Whether it’s a pill that allows you to access the (entirely fictional and troperiffic) untapped 90% of your brain’s potential, or a soporific hallucinogen designed to maintain the blissful equilibrium of an imagined utopia, fictional drugs have long allowed sci-fi writers to tap into freaky times and far out powers while exploring themes such as the power of perception, the limits of societal control, and the cycle of addiction. The following are five such stories I’ve been both addicted to and inspired by.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
In this classic mix of sci-fi and horror, Dr. Jekyll creates a serum that transforms him into the younger, crueler, and remorseless Hyde, an alter ego that allows Jekyll to express the nastier aspects of his personality and urges without guilt. After taking the potion repeatedly, Jekyll doesn’t need the serum at all to unleash his inner demons, but instead grows dependent on the serum to remain conscious. It’s a fascinating exploration of shame and repression, society and evil, and the danger of substance abuse threads through the tale like a dirty needle.
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
An undercover narcotics agent posing as a drug user, Bob Arctor becomes addicted to a gnarly psychoactive drug called Substance D, and falls in love with a drug dealer, Donna, whom he hopes will lead him to the high-level sources of the drug. Arctor’s use of Substance D causes, get ready for it … the two hemispheres of his brain to function independently. This means he begins to live parallel lives as both drug user and undercover narcotics agent, so when Arctor’s assigned to spy on his own household, he puts himself under surveillance. And if that’s not enough to put your brain in a paranoid spin, things get even worse when Arctor goes through a punishing withdrawal from the drug. In the afterword, Dick dedicated the book to those of his friends who died or suffered debilitation as a result of their drug use, and he included his own name on the list. Sobering, to say the least.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
In a near-future dystopian England, gangs dose up on Moloko Plus (or “milk-plus”) before heading out to indulge in acts of random ultra-violence. Served at hangouts like the Korova Milk Bar, and laced with “vellocet,” “synthemesc,” or “drencrom,” this drink “sharpens up” the user for a night of mayhem, making it a fitting cocktail for this novel’s visceral exploration of choice and free will.
Sleepless by Charlie Huston
A new disease makes it impossible for the afflicted to fall asleep in this apocalyptic near-future novel. Many of the sleepless have become addicted to computer games, losing themselves in an alternate reality in which insomnia is a virtue. Others seek “dreamer,” a rare drug that works as an antidote to the sickness. In Los Angeles, Parker Haas (whose wife and daughter are slowly dying from the sleepless disease) works undercover to find supplies of “dreamer,” before drug dealers and pharmaceutical companies can corner the market for the drug. The stakes keep escalating in this brilliant piece of speculative fiction filtered through a grimy noir lens.
Saga written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples
Struggling as an actor on the Open Circuit (an underground acting troupe that broadcasts across the galaxy) Alana tries a drug called Fadeaway, after learning half her co-stars are high on it. Staples beautifully captures the allure of the drug, rendering mind-melting and mind-expanding moments within the same frame. For Alana, it’s a perfect escape from a job she finds at best numbingly dull and at worst horribly humiliating. But when Alana’s husband, Marko, discovers his wife’s drug use, the ensuring argument becomes physical, and the resulting domestic abuse tragically separates the couple. Fadeaway’s role in the story continues, but I’ll not spoil it here. Even if you’re not typically a comic book reader, you should really try Saga. But be warned … it’s addictive.
Chris Howard was born and raised in England, and it was there he first began writing stories and songs. He now lives in Denver, Colorado, where he and his wife enjoy mountains, music, and mugs of good coffee. He is the author of Night Speed, as well as the Rootless trilogy.