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    Paul Atreides, high on spice. Dune screenshot.

    Lit Up

    Soma, Spice and Substance D: A History of Drugs in Science Fiction

    Written by Brian Merchant

    As long as we’ve been telling stories, we’ve been telling stories about drugs. At 4,000 years old, the Epic of Gilgamesh is generally considered the oldest known work of literature. And ultimately, it’s about drugs: the end of the tale fixates on a desperate, insecure king’s quest for a substance that can make him feel young again.

    “There is a plant that looks like a box-thorn... if you can possess this plant, you'll be again as you were in your youth,” Gilgamesh explains to his undead boatman buddy Ur-shanabi, in what may be the earliest-documented fictional effort to score drugs. “This plant, Ur-shanabi, is the ‘Plant of Heartbeat,’ with it a man can regain his vigour.”

    Gilgamesh then announces that he intends to test the stash out on an unsuspecting old shepherd, making him perhaps the only fictional hero to threaten to roofie the elderly with immortality, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the drug works both as narrative fuel and as a potent symbol (in the case of old Gilgamesh, it's his fear of death and the lengths he’ll go to confound it).

    Ever since, humans have been taking drugs in fiction, usually as a vessel for exploring ideas about science, social order, or human nature. Our drug fiction has proven remarkably capable of both reflecting and dissecting the anxieties about the present in which it is written—we can learn a lot about the fears and aspirations of a given period by its characters' bad trips—and even of predicting the future.

    Drugs are tailor-made for science fiction, which tends to extrapolate emerging social and technological trends; taking a substance that will immediately realize a nascent idea makes for an infinitely useful plot device. A character can take a pill, eat a plant, or drink an elixir, and transform into something else entirely without requiring much narrative logic (it’s just a drug, OK?). In the process, they can explore our deepest desires and transmute contemporary worries or aspirations into a telltale extreme.

    What if we didn’t have to die? What if we could transform into another person, and maybe enact all our basest desires? What if science could make us smarter? Allow us to see other people’s thoughts? Travel through space? Time? Go unseen in crowds? In fiction, drugs make it all happen.


    Between Gilgamesh (2100 BC) and, say, Limitless (2015), our storytellers have deployed drugs for every conceivable end. (Want proof? Take a scroll through Wikipedia’s endless “List of fictional medicines and drugs” depository.) Mythologies, stories, and legends have detailed the use of fictional substances throughout that entire span—Virgil’s The Aeneid (19 BC), for instance, has water from the river Lethe, which grants its drinkers blissful memory loss, a must for getting into Elysium. But our fictional obsession with drugs as we recognize them—chemical or botanical mixtures, serums, or elixirs we might consume purposefully to affect our mental and physical statesprobably began in earnest in the 1800s.

    In Mary Shelley’s The Mortal Immortal (1833), the protagonist swipes an eternal life elixir from his alchemist boss, outlives his friends and loved ones, and deteriorates mentally. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), the titular heroine drinks potions and eats mushrooms to change her physical state. (Even though opium was legal at the time, and Jefferson Airplane later inextricably linked the text to psychedelia, scholars don’t think Carroll used drugs.)

    Our oldest notorious drug addict probably shows up in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 classic, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The serum, or “draught” that mad scientist Dr. Jekyll drinks is pretty much a beefed-up, body-morphing blend of speed and booze that allows him to shed his inhibitions and succumb to his primordial thirst for power and ravenous sex; the drug is a good/evil, man/savage on/off switch that allows Stevenson to explore man’s moral weakness, while perhaps commenting on his own. Some historians claim that Stevenson wrote the novella while in the throes of a six-day cocaine binge.

    Poster from the 1880s. Image: Library of Congress

    Thus we have the basic template for early science fiction’s drug stories. They typically feature what we "golden age of television" watchers would consider an “anti-hero,” and they typically go like this: Man—it was almost always a man—discovers (or steals) a bold new substance that offers tantalizing transformative possibilities. Man ingests new substance without adequate forethought. Man is driven insane, rendered unrecognizable, or killed. Early drug fiction is dark.

    The first king of this drug fiction was probably HG Wells, who wrote a boatload of enduring mind-warpers, from The Invisible Man (1897), in which a mad scientist uses a chemical cocktail to make himself unseeable, to the very prescient “The New Accelerator” (1901), in which a mad scientist concocts a drug that grants him limitless cognitive capacity, and slows the world down around him.

    You’ll notice a theme emerging here—the weapon of choice for mad scientists of all stripes is drugs. Clandestine labs with bubbling vials and grubby operating tables are a cornerstone of early science fiction, and that’s no accident. These fictions were responding to the emergence of the pharmaceutical sciences and the resultant rise of the drug industry, which the journal the journal Chemical and Engineering pegs to the period between 1870-1930—precisely when these stories were coming out.

