“Science-fiction [is] the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.”
— Arthur C. Clarke, “Of Sand and Stars”, 1983
First off, apologies for the title. It’s a shameless piece of provocation. Obviously, crack destroys lives, and I wouldn’t want to equate it – in all seriousness – with an addiction to spaceships, lasers, and aliens. Nonetheless, the title sounded good, and it does get at what I want to discuss.
Sci-fi is not as narrow a set of parameters as perhaps many believe. It is not really just “lasers, spaceships, and aliens”, although I imagine this is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear the term.
Sci-fi, if anything, is about culture shock. It’s a form that implicitly dictates that something new be brought to the table, whether it’s a new world, a new species, a new technology, a new psychology… you get my drift. Some sort of breach with our everyday reality, our everyday culture, is required. Therefore, it is a form which, at its core, is built on the notion of a culture shock.
At this point, I’d like to make a distinction between the Arthur C. Clarke quote with which I began this article, and my own belief (although his wording is probably just a by-product of his time). I believe ‘speculative fiction’, though a tad clunky to say, is a better term to use when considering the most potent type of mind-altering fiction, encompassing as it does science-fiction, fantasy, and everything in-between. ‘Science-fiction’ – to me at least – has a degree of prescriptiveness: it’s exotic worlds, final frontiers, and advanced technology. ‘Speculative fiction’, as long as it’s a break from our current world, can be anything. It has a less restricted sense of what a story can be. And as the most drug-like, visionary fiction can come in a variety of guises, that seems like the safest term to use here.
So, to my original point, now amended – speculative fiction relies on culture shock. It can incorporate any genre within it (see the beautiful romantic plot thread in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, or the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise) but it must always, even in a very watered-down form, contain this key ingredient.
However, this isn’t quite the culture shock we get when we go on holiday and think, “oh, so here the steering wheel’s on the other side”, profound though that is. Culture shocks in the real world occur in a state of flux: we’re being bombarded with from all sides by ever-changing, multi-sensory stimuli; incessant distractions that diminish each other and compete for our attention. Prose is very different: it’s a very controlled reality, experienced moment by moment, word by word. With a painting, you can look around the canvas, your eye roving across the detail in whatever order it pleases; an order that is unlikely to be the same from one person to the next. Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality I can think of. As a writer, it lets you specify the exact stimulus for a brain at any given moment (through a word-form), and precisely how that flow of impressions should be arranged. It’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.
“Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality […] it’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.”
On a broader level, purely verbal communication is as close to telepathy as we’ve got. It’s mind communing with mind, the whole material world stripped away, leaving just information: the best rendering of our thoughts that we have. And in my opinion, the better the thoughts, the better their drug-like effect when expressed. Trite thoughts, captured in words, dull the mind. Numb your senses. High-grade thoughts can excite and elevate you, sharpen your mind, make you see the world in a whole different light. This is euphoria. And, at an extreme end, they can even produce physiological side-effects – but I’ll come to that in a second.
Really, it’s the thought, conveyed from one person to another, that is the drug. The language is just the necessary packaging; the means of transmission.
The power of language
There are two stand-out instances in my life that drove home how powerful language can be. The first was the most physiologically striking: it was after I’d been to see a live performance of Alan Moore’s spoken-word piece Unearthing, which was accompanied by music and a photographic slideshow. All these components worked in synchronicity, informing each other, vying for pole-position in your awareness, impossible to follow in their totality. I had to leave the event two-thirds of the way through, rushing to get my coach home. I remember sitting on it, staring at the passing traffic lights: they were glowing slightly but distinctively brighter than usual, like psychedelic blurs of luminosity. I felt stoned. And exactly like someone in that condition, I barely blinked for the first forty minutes of that trip.
(Later, when Unearthing was available to download, I listened to it again, this time the entire way through. Again, I felt stoned, unblinking, although here the effect lasted for more like three minutes. I imagine familiarity wore away some of its impact, as did the lack of a multi-sensory presentation.)
This is probably the peak version of language-as-drug: when it works in tandem with other art forms (like henchmen backing up a criminal mastermind) to overload your senses and mind.
The other stand-out instance utilised words alone. I was in a café, above a bookshop, in a busy central area of London. A long-term friend and I had been talking, for a couple of hours or so, about concepts like time and the quantum world. Then, in the space of a few seconds, reality got strange. I felt light-headed, trippy, as if I could happily stare at any part of the world; as if it was all full of fascinating detail. It also felt like I could sense the atoms that made up the table we were sat at, their energy; and consequently, I had the bizarre impression – while knowing it was false – that I should be able to pass my hand, ghost-like, through that solid block of wood. Between its atoms.
