Cover of NIDA's Research Issues Volume 9: Drug Themes in Science Fiction

The Definitive Guide to Sci-Fi Drugs Was Produced by the Government in the 1970s

In 1974, the National Institute on Drug Abuse hired the sci-fi writer Robert Silverberg to investigate drug themes in his booming genre.

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Dec 10 2015, 2:00pm

Cover of NIDA's Research Issues Volume 9: Drug Themes in Science Fiction

The 1970s were a different time: Star Wars had no prequels, the ice storm was raging, and the federal government was still trying to figure out what the hell happened in the 60s. Of course, it was worried about drugs. So, its newest public health agency undertook the task of compiling a series of reports, examining everything from drug use during sex to drug use in fiction.

"Drug Themes in Science Fiction" was written by Robert Silverberg in 1974, a popular, prolific science fiction writer who had himself experimented in the genre. It's a thorough investigation into the type and function of imaginary drugs featured in about 75 different sci-fi novels, novellas, and short stories. It's a fascinating document, a potent sign of its times.

The counterculture movement had pushed drug use closer to the mainstream, even though, according to Gallup, only 4 percent of Americans had reported trying marijuana by the decade's end. Still, images of acid-dropping hippies and half-mad Timothy Leary-types ruled the collective imagination—along with the drug-fueled sci-fi boom that had come to loom large in pop culture.

Apparently, the rampant drug use in major cultural touchstones like Dune (where the heroes get high enough to warp space-time with "spice"), Philip K. Dick's novels (Substance D, neuronin, anyone?) and Naked Lunch so intrigued the nation's health authorities decided to hire a sci-fi writer to help make sense of it all.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, which was established in 1974 (though it had its roots in other addiction research agencies stretching back decades before), was on the case. The agency's stated goal remains to "lead the Nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction." Shortly after its inception, it embarked on creating a research series on drug use to disseminate to academics, health professionals, and the public. NIDA described the ten-volume series as "summaries of the major research findings of the last 15 years, formulated and detailed to provide the reader with the purpose, methodology, findings and conclusions of previous studies done in the topic area."

Most of the volumes are straightforward literature reviews of specific topics, like "Drugs and Employment," and "Drugs and Sex," but the last two would seem a bit more unorthodox today. One tackles fiction, and the other, specifically, science fiction.

Drug Themes in Science Fiction, 1974

I stumbled on the remarkable document while researching a story about the history of drug use in science fiction. A PDF of the entire 55-page volume had been scanned from a public library in Maine and posted to Erowid, the user-generated drug info depot.

"I have compiled a group of English-language short stories and novels which deal with the use of mind-altering drugs, all written since 1900 and falling within the literary category of science fiction," Silverberg writes in the volume, noting that he's only focusing on fictional drugs that affect the mind, not those that, say, grant immortality.

"Some of these stories date from the earliest years of the science fiction genre, notably from the 1920's and 1930's when mass-market science-fiction magazines first began publication," he continues. "Not surprisingly, however, the majority of the stories within the study date from the post-1965 period, when the use of drugs first pervaded the national life to its present extent."

And that's likely why the government was interested in the project. Silverberg points out that "science fiction is more often a reflection of existing societal trends than a prediction of trends to come. The upsurge in drug use is precisely mirrored by the upsurge in the use of such themes in science fiction."

Here's a sample of his analysis:

"The explosive upsurge in the use of mind-altering drugs by middle -class Americans in the past decade has been a conspicuous and much-discussed phenomenon of our times. Beginning in the mid-1960's and peaking, perhaps, about 1970, the use of marijuana, LSD, and even heroin has taken on the character of an epidemic, not only among the young but among many citizens of mature years. Though at present the spread of heroin addiction appears to be once more confining itself to low-income groups and LSD has become less fashionable among the experimental-minded, certainly marijuana has established itself as an almost universal drug used regularly by millions of Americans, and use of more potent mind-alterers remains heavy if no longer greatly accelerating.

"During the period of social dislocation—marked by radical changes in styles of clothing and dress, assassinations of political leaders, disruption of the governmental processes as a response to a war commonly seen as immoral, rampant inflation, and other traumas and upheavals—that corresponds to the spread of drug use in the United States, science fiction has become one of the most popular specialized subgenres of literature... While this increase in the popularity of science fiction is in part a response to the wide publicity accorded the space explorations of the United States and the Soviet Union, I think it is much more to be ascribed to some of the same forces that have stimulated so much interest in drug-taking.

"That is, in a period of social upheaval such as we have experienced since the death of John F. Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnamese war, conventional modes of behavior lose their appeal, and fascination with the bizarre, the alien, the unfamiliar, the strange, with all sorts of stimulation that provide escape from the realities of the moment, increases at a great rate. Science fiction not only offers those values in abundance but also, in its facet as satirical commentary on the here -and -now world, provides a perspective on our rapid social changes that has great appeal to readers, especially the young."

It's a fairly far-out project—and thesis—for the government to take on, let alone publish. (It's also interesting that Silverberg, and the government, credit drugs for science fiction's mainstream ascent.) So how did it come about? Unfortunately, nobody at NIDA can dig up any information at all about the project. A representative at NIDA told me that it tried "to track down any information about the document you sent and unfortunately we can't find anything on it. It was done too long ago for us to have any additional knowledge on the paper."

Silverberg has little recollection of the project's genesis, either.

"You're asking about a project I did 40 years ago," he told me in an email. "I don't remember all the details. I do recall that I was contacted by a government subcontractor in Los Angeles that was putting together such surveys for NIDA," he said. "Since I was a well-known science-fiction writer who had touched on aspects of the drug culture in his own novels, I was a logical choice to do the piece." (He does note that he "had a tough time getting paid, though eventually I did.")

Drug Themes in Science Fiction, 1974

We do know that the project was "intended to aid researchers who find it difficult to find the time to scan, let alone read all the information which exists and which continues to be published daily in their area of interest," as Dan Lettieri, the project officer at NIDA at the time, explains in the introduction. "The subjects of drugs and the visual arts, science fiction, and fiction—aspects of contemporary life which impact on all of us—are explored here by writers who have been deeply involved in those fields. Their content is perhaps provocative, and certainly stimulating."

Indeed—and neither Silverberg nor NIDA are aware of anything like it existing anywhere else, before or since.

"I don't know of other projects like it. And I'm not up to date on drug stuff these days—I did all my research on that subject forty and fifty years ago, and at the age of 80 am not au courant any more," Silverberg says. "My impression is that the intensity of interest in the subject has faded somewhat in SF since the 1970s."

That may be true for now, but there's been a recent resurgence of sci-fi drugs, from the ultimate performance enhancer in Limitless to, say, the slo-mo in the Judge Dredd reboot. Recent substance fictions seem to fixate on the ability to complete—or avoid doing—superhuman amounts of work; perhaps as much a reflection of our fears of 24/7 digital working hell as the blissed out sci-fi mind-benders were of the abstracted potential of the 60s-era summers of love.

"Science fiction is as much a guide to where we are as it is a vision of where we are going," Silverberg wrote in 1974. "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."