easily asked in a speculated future, wherein nuclear war can create certain necessities, or galactic travel can be isolating beyond all imagination. These stories are controlled experiments in hypothetical situations aimed at offering insight into ourselves, and raising questions about our capabilities.

The questions these stories ask can be striking and often chilling. For example: scientists create a robotic car in an effort to make road travel more efficient and safer. Their prototype model functions well, but not optimally. It occasionally calculates inefficient routes, and doesn’t always process instructions perfectly. The scientists also note unexplained sounds emanating from the vehicle. They deduce that the sounds are related to the vehicle’s performance, and they disassemble their creation, looking for the source of the audio emissions. Is it transmitting? Is it attempting to communicate? As the scientists continually fail to discern this behaviour, there is a certain awful terror when they finally come to a conclusion: the robot is humming to itself. Philip K. Dick finds endings like this endlessly meaningful.

Epic science fiction is more easily explained. Think of it, perhaps, as Lord of the Rings in space. The epitome of this is the Star Wars franchise: characterized by a ying-and-yang universe, a cosmic struggle between good and evil. The protagonists’ problems aren’t so much the ability to distinguish sorrow in an android as much as making the hyperdrive on the Falcon ready for lightspeed. A good deal of science fiction/fantasy novels are epic in this respect: the technology wows the readers and the heroics of the protagonists endear them to the audience.

The epic sci-fi is most recognizable in television and film, indeed many originally experimental stories have transformed into epics when adapted for the screen. A good example of this transformation is Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, which was turned in to the 1990 film Total Recall. Dick’s novel asked readers what happens when memory can be manipulated. Total Recall asked viewers what happens when Schwarzenegger gets reprogrammed by a criminal syndicate to fight rebels on Mars.

Many of Philip K. Dick’s works have been popularized as motion pictures. This is largely due to the fact that the man was an idea factory, and film producers have reaped rich profits from the products of his fertile imagination, almost to the extent that graphic novels have been re-imagined on the silver screen. But Dick’s complex ideas weren’t completely adaptable into ninety-minute screenplays, rather they were captivating in a way that scriptwriters knew would interest the audience enough to make the film good, and the rest could be done with special effects and make-up.

Some thoughts about the upcoming film version of A Scanner Darkly: It looks to be gorgeous. I strongly recommend watching the trailer for those with QuickTime installed. The style of animation was a fantastic idea for two main reasons. First, it flaunts the immediate creative appeal of a new form of visual art. The colours and shades are fantastically captivating like a watercolour kaleidoscope, much like the ink-and-ivory effects of Sin City worked so well. Second, the nature of the narrative involves increasingly frequent digressions from clarity into murkiness. The drug-addled brains of the characters frequently embark on reminiscences, flashbacks, fantasies and hallucinations that aren’t immediately distinguishable to them from what the reader knows to be reality. By creating the whole film through paint and impression, any fantastical images won’t have the immediately stark definition of CGI effects but rather will seem made of the same organic substance as the rest of the film.

My biggest question about the movie is whether or not they will remain true to Philip K. Dick’s original ending. Without spoiling anything, I must warn readers that Hollywood is notorious for replacing Dick’s noir signature with saccharine-coated finales. Better worded, perhaps, would be to ask: “will the audience see the film clearly, or darkly?”

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