    Skepticism of science and technology is endemic to all good speculative fiction, and these early “mad scientist” drug stories contain plenty. In fact, you’ll see the foundations of just about every drug-related fear we’re still grappling with today foreshadowed in this period: that we might abuse drugs designed to make us temporarily feel good, that we might overuse a performance-enhancing drug, that we might try drugs without adequately testing them.

    But these drugs tend only to affect the mad scientist and those unfortunate enough to cross the path of his misbegotten technology. In 1932 we come to what’s probably the most famous speculation about society-sanctioned drug use ever written, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Residents of far-future London are kept artificially tranquil by soma, a legal drug distributed by the state to cure restlessness; it’s the literal equivalent of Marx’s “opiate for the people,” and remains one of Huxley’s most bitingly resonant predictions for our Ritalin-addled age today.

    "Soma." Image by Alejo / Flickr.

    "Now—such is progress—the old men work, the old men copulate, the old men have no time, no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think,” Huxley writes, “or if ever by some unlucky chance such a crevice of time should yawn in the solid substance of their distractions, there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a weekend, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon; returning whence they find themselves on the other side of the crevice, safe on the solid ground of daily labor and distraction.”

    Sounds familiar! Between Stevenson, Wells, and Huxley, we’ve already got today’s amphetamines, Viagra, Adderall, and Xanax covered. (In the early 20th century, as pulp sci-fi began to boom, performance-enhancing and mind control drugs were a popular plot device, too.)

    But not all drug fiction cast substance use in a negative light. By the 1960s some visions of far-out drug usage were getting so positive that the US government decided to investigate whether such science fictions were encouraging recreational drug use, or at least uncover what they reflected about said use. In 1974, the National Institute on Drug Abuse commissioned a report from the prolific science fiction author Robert Silverberg, Drug Themes in Science Fiction. (Today, NIDA’s mission is “to lead the Nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction,” and has an operating budget of $1 billion.) I found an uploaded copy, photocopied from a volume checked out of a Maine library, on the online drug forum Erowid.

    “Two distinct attitudes toward the use of mind-related drugs have manifested themselves in science fiction,” Silverberg writes. “One is cautionary: that any extraordinary indulgence in extraordinary drugs is likely to rot the moral fiber of the user, leading to lassitude and general decay of the individual or of society, and ultimately, perhaps, aiding the establishment of a totalitarian order.”

    That was the dominant strain of drug fiction until the 60s, when the hippies, acid, and psilocybin came along; and with them, SF’s other altered state: “The other is visionary and utopian: that through the employment of drugs mankind can attain spiritual or psychological powers not ordinarily available, and by so doing can enter into a new and higher phase of existence,” Silverberg goes on. “This latter attitude has become far more widespread since 1965, when middle-class use of hallucinogenic and euphoric drugs in western industrial civilization first began to take on the aspect of a major cultural shift.”

    Nineteen-sixty-five was a landmark year for science fiction, thanks largely to the publication of Frank Herbert’s Dune, perhaps the most popular SF novel of all time. And the action revolves around drugs; namely, “melange,” or “spice.” Among other things, spice makes possible the bending of spacetime for interstellar travel, the seeing of prophetic visions, and the reaping of enough profits to run an intergalactic empire. In Dune, spice is quite literally the key to the universe. Only by joining a cult of desert-wandering, drug-addict sages and ingesting spice can hero Paul Atreides rise to become the Kwisatz Haderach—the saga’s Christ-figure—and overcome the tyrannical Harkonnens who killed his father and hoarded the universe’s spice mines.

    Melange. Screenshot, Dune.

    If it all seems pretty trippy, there's a reason—Herbert told the famous mycologist Paul Stamets that the much of the novel was inspired by his personal experimentation with magic mushrooms, which, along with LSD, had become a key drug in the counterculture of the psychedelic 60s.

    Robert Silverberg’s own 1971 A Time of Changes is even more explicit in its positivity; a society of miserable malcontents discovers a drug that enables telepathic communion between users, and thus begins to open minds and restore peace and wellbeing.

    By this point, drug fiction has exploded into the relative mainstream, in a variegated swirl of philosophies and structures. It's everywhere. While I've already glossed over a number of interesting faux substances (say, "The Diabolical Drug," from 1929, which placed users in suspended animation, or the anti-sleep drug from "He Never Slept" in 1934), from here on out, it would be impossible to note every hit of fictional drugs that end up in the cultural bloodstream. But they've also begun to cluster around a few types—in the interest of expediency, here are some of the most notable and influential kinds of substances that get abused in the halcyon days of drug fiction:

    Performance-enhancing drugs are other-worldly stimulants, like the jacked-up, ultraviolence-inducing amphetamine milk ("moloko plus") in Anthony Burgess's 1962 A Clockwork Orange. Or, on a much more playful note, the Venus Drug aphrodisiac in the infamous 1967 episode of Star Trek. We all want to be stronger, sexier, more formidable; taking a synthetic shortcut, in drug fiction, is rarely a good idea.

