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Entry updated 9 May 2022. Tagged: Theme.


The use of drugs, both real and imaginary, is a common theme in sf, notably in Cyberpunk. The topic is discussed in some detail under Perception, and a little under New Wave and Psychology. Film and television treatments of the theme include Altered States (1980), Doomwatch (1970-1972), Liquid Sky (1982) and THX 1138 (1971). A small selection of the many sf authors who have used drug themes is: Brian W Aldiss, Ralph Blum, Karin Boye, William S Burroughs, Don DeLillo, Philip K Dick, Charles Duff, Mick Farren, William Gibson, Evan Hunter, Aldous Huxley, K W Jeter, Richard Kadrey, Irwin Lewis, Talbot Mundy, Geoff Ryman, Lucius Shepard, Norman Spinrad, Bruce Sterling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ian Watson.

Sf writers have invented numerous drugs which serve as little or no more than futuristic equivalents of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and heroin, often providing the McGuffin cargo of a Space Opera smuggling industry. Some examples of sf recreational substances are: bentlam, nitrolabe and thionite, covering the range from soft to ultra-hard drug in E E Smith's Lensman series; Cheery-Gum, whose harmless, non-addictive euphoria looks set to destroy US society in Frederik Pohl's Satire "What to Do Until the Analyst Comes" (February 1956 Imagination as "Everybody's Happy But Me!"; vt in Alternating Currents, coll 1956); the ultimately lethal Substance D of Philip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly (1977), filmed as A Scanner Darkly (2006); goofjuice, whose addictive/psychotropic power foments mutiny in David Feintuch's Midshipman's Hope (1994); porgee, which it is fashionable to sniff in James H Schmitz's A Tale of Two Clocks (1962; vt Legacy 1979); and soma, bringing universal euphoria in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). An euphoria-inducing virus is the central gimmick of What's So Bad about Feeling Good? (1968). Bliss in Ian Watson's Mockymen (2003) is a "harmless" substitute for addictive hard drugs, with the very rare but intended side-effect of erasing the mind (thus providing human host bodies for alien Identity Transfer).

Also frequently deployed – though usually of less intrinsic sf interest – are exotic Poisons (which see) whose symptoms may be showy or bizarre. Healing drugs with more or less magical properties were long taken for granted as something the future would inevitably bring: an Alien example which repairs gross physical damage is gobathian in Time Is the Simplest Thing (April-July 1961 Analog as "The Fisherman"; 1961) by Clifford D Simak.

It is a well-worn Cliché of cinematic Horror in SF that any drug, serum or other treatment derived from animals will afflict its subject with various characteristics – usually undesirable – of the source creature. Examples include The Mad Monster (1942), where wolf-blood serum brings a Werewolf transformation; The Vampire (1957; vt Mark of the Vampire) where vampire-bat blood similarly leads to Vampire transformation; The Alligator People (1959) with alligator DNA; The Wasp Woman (1959) with supposed royal jelly from wasps as a Rejuvenation aid; Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) with royal jelly from bees; and Ssssssss! (1973; vt Ssssnake!) with apparently snake-based serum. There are many others. The tradition extends to more respectable movies such as District 9 (2009), where infection with alien "prawn" DNA causes the hero to develop a prawn-like arm or manipulator. P G Wodehouse's Mr Mulliner story "A Slice of Life" (August 1926 Strand Magazine) spoofs this animal-transformation trope with an opening synopsis of the supposedly popular Serial Film The Vicissitudes of Vera – alluding to The Perils of Pauline (1914) – in which a Mad Scientist plans to inject Vera with lobster-gland extract and so turn her into a lobster. In similar vein, a rejuvenation serum derived from an executed murderer instils homicidal impulses in Before I Hang (1940).

