Monday, February 11, 2008

~ the pharmacopoeia of imaginary drugs #1

After recounting the fantastic properties of Green Rapture in the previous post, I began to realise just how vast and wonderful a pharmacopeia of imaginary drugs has been described by the fantasists of this Earth.

Of course, there are lists. There are lists of everything on the internet. This time I think I’d like to do my own.

As is to be expected, most fictional drugs are merely elaborations u
pon drugs with which we are already familiar. Consider nuke in Robocop – it’s just future coke with a snappy name. Or omegendorph in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Martian series – the ultimate opiate engineered out of a comprehensive knowledge of human endorphins. Outland [the movie starring Sean Connery] featured a drug called polydichloric euthimal - a ravening giga-amphetamine, like tetrameth in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Malajusted Alex and his droogs. from the classic A Clockwork Orange, visit Milk Bars for Drencrom or Synthemesc ‘to sharpen the senses for the old ultra violence’. And longbottom leaf? Well, that was just pot, wasn’t it?

And Slurm, from the planet Wormulon? It was just Coke, wasn't it?

My play Lord of Misrule was premised upon the exudate of an illicit fungus, [similar to kom-bu-cha], which was socially and in physical effect directly analogous to heroin, but possessed of its own intelligence. And whether it’s the extract of a giant centipede, bug powder or the cerebro-spinal fluid of the mugwamp, all of William Burroughs’ marvellous addictive chemicals are essentially heroin, or facets thereof.

Remember this? ‘Hank’s on junk; he doesn’t come. I’m on bug powder; I don’t need to come.’

But beyond the simple metaphors, there are a host of imaginary drugs with truly novel effects.

Philip K Dick was responsible for some of the best. Can-D and Chew-Z feature in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Chew-Z, the instrument of a sinister alien power, allows the user to leave his body and spend an indefinite period of time in the environment of his choice – returning to find no real time has passed. [I used to fantasise about this one as a teenager.] After consuming Can-D one enters what was called a ‘Perky Pat Layout’ – this commercially acquired tableau resembled a doll’s house occupied by a scaled-down cast of The Bold and The Beautiful. Martian colonists, living in hellish conditions, spent all the time they could immersed in the normality [and hypersexuality] of Perky Pat’s virtual world.

In Dick’s Now Wait For Last Year, JJ-180 is in effect a time-travel agent, allowing the consciousness of the user to navigate in either direction through time, settling in whatever era takes his whim for the duration of the trip. We can Remember It For You Wholesale, [filmed as Total Recall], includes the hypnotic narkidrine, used to install false memories in the human brain.

Time travel drugs crop up repeatedly in fantastic literature. In a tale from 1964, Doris Pitkin Buck describes the use of Protoceratops Tabs, which transport the mind back through time into the dim consciousness of a saurian in the Mesozoic Era.

Then there are drugs with grosser effects. Like Pallidine in Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration. Derived from syphilis spirochetes, it boosts intelligence and turns users into short-term supermen, who eventually succumb to disease. Herogyn from Norman Spinrad’s Men in The Jungle is similar. The protagonist/dictator employs it to fan his troops into a frenzy before action. Battle drugs are a category in themselves, and not all of them are imaginary.

Probably the most well-known of all science-fiction drugs is Spice, or Melange - the cinnamon-like secretion of the great sand worms of Dune. In Frank Herbert’s universe it is as valuable as gold and its addicts have ‘blue within blue’ eyes.

But the effects are hard to put a finger on - even after reading most of the series. Largely, it’s almost a shamanic, entheogenic thing. One may see into the future, the past. If you are Muad’Dib you can prophesy. If you are a Space Guild Navigator you can ‘fold space’. Spice increases the lifespan, raises awareness and general vitality. Since it is largely a metaphor for oil, the political effects tend to be more interesting than the physical. Dune also mentions sapho juice, used by mentats to multiply their cerebral processing power, and colouring their lips with a distinctive cranberry stain.

During the sixties, with the advent of psychedelia, many forward-thinking writers began to imagine drugs that went beyond the effects of the known hallucinogens. Another book by Herbert - actually my favourite of his - is The Santaroga Barrier. In an isolated village, somewhere in America, the residents all consume a substance named Jaspers which is mined from the surrounding countryside [rather like The Stuff]. They form an uncommonly well-balanced society, but it is their immunity to marketing of all kinds that leads to their notice by the outside world. An investigator discovers that Jaspers has united them on a subconscious level, and that they have developed a highly-evolved understanding of the world and its underpinnings.

In Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes (1971) a drug acquired from a native culture on an alien world proves to have telepathic qualities and ultimately transforms an uptight society into a caring sharing near-utopia. Another drug, in R A Lafferty’s story Skyprovide sensations of mastery and union-with-cosmos’, but ‘especially during parachute drops’. Deaths occur when users try freefall for the ultimate high. The far more recent novel ‘Vurt’ by Jeff Noon describes an England in which the habit of sucking variously coloured Vurt Feathers is widespread. To put it simply, Vurt allows users to descend communally into the shared unconscious of humanity, investing our dreams with a certain objective reality.

[This article continues here]

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