Drug Themes in Science Fiction/Overview of Drug Themes in Science Fiction

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Drug Themes in Science Fiction by Robert Silverberg


Defining science fiction is no easy task. Some of the definitions that have been proposed are so loose that they would qualify a book like Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith as science fiction—it surely is "fiction about science"—and others are drawn so narrowly that they would exclude much of what is published today in science-fiction magazines and books. With that caveat in mind, therefore, I offer one of the more flexible definitions, one which I think does cover the greater part of what I understand to be science fiction:

Science fiction is that branch of fantasy which engages in

imaginative speculation about the impact of technology on human society.

By classing science fiction as a branch of fantasy, I make it a subdivision of that vast literary genre that includes Homer's Odyssey, Milton's Paradise Lost, the Norse sagas, Alice in Wonderland, much of Poe, and so forth. Placing the emphasis on technology, however, requires science fiction to have a certain systematic content, an underlying rationale of theme. A story about a vampire is pure fantasy; a story that rationalizes vampirism in terms of metabolic phenomena is science fiction. It is the attempt at inducing a willing suspension of disbelief by supplying a plausible scaffolding for the implausible that gives science fiction its identity within the greater realm of fantasy.

But because science fiction is a form of fantasy, it is ideally suited for the exploration of drug-related phenomena. A drug is a kind of magic wand; but it is a chemist's magic wand, a laboratory product, carrying with it the cachet of science. By offering his characters a vial of green pills or a flask of mysterious blue fluid the author is able to work wonders as easily as a sorcerer; and by rigorously examining the consequences of his act of magic, he performs the exploration of speculative ideas which is the essence of science fiction.

So in the nineteenth century Robert Louis Stevenson produced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly devised an elixir of immortality in The Mortal Immortal, and H. G. Wells created a whole shelf of drug-related stories, speeding up human motion in "The New Accelerator," turning beasts into men in The Island of Dr. Moreau, depicting an unseeable phantom in The Invisible Man. And in the present century the use of mind-altering or mind-controlling drugs has become one of the prime vehicles for the speculations of science fictionists.

In preparing this study of drug themes in science fiction, I have employed the following categorical designations:

Drugs as Euphorics: Drugs that give pleasure in simple unstructured ways, through release from depression and tension, much as alcohol does in our society (though alcohol is not strictly speaking a euphoric, of course).
Drugs as Mind Expanders: Drugs that provide "psychedelic" visions of other times or places or that offer a sensation of oneness with the cosmos as a whole; analogous to LSD in our society.
Drugs as Panaceas: Drugs which, through tranquilizing or neutralizing effects, calm the mind without necessarily inducing euphoria.
Drugs as Mind Controllers: Drugs that enable one entity to limit or direct the activities or desires of another; analogous to brain-washing, and generally associated with totalitarian activities.
Drugs as Intelligence-Enhancers: Drugs which have the specific property of extending or amplifying the rational processes of the mind.
Drugs as Sensation-Enhancers: Drugs whose effects are achieved through amplified or extended bodily sensation-response, perhaps analogous to marijuana in our society.
Drugs as Reality-Testers: Drugs which permit the user to penetrate the "real" realities beyond the surface manifestations of daily life.
Drugs as Mind-Injurers: Drugs used as weapons in biochemical warfare, aimed at the mind.
Drugs as Means of Communication: Drugs that have the specific property of opening hitherto unknown channels of communication between minds.

Two distinct attitudes toward the use of mind-related drugs have manifested themselves in science fiction. 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. 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.

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. The cultural assumption of science fiction as a whole can clearly be seen to follow, rather than to lead, public opinion: most science fiction published in the twentieth century has been market commercial fiction which, however daring its departures from everyday reality, has generally tended to adopt the conventional moral dogmas of middle-class society, as does most commercial fiction. Science fiction of the 1920's and 1930's reveals a remarkable degree of racism no longer acceptable to general readers in what they read (though they may cling to prejudices in daily life). Science fiction of the 1940's and 1950's is marked by casual sexism likewise no longer officially acceptable. And science fiction in general has shown a strong, if implicit, bias in favor of capitalism, the work ethic, Puritan sexual morality, and other pillars of western industrial society. Drug-users in science fiction stories until quite recently were analogous to heavy users of alcohol in mainstream fiction: their reliance on a consciousness-altering substance was seen as a sign of weakness of character. In the past decade there has been a major cultural shift in our society toward hedonistic behavior, at first furtively, now openly; and this, after the customary lag, has been translated into a shift in the direction of permissiveness in the conventional moral attitudes expressed by popular entertainment. (The private behavior of individuals is almost always far more scandalous than the standards of behavior the public demands in entertainment or from elected officials, but as taboos dissolve in private life they weaken, to a lesser extent, in official public morality.)

Science fiction writers tend to be no more radical as a group than any other randomly selected cross-section of middle-class educated contemporary citizenry, so far as my extensive personal acquaintance with them has shown; however forward-looking their fictional visions may be, they are, in the main, far from atypical in daily life style. Not only do they conform to prevailing cultural beliefs more than outsiders are likely to suspect, but, as is true of most who depend for their livelihoods on mass-audience acceptance, they quite readily espouse a surprising conservatism of philosophy in their work. In the past, therefore, professional science-fictionists almost automatically chose a cautionary position for stories embodying drug-related themes, the drugs being symbolic of decay rather than growth, and it is only in the last few years that some writers have felt free to depict the use of certain mind drugs in a positive—even evangelical—light.

