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The Use of Setting in Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly

The Use of Setting in Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly

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Published by Frank Bertrand

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Published by: Frank Bertrand on Aug 19, 2011
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The Use of Setting in P.K. Dick's
 A Scanner Darkly
by Frank C. BertrandAn intriguing thesis advanced by William Righter in his book
 Logic and Criticism
(1963) is that the value of criticism is not in the conclusions itreaches 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 towardsthose conclusions reached so far about science fiction. To paraphraseWordsworth, habit now rules an unreflecting herd, the herd being, in thiscase, 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 
:"be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar."Consider, for example, the numerous and varied conclusions reached todate about certain novels by Philip K. Dick. He, along with Ursula K.LeGuin, are apparently the
 causa sine qua non
without which most of theproliferating academic attention accorded science fiction would not exist.Here and overseas, in France and Japan in particular, Philip K. Dick is thesubject of an increasing number of recondite books, essays, monographsand Internet attention, with two special issues of 
Science Fiction Studies
,several erudite works by Poland’s Stanislaw Lem and philipKdick.comleading the way. This is not to contend that the current generation of science fiction scholars are incapable of fresh, invigorating exegesis. As anexercise in critical perspicacity, however, it would be intellectuallyrefreshing and stimulating to read critiques of Philip K. Dick’s novels andshort stories that focus, for a change, on such elements as style, tone and/orsetting.The latter aspect would be an excellent one to use in exploring Dick’snovel
 A Scanner Darkly
(1977). If one grants the premise that setting oftenreflects or influences plot and characterization, i.e., characters in conflictwith 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 almostentirely within the Los Angeles/Orange County area of California, circasummer 1994. But, rather than ask right away why California, LosAngeles, summer, and 1994, ponder the familiarity generated by Dick’schoice 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 toodistant future (at time of writing) and a well known urban Americanenvironment, both of which help to inculcate a stronger verisimilitude thanwould 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 presentof what R.H. Stacy terms "defamiliarization." As explained in hisbook
 Defamiliarization in Language and Literature
(1977), thedistinguishing feature of defamiliarization is that "something ordinary,commonplace, or familiar is, in one way or another, made to appearunfamiliar." (p. 8) And this is accomplished via four possiblecombinations, 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 withconventional, everyday language are not hard to find. Three"commonplace" instances are: regular gas costs $1.02 per gallon, a stampfifteen cents, and an electric Timex wristwatch twenty dollars. These arelittle removed from today’s world and out society. Less ordinary, and thusmore divergent or defamiliar, are eleven planet of the apes movies, aPorsche with tow engines, robot computer voices at the drive-in window of a San Diego bank, and patty melts which consist of melted imitation cheeseand fake ground beef on special organic bread.Though one could plausibly argue that the latter two do not diverge thatmuch from the present, there is enough of an overtone of defamiliarizationto 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-inmovie theater from 7:30 P.M. to 8:00 A.M. and the last one is "where theyreveal that all the famous people in history like Lincoln and Nero weresecretly apes and running all human history from the start." Noting thetwo examples of "famous people in history," Lincoln and Nero, one apresident best known for freeing slaves, the other a roman emperor (54-68A.D.) who had his mother murdered, it’s obvious that this particular propis for satirical effect via exaggeration and ironic contrast. Note also thatthe first four actual ape movies total six hours and thirty-two minutesrunning time, leaving less than six hours for the other fictional seven.Yet, these are incidentals, albeit provocative and stimulating, that functionas supportive "seasoning" for the "concocted" setting(s) of 
 A Scanner
. Two props with far more inherent significance are the giantshopping malls surrounded by a wall and the fortified huge apartmentcomplexes. One can not enter the shopping malls unless they have a creditcard and pass it through an "electronic hoop." To ensure compliance thereare "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 ithadn’t been ripped off, sold, bought, used fraudulently." The fortifiedhuge apartment complexes are also protected by armed guards "ready toopen fire on any and every doper who scales the wall with an emptypillowcase to ripoff their piano and electric clock and razor and stereo thatthey haven’t paid for anyhow." The pronouns their and they here refer to"straights," those individuals who shop at the guarded shopping malls andlive in the guarded apartment complexes.There is much in this to speculate about. One petty point is how a doperwould manage to ripoff a piano, let along a stereo, in a pillowcase. Thenthere is the dichotomy of straights vs. dopers. But most important is thequestion of why the straights shop at and live in protected places. It ismentioned early on that they long ago vacated a tract area of cheap butdurable plastic houses. Why move, then, to guarded areas? Is it to protectagainst the dopers, or to insure continuance of their own status throughisolation?One answer is that these guarded places are meant as analogues of thecharacterization of the straights, to help generate the differences betweenthe straights and dopers, and to reinforce the two personna’s of the maincharacter – he being presumably a doper when functioning as RobertArctor and a straight when functioning as S.A. Fred. That is, the shoppingmalls and apartment complexes are a symbolic image of the enclosed place,a place of withdrawal, which represents, in effect, one-half of the schizoidmind. An alternative would be to classify the aforementioned facets of thesetting(s) in
 A Scanner Darkly
as exotic and then juxtapose them with thosethat are mundane: 7-11 grocery stores, thrifty drugstores,McDonaldburger stands, a blue chip redemption stamp center, and a rockconcert at Anaheim stadium. The most evident thing about this juxtaposition is that it is a juxtaposition, that there is conspicuous contrastand not uniformity, which substantiates the point made earlier aboutcontrarieties.A third approach would be to note which of the various setting-aspectsreceive emphasis. Throughout
 A Scanner Darkly
more specifics are given

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