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A form of phlebotinum with the distinction of having a metaphorical and/or ethical component which exists only so that the author can build a moral lesson out of it.

Usually, this is done by giving it a ghastly price tag. It may be powered by the sacrifice of innocents, it may be toxic, it may be addictive, it may hurt the environment, or it may attract the local Phlebotinum Muncher. Expect this type of Aesoptinum to be used to draw an allegory about a real-world issue, like drug use, man's reliance on ecologically destructive technologies, etc. Also expect it to be used primarily by the villains — especially in the more Anvilicious works.

However, Aesoptinum can also take the form of positive reinforcement: a magical or technological substance that is sentient, empathetic, loyal, and thus will either bar anyone from using it without good intentions or allow itself to be used by morally dubious individuals if only to manipulate them into learning the error of their ways. This type is almost exclusively used by the heroes.

As is common for moral metaphors, this trope has a tendency to miss its mark or end up inapplicable to the real world. But still, when handled well, Aesoptinum can be an effective plot device.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Dragon Ball: In the Dragon Ball manga, Goku's rideable cloud, the Nimbus, can only be ridden on by the pure of heart. Everyone else falls right through, including the perverted Master Roshi who gives Goku the cloud. The only known people who can Nimbus include Goku himself, Chichi, Gohan and Goten.
  • In Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, the gynoids' sentience is due to their containing copies of the ghosts of abducted preteen girls. The ghost-copying procedure (which is highly illegal in the Ghost in the Shell universe) eventually kills the girls. Even more disturbingly, they were first brainwashed into near-robots so that the gynoids wouldn't be too human-like — and that they were intended to be sexbots. Despite all this, a surviving girl and her rescuer are actually chastised by the heroine, as she says that the real victims were the robots — the humans were tortured, yes, but they had lives prior to that; the robots were given sentience solely so they could suffer!
    "We are saddened by a bird's cry, but not a fish's blood; Blessed are those with voices. If those dolls had voices, I bet each and every one would scream "I don't want to be a human."
  • In Inuyasha, both Inuyasha's Tessaiga and Sesshomaru's Tenseiga were crafted specifically for them by their father to be aesoptinum. Tessaiga, the sword of destruction, has the power to kill one hundred demons with one swing, but only if it's wielded by a half-demon for the purpose of protecting humans. Tenseiga, the sword of healing, has the power to revive the dead but cannot harm anyone (except "minions of the underworld" which are basically a type of grim reaper-like creature). The swords are also empathic weapons, and have been known to guide their respective owners from time to time.
  • An episode of Kyo Kara Maoh! involves a mountain covered by a ghostly miasma that would infect people and cause them to stop trusting anyone. The only one unaffected is the kid hero Yuuri, who had previously decided to never doubt anyone.
  • In Str.A.In.: Strategic Armored Infantry, the Strains are derived from research done on aliens that look exactly like little human girls, and the research is supposed to continue (though they don't really finish that plot thread) so they can achieve instantaneous communication and more with the further dissection and possible brain removal of said girls. Naturally, Ralph didn't like this, So he decided it would be best to punish humanity for this.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 

    Films - Live-Action 
  • In Avatar: The Way of Water the new phlebotinum that drives human economic activity on Pandora is a substance that is used to make an anti-aging drug for humans. It is drilled from the brains of sapient, pacifist whales after they have been tortured to death in front of their young calves (because mothers with calves are easier prey).
  • The drug Prozium in Equilibrium subdues emotions to prevent such things as violence and war. This is helped along by the banning of anything with an Emotional Content rating of ten, which can include anything even remotely artistic, and anyone caught with such contraband is burned alive (or shot repeatedly if they try to make things difficult). Naturally, there's an underground resistance that the main character eventually champions after he stops taking his meds.
  • The movie world of Logan's Run is utopic (i.e. no hunger, no want or need to work). The catch? Everything is run by a Computer; children 0-7 years are raised in tubes; youth 7-14 are set to run wild, and once you become 30 a gem on your palm (or Life Crystal) turns black and you're sent to compete to be "Renewed". Unfortunately, Renewal is something the citizens made up—the computer never actually says anything about Renewal and Box is confused by what Logan means by "Sanctuary". Everyone participating in the competition dies.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has a fountain of youth that requires a human sacrifice to work.
  • In Serenity, the chemical "Pax" was created by the Alliance to weed out aggression and pacify people. In case that wasn't objectionable enough to the audience, its first wide-spread test failed spectacularly, resulting in nearly the entire population of a planet developing severe amotivational disorder and simply sitting quietly until they starved to death. The survivors were rendered insane and horrifically violent, becoming the Reavers.