The extent of the shift may best be illustrated from the work of a writer who, although he wrote science fiction, cannot be considered a professional science-fictionist nor an advocate of conventional morality, and whose career was conducted almost entirely outside the taboo-ridden assumptions of mass-market publishing: Aldous Huxley.

Huxley's Brave New World (1932) is a bitter satiric novel that, as its sardonic title indicates, depicts a utopian world of the future in which children are born in bottles at a State Hatchery and Conditioning Center, designed by the benevolent world state to fit a particular economic niche, and, as adults, kept in line by a generous bread-and-circuses policy. Restlessness is cured by a wondrous drug called soma: ". . . if ever by some unlucky chance such a crevice of time should yawn in the solid substance of their distractions," Huxley tells us, "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. . . "[1] Those malcontents and non-comformists who cannot accept the soft mechanical pleasures of Huxley's brave new world are exiled to remote islands.

Soma, in Brave New World, is implicitly condemned as an opiate, a mind-luller, an instrument of repression. Huxley's negative outlook toward the drug is not, though, an expression of work-oriented Puritan morality so much as a classic liberal-humanitarian distrust of technology: the Huxley of 1932 plainly believed that mankind coddled by drugs was something less than what mankind could be. The young Huxley felt contempt for those who needed mechanical aids or who depended on anything other than the force of their own intellects. Many years later, however, a very different Huxley experienced the psychedelic marvels of mescaline and LSD, which kindled in him strong esthetic delight and something akin to spiritual ecstasy. When he next attempted the fictional construction of a utopian commonwealth, in Island (1962), his outlook on mind-altering drugs was far more sympathetic. In this ideal state of the future one uses not the soporific soma but the ecstasy-invoking moksha, a mind-expanding hallucinogen. Concerning moksha one character says, "Having had the misfortune to be brought up in Europe, Murugan calls it dope and feels about it all the disapproval that, by conditioned reflex, the dirty word evokes. We, on the contrary, give the stuff good names—the moksha-medicine, the reality-revealer, the truth-and-beauty pill. And we know, by direct experience, that the good names are deserved."[2] Huxley is really talking about LSD, and his tone is that of the acid-evangelist.

Drug as contemptible anodyne, drug as gateway to higher reality—those are the poles bounding the handling of drugs in science fiction. The older science fiction was preponderantly negative, as, for example, James Gunn's The Joymakers, published in 1961 but written half a decade earlier, in which a repressive government sustains itself through mandatory use of euphorics. The same theme can be found in Hartley's Facial Justice (1960), and in other works. Even when not used as an instrument of totalitarianism, drugs are often seen as dangerous self-indulgence, as in Wellman's Dream-Dust from Mars (1938), Smith's Hellflower (1953), or Pohl's What to Do Until the Analyst Comes (1956). The prototypes for the imaginary drugs described in these stories are alcohol and heroin—drugs which blur the mind and lower the consciousness.

Much recent science fiction, however, taking cognizance of such newly popular drugs as LSD, marijuana, and mescaline, show society transformed, enhanced, and raised up by drug use. Silverberg's A Time of Changes (1971) portrays a dour, self-hating culture into which comes a drug that stimulates direct telepathic contact between human minds and brings into being a subculture of love and openness. This creates a great convulsion in the society, but the implication is that the change the drug brings is beneficial. Similarly, in Panshin's How Can We Sink When We Can Fly? (1971), a drug called tempus that induces travel in time is part of the educational process of a future society. In The Peacock King by McCombs and White (1965) LSD is used as a training device to prepare astronauts for the rigors of interstellar travel, and in H. H. Hollis' Stoned Counsel (1972) hallucinogenic drugs have become routine aspects of courtroom work. Another view of a society transformed but not necessarily injured by mass drug use is Wyman Guin's Beyond Bedlam, dating from 1951, in which schizophrenia is desired and encouraged and is induced by drugs. In Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (1971) hallucinogens play a part in ecstatic religion on another world.

A variant of the mind-expanding drug is the intelligence-enhancing drug, long a common theme in science fiction. Some recent exponents of the theme are Brunner's The Stone That Never Came Down (1973), Dickson's The R-Master (1973), and Disch's Camp Concentration (1968).

Not all depiction of drugs in irecent science fiction is sympathetic, of course. Aldiss' Barefoot in the Head (1970) shows all of Europe thrown into confusion by the "acid-head war," in which an Arab power doses the whole continent with psychedelic weapons. (Aldiss does indicate at least peripherally that the new tripped-out culture emerging in war-wrecked Europe is not entirely inferior to its predecessor.) Chester Anderson's lighthearted The Butterfly Kid (1967) depicts hallucinogenic drugs as weapons employed by aliens, whether mind-expanding, mind-contracting, or mind-controlling. In the horrendously overpopulated future of Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), LSD and marijuana are the best available escapes from the daily nightmare that is life; in a similarly crowded world imagined by Doris Pitkin Buck in Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming (1964) the drug of choice is nothing we have today, but rather one that gives the user the vicarious experience of existence as a dinosaur! However different the details, though, the stories say the same thing: that fortitude is not enough, that chemical assistance will be needed.

The stories in the sample chosen for this project illustrate the whole range of drug themes in science fiction, from the plausible to the fantastic, from the horrifying to the ecstasy-inducing. In a world where man and his technological marvels must coexist along an uneasy interface, science fiction indicates some of the possible impact areas in the decades and centuries ahead.

  1. 1. Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1946. p. 67.
  2. 2. Huxley, Aldous. Island. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1962. p. 157.