Tue
Jun 14 2011 4:48pm

Space Drugs are So Passé: The Narcotics of Science Fiction

The allure of and tragedy of hard drugs frequently makes for fascinating subject matters in popular fiction. From Irvin Welsh’s Trainspotting, to the retroactively fictional James Frey book, A Million Little Pieces, drugs can be almost as important to the narrative as the characters who take them. Science fiction and fantasy often speculates on what kinds of narcotics exist in the future or in alternate dimensions. Here are some of the most famous.

The Spice Melange (Dune)

Spice walrus!

Talk about institutionalized drugs. This narcotic permeates almost every aspect of the Fremen culture insofar as that it is primarily responsible for intergalactic commerce. The Spice is not only multi-flavored with a variety of uses, it also serves different functions in the narrative itself. Like all good fictional macguffins, the Spice is both the focus of much of the story, but also imbedded in the fabric of the story itself. The Spice must flow, not only throughout the galaxy, but also throughout the pages of the book itself, to keep the reader hooked.

 

Tek (TekWar)

Did Williams Shatner predict Twitter and Facebook addiction with the fictional cyberpunk drug known as “Tek?” Maybe. In both the Tek books and television show, this drug took the form of a virtual reality “hit” which seemed to render users completely useless afterwards. The actual manifestation of Tek in the minds of its users seems to usually be generic sexual fantasies. Did anyone ever use Tek just to fantasize about getting a really great job? Or adopting a puppy? Maybe if they did it would have never been made illegal.

 

Dust (Babylon 5)

The most we learn about Dust on Babylon 5 other than it being illegal; is that it for some reason turns Narns into telepaths, albeit for a short time. Often, science fiction seems to like to play with the notion that certain addictive substances can also bring about supernatural abilities. In the B5 universe, Narns are the only species that doesn’t have natural telepaths and Dust is the only way for them to access this ability. If telepathy is like the sixth sense of the future, this would be like doing a line of coke in order to be able to occasionally see in color. Heavy stuff.

 

Substance D (A Scanner Darkly)

Like many of Philip K. Dick’s fictional drugs, Substance D both darkens and heightens the perceptions its users have the world. In A Scanner Darkly, the distribution of Substance D is so underground that the police have to go super deep undercover in order to find out who is supplying everyone with Substance D. At this point, every single character seems like they are addicted to the drug, making everyone an unreliable narrator. It begs the question of what’s worse here: getting caught with Substance D or being hooked on it forever?

 

Glitterstim spiderGlitterstim (Spice) (Star Wars Books)

Ever wondered what Han Solo was smuggling when he dumped his whole shipment at the first sign of an Imperial Cruiser? It was this stuff. Like Dust on Babylon 5, Gliterstime Spice also enables users to read people’s minds. It’s also created by creepy creatures called Energy Spiders. Mining the substance is doubly complicated because of its sensitivity to light. Total darkness is required to harvest it! So when C-3PO bemoaned the notion of being sent to the Spice mines of Kessel, he was really complaining about being in the dark all the time with spiders.

 

Ketracel-White (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)

Ketracel-White is a unique drug in the pantheon of science fiction because its primary users are genetically bred to be addicted to it. In order for the Dominion to live up to its scary domineering name, they need an army. The reptilian Jem’Hadar provide this muscle but are kept in line by constantly being given their fix by their superiors. Institutionalized drug addiction is a scary notion, also explored by Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick. But when applied to a military complex, it’s made all the more horrifying.

 

Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Although popular parlance omits alcoholic beverages from lists of hard drugs, we’re giving a special mention to the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster on account of it being perhaps the strongest drink in the universe. Author and creator Douglas Adams likens it to “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.” If you survived it, it was probably addictive. You can make it at home and see for yourself.

 

Retcon (Torchwood)

Being a clandestine organization, the Torchwood team frequently needs to make people forget everything they’ve seen or experienced. Enter B67, known more commonly as Retcon. Everyone on Torchwood uses Retcon at some point or another and the potential for abuse is rampant. The drug is also unique in that it’s something you administer to someone else, and that it’s results are the addictive aspect of it, rather than the drug itself. (Although in “They Keep Killing Suzie” we learn that Retcon even has murderous side effects.)

 

Make (Gun With Occasional Music)

An office discussion favorite, like Retcon, Make also can cause people to lose memories. But Make is so much more than that. A blend of various types of other future narcotics such as forgettol and addictol, Make is the ultimate designer drug insofar as the user dictates what goes in their own blend. Further, Make is also an institutionalized fully legal drug and users obtain their specific blends at “makeries.” At the end of the novel however, the option of creating your own blend is revoked by the government, rendering this “opium for the masses” a bone-a-fide form of societal control.

