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Exploring the World of Sci-Fi Drugs and Drug Use

The Bacta tank in Star Wars, one of many fiction sci-fi drugs

Sci-Fi Drugs: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Drug and medicine use have long been popular topics of discussion within science fiction. Science fiction depiction of drug use mirrors our society’s hopes and fears for science and medicine and also investigates more complex philosophical issues like addiction and personal augmentation. In general, more attention is paid to the positive aspects of drug use than the negative, although there are a few important exceptions.

Broadly speaking, sci-fi drugs can be broken down into three categories: the beneficial, the petty vices, and the completely revolting. Each category has a number of examples to note and sheds light on both the fictional societies that the drugs exist in as well as our society’s interpretation of using drugs of that kind. Without further ado, let’s dive into the wonder drugs that we wish we had.

Fantastical Medicines and Really Useful Sci-Fi Drugs

Most “good” drugs within science fiction are either nootropic or help with the healing of wounds or curing of diseases. The nootropics like Dune’s spice mélange or Limitless’ NZT-48 are clear examples of human augmenting wonder-drugs. The authors converge on a few similar features of these drugs, namely that they increase the intelligence of their users and thus tend to put those who don’t take them at a disadvantage. While the nootropics in science fiction are frequently addictive and have side effects, these are rarely described as major problems so much as a fact of life in light of immensely increased mental capacities.

The healing drugs, in contrast, seem to have no side effects whatsoever in most science fiction. Whether it’s the healing accelerant bacta of Star Wars or the coagulant biofoam contained in Halo’s medkits, humanity has high expectations of its future lifesaving drugs. Almost all science fiction societies have moved beyond rubbing some dirt into the wound then trying to walk it off.

Fantastical properties aside, science fiction works frequently use wound healing drugs as a corollary to discuss inequality. Bacta is viewed as a resource worth fighting over in Star Wars; the plague-curing Ambrosia of Deus Ex fame is scarce among the poor, but ubiquitous among the rich and those with government jobs. The scarcity of medical resources is a point of great conflict and typically takes the center stage.

The Deus Ex video game series details mankind’s technological ambition to surpass biology. Well known for its immersive exposition, emphasis on technology and conspiracy-theory centric plotline, Deus Ex (DX) is the definition of cyberpunk. With the recent release of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided as a follow-up to the series’ revitalization in Deus Ex: Human Revolution: an analysis of the series’ timeline and understanding of history is in order. The games in the Deus Ex series span from the year 2025 up through the early 2070s. [Click to read more…]

Relatively Innocuous Deviances in Sci-Fi Drugs

Petty vices of varying severity are also characteristic of science fiction depiction of drugs. These drugs are typically recreational and mildly harmful, with a low to medium chance of addiction for the users. Even the ones with scary names—like Star Wars’ “death sticks”—often lack immediate consequences for their users.

The purpose of this type of drugs within the context of science fiction storytelling seems to be mostly for establishing a vibrant background to the events of the plot. These vices are never responsible for moving the plot forward and are merely bits of detail to add flavor to seedy locales or sketchy individuals. Protagonists can sometimes be involved with these drugs, though they seldom suffer addiction or negative effects in the span of the story.

The mild vices seem to almost always be depicted as weak stimulants and include the time-wasting “phantom cigars” of Metal Gear Solid, as well as the “betaphenethylamine octagons” of Neuromancer. Though neither awe-inspiring nor revolting, commonplace soft drug use does a lot to fill in the environmental details of many science fiction works.

Really Bad Stuff in Sci-Fi Drugs

So far we’ve covered the wonder drugs and a few recreational vices. But what about the worst of the worst? Science fiction approaches “bad” drug use in a few different ways, generally breaking into the categories of pacifying drugs administered for the purposes of social harmony and highly destructive addictive drugs. The defining characteristic which these two categories share is that the use of the drug is central to the plotline and tends to command a large amount of time spent discussing or witnessing the consequences.

Substance D in A Scanner Darkly, one of many fiction sci-fi drugs

Substance D in the movie adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, image courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Substance D of A Scanner Darkly is an addictive dissociative whose euphoria and psychedelia give way to multiple personalities and brain damage during the course of repeated use. Indeed, A Scanner Darkly extensively chronicles one narcotics officer’s attempt to bring down a ring which produces Substance D. Though the problem of societal disruption by Substance D use isn’t given much exploration, the reader gets the impression that Substance D is hollowing out the lower rungs of society quite expediently.

In contrast, the pacifying drugs are seen as societal issues in the mind of the science fiction consumer, but not in the eyes of the society depicted within science fiction works. Whether it’s the Soma of A Brave New World or the Prozium of Equilibrium, the purpose of these drugs is clear: create a society in which change is made impossible by snuffing out discontent. These sci-fi drugs typically work by blunting the emotions of the masses, though Soma also has a euphoric quality which is much-pursued by individuals.

Prozium being advertised in Equilibrium, one of many fiction sci-fi drugs

Prozium, in Equilibrium, photo courtesy of Miramax

Using drugs for the purposes of population control reflects the uneasiness that many science fiction producers have regarding technological change. By envisioning an invisible prison that exists chemically within the public’s minds, Aldous Huxley described the invention of Soma as “the final revolution” in which the state achieves the ultimate victory over the power of the individual and the civilization that it is meant to support. Frighteningly, reality has met the science fiction depiction of pacifying drugs with desire, with some governments performing experiments attempting to find comparable substances.

Insights Into Drug Use

Science fiction exists as a kind of drydock from reality in which we can experiment with different types of drugs and the different paradigms of their use. As with many other concepts within science fiction, drug use is often a proxy for other, deeper issues. Ultimately, we can use science fiction to model reality and increase our own understanding of what kinds of drugs will be used, abused, and brought into the mainstream. If we’re lucky, we’ll nip the next Substance D in the bud.

Featured Image: courtesy of Disney / Lucasfilms

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