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. As a literary conceit, they’re a one-stop shop for the critical exploration of the human mind. Drugs change our behavior, sometimes laying bare hidden impulses, urges, and ideas; if some folks experiment with drugs to know themselves better, then a writer workshopping fictional drugs seeks to know humanity better. Change something about the human mind, after all, and you mainline straight into some big questions. To wit, fake drugs have served as the basis for some memorable examinations of the human experience, from A Clockwork Orange‘s milk-spurred ultraviolence to Brave New World’s state-controlled internal bliss. I gathered up some of our favorite fictional mind-benders.
- Dancer, Betaphenethylamine: William Gibson’s oeuvre is littered with drugs, both real and fake: Ketamine, Betaphenethylamine, something called “Dex,” frosty Japanese beers, the specific postmodern high of pure hits of information–his hackers definitely experience withdrawal when they’re unplugged from cyberspace—but none of them sound particularly recreational. Administered via transdermal adhesive patches or snorted directly, bleak hallucinogenic amphetamines with names like Dancer and The Fear pack a harsh kick. For what it’s worth, Gibson himself poo-poos the psychedelic experience. “My drug of choice during the composition of Neuromancer,” he wrote in 2003, “was O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock Lager, a central nervous system depressant, employed primarily to manage the anxiety of composition, and not a practice I’d particularly recommend to anyone considering taking up writing.” He also shared some of his thoughts about drugs with Motherboard earlier this year.
- Moloko Plus: If you’re feeling too worn down for a bit of the old ultra violence, the “Milk Bar” in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange punches up its dairy with an entire cocktail of mind-altering chemicals, all more or less invented—ellocet, synthemesc, and drencrom, to name a few—that will have you mugging old ladies in no time. Drencrom is thought to be a veiled reference to Adrenochrome, an oxidized version of adrenaline that also made an exaggerated appearance in another modern classic of depravity, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; in Thompson’s more exotic version, the drug is derived from living donor’s adrenal gland. “The first wave,” he wrote, “felt like a combination of mescaline and methedrine.”
- Soma: Perhaps the Platonic form of imaginary ‘ludes, Soma, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is an antidepressant that takes its users on dreamy “holidays” of the mind. Developed by the World State to placate its citizenry, it can be taken not only in tablet form, but as a liquid (for religious services), or vapor (for quieting mass disturbances). With the entire populace blissed out on Soma (with “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”) the World State needn’t worry about pesky religions or personal allegiances beyond its autocratic boundaries. Engineered specifically to be hangover-free, Soma can nevertheless cause death by suppressing the medulla oblongata’s respiration centers.
- Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster: Purported to be the greatest drink in existence in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, the preposterously-named Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster contains more alcohol than any cocktail in the known universe. The titular Guide warns that, “the effect of drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.”
- Merge: Paging Alex Mack: Merge, a designer drug from Rudy Rucker’s cyberpunk novel Wetware, literally dissolves its users into a liquid, allowing sexual partners to commingle in a shared puddle of erotic goo. With their proteins’ tertiary bunchings temporarily uncoiled, Merge users, or “puddlers,” looking like Jell-O over some bones, become one with the world. The trip lasts from ten minutes to an hour, after which the cell walls stiffen and the body collagens come back together.
Merged. Gentle curves and sweet flow of energies—merged in the love-puddle, the soft plastic tub set into the floor of her bedroom. Exquisite ecstasy—Della melted and Buddy just sliding in; the two of them about to be together again, close as close can be, flesh to flesh, gene to gene, a marbled mass of pale and tan skin, with their four eyes up on top seeing nothing.
- Ephemerol: A tranquilizer used as a morning sickness remedy, Ephemerol—from the David Cronenberg B-movie classic Scanners—induces telekinetic and telepathic abilities in the children of its pregnant takers. Thankfully, it also suppresses those symptoms in affected adults, but that doesn’t stop a head or two from exploding over the course of the film.
- The Orgasmatron: A cousin of the “Excessive Machine” from Barbarella, the Orgasmatron, star of Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi caper Sleeper, is a kind of sexual elevator which, once entered, immediately induces orgasm for one or two persons. The device is loosely based on William Reich’s orgone accumulator, a closet-like contraption designed to collect and store orgone energy (a hypothetical universal life force) from the environment. For claustrophobes, Sleeper also features a mini-version of the technology, a grapefruit-sized orb that contains the same unspecified futuristic pleasure technology. The film’s bored party attendees, all decked out in coordinating silver ensembles, pass it around like a giggle-triggering bong.
