Academic journal article Utopian Studies

When Science Fiction Writers Used Fictional Drugs: Rise and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Drug Dystopia

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

When Science Fiction Writers Used Fictional Drugs: Rise and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Drug Dystopia

Article excerpt


This article compares seven novels published from 1932 to 1980 which are set in drug dystopias (near future societies where pharmacology produces or reinforces a dystopian social order) in order to answer two questions. What are the effects and symbolic meanings of the fictional drugs they describe? Why are there so few examples of this subgenre? Today, their warnings about the reduction of populations to docility or of assaults on the integrity of individual minds seem overwrought, and the apparent passing of the subgenre need not be mourned. Two of the seven novels, however, Brave New Worm and A Scanner Darkly, continue to be read because they warn against more subtle forms of tyranny.


Describing a dystopian society in fiction offers writers a powerful vehicle for persuading readers to adopt their ideological or public-policy perspectives. (1) Short of producing a work of non-fiction, as David Brin did in 1998 with his Transparent Society, fiction describing a dystopian society offers the most direct means to denounce the social evils that authors perceive emerging in contemporary society and to elicit support against the associated social cause or political grievance. This article explores how writers have attempted to persuade their readers in a subset of such novels: the drug dystopia. Set in near future societies where pharmacological science either produces or reinforces a dystopian social order, the drug dystopia is readily recognizable because of the importance to the drama of the consumption of one or more kinds of fictional drugs.

This inquiry is driven by two questions. First, what do the fictional drugs described in drug dystopias do? What effects do they have, and do those effects have symbolic meaning for the story? Is their recreational use the moral evil being decried or are they instruments used to support a dystopian social order? Second, why are there so few drug dystopias? Although not as rare as the drug utopia, there are relatively few examples of the drug dystopia. Have science fiction writers somehow failed to perform one of the genre's socially valuable functions by writing too few? Beyond entertaining and informing readers about scientific and technological advances, science fiction may also challenge readers to consider the implications of those advances for themselves and for their society. When it does so, the genre offers more than "rockets, ray-guns, aliens and telepathy" adventures that serve as the amusing caricature attacked by detractors. Although it is first and foremost entertainment, science fiction helps to identify the possible consequences that might flow from personal and public-policy choices, especially those involving new technology.

What writers choose to praise or condemn in their fiction matters because storytelling may be an extraordinarily powerful form of persuasive moral discourse. Readers who might otherwise evade or resist other forms of moral instruction may still be susceptible to the informal moral instruction that occurs when effective storytelling elicits a strong emotional response. To provide a familiar example, Harriet Beecher Stowe successfully argued the cause of abolition in Uncle Tom's Cabin by providing an emotionally compelling description of the moral evil inherent in slavery (O'Connell). Stowe succeeded in part by introducing enslaved African-Americans into the moral universe of her white readers. Whether writers who describe a dystopian society in their fiction admit to others or even to themselves that their purpose is political persuasion hardly lessens the power of their work to shape the moral universe of their readers.

Colin McGinn characterizes works of fiction as units of persuasive discourse in analytic moral philosophy comparable to theory as the unit of persuasive discourse in natural science (171-178). His examples include treatments of weighty moral issues in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (123-143). …

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