By Author:

  • Larry Niven openly admits to regularly using this trope.
    • A believer in science, high technology, and nuclear power in specific, in Lucifer's Hammer he made the workers at a nuclear power plant heroes who were struggling to keep civilization together. They were fighting against environmental extremist, anti-technology (and very specifically, anti-nuclear technology) cannibal raiders.
    • The organ banks in Known Space are a multi-tiered version of this; in the early 21st century of the timeline, technology was developed to indefinitely store human organs for transplant. This had three big effects; first, organ harvest became the only legal form of execution. As a result, people eventually voted for every crime to merit the death penalty. As a result of that, culling violence, deception and greed out of the human genome turned humanity into stupid wimps who mindlessly obey the government. Anti-death penalty, anti-mob rule, and anti-authoritarianism in one fell swoop.
  • Robert J. Sawyer has written several books that feature a technological loss of privacy as then leading to a better society.
    • His Neanderthal Parallax trilogy features a society in which everyone wears a gadget that records everything they do 24/7, storing it in an archive that can only be accessed by the person in question, or by the authorities if they have sufficient cause.
    • Another book features plans sent by aliens. The plans are for a new gadget that lets people read each others minds without limit, and it is strongly implied that this will lead to utopia.
    • His book Triggers has humanity becoming a hive mind with the same effect-this is shown explicitly as utopian.
    • One short story also has a future Earth that has become an anarchic utopia by means of similar technology as The Neanderthal Parallax features, since a government isn't needed anymore with everyone under knowing and voluntary sousveillance.

By Title:

