Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Liverpool.
The year is 1989, and a new designer drug is sweeping London. No, not Ecstasy—that was last year’s news. This new intoxicant is a green powder, a “product … for high rollers … It could make a day’s rest like a long holiday … FX was to be the catalyst for the ultimate leisure society.” But FX is not the consumerist panacea it promises to be. “In small doses it was harmless,” but the “wrong people abused it”; and death and violence followed in its wake.
This is the premise for Trevor Miller’s Trip City, recently reissued by indie publishers Velocity Press and originally published in November 1989. Trip City was the first “acid house novel,” a pulpy melange of Beat rhythms, Clockwork Orange riffs, and an unhealthy dose of Bret Easton Ellis’s yuppie nihilism. Despite being picked up by Avernus Creative Media—an imprint founded by Brian Aldiss who is best known for writing the short story that formed the basis of Steven Spielberg’s film A.I.—Trip City largely eschews the tropes of science fiction. Indeed, according to the introduction of the new edition, much of the book is based on Miller’s own personal experience, a nocturnal world in which “Red Stripe [beer] had run like piss”’ and there was “[e]nough [ammonium] sulphate to sink the Middlesex Hospital.”
Aldiss described Trip City as “quite brilliant … in line with Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater,” and, in the intervening years, the novel has become something of a cult classic. This is perhaps as much for the novelty of its presentation as the quality of the writing. Released with an accompanying cassette soundtrack by A Guy Called Gerald, (famous for the acid house classic “Voodoo Ray”), original copies of the soundtrack fetch upwards of £100 on the second-hand market. In the liner notes to the reissue, Miller muses that the music is less a soundtrack and more “an atmospheric companion piece that may well transport you back to those sweaty nights in a smoke-filled club when too many pills took hold.”
Trip City is drenched in intoxicants, from the advertising executive with his own brand of scotch whiskey, to the heroin dealer who too readily tries his own supply. Despite the novel’s association with the Second Summer of Love and the main protagonist Valentine’s occupation as a promoter of the fabled (fictional) club night Underground, ecstasy is only intermittently consumed and passingly referenced. Indeed, even though Trip City has been classed as “dancefloor-driven literature” alongside Irvine Welsh and Jeff Noon, nightclubs themselves are rarely the venue for most of the novel’s action. Instead it is the pubs and bars of Soho and the grimy flats and underground car parks that play host to Miller’s pulp fiction.
For all the edginess of its sex and violence, Trip City’s cartoonish portrayal of drugs is quite conventional. The heroin user is, of course, an addict: “[s]mall and wizened … a lonely man.” Cocaine brings priapism and paranoia in equal measure. Miller writes frankly in the new introduction of his own substance consumption—“1988 was a tsunami of drugs, alcohol and music for me,” he confesses—but he also says that he stayed sober for the duration of Trip City’s creation. In an interview with The Sunday Times in 1989, Miller suggested that rather than glamorizing drugs, Trip City was in fact a cautionary tale: “Look at what FX does to characters in the book: It brings out their worst fear of AIDs, nuclear holocaust, being a vagrant. It says, ‘Do drugs and you’ll go off your cake.’”
FX is the most powerful drug in the book, and this novel intoxicant drives much of Trip City’s narrative. What work does this fictionalization of a psychoactive substance do? In creating a “made-up” drug, Miller, of course, followed in a long literary and pop culture tradition, particularly in the science fiction genre. “Soma” features prominently in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, while “melange” or “spice” is central to Dune, both in Frank Herbert’s novels and David Lynch’s film adaptation. In 1985, four years before the publication of Trip City, “dylar” was a significant plot device in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Where DeLillo led, the whole pantheon of 1990s literary bros, from David Foster Wallace to Jonathan Franzen, followed.
While sharing little else in common, both DeLillo and Miller use their fictional drugs as conduits for a wider critique of Western neoliberal cultures, and their inherent power relationships. In Trip City, “Lives had become slogans. Not lives anymore, [but] lifestyles.” FX functioned as an allegory for consumerist excess in late Thatcherite Britain—in which the freedoms apparently afforded by acid house culture had already turned sour and been exploited by corporations. It also pointed to the class inequalities of the era, as well as the rhetoric surrounding who gets stigmatized by drug consumption, and who doesn’t. FX is a drug for the select few: “Who were the ‘right people’? Valentine didn’t know. The rich people? The successful people? The people that could walk away?”
Perhaps for drugs historians there is another angle. New, powerful and terrifying drugs may be a common feature of science fiction, but they can also be science fact. Apparently novel intoxicants have appeared with alacrity over the past few decades, each time bringing with them an accompanying moral panic: 2CB, Xanax, GHB, mephedrone, 25I-NBOMe, to name just a handful.
Trip City’s publication shortly after the arrival of Ecstasy in Britain was prescient. MDMA was just one of the psychoactive substances (re)invented by Alexander Shulgin. With his wife Anne, Shulgin self-published the synthesis instructions for 179 substances in 1991 as Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved (PiHKAL). By the turn of the millennium, these recipes freely circulated on the internet, and the modern era of drug distribution and consumption described by journalist Mike Power in Drugs 2.0 was born. Truth, at least as far as novel psychoactive substances are concerned, has become stranger than fiction.