Drug Themes in Science Fiction/Preface

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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. Once the obscure amusement of a few thousand cultists, science fiction is now read by millions; such novelists as Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Crichton, and others have reached the best-seller lists with works of science fiction; motion pictures such as 2001 have won wide audiences and science fiction has been conspicuous in the theater and in the themes of popular music. 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.

Surveys have shown that the audience for science fiction primarily adolescent and above-average in intelligence; most of the readers are between 15 and 25 years of age (though of course some remain addicts of the genre throughout their lives). Therefore, there is great correspondence between the main drug-using and science-fiction-reading segments of the population, and it is worthwhile to examine science fiction for insights into the use of mind-altering drugs and for views of what drug use may lie in the future.

For the present research project 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. I have avoided inclusion of that large body of stories dealing with drugs whose effects are primarily on the body rather than the mind: immortality serums, for example. 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. 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. For reasons explained in the accompanying introductory essay, 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.

Science fiction is as much a guide to where we are as it is a vision of where we are going. 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.