    A Clockwork Orange. Screenshot.

    Reality-warping drugs tend to take psychedelics and opiates to post-human extremes, and the best examples are no doubt Dick’s panoply of reality-challenging hallucinogens, perhaps best exemplified by Substance D, or “slow death,” in A Scanner, Darkly or the neuroin in Minority Report. William Burroughs’ “black meat,” from Naked Lunch, also deserves a mention; the stuff is so “delicious” and addictive it induces users to eat their own vomit to continue re-upping the high. These fictions examine the dark side of the psychedelic dream, addiction, and the risk of permanent slippage into unreality.

    Healing drugs are another common trope that, while dating back to antiquity, still form a quiet undergirding to many science fiction storylines—unless it's an immortality drug, it rarely takes center stage, probably because routine healthcare seems too boring—so it's the magical speed-cure, like the goop that Luke soaks in after getting mauled in the Empire Strikes Back. Occasionally, it's psychological, like Don DeLillo's Dylar, which relieves the fear of death in White Noise.

    Mind control drugs are substances that grant humans telepathy, or telekinesis, like those seen in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, where it’s being administered to babies in secret, so as to give rise to a sect of mind-controlling, head-exploding government agents. Mostly the stuff of pure fantasy, these fictions simmer with conspiracy theory undertones and blunt metaphoric overtones—the government (or corporations) will literally control everything; even your mind.


    The kaleidoscopic drug boom couldn't last forever, obviously; comedowns are inevitable. In the 80s and 90s, cyberpunk crashed the party. Drug use again became mostly grim, addictive, and prohibitive. Most interestingly, drugs were often used as a means of mediating our increasingly dependent connection to technology.

    In Neuromancer (1984), the cyberpunk Ur-text, the protagonist Henry Case has had his brains fried by Soviet mycotoxins, rendering him unable to jack into cyberspace. He’s also addicted to real drugs, until he has a synthetic tissue grafted onto his pancreas rendering him addiction-proof. In Snow Crash (1992), meanwhile, the title refers to a designer drug taken in virtual reality by hackers that then can kill them in real reality—it’s also a virus that could spread to wipe out all of humanity. It’s also everywhere.

    "Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing—is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?” the book’s protagonist asks at one point. His answer is predictable: "What's the difference?"

    Matrix screenshot.

    In the Matrix, taking the red pill disconnects Neo from the machines, and frees his true consciousness from their exploitative grasp.

    “Science fiction is as much a guide to where we are as a vision of where we are going,” Silverberg writes in Drug Themes in Science Fiction. “A literature so popular with the young, commanding so intense and devoted a following, can be of significant value in revealing the patterns contemporary society is taking and will take in the years just ahead.”

    Most recently (and tellingly) a lot of drugs are showing up in our science fiction as performance enhancers—again. It’s right back to HG Wells and his new accelerator. NDZ-70 from Limitless, which aired as a TV series this year, lets its users attain supernatural knowledge, and the ability to learn anything in a matter of days. In the Scarlett Johansson vehicle Lucy, a similar ultra-nootropic, CPH4, turns her character into a hyper-efficient, ultra-intelligent super-being. In the Judge Dredd reboot, the recreational drug Slo-Mo is the focus of action—and it lets users slow time to one percent of its normal speed, perhaps to escape a dystopian life of round-the-clock digitality and overwork.

    Now, we’re desperate for a drug that will help us adapt to the age of unrelenting data streams. Interestingly, in Limitless, everything sorta works out for the drug abuser in the end, despite his assholery—he finds a way to stay hooked forever, enjoying the benefits of the brain-boosting drugs without the cost. Maybe we’re so fried we're just delusional at this point.

    And that’s the commonality throughout all of our mind-warping fictions: they're mostly depictions of our hubris. They skewer our persistent belief that there is some pill, some plant, some substance that could cure everything for us, fix things.

    Even proto-drug seeker Gilgamesh’s efforts are for naught. A serpent eats his stash of botanical immortality while he’s napping. Defeated and drugless, he returns home, sees the glory of his city, praises the walls as the true form of immortality, and someone inscribes his story onto a lapis lazuli tablet. The drug was never worth it; living well was.

    Then again, we all know the story of immortality-seeking Gilgamesh now, four millennia later. Maybe the drugs worked after all.

    Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.