Inventing drugs is a tradition that dates back to Homer. Here's how the future got high.
Inventing drugs is a tradition that dates back to Homer. From the Odyssey and its lotus-eaters to the psychotropic inventions of the substance-addled Philip K. Dick; from the ambrosia and manna of mythology to the psychedelic Spice of the desert planet Arrakis, fake drugs populate the literary canon in all kinds of unlikely places.
Why create fake drugs when there are so many varieties of existing substances in the world? Well, sometimes it’s a plot conceit: how else are those babies going to be born with telekinetic mutations, or those interstellar captains going to see safe paths through space-time? Most of the time, however, a fake drug in literature or film plays a very specific metaphorical role.
Consider it this way: science fiction is like chaos theory. It alters small, key variables about the world, just to see which butterflies cause thunderstorms 10, 50, or 100 years into the future. When we read even the basest genre fiction, we acknowledge that the continuum of reality can persist, in a more-or-less recognizable manner, even when an author has deliberately removed (or added) something vital. Science fiction asks us to imagine all manner of things: flying cars, interstellar travel, cosmic war, and advanced weaponry. We find ourselves in a radically altered landscape–the unchecked globalized sprawl of William Gibson, say, or the shiny planetary colonies of Robert Heinlein–and immediately set about, as in a children’s game, spotting the differences.
The fun is in examining the disconnects, and drawing our conclusions back to the present. In short, when we consider the flying car, what we’re really wrapping our heads around is the significance of their road-bound cousins. But the examples I’ve cited here are only modifications of the physical world. Humanity, despite its space-age digs, is usually the same old dog; an astronaut is just a space cowboy, after all, with a snazzy outer-space backdrop. What about when science fiction wants to be about inner space, not outer space? Never mind those astronauts’ first steps on an alien planet––what about their first thoughts? Just as we imagine leaving the solar system, we must also imagine new ways of getting outside the head.
That’s where the drugs come in.