 

Various Hippie Drugs (Farscape)

Farscape’s resident medicine woman, Utu-Noranti Pralatong, was always sticking things up people’s noses and blowing powders in face of unsuspecting villains. This was probably just as well, since Moya’s crew got themselves into trouble every week and then some, and trippy deception could only help them out. On the other hand, her encouragement of habitual drug use led the show’s main character to regularly partake in her wares so he could avoid memories of his derailed romance. Yet again, the drug that gets the primary focus in this show is one associated with forgetting, although this is an intentional fix to forget pain.

Any SFF narcotics we missed? Ones that make a particularly interesting social commentary?


Stubby the Rocket is the voice and mascot of Tor.com. Stubby says say no to Space Drugs.

49 comments
Tony Zbaraschuk
1. tonyz
Let's not forget thionite... the drug that makes you hallucinate that you are simultaneously fulfilling every desire you have ever hard.

Thanks, Doc Smith.
David Goldfarb
2. David_Goldfarb
Thionite, yeah, and also the same series had a drug called bentlam. It was taken orally, but I don't recall much else about its effects. It was a much "softer" drug than thionite -- which is not saying much, to be sure.

Soma, from Brave New World, strikes me as a glaring omission.
Chris Palmer
3. cmpalmer
My favorite is Creme de Meth from Bujold's Vorkosigan novels...
Jamil
4. Jamil
Vurt feathers.
Jamil
5. Leona
I don't think the list is complete without mentioning Soma... the granddaddy of all social-control drugs.
M G
6. parabola
Along the lines of Soma... Prozium from Equilibrium.
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
So we totally messed up by not including Soma. But here's The Strokes performing the song "Soma" live in 2002 to make up for it.
Theresa DeLucci
8. theresa_delucci
I always loved cockroach tea from the underappreciated Hardware. Dylan McDermott was so awesome in that movie. And the punk rock/industrial cameos were top-notch.

Milk-plus from A Clockwork Orange.

Slurm from Futurama. (It counts, right? It's addictive! And made from by worms, just like Spice.)
Jason Herlevi
9. ludd1t3
Bloody Eye (e.g., red eye) Cowboy Bebop
Jamil
10. Svenn Diagram
Who needs to buy drugs when you can just plug your droud into a power socket. Pure current right to the pleasure center!
Ryan Britt
11. ryancbritt
@8 Theresa Good call on A Clockwork Orange
Jamil
12. Tom_Nackid
You missed the ultimate in SF addictions--wireheading. Ever since experimental rats with wires tapping the pleasure centers of their brains died because they would rater push the button that gave them current rather than the one that gave them food and water SF authors have been prediciting the human version as the vice of the future. Larry Niven probably explored the idea most fully in his Known Space stories.
John Coulthart
13. John_Coulthart
Michael Parry edited three rather fine anthologies in the 1970s, Strange Ecstasies, Dream Trips and Spaced Out, collecting fantasy, sf and horror stories involving invented drugs and some real ones. UK-only, unfortunately. Highly recommended (so to speak) if you can find copies.
Mouldy Squid
14. Mouldy_Squid
Mascon (a class of drugs rather than a drug itself) from Lem's The Futurological Congress.

Frankly, I am surprised that you guys completely missed this. Shameful, really. Any discussion of drugs in science fiction would be remiss in not mentioning The Futurological Congress since, like A Scanner Darkly, drugs and their use in controlling society, are the primary focus of the novel (including the ending twist that the narrator's entire experience is the result of the use of a hallucinogenic crowd-pacification gas by the police on rioters).
Jamil
15. Cool Bev
I once noticed that every single Robert Silverberg novel had a sex scene and a drug scene. I'll leave the proof as an exercise for the reader.
Jamil
16. Peter Cantropus
I agree on the lack of Red-Eye (from Cowboy Bebop), but I really miss the "Accela" from Serial Experiments Lain (that really creepy existentialist cyber-science fiction anime from the late 90's). To be fair, it's not exactly a drug, since it's a nanomachine that causes a complete change in the way the brain perceives time and accelerates its calculating speed up to 12 times... oh, and it's addictive as hell. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9Mp0iOFVuc
Ian Johnson
17. IanPJohnson
Was I the only one who saw the "spice must flow" lolcat and immediately thought "NOOOOO THE HARKONNENS BE STEALIN MAH BUKKIT!"

…I was? Oh. Okay. I'll sit down.
Jamil
18. DarrenJL
+1 for milk-plus.
Jamil
19. GG Allin Thicke
Jamil beat me to it.

Jeff Noon "Vurt" - feathers
Thomas Barton
20. Puragus
I like the Capsules from Akira myself. They're the perfect upper for the raging teenage psychic.

