Science Fiction’s Speculative Pharmacopeia

Last week, I published an article on Motherboard rounding up some of my favorite fake drugs from the coffers of science fiction. The list isn’t exhaustive; rather, it tackles a representative spread of uppers, downers, psychedelics, and unclassifiables. The tradition dates back to Homerian lotus-eaters, and has been taken up by everyone from Aldous Huxley (his Soma, from Brave New World, is a canonical ‘lude) to Anthony Burgess and William Gibson, whose oeuvre abounds with snorted uppers. In the article, I argue that fake drugs serve a specific purpose in science fiction: they allow writers to make key adjustments to the human brain, just as speculative technologies alter the human world.

Consider it this way: science fiction is like chaos theory. It alters small, key variables about the world, just to see which butterflies cause thunderstorms 10, 50, or 100 years into the future. When we read even the basest genre fiction, we acknowledge that the continuum of reality can persist, in a more-or-less recognizable manner, even when an author has deliberately removed (or added) something vital. Science fiction asks us to imagine all manner of things: flying cars, interstellar travel, cosmic war, and advanced weaponry. We find ourselves in a radically altered landscape–the unchecked globalized sprawl of William Gibson, say, or the shiny planetary colonies of Robert Heinlein–and immediately set about, as in a children’s game, spotting the differences.

The fun is in examining the disconnects, and drawing our conclusions back to the present. In short, when we consider the flying car, what we’re really wrapping our heads around is the significance of their road-bound cousins. But the examples I’ve cited here are only modifications of the physical world. Humanity, despite its space-age digs, is usually the same old dog; an astronaut is just a space cowboy, after all, with a snazzy outer-space backdrop. What about when science fiction wants to be about inner space, not outer space? Never mind those astronauts’ first steps on an alien planet––what about their first thoughts? Just as we imagine leaving the solar system, we must also imagine new ways of getting outside the head.

Like an addictive street drug, the piece has been propagating across the web, thanks to some friendly promotion from The Verge and the great dismal master himself, William Gibson. Of course, many have pointed out that my list lacks many classic science fiction drugs: NZT, the brain-booster from Limitless (incidentally the only drug from this category I can imagine sampling), Nuke from Robocop, and Slo-Mo from Judge Dredd, to name a few. And that’s only the overtly SF inventions; we can’t forget Dylar, an experimental treatment for the fear of death, from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the various heroin analogues of William Burroughs, or, you know, Hobbit pipeweed. Speculative drugs in film, literature, comics, and video games are such a widespread narrative conceit that a full list would bore readers to tears. To wit, I present to you the exhaustive (and exhausting) “List of Fictional Medicines and Drugs” section of Wikipedia. Enjoy!

And, hey, while you’re over at Motherboard, why not tune in, drop out, and check out some of my other science-fiction and technology pieces?

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