Synopsis: Bob Arctor is an undercover agent trying to find the source of a batch of Substance D, an extremely addictive narcotic. He has to report back on his friends and housemates who are also being watched by the powers that be. As a part of being undercover, he too has to take the drug. As it takes hold of him, he becomes more and more divorced from himself and more and more dependant on the drug.
It is hard to know how to put this novel into words. At its centre is Arctor’s swirl downwards into addiction. His paranoia and inability to recognise himself increase with his addiction and it is hard for the reader to tell what is real and what is not.
At the start, we are informed that Arctor has a scramble suit that he wears so his superiors cannot recognise him and with that is the name ‘Fred’ which he uses when he reports back on the household that he lives in. It is during one of these reports, he learns that Bob Arctor is under suspicion and another layer of surveillance is added when his superiors start to watch the house as well.
It all starts to get a bit messy inside of Arctor’s head. Watching the videos, he has to report on himself and his housemates. He watches in a safe house, in his scramble suit, with other scrambled individuals, watching other houses. It could easily be one of his housemates in the suit and he would never know. As he watches and continues to take the drug, he starts to not recognise himself on the TV and begins to refer to Arctor in the third person. He gets more and more paranoid and his superiors think that he may be losing it. He is put through a series of absurd tests by men in lab coats that talk in riddles. Eventually, they decide he needs to go into rehab because the drugs have finally broken him.
The novel is a difficult read. Dick says that the instances of drug taking, psychosis and withdrawal were all true and it certainly is unflinching in its description of the horrors of drugs. Dick also says that he does not consider it to be novel with a moral and if he means in terms of his attitude towards the addicts in the novel, that is probably true. There is no judgement. These people just are who they are, having come to a point in their lives where they can do no other than take drugs.
However, I do think that there a sense of morality with regard to the way that addicts are treated and the way the powers that be try to solve the ‘problem’ of addiction. This is shown in a couple of ways. First of all, once Arctor is no longer useful as an informant (and they admit that they used him to get to Barris, one of his housemates) they quickly remove him, not forgetting to charge him for becoming an addict while undercover. He is removed to a facility to withdraw but it is clear he will never be the same again.
Dick suggests that the facility – which is in need of addicts to get funding – may actually be the source of Substance D that Arctor was supposed to investigate. They create the addicts by growing and selling the drug which then secures their future as a clinic. This is suggested by two colleagues who have tried to control Arctor’s descent into addiction so that when he withdrew, he might be able to investigate. Unfortunately, he is too destroyed to do so.
At the end, I was relieved to have finished reading because the narrative was making my head hurt a little. There is a small ray of hope at the end, when Bruce (who it may be assumed is Arctor) sees the Substance D plant growing and picks one for his friends. But whether this will lead to anything other than more addiction, it is difficult to say.