“We’re All Dreaming,” Arctor Said: Drugs in Science Fiction, from the 1960s to the Present
Open any of the best-known science fiction books from about 1965 to 1975 and the odds are that you’ll find some reference to drugs. This isn’t surprising. The 1960s, after all, were rife with upheavals. Escalating involvement in the Vietnam War, the threat of nuclear apocalypse with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the moon landing of 1969, and the civil rights, youth and counterculture movements—just to name a few—represent some of the decade’s many instances of social and political dislocation.
In the counterculture, the use of drugs such as marijuana, LSD, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics blossomed. Partially as a result of the same restless impulse to experiment, to seek new forms of awareness and self-expression, that fueled the counterculture, science fiction’s popularity grew.
This interest attracted new writers, many of them well versed in contemporary literature and theory, into the field. Science fiction entered a transformative phase known as the New Wave. During the New Wave, genre writers relied primarily on modernist prose techniques to explore subjects like sex, overpopulation, non-Western religions, ecology, environmentalism, entropy, and “inner space,” often trying to break taboos along the way.
As a literature that extrapolates technological change but also tends to reflect the times in which it’s written, it was perhaps inevitable that much New Wave science fiction would feature drugs.
Consider a few examples. Perhaps the most powerful plot device in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) is the spice “melange,” literally the most valuable commodity in the universe1. Herbert’s subsequent The Santaroga Barrier (1968) posits an alternate society built around the consumption of the fictional psychedelic “Jaspers.”
Brian Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head (1969) uses Joycean language to chronicle the new, permanently tripped out society that arises from the ashes of the old as a result of an “acid-head war.” Philip K. Dick’s2The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Now Wait for Last Year (1966) deal with various layers of reality and disembodied consciousnesses moving through time. Early stories by Norman Spinrad, such as “Carcinoma Angels” (1967), “No Direction Home” (1972) and “The Weed of Time” (1973), as well as novels like The Men in the Jungle (1967) and Bug Jack Barron (1969), all entail drug use.
In Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth (1970) the protagonist is able to achieve ecstatic communion with the alien planet’s elephant-like beings via hallucinogens; and in Silverberg’s A Time of Changes (1971) a culture which proscribes the sharing of the self is confronted with a telepathy-facilitating drug.
In John Brunner’s The Stone That Never Came Down (1973), the drug “VC” (viral coefficient) boosts intelligence and memory, leading to an overall saner world3. The notion of a dystopia in which drugs are used by the state to control the population, an old idea4, was explored in George Lucas’ film THX 1138 (1971).
And in the grim future of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), which adapted a novella by Anthony Burgess, “Milkbars” dispensed the drug-laced “milk-plus.”
During this period, then, the relationship between drugs in society and drugs in SF appears relatively straightforward: their explosion in the former was recorded in the latter.
But what has happened between 1973 and today?
After the Wave Crashed
During the 1970s, drug use in the US (expressed as a percentage of its population) reached a peak. By 1979, 14.1% of those aged twelve or older were reporting illicit consumption of marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, heroin, or nonmedical use of sedatives, tranquilizers, stimulants, or analgesics during the last month5. Despite the fact that President Nixon began a “war on drugs” in 1971, public perception of drugs as a societal problem was low throughout the decade.
The Gallup poll, which asks a population sample, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?”, reported that only 20% of those asked named drugs as part of their answer in 1973, and by late 1979, there was barely mention of drugs in survey responses6. So while drug usage was elevated, drugs were no longer a topic of intense social discourse.
In broad terms, 1970s science fiction reflects this. The New Wave came to an end, but its crash left many writers’ and readers’ expectations reconfigured. Andrew Butler uses the term “amphicatastrophe” to describe 1970s narratives: they avoid the happy, often redemptive endings typical of what J. R. R. Tolkien dubbed “eucatastrophes,” but also the catharsis that derives from the protagonists’ failure in what Tolkien named “dyscatastrophes.”7
1970s science fiction consistently questions assumptions about heterosexuality, patriarchy and capitalism, and other “invisible enemies”8. Drugs may enable these conversations, but aren’t necessarily part of the discussions themselves, as in, for example, Thomas M. Disch’s 334 (1972), Ian Watson’s The Embedding (1973) or Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To .. . (1977).
