Notes From the Ashtray

The Future of Smoking

Dylan Gyles

Electronic cigarettes seem like something straight out of science fiction.

Time Magazine wrote an article about them entitled “The Future of Smoking”. With no tar or real smoke, e-cigarettes circumvent most tobacco legislation and the way things are going, they may one day replace regular cigarettes entirely. It is odd though, that, in the genre of science fiction, there are few references to anything resembling an electronic cigarette.

James Cameron’s film Aliens is set in the year 2179 and despite immense technological advances in all areas, including health care, the characters all smoke regular cigarettes. The marines travel across the galaxy and hunt aliens with pulse rifles and smart guns in hand and cigars between their teeth. Sigourney Weaver’s character starts smoking in Aliens, something she didn’t do in the previous film Alien. James Cameron had Weaver take up the habit again in his latest film, Avatar, set in the mid 22nd century with 21st century cigarettes.

In Andrew Niccol’s film Gattaca, set in “the not too-distant future”, a society driven by eugenics has still not given up tobacco. The first time we are introduced to Jerome Morrow, played by Jude Law, a man with the ideal genetic makeup, he is bitterly sucking down a normal looking cigarette. In another scene, when the main character Vincent Freeman, played by Ethan Hawke, is asked to describe what Saturn’s moon Titan is like he blows a mouthful of cigarette smoke into his wine glass.

Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is one of the few films to alter the look of cigarettes. In the 23rd century, Corban Dallas, played by Bruce Willis, has a cigarette vending machine in his apartment which limits him to only four smokes per day. The cigarettes in this film’s tongue and cheek style of futurism are almost entirely filter with only a small nub of tobacco at the end.

The near utopian human society of Star Trek seems to have eliminated smoking entirely. One of the only appearances of tobacco is in The Next Generation when Data puffs on a Calabash pipe while impersonating Sherlock Holmes in the holodeck.

William Gibson’s novels are riddled with smoking. His signature beat writing style and bleak cyberpunk future requires grizzled, jaded characters trying to chain-smoke themselves to an early grave. Yet tobacco seems to be one of the only fixtures of Gibson’s world that has not become digitized.

Only a few writers envision a form of smoking that evolves into a non-lethal vice. Larry Niven imagined something similar to the e-cigarette in his 1973 short story One Face:

“‘Now I have a question, Captain. What is that?’

Verd followed his pointing finger. ‘Never seen a tabac stick?’

Avran shook his head.

‘There's a funny tranquilizer in tobacco that helps you concentrate, lets you block out distractions. People used to have to inhale tobacco smoke to get it. That caused lung cancer. Now we do it better.’”

Phillip E. High invented a similar self-lighting device in his 1964 novel The Prodigal Sun:

“He touched the delivery button and watched the servo eject the carton.

He extracted a cigarette, flicked off the plastic tip and watched the tobacco light on contact with the atmosphere. Carefully, and with obvious deliberation, he leaned back in his chair and inhaled deeply.

He almost spoiled the effect in an effort to fight down a cough but somehow he succeeded. The synthetic tobacco in no way approached the perfection of Mattrain Kelsna but it would serve as a reasonable substitute until...”

There is a general trend in science fiction that in the future cigarettes either do not change or do not exist. The idea of a cigarette that doesn’t kill you is simply a waste of time. The health effects of current electronic cigarettes are still under question, but perhaps it is the perceived lack of risk to our well being which sci-fi writers find so unappealing.


Dylan Gyles

Dylan Gyles is a writer and barista. He writes short fiction and creative non-fiction. He is originally from Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver.


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