Drugs to prolong life – generically termed anti-agathics by James Blish in his Cities in Flight tetralogy – include the traditional Philosopher's Stone of alchemy, echoed in The Mortal Immortal (in The Keepsake for MDCCCXXXXIV, anth 1833; circa 1910 chap) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; ascomycin, the first of Blish's above-cited anti-agathics, introduced in They Shall Have Stars (February 1952 and May 1954 Astounding; fixup 1956; rev vt Year 2018! 1957); the "Digestive" of Gerald Kersh's "Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?" (in The Brighton Monster, coll 1953); the nameless Immortality serum which is suppressed by a conspiracy of undertakers in Robert Sheckley's "Forever" (February 1959 Galaxy) as by Ned Lang; Antigerone in John Wyndham's Trouble with Lichen (1960; rev 1960); melange or spice, which in Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965) also confers prophetic power and access to racial memory; stroon or santaclara, derived from diseased sheep and referred to throughout Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind series; and pilac, the "death-immunity" drug that features incidentally in Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976).

Truth drugs (see Lie Detectors), though chiefly an occasional plot convenience, are central to E Phillips Oppenheim's The Double Life of Mr Alfred Burton (1913), Karin Boye's Kallocain (1940; trans Gustav Lannestock 1966) and Kenneth Ingram's The Premier Tells the Truth (1944). Robert A Heinlein may exaggerate the properties of real-world sodium pentothal in Sixth Column (January-March 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951) and makes similar use of cocaine-derived "babble juice" injected into the brain in Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956); Roger Zelazny introduces a truth drug blandly named TC-6 in "The Eve of RUMOKO" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg); interrogators in Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan sequence regularly resort to "fast-penta" (again suggesting sodium pentothal). More fancifully, James H Schmitz's "Lion Loose" (October 1961 Analog) features a surreptitiously administered "Moment of Truth".

Aphrodisiacs are occasionally deployed, sometimes with apocalyptic effect on social mores – as is implied when "3-blindmycin" is released in London at the climax of Alex Comfort's Come Out to Play (1961), and made explicit in Charles Platt's pornographic The Gas (1970), Ian Malcolm's RIP 7 (1976) and Jack Trevor Story's Up River (1979; vt The Screwrape Lettuce 1980). The titular "love lotus" of George O Smith's Hellflower (1953), whose aphrodisiac effects are confined to women and lead to both addiction and emotional deadening, proves to be imported by Aliens to corrupt Earthly society. More typically such drugs of arousal are plot devices facilitating seduction, as in Hellstrom's Hive (November 1972-March 1973 Galaxy as "Project 40"; 1973) by Frank Herbert and The Sex Bar (1972) by Peter Mottley; there are numerous further examples.

Hallucinogens are often encountered, most strikingly as the Weapons of a consciousness war in Brian W Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head (fixup 1969). Psychotropic gas in the atmosphere of the titular planet in Robert Sheckley's "Ghost V" (October 1954 Galaxy) brings colonists' nightmares to physical-seeming life. William Tenn's "Did Your Coffee Taste Funny This Morning?" (January 1967 Cavalier; vt "The Lemon-Green Spaghetti-Loud Dynamite-Dribble Day" in The Square Root of Man, coll 1968) drew on and/or propagated the Paranoia-fraught Urban Legend of LSD in the water supply, also featuring in June Drummond's The Gantry Episode (1968; vt Murder on a Bad Trip 1968) and the film Wild in the Streets (1968). The negation of such drug effects may also carry significance. William S Burroughs's Nova Express (1964) makes incantatory use of apomorphine as a counter-drug; a depressing, drugless "reality trip" in Norman Spinrad's "No Direction Home" (in New Worlds Quarterly 2, anth 1971, ed Michael Moorcock) suggests the difficulty of marketing mere reality when happier perceptual options are available. Philip K Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison) disconcertingly proposes that anti-hallucinogenics like stelazine might replace a single consensual hallucination with any one of twelve mutually exclusive "realities". Other stories posit drugs whose "hallucinations" are actual rewritings of reality: examples include "Subjectivity" (January 1964 Analog) by Norman Spinrad, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) by Philip K Dick – in which the merely comforting hallucinogen Can-D is supplanted by the wildly reality-bending Choo-Z – The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson (featuring Reality Pills), Kairos (1988) by Gwyneth Jones and Vurt (1993) by Jeff Noon. Among the variously transformed characters in Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon (1995) is a man reduced to a drug side-effect: in order to talk with him, one must inject "his" drug.