- Spice Melange: More than just a recreational drug, Spice Melange is the engine of all spiritual and economic reality in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Highly addictive, it extends life, heightens vitality and awareness, and can unlock latent prescience and telepathy in certain special individuals. If you’re willing to risk mining it from the monstrous sandworms of planet Arrakis, the Spice will eventually allow you to navigate the vast depths of interstellar hyper-space without a map. Fun perk: Spice Melange will also turn the whites of your eyes an eerie bright blue, a look that suited Kyle MacLachlan, in David Lynch’s infamously bloated film adaptation of the novel, particularly well.
- Dreamgum: Introduced in Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld novels, Dreamgum is a hallucinogen delivered nightly to human beings by mysterious beings called “Ethicals.” Administered in the form of a stick of chewing gum, its effects range from sexual compulsion to euphoria, as well as the vivid hallucination of suppressed memories. Unsurprisingly, it’s habit-forming.
Substance D gets him every time.
- Can-D: When life lets you down, there’s always Can-D. Even if you’re huddling for survival on an extreme Martian colony, you always can wolf down the illegal psychotropic, imported from Ganymede, which induces collective hallucinations and transports its users into miniature Barbie dollhouses called “Perky Pat Layouts.” This one comes from the great Philip K. Dick, whose personal drug intake rivaled only his prolific literary output: he also gave us Substance D, an unholy crack-esque LSD (the “D” stands for “Death”), Neuronin, a gaseous form of heroin, and KR-3, an experimental compound that shatters the brain’s capacity to distinguish between alternate realities.
“That Can-D,” he said to Miss Jurgens, “is great stuff, and no wonder it’s banned. It’s like religion; Can-D is the religion of the colonists.” He chuckled. “One plug of it, wouzzled for fifteen minutes, and—” He made a sweeping gesture. “No more hovel. No more frozen methane. It provides a reason for living.”
Neuronin melts in your brain and in your hand
- Chew-Z: When Can-D stops working, try Chew-Z, a more realistic alternative with the dubious tagline: “GOD PROMISES ETERNAL LIFE. WE DELIVER IT.” Chew-Z, from Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, is a kind of demented DMT, which rather than translating its users into a temporary, subjective high, takes them to seemingly endless plane of alternate time and space, populated by their own memories and desires. On Chew-Z, you can live forever as a shadow of yourself, correcting the past and visiting alternate futures. While a trip only lasts minutes in the “real” world, it can take an eternity to play itself out in the universe the drug unleashes in your mind.
- DMZ: Described by its inventor, David Foster Wallace, as “acid that has itself dropped acid,” DMZ is an incredibly potent hallucinogen derived from a species of mold. Don’t take this stuff lightly, as its properties are rumored to be so powerful that they may cause the user to permanently lose any ability to communicate with the outside world. But hey, if it helps you understand the end of Infinite Jest …
- The Hollow Head: Featured in John Shirley’s canonical cyberpunk short story, “Six Kinds of Darkness,” the Hollow Head is a drug club–which is to say, the club itself is the drug, with each room getting you high in different ways until you get to the very last room and realize you just shot up the distilled ambient essence of the person who went in before you. “For the Hollow Head,” Shirley writes, “was drug paraphernalia you could walk into. The building itself was the syringe, or the hookah, or the sniff tube. The whole building was the paraphernalia—and the drug itself.”
- SQUID: To continue the “getting high on another person” theme, consider SQUID (Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device), from the movie Strange Days: a bootleg device that records sensory events directly from the wearer’s cerebral cortex. By playing these recordings back through a hacked MiniDisc-like device, vicarious users can experience the recorder’s memories—of everything from sex to bankrobbery—as though they’d been there themselves. “This is not like ‘TV-only-better’” says Ralph Fiennes, as cop-turned-black-marketeer Lenny Nero, “this is life.”
- Videodrome: Although not a drug in any traditional sense,Videodrome, an underground television program in the David Cronenberg film of the same name, produces ramping entheogenic effects in anyone exposed to it. Par for the course: disturbing externalized hallucinations, followed by a subjective ability to warp reality. Actually an embedded radio signal that causes a fatal brain tumor in listeners, Videodrome’s hallucinatory properties are definitely not for the faint of heart, unless you’re into vaginal VCR slots emerging piecemeal from your abdomen.