Poisons

Tagged: Theme

Assorted deadly substances form a subset of sf Drugs but often contain little intrinsic science-fictional interest: for example, "barbitide" in Samuel R Delany's Captives of the Flame (1963 dos; rev vt Out of the Dead City 1968) has effects resembling those of conventional arsenic, while the fast-acting "Divban rabbit-venom" mentioned in Roger Zelazny's This Immortal (October-November 1965 F&SF as "... And Call Me Conrad"; exp 1966) is hardly more than a rebranding of curare. A grimly lyrical description of a real-world poison's effects is central to J G Ballard's "Track 12" (April 1958 New Worlds).

Outbreaks of poisonous gas have often been invoked as the cause of Disaster, as in William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City; Being the Narrative of a Survivor, Written A.D. 1942 (1880 chap); M P Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901); Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt (1913) – where the effect is temporary and caused not by literal poison gas but contamination of the luminiferous ether; W P Knowles's Jim McWhirter (1933); Mark Channing's The Poisoned Mountain (1935); and Polly Toynbee's Leftovers (1966). Poison gas attacks, notorious in World War One, became a recurring nightmare of sf war stories for decades after. Authors making use of this scenario include Upton Sinclair with The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000 (19 April-2 August 1914 Appeal to Reason; 1924 3vols); Norman Anglin with Poison Gas (1928); Roy Connolly with Invasion from the Air: A Prophetic Novel (1934); Michael Hervey with The Silver Death (1945? chap); Leonard Engel and Emanuel S Piller with The World Aflame: The Russian-American War of 1950 (1947); and several further examples discussed under Future War and Weapons. A poison-gas Disaster leads to black comedy in the Roger Corman film Gas-s-s-s, Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World ... (1970).

Young ladies who have themselves become poisonous feature in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" (December 1844 United States Magazine and Democratic Review) and Oliver Wendell Holmes's Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny (January 1860-April 1861 The Atlantic Monthly as "The Professor's Story"; 1861 2vols). Prenatal poisoning, like Elsie Venner's, is responsible for the physical handicaps of Lois McMaster Bujold's series hero Miles Vorkosigan, as related in Barrayar (1991). Unpleasant poisons are the stock-in-trade of many Villains like Sax Rohmer's Fu-Manchu. An example is the lethal contact poison which is mass-produced and extensively squirted around in Sapper's Bulldog Drummond thriller The Final Count (1926). Another, which conveniently imposes a melodramatic narrative deadline, is the "seven-day poison" of Planets for Sale (fixup 1954) by E Mayne Hull and/or A E van Vogt.

Poisonous plants and animals are frequent in sf, a celebrated example being the stinging Triffids of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (6 January-3 February 1951 Collier's Weekly; as "Revolt of the Triffids"; 1951; rev 1951; orig version vt Revolt of the Triffids 1952). In Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965), the ritual Drug extracted from the famous sandworms is highly toxic until transformed by molecular catalysis initiated by a priestess's Psi Powers; more metaphorically, the toxic nature of Dune's imperial society is indicated by ubiquitous poison-sniffer devices and a language (see Linguistics) with specialist terms for poison in food, poison in drink, etc. The Gaean Reach world of Sarkovy, whose chief exports are exotic poisons produced under strict guild control, provides an enjoyably discursive episode in Jack Vance's The Palace of Love (October 1966-February 1967 Galaxy; 1967). One story in Stanisław Lem's Cyberiada (coll 1965; trans as The Cyberiad 1974) introduces wockle weed, an Absurdist poison so fearfully caustic that it can burn its way out of a Virtual Reality into the real world. Poisons – some with spectacular effects – and antidotes feature in the Assassins' Guild examination which opens Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Pyramids (1989). Virus-linked Immortality in Neal Asher's Spatterjay sequence – beginning with The Skinner (2002) – can become burdensome, and the long-infected cannot easily be killed; relief is offered by a coveted poison called sprine which in The Voyage of the Sable Keech (2006) is banked, like gold reserves, to back the currency of the planet Spatterjay (see Money). The dread Medusoid Mycelium, a fungal toxin of mass destruction, is of importance in the final three volumes of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006 13vols). [DRL]

see also: Coma; Andrew Marvell; Pollution; Rob Swigart; Thought Experiment.

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