Tuesday, February 12, 2008

~ the pharmacopoeia of imaginary drugs #2

[… continued from the previous post]

Then there are the literal opiates of the masses – drugs utilised by the powers that be to control or homogenise society. First that comes to mind is Soma, from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Used across the board by citizens of a putative utopia, Soma seems to enhance every aspect of life, distracting the populace with unrestricted pleasures, deliberately short circuiting the possibility of discontent.

Huxley borrowed the name Soma from the divine drug of the ancient Vedic scripts. Knowledge of the plant from which the original Soma was extracted has been lost and it’s true nature is debated to this day. It was believed to have been a drink which, like the Greek ambrosia, endowed the deities with their god-like powers. It is also said to have been an elixir of immortality. William Burroughs speaks of it as the ultimate opiate, comparing its effects to a cool blue ocean, but academic opinion suggests it was probably an hallucinatory entheogen, Today it is the brand name of a muscle-relaxant called Carisoprodol.

Whilst on the subject of substances reserved for gods, it might be worth mentioning The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H. G. Wells. In this novel scientists develop an artificial food which they name Herakleophorbia IV. The substance proves to be a growth accelerator and giant laboratory specimens break free to ravage the countryside. Humans who take it grow to massive proportions and become, in effect, gods.

For Island - the utopian companion to dystopian Brave New World - Huxley invented Moksha – a psilocybin like drug derived from mushrooms. Intensifying religious experience and inducing mystical insights, Moksha is the very definition of an ‘entheogen’. In real life, Huxley experimented widely with the hallucinogens and saw a benefit for humanity in their use.

In the film Equilibrium, a drug called Prozium was used to subdue the emotions of the populace. Delivering society from ‘the deepest chasms of melancholy and hate’, it was described as ‘the great nepenthe’.

Nepenthe is a beautiful word, sometimes used today to describe soporifics or opiates. It originated in Homer’s Odyssey. Literally ‘the one that chases away sorrow’, nepenthe was consumed by Helen, the daughter of Zeus, ‘to lull all pain and anger, and bring forgetfulness of every sorrow’. Weirdly, the passage was quoted as a form of ‘evidence’ during the passage of the 1937 Taxation of Marijuana Act in the US.

An interesting subset of the imaginary pharmacopoeia is the drug that wakes you up to how things really are. Consider: we are under attack from Lizard Men from Venus [or Blue Lobster Men, whatever the case may be] but none of us are aware because a subtle drug has been introduced into the water supply, [or perhaps because we’d rather just not know]. Defenders of the Earth develop a counter agent, a yellow pill that reacquaints us with reality and gives us the motivation to resist. There are plenty of tales with such a plot, or similar.

In Silverberg’s Downward to Earth human colonists find that the venom of an alien snake can assist in the regeneration of body parts. But taken in high doses it transforms one into a kind of sentient elephant that proves to be the planet’s dominant species. And remember those pills in The Matrix which wake the user to the nightmare of humanity’s future?

One interesting drug came from a book the name of which I cannot recall. I am not even sure they were referred to to Death Eggs, but they were scary enough to lodge in my mind. I think they were found in an abyss that had formed beneath an urban building site; they were ovoid, black, smooth and matte. They took you to a place that was shadowy and deep. And users usually died after only a few doses.

It’s hard to imagine why you would even take some of these drugs. But then people are full of surprises. I, for one, have ill-advisedly consumed some very unlikely things in the quest for oblivion. Substance D, at the heart of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly fragments the consciousness to such an extent that its appeal is difficult to see. Schismatrix, [the source of Green Rapture], also includes Shatter, a drug procured from the alien Outsiders. In a contest of wills, two characters use the drug to generate a folie a deux. They enter the unspeakably alien minds and bodies of an extinct race of cyclopean beetles – and there do battle. Even the victor takes years to recover.

Some authors have created drugs that entwine the user with predominant social trends and new technologies. In White Noise, Don DeLillo posits a drug called Dylar, which is taken to remove the fear of death - but proves to have side-effects linked inextricably with the watching of television. In Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, the eponymous drug is more than just a drug. In cyberspace it manifests as a computer virus but develops the ability to cross the barrier into reality – where it causes mind-altering effects in the minds of hackers. These effects comprise an attack on the nature of our communal reality – and have a weird ancient Sumerian flavour.

MDT-48 appears in The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn and brings its user up to speed with the ceaseless flood of data that assails us in the information age – later turning him into a homicidal maniac.

Perhaps the most comprehensive futuristic drug scenario is proposed by Iain M Banks in his Culture cycle. Citizens of the Culture are genofixed for beauty, health, sexual talent and longevity. Additionally, they are gifted a suite of drug glands at the base of the skull which they may ‘gland’ at will. Secretions include Snap! [the Culture’s favourite breakfast drug] Diffuse, Crystal, Quicken, Gain and Somnabsolute.

The nineties UK mocumentary series Brass Eye investigated a terribly terribly dangerous drug from Czechoslovakia called Cake. A potent disturbile cranabolic amphetamoid called Dimesmeric Andersonphosphate, it acts upon the area of the brain known as ‘Shatner’s Bassoon’. Under its influence, one may cry all the water out of the body or puke up ones own pelvis. Another effect may be the gradual swelling of the neck which, according to Rolf Harris, can expand ‘to engulf the mouth and nose’ and ultimately shatter the skull. In one horrendous incident ‘thirteen teenagers were trampled to death in a cow field on the stuff’. On the street it is also known as Loony Toad Quack, Rustledust and Ponce on the Heath.

For writers of the fantastic, drugs are a useful tool, a magic wand to bend their characters or their worlds in whatever way they wish. It’s no wonder there are so many of them out there. In science-fiction particularly the sophistication of the drugs represents the sophistication [and the possibilities] of science. As Robert Silverberg would put it, ‘by offering his characters a vial of green pills or a flask of mysterious blue fluid the author is able to work wonders as easily as a sorcerer’.

In Larry Niven’s Known Space drugs per se are disposed of entirely. Hedonists connect their brains to ‘tasps’ which directly stimulate the seat of pleasure.

Because science-fiction is invariably a mirror to the society in which it is produced, it is tempting to wonder at the greater significance of many of the drugs described above - the attitudes they reflect, the hopes they engender - but this is just a list, and by no means complete. I’ll save the analysis for some other time.

Hope you enjoyed it.

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Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed these 2 posts, it's amazing what you come up with Sam!! You should get paid megabucks for writing this stuff. Maybe a regular column in those useless "Sunday" magazines, haha, nothing would be finer than to read something coming from the bizarro mind of Sam Sejavka with my morning cuppa! Imagine that!
Love Amanda

Sam Sejavka said...

If only they'd have me. I could do with a few legitimate megabucks. I worry though that my interests are a tad obscure.

Ann O'Dyne said...

I always start my blog browsing with Tony T's After Grog Blog and have just come from his post on author Kyril Bonfiglioli which linked to a wiki of quotes by Kyril, mentioning Nepenthe which led me to:

"In A Life of Learning, American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper No. 17 (Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1991), Milton Babbitt noted "the subsequent and continuing triumph of what Nelson Goodman has called the Tingle-Immersion theory, which—when applied to music—demands that music be anyone’s anodyne, a non-habit forming nepenthe."

so I'm having an anodyne nepenthe sort of day thank you, it's just what I need.

Matt said...

Thanks for these posts, Sam. They're great.
I've read a few of the books you mention (Snow Crash is one of my all-time favourites) but not all.
Quite a few to add to the reading list there . . .