Top 10 imaginary drugs in fiction – The Guardian

Science-fiction writers are always looking for ways to bring about change, whether in society, in the nature of the physical world or in the human mind. And making up new drugs is a powerful way of inducing alteration on all these levels.

In my own work I’ve invented drugs such as Vurt, Metaphorazine, Lucidity, Wave, Haze and many more. My latest novel A Man of Shadows sees people enjoying a concoction called kia, shortened from chiaroscuro, a time-altering drug created from a flower that blossoms only at dusk.

Fictional drugs are miniature rocket ships: they take characters to places unknown and strange. The practice of drug invention goes back to the ancient Greeks (Moly, Lethe) and Shakespeare (Oberon’s love potion). Here are some modern examples from the pharmacopoeia of dangerous delights.

1. Soma (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley)
Soma is used to calm and pacify, suspending people in a state of permanent bliss. The World State of Huxley’s dystopian novel issues the drug as a means of control, to quell rebellious feelings. This is a drug used as a political metaphor, a form of mass entertainment taken to its ultimate level, a replacement for religion. In contrast, Huxley’s own mescaline-induced journey through the “doors of perception” gave him a glimpse of the mystery of pure being. From which we can only conclude that he kept the best drugs for himself.

2. Melange (Dune by Frank Herbert)
The most famous drug in science fiction – and one of the most powerful – melange or “spice” is found on the desert planet of Arrakis, produced and guarded by giant sandworms. In small doses it brings on a perfect high and increases sensual awareness of the world around you. In large amounts it enables the user to travel through the folds of space. Wow. This property makes it highly desirable, and entire empires rise and fall in the struggle to control its procurement and distribution. This is drug as merchandise, and as a gateway to the stars.

3. Substance D (A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick)
Dick is perhaps the most prolific of the drug inventors. He used it as plot generator, a source of transformative energy – and a way to both escape reality and experience it more fully. He certainly put in the research in his own life, spending whole weeks off his head. Still, the books were written. Substance D is a psychoactive; it produces an initial euphoria, which is great until the user finds out what the D stands for: Despair, Desertion, Dumbness, and in its final incarnation, Death. Here lies the dark realism at the heart of Dick’s visionary craziness.

4. Slug (The Final Circle of Paradise by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky)
I was thinking of including William Gibson’s “cyberspace” in this list, because it acts very much like a drug on the human psyche, but I have to be strict. And anyway, the Strugatsky brothers probably got there first, back in 1965. Slug transports the user into an artificially generated world far more intense than reality. People long to return there, and many of them die on repeat trips, their brains overloaded. The novel’s Russian title translates as “Predatory Things of Our Times”, which pretty much sums it up.

5. Black Meat (Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs)
Anyone suffering from chilopodophobia (fear of centipedes) please look away now. Black meat is made from the ground flesh of a specimen that can reach six feet long. This is the most disgusting of all the fictional drugs. It causes extreme nausea in users as well as more delicious feelings, and is highly addictive. Fearlessly writing from the centre of his being, Burroughs transforms his own heroin addiction into a new kind of narrative, where even language crumbles into new shapes.

Lysergic Alice Diethylamide … Alice about to sample Lewis Carroll’s mind alterer drawn by Sir John Tenniel.

Lysergic Alice Diethylamide … Alice about to sample Lewis Carroll’s mind alterer drawn by Sir John Tenniel. Illustration: Alamy

6. Moloko Plus (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess)
Burgess reinvents the hooligan and sets him loose in a twisted version of 60s England. Alex and his gang of droogs hang out at the Korova bar and drink their Moloko Plus, a milk-based drink laced with a choice of other ingredients, hence the plus. Add-ons include barbiturates, opiates and synthetic mescaline. Alex likens this to drinking milk “with knives in it”, something to sharpen you up. The perfect aperitif to a nice little spot of ultraviolence.

7. “Drink Me” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)
Or as the dealers call it: Lysergic Alice Diethylamide. This is probably most readers’ first introduction to the concept of substances that can change the way you think, the way you act, and even the shape of your body. Without the precise usage of both Drink Me and Eat Me, our heroine would never have gained entrance to the magic garden through the tiny door. It’s all there, waiting to be unravelled. And then there’s the “acid flashback” effect: just a few years later, Alice is glimpsing shapes in the mirror …

8. Dylar (White Noise by Don DeLillo)
This may be the ultimate drug of escape, for the simple fact that it removes the human fear of death. Soon people are desperate to find black-market supplies of the still experimental substance. Philosophical questions abound. If we have no sense of our own mortality, can we still call ourselves human? Would religion have a place, would art be created in anything like the same quantities? And then there are the side effects, which consist mainly of losing the ability to “distinguish words from things”. The very mention of the phrase “speeding bullet” is enough to cause a user to dive to the floor for cover. Now that’s scary.

9. Weirdcore (The Destructives by Matthew de Abaitua)
A downer for the soul, weirdcore sends the user to a lower level of sapience, below the “standard” setting. After consuming a coil of this stuff, the addict feels shallower, less emotional, more like an object: they might think of their skin for instance as a sentient tabletop. This is a good thing, apparently. Shallowness is intoxicating. Mind you, the hangover is fierce, bringing with it feelings of unshakeable dread. That will be reality slapping you in the face. Use with caution.

10. The Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams)
What better way to extend our bookish bender than a glass of this lively cocktail invented by Zaphod Beeblebrox, ex-President of the Universe. Ingredients include Santraginean seawater, Fallian marsh gas and the dissolved tooth of an Algolian Suntiger. The effect of the drink has been likened to “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped round a large gold brick”. Lovely. Make mine a double.

A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon is published in paperback by Angry Robot, priced £8.99. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £7.64.


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