Like I say, this only took a moment to kick in. I asked my friend if he felt it, without specifying what ‘it’ was. He said he did. Switching back and forth, without – as far as I can recall – any leading comments, we described what we were feeling. It seemed to be identical; more than that, it had been induced synchronistically during our conversation.
Obviously, this may all sound crazy. And although, certainly on that latter occasion, it felt like I was in a heightened state, I’m not saying there was any objective validity in my sensations. But you can’t deny that’s pretty trippy.
(And no, smart-arse, I hadn’t taken any drugs that day, or even that week, and at neither event was I sat in a fug of second-hand marijuana smoke. Otherwise, these anecdotes would be rubbish).
As I mentioned, similar effects have happened to me at other times after some sort of intense interaction with language; but these are the two most pronounced cases. And what’s great when this state hits is, unlike with conventional drugs, you retain full cognitive and motor facilities. It feels like you can put the energy you have to much better use.
So if language operates exactly like, or at least has the capacity to be a drug, as these experiences have pretty firmly led me to believe, then there’s an immediate implication for prose. Seen as a psychedelic chemical compound, with words forming the atoms of the overall substance (work with me here) then the less extraneous words there are to dilute the compound, the purer and more intoxicating the final result will be. Think of it as an alcohol with a higher proof. This would fit in with the Hemingway school of writing, where you pare away every unnecessary word until the minimalism almost drives you mad (there is a daily holocaust of adverbs in his name).
Where this perspective cleaves away from that orthodoxy is in the potential of chemicals, mixed correctly, to trigger fizzing and spectacular reactions in each other. So while the spare approach of Hemingway may state that sentences should be short and sharp like a gun report, with all floridity excised, this drug metaphor would argue – and I’d agree – that words can have some of their most exciting effects when the unfamiliar collide. Three adjectives where one would do? Yes, cut that down. But three adjectives that you’ve never seen together before, which spark off one another in interesting ways, like James Joyce’s description of a woman’s body in his short story The Dead as “musical and strange and perfumed”? Keep it. That’s up there with the best of literature.
What this means is that the dictums ascribed to Hemingway and Orwell aren’t the be-all and end-all of prose style. There’s a wider palette of possibilities on offer.
However, what I’ve just said applies to all writing. And I know what you’re thinking: I began this essay in good faith expecting to learn about sci-fi and where I can get a fix of crack cocaine before midnight. Cut to the chase already!
Okay. Geez. I was just about to get there.
The other key thing that the conversation in the café above the bookshop implies is that, for language to get you into a trippy, altered mind-state, this comes easiest when you’re discussing big ideas. Ideas that feel bigger than your brain; like it can’t contain their magnitude. The concepts of time and the quantum world were the examples in that instance, but there are plenty of alternatives: space; the ancestral path and all the DNA matches that, after millennia, led to the creation of you; parallel universes; how different the universe would be if light only travelled at 30 mph; what the psychology of a deity would be; what the ramifications would have been, big and small, if that pivotal historical event had never happened/gone the other way.
All of these notions involve a large sense of scale regarding either time or space, so maybe that’s the key to spinning out your own mind with concepts alone. What they also have in common is that, though such ideas could appear in any genre, they are very much the province of speculative fiction, with them and their ilk having formed the basis for countless stories in that ideas-obsessed narrative field.
A genuine, mind-altering drug on the page
Speculative fiction is where such concepts are literalised, are given concrete form so that the reader can have – on an imaginary level – a visceral engagement with them. It is where such abstract, mind-altering notions are brought to life.
Although most speculative fiction may not reach the giddy, psyche-warping heights I’ve expounded upon here (perhaps a lack of finesse in the prose; perhaps a failure of sustained intensity of imagination) I believe this area of literature, more than any other, has the potential to do so. And the evidence is plentiful and wonderful.
There is the cosmic, puzzle-like world building of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, whose grandeur and intricacy dawns on you like a creeping madness; the fecund neologisms and innovative typography of China Miéville’s Embassytown; the screaming, horror-drenched, pioneering and unmistakable purple prose of Lovecraft; the magisterial and idiosyncratic visions of William Blake. And hopefully, in a hundred years, these authors will be seen as the mere vanguard of what was to come.
Speculative fiction is where you can unite the experimentalism of the modernists (form, language, story content, narratorial and character voices, imagery, setting, etc.) but justify it for narrative reasons, and tie it into a ripping yarn. It can be a genuine, mind-altering drug on the page.
It is, I believe, where the next level of literature lies.
About the author of this post
Attempting to practice what he preaches, Josh Spiller has written his own speculative fiction novel, entitled ‘The 8th Emotion’. He is currently trying to fund it through Kickstarter, and you can check it out – as well as get your own signed first edition – here.