This does not mean that all, or even, most key texts of the 1970s trade in drugs, even as a conduit to other issues. In fact, many artists and readers went flocking in the opposite direction, seeking the more familiar comforts of adventure-driven fiction: the decade saw a swell of sword-and-planetary romances, Tolkien imitators and fantasy role-playing games, as well as big-budget films and series like Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and Flash Gordon (1980). These works don’t reflect any sense of crisis or preoccupation with drugs9.
Somewhere between those trying to break the mold and those seeking solace within its confines, were veteran writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Clifford D. Simak and Leigh Brackett. Their 1970s output is often not in direct dialogue with contemporary trends, and is best understood in the context of those writers’ individual and idiosyncratic careers.
“Say Hello to My Little Friend!”
In the 1980s, illicit drug consumption decreased, falling from the previously stated 14.1% to 12.1% by 198510. However, the perception of drug abuse as a major societal ill began to increase, from 2-3% in the mid 1980s up to 64% in 198911. If drug usage decreased significantly (down to 7.7% by 1988, just one year before that survey), why did public awareness of it skyrocket?
The answer is the cocaine/crack cocaine “epidemic” of the 1980s12. The phenomenon received intense media coverage, and imprinted itself strongly on the national consciousness. Non-genre films like Scarface (1983), Less than Zero (1987), Clean and Sober (1988), Bright Lights, Big City (1988) and even B-grade action vehicles like Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (1990) portrayed the epidemic on all scales, from the personal to the international.
Within science fiction films, cocaine itself is less evident. Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), with its psychedelics, was in sense a throwback to the New Wave; David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) featured “ephemerol,” a drug that both created telepaths and was able to dampen their abilities; Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal (1981) offered viewers “plutonian nyborg,” which looked like cocaine but produced marijuana-like effects; David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune (1984) brought melange to the big screen; Mark L. Lester’s film version of Stephen King’s Firestarter (1984) linked the hallucinogen “LOT-6” with telepathy and pyrokinesis; Graham Baker’s Alien Nation (1988) introduced “Jabroka,” which could control the film’s alien Newcomers without harming humans.
Perhaps only Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990) featured a stand-in for crack cocaine, in the form of the highly addictive, aggression-causing narcotic “Nuke.”
Histories of written science fiction typically identify the 1980s with cyberpunk, which regularly featured drug use. Reflecting this, Kim Stanley Robinson once provided a “recipe” for cyberpunk, and one of the ingredients was “a half gram of Dexadrine.”13
The novel most often identified with cyberpunk is William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), whose main characters all use “Pills,” “Derms,” or other needle-injected substances. John Shirley’s Eclipse or A Song Called Youth trilogy (1985-1990) depicts the trade and use of “sink,” or synthetic cocaine, as well as other more baroque forms of intoxication.
Later cyberpunk descendants, like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), whose “snow crash” doubles as both computer virus and central nervous system viral disease, were more explicitly innovative as relates to drugs, by blending the technological with the biological.
We should also remember that while cyberpunk was an important movement during this decade, drugs continued to appear in non-cyberpunk science fiction as well. The acclaimed early short stories from this period by Lucius Shepard, for instance, regularly depict characters in the throes of drug addiction14.
And of course, as in the 1970s, many writers were working in non-cyberpunk modes that didn’t make much use of drugs: Gregory Benford’s Timescape (1980), Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen (1980), Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy (1982-1985) and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (1989) are a few examples.
Strange Days Indeed
In the 1990s illicit drug usage continued to decline, averaging about 6.2%. Cocaine use saw a stark reduction from 1980s levels. Reported lifetime heroin use, however, began to increase: in 1990 it was 0.8%, and, despite fluctuations, by 1999 it had reached 1.4%. During this decade, use of ecstasy (MDMA), often linked with the rave and club scenes, also increased.