Various Time Distortion drugs speed or slow metabolism. The most famous speed-up drug is the eponym of H G Wells's "The New Accelerator" (December 1901 Strand), to be marketed in very dilute form as Gibberne's Nervous Accelerator. Similar effects result from "tempus" in Robert A Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990). One of the internally gland-generated drug options for citizens of the Culture in Iain Banks's Excession (1996) is Quicken, allowing real-time understanding of greatly speeded-up message transmissions. Slow-down drugs facilitate travel to the future, as in Paul Capon's Into the Tenth Millennium (1956), or across interstellar distances as in very many sf novels such as E C Tubb's Dumarest sequence. An early example is the titular gas of Grant Allen's "Pausodyne" (December 1881 Belgravia Christmas Annual) as by J Arbuthnot Wilson, which induces Suspended Animation.

Drugs that force or encourage Altruism are morally problematic. The unnamed agent that imposes empathy (see ESP) on humanity in Damon Knight's "Rule Golden" (May 1954 Science Fiction Adventures) is ultimately regarded as a boon despite short-term upheavals; but the titular drug of Stanisław Lem's "Altruizine" (in Cyberiada, coll 1965; trans as The Cyberiad 1974) leads to horrific scenes as humans rendered unable to ignore others' suffering take brutal measures to stop the pain by any means. Agatha Christie's Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) ultimately proposes to end strife with the benevolence-inducing "Project Benvo", without any examination of consequences.

Memory-enhancing or Intelligence-boosting drugs are central to Frank Herbert's The Santaroga Barrier (October 1967-February 1968 Amazing as "Santaroga Barrier"; 1968), where the fungus-derived "Jaspers" is both beneficial and addictive; Gordon R Dickson's The R-Master (1973; rev vt The Last Master 1983); and John Brunner's The Stone that Never Came Down (1973), whose virally reproducing synthetic panacea also greatly enhances Perception; such drugs are recurringly fashionable in sf. Notable treatments include Ted Chiang's "Understand" (August 1991 Asimov's), revisiting the theme of mental Supermen, and Vernor Vinge's depiction of Near-Future school science projects in "Fast Times at Fairmont High" (in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, coll 2001). Relevant films include Limitless (2011) and Lucy (2014).

Some further drugs with remarkable properties are: the Amnesia-inducing "amnesifacient" of Robert Silverberg's "How It Was When the Past Went Away" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg) and the similar Alien potion that afflicts the hero of Jack Vance's Marune: Alastor 933 (July-September 1975 Amazing; 1975); condamine, the euphoric whose derivative super-condamine softens the pains of hell in Cordwainer Smith's "A Planet Named Shayol" (October 1961 Galaxy); ephemerol, the mutagen which in Scanners (1980) causes pregnant women to produce children with Psi Powers; the formulation which stimulates children's ESP abilities (at some cost to health and happiness) in Jack Vance's Cadwal II: Ecce and Old Earth (1991); the unnamed Identity modifier or splitter of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) – distantly echoed in P G Wodehouse's Mr Mulliner Club Stories as "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo", a supposed nerve tonic serving as a plot device to make bishops and lesser clergymen riotously irresponsible without any disrespectful suggestion that reverend gentlemen might become drunk; the Miniaturization drugs of Edwin Pallander's The Adventures of a Micro-Man (1902), Ray Cummings's "The Girl in the Golden Atom" (5 March 1919 All-Story) and Henry L Hasse's "He Who Shrank" (August 1936 Amazing); quirinal, the "slave drug" that forces obsessive attention to one's work in Charles Harness's The Ring of Ritornel (1968) (see Slavery); septus, allowing travel between Parallel Worlds in Iain Banks's Transition (2009); Sky, whose addicts get literally as well as metaphorically high (and risk falling) in R A Lafferty's "Sky" (in New Dimensions I, anth 1971, ed Robert Silverberg); Temp, plunging its user into a permanent Time Out of Sequence fugue in Norman Spinrad's "The Weed of Time" (in Alchemy & Academe, anth 1970, ed Anne McCaffrey); the literal weight-loss drugs of H G Wells's "The Truth about Pyecraft" (April 1903 Strand) and Norman Bell's The Weightless Mother (1967); and the experimental substance that confers x-ray vision in X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963).

There are of course many more: drugs in sf – like the traditional potions and witches' brews of Fantasy – have all the multiplex versatility of Rays. [DRL/PN]

see also: Maniac.

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