The 10 Strangest Drugs in Fiction
The real world's got nothing on the invented substances found in the trippiest works of literature, like A Clockwork Orange, The Lord of the Rings and Infinite Jest.
With such a real-world pharmacopoeia available to authors casting about for a mind-altering substance for their fiction, you’d think no one would ever need to invent a brand-new drug. But literature—especially sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian novels—yields a host of weird and wonderful made-up substances, from memory-wiping waters in an ancient epic poem to a mysterious club drug (or is it an antidepressant?) in a 2001 Oprah’s Book Club winner. Here are 10 of the most compelling hardcover highs.
Soma—Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
In London, in the year 632 AF (“After [Henry] Ford”), the World State provides soma to its citizens to give them a warm and fuzzy way to escape daily life. It’s meant to be the perfect drug; as the book says, soma boasts “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” In the real world, soma is to fictional drugs what Kleenex is to tissue—which is fitting, given that Huxley, who also penned the classic tripping tome The Doors of Perception, was one of the most committed drug-using men of letters. On his deathbed, he even dropped a crazy amount of LSD.
Melange, aka spice—Dune (Frank Herbert)
Meth’s got nothing on melange when it comes to side effects. Everyone knows that smoking crystal will leave you looking like a cadaver years before your time—but taking spice will turn you into a gigantic stoned spermatic homunculus floating in a dirty fish tank filled with orange gas. On the upside, you get to fly a heighliner through foldspace, which has gotta be pretty cool. But that’s a lot of spice down the line. In small doses, the drug—which tastes like “bitter cinnamon”—will make you live longer (and better), and increase awareness. But again, like meth, it’s hard and dangerous to procure: For a little pile of sweet, sweet spice, you might have to fight a 1,300-foot-long crystal-toothed alien worm. Pick your battles wisely.
DMZ, aka Madame Psychosis—Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)
David Foster Wallace’s 1998 magnum opus is positively awash in substances, from one-hitters of weed and real-life narcotics like Dilaudid—former drug of choice for halfway house employee Don Gately—to made-up stuff like the titular addictive “entertainment.” But the most mysterious is undoubtedly DMZ, an “incredibly potent” and extremely rare hallucinogen derived from “an obscure mold that only grows on other molds,” and which tennis academy punk Michael Pemulis squirrels away for a big tournament—and maybe doses his best friend Hal Incandenza with. Its effects are “almost ontological,” and users’ descriptions of the high tend to be “vague and inelegant and more like mystical in the Tibetan-Dead-Book vein than rigorous and referentially clear.”
Substance D, aka Slow Death—A Scanner Darkly (Philip K. Dick)
Philip K. Dick did enough drugs in his lifetime to easily fill his seminal 1977 sci-fi novel with plenty of real-life highs. But instead of merely enumerating the myriad tabs, pills and hits on offer during his druggy California heyday, Dick invented the highly addictive Substance D, where the “D” stands for “Dumbness and Despair and Desertion, the desertion of your friends from you, you from them, everyone from everyone, isolation and loneliness and hating and suspecting each other”—in other words, a stand-in for all the terrible things drugs can do to people. Extended abuse will cause each side of the user’s brain to stop communicating with the other, so that in extreme cases “dopers” can simultaneously believe two opposing things. In the final stages, “D” means “Death.”
Water of the River Lethe—Aeneid (Virgil)
The Latin epic poem the Aeneid, composed circa 29–19 BCE, tells the story of the wanderings of Aeneas, including the Trojan War and the origin of the Roman people—and in it we encounter probably literature’s oldest fake drug: water from the River Lethe. Bordering the Elysian Fields in the Greek underworld, the Lethe granted complete forgetfulness to those who lapped its waters. Why would you want to do that? Because only after forgetting your earthly existence could you be reincarnated. It’s worth noting that humanity’s obsession with erasing memories is as strong as it ever was—see for instance Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting or Michel Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Black Meat—Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs)
It’s unsurprising that Burroughs, who struggled with a lifelong heroin addiction, is the creator of the most revolting made-up drug ever, which consists of “the flesh of the giant black centipede” and tastes “like a tainted cheese.” But that’s not all! It is so “overpoweringly delicious and nauseating” that the “Meat Eaters” spend their miserable lives frantically gorging themselves on it, barfing, and gorging themselves again and again, “until they fall exhausted.” In that sense, it’s not really a fictional drug at all, given how much it sounds like the junkie’s plight with smack.
Pipe-weed, aka Old Toby—The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)
Leave it to Tolkien to come up with the coziest and most English of all invented drugs. In The Lord of the Rings, hobbits and wizards alike are fiends for “the art of smoking the genuine weed.” Tobold Hornblower of Longbottom ran the first “true” grow operation in his Shire garden, and some of the best strains still carry a whiff of their progenitor in their names (e.g., Longbottom Leaf or Old Toby). Although pipe-weed is never explicitly described as psychoactive, you can’t help but suspect it contains something more potent than nicotine—after all, “folk in the Shire” were known to have toked on all manner of “various herbs, some fouler, some sweeter.” Sounds like schwag and skunk to us.
Aslan—The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)
Franzen isn’t the most creative when it comes to inventing drugs for his fiction—but, then again, exotic intoxicants wouldn’t really fit in the Midwestern domestic drama The Corrections. But an anxiety-canceling mood enhancer named after the Christ-like lion in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books? Now that’s just what the doctor ordered to lend a little color to the somber palette of St. Jude and it’s vaguely depressed native sons and daughters. Chip Lambert takes the MDMA-like antidepressant and proceeds to basically chop down his life in one fell swoop of a drug-fueled weekend sexcapade with one of his undergraduate students, while Chip’s mom, Enid, gets her fix the legal way. But it’s Enid’s daughter, Denise, who finally diagnoses the drug for what it is: Mexican A. “Club drug,” she says. “Very young person.”
Moloko Plus, aka Knifey Moloko—A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)
Like PinkBerry and its clones—where you pull a lever till the pile of your chosen frozen yogurt base reaches a desirable level, then spoon topping after topping onto it—in Burgess’s still-shocking cult classic, you and your fellow droogs dispense standard cow’s milk from your breast of choice at the Korova Milkbar, then add everything from synthetic mescaline to “drencrom” (aka adrenochrome, a product of the breakdown of adrenaline) to the opiate “vellocet” to get you really pumped for some good old ultraviolence. What it actually feels like to be “on” Moloko Plus is hazy—but, as protagonist Alex relates, it’s like “a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg.”
Dylar—White Noise (Don DeLillo)
DeLillo wins for the most existentially disturbing fake drug: Dylar, “a super experimental and top-secret” remedy for the fear of death. But, naturally, it’s got some totally horrifying side effects. Taking it could kill your brain but leave your body alive; or destroy just one side of your brain and leave the opposite side of your body similarly useless; or leave you only able to walk sideways. One character is warned that Dylar may take away her ability to “distinguish words from things, so that if someone said ‘speeding bullet,’ I would fall to the floor and take cover.” That’s a high price to pay to snuff out the fear of death—but perhaps no higher than the adverse effects of the real-life drugs people ingest daily.
Samuel Reaves Slaton is a Reviews Editor at Publishers Weekly and a poet.
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