The history of science fiction during the 1990s is complex, and has been less critically examined than previous decades. At least three different trends have been identified, though: a resurgence of space opera (technological globalization in part replacing cyberpunk’s imagined global slum), a preponderance of apocalyptic and singularity-oriented narratives, and increased porosity in perceived genre boundaries15.
We begin to see, then, a considerable fragmentation of an already-divided genre. Drugs are still a crucial element of some of the decade’s important books: the “feathers” in Jeff Noon’s Vurt (1993), for example, were not only hallucinogens, but provided a gateway to a shared alternate reality, while the immunosuppressant drugs (and cosmetic surgeries) routinely administered to the natives of a colony planet in Paul Park’s Coelestis (1993) allowed these aliens to be remolded into human shape.
But many of the decade’s significant works—such as Greg Bear’s Queens of Angels (1990), John Varley’s Steel Beach (1992), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993-1996), Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book (1992), Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain (1993) and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)—make little more than occasional drug references.
The science fiction television landscape, however, tells another story: perhaps by now it was starting to catch up with the drug tropes that had been explored on the page in previous decades. Alien Nation’s (1989-1990) “digitalin,” TekWar’s (1994-1996) eponymous “tek,” Babylon 5’s (1993-1998) “dust,” “Sleepers” and “stims,” and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s (1993-1999) “Ketracel-white” were all vital parts of these shows’ ongoing stories, rather than the subject of one-off episodes. In film, Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man (1992) treated VR as drug-like, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) similarly viewed personal memories as a drug: both films were inspired by 1980s cyberpunk sensibilities.
As we might expect, things become even fuzzier during the next decade and a half.
2001 and Beyond
Illicit drug consumption increased from 6.3% in 2000 to 9.2% in 2012. Heroin usage was certainly a driving factor16; marijuana too. Though marijuana remains illegal under federal law, state ballots legalized it in 2012 in Colorado and Washington. In adolescents aged twelve-to-seventeen, there has been a concomitant decline in the perception of marijuana as harmful, which may indicate increased future usage17. And yet, to really get a sense of the last decade and a half, I believe we should widen the scope of our discussion and think not only about illegal drugs but, more broadly, addiction.
Increasingly, diverse activities seem to reflect growing obsessive/compulsive behavior among us, if not outright addiction. Illustrative of this possible macro-trend are consumption rates for prescription drugs18, rising obesity from what some call “food addiction,”19unprecedented levels of television consumption20, and a massive increase in cosmetic procedures21. More difficult to quantify or prove, but nonetheless frequently discussed, are sex addiction and pornography consumption rates.
Does science fiction from the last fifteen years reflect this proliferation of addictive tendencies?
The answer, as far as television shows is concerned, is a resounding yes. Drugs are now firmly embedded in science fiction shows, and their story arcs wouldn’t be possible without them. A few examples: “promicin” in The 4400 (2004-2007) is a fictional neurotransmitter that has a 50% probability of killing its user and a 50% probability of endowing them with an “ability”; the addictive “Wraith enzyme” in Stargate: Atlantis (2004-2008) confers humans with increased strength and speed; and “cortexiphan” in Fringe (2008-2013) is a nootropic, or “smart drug,” that results in abilities like telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and astral projection.
Many recent films also rely heavily on drug tropes. Equilibrium’s (2002) “prozium” suppresses emotions, an idea that goes at least as far back as Arthur K. Barnes’ short story “Emotion Solution” (1936). The first three entries in the popular X-Men film series (2000, 2003, 2006) deal with a mutant-inhibiting drug known simply as “the cure.”
The world-wide virus unleashed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is caused by the drugs “ALZ-112” and “ALZ-113.” Dredd’s (2012) “Slo-Mo,” which stretches subjective time, harkens back to the similar “tempus fugit” in Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951). And nootropics make additional appearances in the form of “NZT-48” in Neil Burger’s Limitless (2011) and as “CPH4” in Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014).
Regarding written science fiction, I mentioned its marked fragmentation in the 90s: if anything, this has accelerated in the years since. There are now more fantastical camps or sub-genres than ever before. As might be expected, some of these deal with drugs and addiction, while others don’t.
