Dystopias are a genre of literature commonly paired with science fiction, that is thought to have become popularised in response to the events of the First World War. Classically, dystopian works take place in a world where the projected progress of society has broken down, most often at humanity’s own hands due to any number of causes, like an abuse of technological advances or a restriction of freedom. Elements such as pressures of conformity, a loss of hope, media manipulation and others, frequent throughout the literature and attract an audience due to its social, political and moral commentaries.
It is these traits which enable dystopias to be suitably partnered with the science fiction genre. Sci-fi has over time progressed from having a focus on plausible science to also reflect the social and intellectual issues of the time. The predictive and critical nature of the writing has meant that sci-fi is viewed as being capable of altering attitudes and acceptance towards future science.
Science fiction creates a multifaceted portrayal of drugs. Drugs are substances, other than food, which have a physiological effect when introduced to the body. They are perceived in both a positive and negative light because of their variable use for recreation or as medicine, and have been used throughout history as far back as 3300 BC. Drugs have long been used in science fiction as vehicles for pushing the author’s narratives of tyranny by forcing a population into docility or breaking down the stability of individual minds.
Brave New World
One of the most notable piece of dystopian literature ever written that invokes drugs, particularly in a condemnatory manner, is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932). The novel propounds that economic chaos and unemployment leads to an international scientific empire called the World State that creates new citizens in a laboratory utilising eugenics. Throughout the novel predictions to do with reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation and classical conditioning were made. Within this world members of every class are indoctrinated into their roles from birth, every person led to believe that their own class is superior. Dissatisfaction with this stratification of society is resolved by administration of an antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug Soma. This substance affects the consumer in several possible ways including: feelings of euphoria, mild hallucinations, numbing of the emotions, increased suggestibility and addiction.
Real World Comparisons
A possible comparison for this drug is the medicine Iproniazid, a contrast drawn by the author himself. He described the drug as the most promising candidate for a Soma-like drug because it was “being used to lift depressed patients out of their misery, to enliven the apathetic and in general to increase the amount of available psychic energy…”. Iproniazid is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) and though it had originally been developed to treat tuberculosis, its animating and energising capacity made it useful as the first commercialised antidepressant. Fiedorowicz and Swartz (2004) state that MAOI’s work by inhibiting the activity of monoamine oxidase (MAO), a family of enzymes that metabolise and inactivate neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine and serotonin. This leads to increased neurotransmitter amines at nerve terminals which are thought to cause the antidepressant effect. However, the increased level of neurotransmitter occurs within days of treatment whilst the effects are not evident for weeks, so recent hypotheses have focused on pre-synaptic and postsynaptic events as an explanation. Despite the alleviation MAOI’s like Iproniazid provide, they may not be an apt metaphor for Soma. MAOIs do not impart euphoric happiness to the consumer, rather they help alleviate already present negative feelings, or increase suggestibility, but they do have troubling side effects such as hypertension due to the risk of drug-drug and dietary interactions, which is not true for Soma.
A different category of drugs that bear similarities to Soma is opioids. These are substances which bind to opium receptors and provide pain relief. When misused an intense euphoria may be felt with other effects such as confusion, hallucinations and addiction. Parallels between opiate use in America and Soma in the World state can be drawn. In 2016, opiates made up around 6% of addictions in the general public and the opioid mortality rate has contributed to the second straight yearly decline of life expectancy, indicating the scale of what is known as the opiate epidemic. The American government has been accused of a ranging level of involvement from inadequacy to being complicit. Whilst not on the same scale to Brave New World, the growing problem with opiates, a drug that possesses a strong semblance to Soma by its effects, shows the role of dystopias in a predictive capacity. Huxley predicting the rising problem with drugs that pacify people since the time of publishing in 1932, though arguably we have not yet reached quite so cynical a world as one run by the World state. Nevertheless, opiates are still not a perfect analogue as they have a range of undesirable side effects not associated with Soma such as constipation and sleep disturbance, or potentially lethal outcomes such as respiratory depression.
A Brave New World features a government sedating its population with a drug that builds a wall between reality and the world’s actual state of affairs as an alarmingly suitable mirror to the current opioid epidemic. Whilst there are some dissimilarities between the substances in the novel and our current limitations, such as our inability to produce a Soma-like drug which induces a strong euphoria without any side effects, many other aspects remain a fitting critique of our society’s relationship with drugs. In this way sci-fi not only warns of the dangers ahead of us but creates chilling visions of the world to pull our attention.