Also, another vote for milk-plus.
Jamil
21. Jeff Dodds
How about 3 drugs from the Ringworld series;
1.) Booster Spice,
2.) Wire,
3.) That pollen that turns you into a demon

I'm still hanging onto life waiting for my booster spice. Come on Science, get on that!
Jamil
22. grimmwire
Rucker's "dreak" -- a drug for robots -- from Software and "Merge" -- it melts you (and your partner) temporarily into a puddle of liquid -- from Wetware.

"PDKL-95" from Sterling's Schismatrix, that blasts away all preconceptions.

Pynchon's transtemporal hallucinogen "oneirine" (chemically related to the erectile plastic "Imipolex G") from Gravity's Rainbow.

And in the novel I'm currently reading, Miéville's Embassytown, an entire species becomes hooked on -- well, I can't say because that would be a spoiler.
Jamil
23. fizzel
Not exactly mind-altering, but stroon (aka Santaclara drug) from "the instrumentality of man" series come to mind... strong resemblance to the Dune spice.

Also, the dreamsnakes from Vonda McIntyre omonimous work.

About frequent link between drink and psi powers, I guess you can link it to the '60 experiments with LSD and the idea of opening the doors of perception, and even earlier the varyous shamanic traditions of using drugs to see the spirit world. Ancient and powerful meme...
Jamil
24. Jordanes
"Better Than Life" from the Red Dwarf novels (and one episode).

Like Tek, a virtual reality you plug into, but that makes you forget that you're in a virtual reality world, so you think you're living this great life for real.....until you die of starvation anyway.
Jamil
25. towo
The Culture series by Banks has acceptable drug use by the fact that each Culture citizen has a drug gland which they can use to instantly secrete quite a lot of drugs (and bodies that can easily remove any traces of the drug if they become unnecassary or even problematic).

Mostly everyone regularly "glands" some kind of drug that helps them cope with the situation (and human shortcomings).
jon meltzer
26. jmeltzer
Twenty-six comments and no mention of Chew-Z yet? Palmer Eldritch will get you for that ...
Jamil
27. Aqua
Agree with Vurt feathers. One of my favorite novels ever. I still refer to anything yellow as being "Curious Yellow".
Jamil
28. Aqua
Also what about the drugs that wake you up from the Matrix?
Jamil
29. a1ay
Chill, aka betathanatine: the (physiologically improbable) drug from Richard Morgan's "Altered Carbon" series that drops your body temperature to ambient, allowing you to sneak up on people with thermal vision - also has the effect of giving you a godlike and unemotional sense of clarity, whence the demand for it as a recreational substance. (I'll stick with the amphetamine-cola drinks, thanks.)

Dreamshit, from "Perdido Street Station", which is a generic narcotic - the only interesting thing about it is that it's made from the excreta of a giant caterpillar. It thus represents the single greatest triumph of marketing over product in any fantasy novel. "It's basically just like reasonably good weed, but it was shat out of the bottom of a huge ugly maggot. Try some!"

Its source also makes it similar to Dream Fuel, in Alastair Reynolds' "Chasm City".

Then there's tea (no, just normal tea), in Toby Frost's "God Emperor of Didcot" - vital as the source of moral fibre, without which the British Army would collapse in the face of its enemies. ("Let those who would oppose us remember that a storm is brewing.")

Sustain, which is just a generic stimulant in LE Modesitt's "The Parafaith War" but which has the realistic feature of tasting a bit nasty.

William Gibson's heroes stick to fairly unexotic chemicals if I remember - beer, vodka, nicotine, heroin, synthetic endorphin - but there's always the custom-mixed anti-voodoo drug that Angie takes in "Mona Lisa Overdrive".
Jamil
30. Stephen Monteith
NZT from the movie "Limitless". It opens and practically rewires your mind to undreamed of extents.

I'd also include a literary classic, from Gulliver's Travels, the drink that made whoever drank it live forever, but robbed their senses (and possibly their sanity) in the process. I can't remember if it had a name. I'll have to reread the book.
Jamil
31. Jimboweb
How has no one mentioned the bug spray in Naked Lunch?
Nick Rogers
32. BookGoblin
I thought the commentary about Detroit (and by extension other inner city policing departments) facing the challenges of escalating violence and gang warfare due to the addictiveness and availability of "Nuke" in the RoboCop series might at least make the list.