Steampunk stories, for instance, often feature historically-appropriate drugs: in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009), “lemon sap” is a highly addictive “yellowish, gritty, paste-like substance” distilled from a toxic mist that eventually renders its users zombie-like, while in Tarnished (2012), the first volume of Karina Cooper’s St. Croix Chronicles, the heroine is addicted to opium and laudanum.
China Miéville’s work, often associated with the New Weird, uses drugs to great effect. Perdido Street Station (2000), for instance, features a caterpillar that feeds on the drug “dreamshit,” while Embassytown (2011) features addiction to a new kind of speech.
It’s tempting to reassess vampire fiction, with its renewed popularity, under the lens of addiction; vampires, after all, live in a shadow world and feel an insatiable need for their next “fix” of blood. But vampire narratives tend to focus more on gender and sexual politics22. (There are, of course, exceptions: a notable one may be Abel Ferrara’s film The Addiction ).
Zombies, on the other hand, operate at sub-human levels, endlessly repeating a brain-damaged cycle of consumption, behavior that can better be seen as a stand-in for addiction23.
Urban fantasy has also picked up on addiction as a theme. Jaye Wells’ Prospero’s War series, for instance, is founded on the notion that magic is addictive, and the author has commented that every character in the series “is affected by addiction. It’s not that different from real life.”24
Meanwhile, other specialized story forms, such as hard SF, military SF or Weird West, don’t seem particularly preoccupied with the subject.
Perhaps it is science fiction writers not associated with particular subgenres who are most consistently continuing to ring interesting variations on the drug/addiction theme. In fact, we may be seeing a small renaissance of such work.
Nancy Kress’ Yesterday’s Kin (2014), though not about drugs per se, neatly literalizes the notion of drugs as changing one’s personality by inventing the drug “sugarcane,” which actually changes who one is, in the words of one of its users, into “the person he was supposed to be”—though, as it happens, that person is the never the same twice.
Maxwell Chambers, the protagonist of Henry Escaya’s The Making of Miasma (2014), begins as an addict to “Cerulean,” a drug that stimulates pattern recognition in the brain, and, through a government drug trial, is exposed to the far more dangerous and life-altering “Dobrom,” triggering a massive epidemic. Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty (2014), set in a post-smart drug revolution future, perhaps features the ultimate fictional drug: the “Numinous” provides access to divinity, or God, for each user, thereby rendering all other drugs unnecessary.
As long as science fiction continues to be concerned with questions of identity, perception, epistemology, pleasure, freedom and existentialism, it seems likely that drugs and addiction will continue to be integral parts of its narrative kit.
The genre’s history shows that these are among the most versatile storytelling tools available, and can be used to zoom in or enhance any conceivable idea in all manner of recreated pasts, alternate presents, and extrapolated futures. I think it’s safe to say that drugs in science fiction are here to stay.
1 The novel also features the addictive mental enhancer “sapho juice.”
2 Much of Philip K. Dick’s work makes use of drugs, and he wrote at length on the subject (see, for example, his essay “Drugs, Hallucinations and the Quest for Reality” ). Perhaps one of the most memorable fictional psychoactive drugs in his body of work is the powerful “Substance D” in A Scanner Darkly (1977), the book from which the title of this article is taken.
3 I invite the curious reader to seek out Robert Silverberg’s Drug Themes in Science Fiction (1974), a critical bibliography of science fiction drug stories from 1929-1973.
4 “Soma,” for example, is an instrument of distraction and repression in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).
5 2014 National Drug Control Strategy - 2014 Data Supplement, Table 2, page 24. Drug usage statistics expressed as a percentage of the population in this article are from this source, unless otherwise noted. All drug usage and addiction references throughout this article refer to the United States.
6 See Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance by Erich Goode & Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1994), Chapter 12, “The American Drug Panic of the 1980s.”
7 For a thorough and engrossing discussion, I recommend Andrew M. Butler’s book-length study Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s (2012), from which this term is quoted.
8 See prev.
9 It’s possible, too, that with the discovery of endorphins in 1975, and various other studies regarding neurotransmitters bearing fruit, for many the notion of transcendent experience may have started to decouple from hallucinogens. Chemistry, rather than spirituality, became associated with these “trips,” surely removing some of the appeal.
