Robert Silverberg's government-funded guide to the psychoactive drugs of sf

In 1974, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse commissioned sf giant Robert Silverberg to research and write Drug Themes in Science Fiction," a survey of 75 sf stories and novels that included fictional psychoactive drugs.

The paper was meant to help researchers peer into the nation's collective unconscious, to see what drug-related themes were resonating with readers, as a way of gaining insight into the burgeoning phenomenon of psychedelic drug experimentation. It was one of ten volumes commissioned by NIDA, and certainly the weirdest (others were more predictable, e.g.: "Drugs and Employment" and "Drugs and Sex").

Silverberg doesn't remember much about the project today, though he recalls that NIDA tried to stiff him on his payment and he had to fight for it. He doesn't think that there's anything else like it, which may be true, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't a graduate thesis or two that attempted a similar feat.

"The explosive upsurge in the use of mind-altering drugs by middle -class Americans in the past decade has been a conspicuous and much-discussed phenomenon of our times. Beginning in the mid-1960's and peaking, perhaps, about 1970, the use of marijuana, LSD, and even heroin has taken on the character of an epidemic, not only among the young but among many citizens of mature years. Though at present the spread of heroin addiction appears to be once more confining itself to low-income groups and LSD has become less fashionable among the experimental-minded, certainly marijuana has established itself as an almost universal drug used regularly by millions of Americans, and use of more potent mind-alterers remains heavy if no longer greatly accelerating.

"During the period of social dislocation—marked by radical changes in styles of clothing and dress, assassinations of political leaders, disruption of the governmental processes as a response to a war commonly seen as immoral, rampant inflation, and other traumas and upheavals—that corresponds to the spread of drug use in the United States, science fiction has become one of the most popular specialized subgenres of literature… While this increase in the popularity of science fiction is in part a response to the wide publicity accorded the space explorations of the United States and the Soviet Union, I think it is much more to be ascribed to some of the same forces that have stimulated so much interest in drug-taking.

"That is, in a period of social upheaval such as we have experienced since the death of John F. Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnamese war, conventional modes of behavior lose their appeal, and fascination with the bizarre, the alien, the unfamiliar, the strange, with all sorts of stimulation that provide escape from the realities of the moment, increases at a great rate. Science fiction not only offers those values in abundance but also, in its facet as satirical commentary on the here -and -now world, provides a perspective on our rapid social changes that has great appeal to readers, especially the young."

The Definitive Guide to Sci-Fi Drugs Was Produced by the Government in the 1970s
[Brian Merchant/Vice]