Also, there was a Doctor Who episode from early in the Who 2.0 era where emotions were peddled in New-New-New-New-New-New-New-New-New-New-New-New-New-York and the impact was essentially a society driven to commute forever to escape and find jobs, apartments, and other trappings of middle-class aspirations. Might not have been groundbreaking, but when an entire society chooses an eternal commute to escape moral collapse, the sly wink at London traffic and suburban flight is worth noting.
Jamil
33. Joe9
With Jim, I was going to mention Naked Lunch's "bug powder, mugwump juice and the black meat of the giant centipede" as some pretty crazy science fiction metaphorical drugs.
Jamil
34. IGPNicki
Babylon 5's "dust" was exactly what I was thinking of when I read the title of this article. Not "space" but overused also, is the idea of having something be "akin" to drugs. So, in Buffy it was magic that Willow had an addiction to. In Twilight, Bella's blood was considered similar to a drug. Waay overused.
Jamil
35. Hedge Witch
Same thing in True Blood where Sookie's half-fairy blood seems to be addictive for the vamps.
Dale Snell
36. Lurkie
The really nasty thing about Babylon 5's dust was that the person whom the dust user fixated on was damaged along with the user. Ouch. Normal folks would probably recover, but telepaths never did. Also, it was never meant to be used by non-humans. Earthers only, please. Thank you, PsiCorps, thank you so very much.

Another vote for Doc Smith's thionite and bentlam.

One that I didn't see mentioned was bloodhype, from the eponymous book by Alan Dean Foster. Nasty stuff. Addictive and lethal. I suspect it's a literary decendant of thionite, but you'd have to ask Foster about that. The stuff was so powerful it was able to affect a completely non-human species.

Also from Foster's Commonwealth series are the drugs sold by the "Emomen". Drugs that let you feel whatever emotion you want. Apparently they were legal. (I think.)
Jamil
37. JohnArmstrong
Heinlein's tempus fugit dope in Puppet masters
kathleen fennessey
38. kathyire50
What about the weed Gandalf and friends smoked from the Shire. He was accused of enjoying his pipe a little too much, can't say I would blame him.
Jamil
39. screwtape2713
"Tick" in David Weber's Path of the Fury. The elite drop commandos are surgically augmented. One addition is an onboard pharmacy, with all the usual painkillers, stimulants, antibiotics, etc. that might be needed in combat. However, the key to their reputation as almost invincible soldiers is 'tick', a drug which alters their time perception. No matter how fast something happens, they perceive it slowly enough to have time to think through their reaction. In effect, it ensures that drop commandos always 'keep their heads' in combat. The drug also causes violent nausea as the individual comes down off it. The main character suspects that this side effect was deliberately engineered into the drug to make it unpleasant enough to prevent addiction.

In David Drake's Hammer's Slammers series, mention is made in passing of officers at parties being offered not only drinks but also 'stim cones', which are pressed against the wrist veins. Presumably these are single-use ampoules of various IV drugs. On duty, soldiers are sober or they are dead; off duty, not just alcohol but all drugs are both legal and socially acceptable.
Jamil
40. rnjane
I am in awe of you all but Ian got me with the bukkit. I loled.
Jean Lamb
41. excessivelyperky
Oh, it's springtime in the Hellers--
And ice is melting fast.
They say that soon the blizzard of Midwinter will be past--
You may sing about your ravnet grapes
And rose of Valeron;
But the yellow bloom of kireseth is the one that turns me on!

They say that somewhere out in space
That bentlam's fun to chew;
Thionite is priced too high,
Suppliers all too few.
While on Pern some fellis juice will put us all to sleep--
So the yellow bloom of kireseth is the one I want to keep!
Dale Snell
42. Lurkie
LOL! Well done, well done! Three cheers and a flagon of your favorite virtual tipple. Oh, and a couple of dope sticks from Keith Laumer's Retief tales. :-)
Jamil
43. Trashie
@grimmwire - Many kudos for the mention of dreak and merge. I actually read this entire article waiting for either to be mentioned. Rudy Rucker gets far too little credit, if you ask me.
Jamil
44. Alsatia
There's always Vraxoin. It's from "Nightmare of Eden", a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who story. Someone is smuggling Vraxoin, one of the most addictive drugs in the Universe. Of course once the Doctor turns up, the authorities suspect he's the drug smuggler.

Douglas Adams was the script editor at the time, but it doesn't sound like Vraxoin would be nearly as much fun as a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. All your brains get smashed out, yes, but no slice of lemon and the brick would just be an ordinary one.
Jamil
45. Faluzure
Snow Crash
Jamil
46. niki
I was surprised to see two of my faves missing...zydrate (RepoGeneticOpera) & "morphling" (HungerGamesTrilogy). As a matter of fact I often use these two "drug" names in place of any real ones I find occasion to refer to- my people know wat I'm saying ;-)
Jamil
47. puremood
The bliss pill from Aeon Flux
David Foster
48. ZenBossanova
Does Urban Fantasy count?
What about Third Eye from the Dresden Files?
It was a bit of cross between magic sight, and LSD, at least the way I read it.

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