10 Consider Quaaludes, for example. Quaaludes (the brand name of methaqualone, first prescribed in the 1960s as a non-addictive sleeping aid) surged in popularity, particularly among teens, in the 1970s. But government initiatives had severely reduced their consumption by 1984: see page 47, “Methaqualone (1982)”, of http://www.justice.gov/dea/about/history/1980-1985.pdf.
11 This last figure is based on respondents to a New York Times/CBS News poll. See Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance by Erich Goode & Nachman Ben-Yehuda (1994), Chapter 12, “The American Drug Panic of the 1980s.”
12 Figures on maximum cocaine use vary with sources. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration used throughout, cocaine consumption reached an apex of 3%—5.7 million Americans—by 1985. A PBS website, on the other hand, places the maximum in 1982, and says there were 10.4 million users.
13 See Mississippi Review, 47/8 (1988), p. 51.
15 An annotated discussion may be found in “Chapter 10: The 1990s” of Roger Luckhurst’s Science Fiction (2005).
16 Heroin usage went from 1.6% to 1.8% during this period, and resulted in more heroin-related overdoses than ever before. For a recent write-up, see http://time.com/4505/heroin-gains-popularity-as-cheap-doses-flood-the-u-s/.
18 In 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report titled “Addressing Prescription Drug Abuse in the United States” that contains alarming statistics, such as the fact that “opioid-related overdose deaths now outnumber overdose deaths involving all illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine combined.” Researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center have found that “nearly 70% of Americans are on at least one prescription drug, and more than half take two.”
19 More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are currently overweight or obese, and obesity rates have more than doubled in adults and children since the 1970’s (see http://frac.org/initiatives/hunger-and-obesity/obesity-in-the-us/). A 2009 paper published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that “multiple but similar brain circuits are disrupted in obesity and drug addiction,” and advised “that strategies aimed at improving dopamine function might be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of obesity.” The American Foundation for Addiction Research has compiled a list of articles on “food addiction.” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Michael Moss has gathered and documented a myriad ways in which the processed food industry continuously and scientifically re-engineers its product to create maximum cravings in its consumers as a means of increasing revenue in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013).
20 In 2000 the average American man watched four hours and eleven minutes of television per day, the American woman four hours and forty-six minutes; by 2009 these figures had climbed to four hours and fifty-four minutes and five hours and thirty-one minutes respectively (see the compilation of TV-related statistics “TV Basics” assembled by the Television Bureau of Advertising). A 2012 Nielsen report found that the average American over the age of two was watching more than thirty-four hours of live television a week, in addition to three to six hours of recorded programs. An article published by Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Scientific American, “Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor” (February 2002), suggests a parallelism between the symptoms of drug dependency, such as withdrawal, and prolonged television consumption. According to a recent TiVo survey, the newer phenomenon of “binge watching” is increasing, too, and perceptions of it as a negative are declining among viewers. (Perhaps ironically, the most binge-watched show at the start of 2014 was Breaking Bad [2008-2013]).
21 According to 2013 data released by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there has been a whopping 279% rise in the total number of cosmetic procedures performed in the US since 1997. During this timeframe surgical procedures (of which the five most common, in descending order, were liposuction, breast augmentation, blepharoplasty, abdominoplasty, and rhinoplasty) increased by 89%, while nonsurgical procedures increased by 521% (the five most common, in descending order, were botulinum toxin, hyaluronic acid, hair removal, microdermabrasion, and photorejuvenation). Repeat cosmetic surgery patients are also becoming more common; business from repeat patients increased by 13% from 2009 to 2010, by 8% from 2010 to 2011, by 7% from 2011 to 2012, and again by 4% from 2012 to 2013 (see individual yearly reports at http://www.plasticsurgery.org/news/plastic-surgery-statistics.html).
22 See Jennifer Fountain’s “The Vampire in Modern American Media: 1975 - 2000.”
23 Zombies have often been discussed in terms of other forces, like consumerism. See, for example, Stephen Harper’s “Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.”