What is Thionite? Science fiction's narcotic good stuff

There are many terms from classic and modern SF that remain unresearched, and the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction will be continually updated, especially as additional resources are put online. Boing Boing is syndicating new entries from the HDSF on a regular basis. (Read the series introduction.)


Drugs are a common theme in many, many science fiction stories, in many different forms: real, existing drugs; invented drugs that have similar effects to those we know (hallucinogens, stimulants); invented drugs with plausible effects (powerful healing, or truth serums); drugs with fantastical effects (turning you into a werewolf, or a super-genius).

However, there are surprisingly few cases where an invented drug has become common enough that it is referred to outside of its original context. Perhaps the best-known example is soma, the euphoric drug in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, distributed by the state to keep the population content. The red pill and blue pill of the Matrix series have become widespread, although usually in figurative use in political discourse. But most drugs stay in their original stories, even when they are an integral part of these stories—Substance D in Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly; glitterstim in the Star Wars universe; milk-plus in A Clockwork Orange; spice in Dune.

A drug that has managed to gain a foothold beyond its original story is thionite, from E. E. Smith's Lensman series. Smith invented several, less-potent drugs for the series, including bentlam and nitrolabe, but thionite is the good stuff, the powerful addictive drug that costs a fortune. And it's also the one that got picked up by other writers and by SF fans (chiefly in humorous contexts).

The name is also interesting; Smith was a working chemist, with a PhD in chemical engineering, so one would expect even his invented names to be more than random strings of letters. The thio- prefix is used in chemistry to denote compounds containing sulfur; the -ite suffix can have several different meanings in chemistry, in both organic and inorganic contexts. But while there are actual compounds having similar names to thionite (and there was an actual substance called thionite, used in dentistry in the 19th century), it would probably be a mistake to imagine that one could create a sulfur-containing molecule and expect it to be an awesome drug.

No, it would definitely be a mistake to create this.