  • The Brothers Karamazov has Ivan pose a philosophical question to Alyosha that runs in the vein of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas".
  • Norman Spinrad's '60s sci-fi novel Bug Jack Barron has an Evil Rich White Man gaining immortality from the glands of irradiated-to-death children, with the one the audience knows about in the book being African-American. Good book, heavy-handed Aesop.
  • Subtly parodied (along with phlebotinum in general) in the novel Generation Dead, as the proposals by scientists to "explain" the whole "teenagers suddenly coming back as zombies" phenomenon, which are mentioned in asides throughout the book, tend towards this. Choice examples include proposals that it was caused by "too much fast food", "too many First-Person Shooter games", and — thanks to the expansion of the book's accompanying Character Blog — "too many generations eating microwaved food". Naturally, none of them are true.
  • Harry Potter: Since Immortality Immorality and Not Afraid to Die are huge themes, various methods of extending your lifespan are Aesoptinium. This includes the Horcrux, a type of Soul Jar that you can only create if you're willing to kill someone, and unicorn blood, which can save you even if you'd otherwise die, but since unicorns are so pure, killing one is a Moral Event Horizon and your life will be cursed.
  • Stanisław Lem's short story "Highest Possible Level of Development" had a drug, Altruzine, that caused tele-empathy, but the story is much more tongue-in-cheek. The results are still not altruistic, though: a man with a toothache has his painful tooth ripped out by nearby people who don't want to feel the pain, a newlywed couple is nearly mobbed outside their hotel where they consummate the marriage (and criticized on their poor performance), and depressed people are driven from towns rather than treated.
  • In Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, main character Amir writes a short story about a man who discovered a cup. Not just any cup; one that turns tears into pearls. In order to become rich, the man must make himself sad. The story ends tragically with the man crying over his wife's body (whose throat he has just slit to make himself cry) atop a mountain of pearls. This is all subverted when Amir's best friend asks why the man didn't simply cut up some onions instead.
  • Truffula Trees, the ones for which The Lorax speaks. They're used for making thneeds.
  • The central premise of Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" was a city whose happiness depended upon the suffering of one innocent child.
  • Damon Knight's short story "Rule Golden" has an alien that spreads a special plague which induces tele-empathy. This means that prison guards become depressed from the sadness of their prisoners, anyone that strikes another person will feel the pain from their blow, and anyone that kills another person will drop dead on the spot (strangely, this even includes such acts from a distance, such as shooting someone, which just kills the shooter rather than everyone else within the same radius). The ostensible reason the alien does this is to make humans become peaceful before they invent interstellar travel, with a side benefit supposedly being the elimination of hierarchic governments (since "government is force"). Notably, the story explores the nasty side effects of every animal with a nervous system becoming a psychic bomb directly equivalent to how much brain mass they're carting around; every purely carnivorous animal goes extinct, herbivores start stripping regions bare, vermin such as rats and mice undergo a population explosion, and oh yeah — famines ensue because it takes a few years for farms to switch over to high-protein crops like beans and slaughterhouses to adopt painless killing methods. The entire planet nearly dies before the process is complete and the rest of the aliens feel safe enough show up with shipments of food and painless pest control measures are put to use.
  • The John Brunner novel The Stone That Never Came Down centers around an artificial, self-replicating protein (today, it'd be called a prion) that eliminates selective inattention — the brain has to make connections between pieces of information that it previously ignored. In addition to an intelligence boost, this bestows automatic empathy, since those infected can no longer disregard the genuine pain that others feel.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5: In "Deathwalker", the Dilgar war criminal Jha'dur develops an anti-aging serum that can be used repeatedly to extend an individual's life indefinitely. The cost? It requires a non-synthesizable ingredient available only in other sentients (one treatment requires one sentient). Her intention was to disperse the knowledge of the serum to start genocidal wars as vengeance for her species dying (and to establish that, for all their self-righteous condemnation of the Dilgar, the other races aren't so different). The Vorlons take it upon themselves to destroy the serum, Deathwalker and her ship to prevent that (and destroy any chance of researching the process to give the younger races true immortality and become rivals of the Vorlons).
  • In Doctor Who, if a new substance or technology is discovered, chances are it violates someone's civil rights in ways that will be revealed around mid-episode and require a debate on the ethics of placing the wants of the many over the needs of the few. The most common example is time travel. (Is it okay to change history?) Other examples have included 'the Flesh' in "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People", a substance that can be used to create avatars that allow people to do dangerous tasks without risking their own lives (which, of course, turn out to be alive and capable of sentience); a diet pill that causes human fat to turn into larval aliens (it's the only way for the aliens to reproduce, but has the potential to kill the dieter) in "Partners in Crime"; and a process that can turn old people into young people (it also makes their DNA unstable, causing possible mutation and requiring the rejuvenated person to drain the life from others) in "The Lazarus Experiment". Granted, the diet pill is more an issue of informed consent than anything else, since the process isn't dangerous unless the person in charge deliberately puts it into overdrive; the real problem is that she isn't supposed to use Earth for this kind of thing, so she keeps things secret and kills anyone who might reveal the Masquerade.
  • One Gilligan's Island episode involves the castaways finding some seeds that when ingested, bestow on the consumer the ability to read other people's minds. Trouble is, everyone then becomes privy to every tiny little critical thought the others have about them, and the group is unable to stop fighting with each other. Gilligan solves the problem by burning the bush that produces the seeds, leading to the moral "Some things are better left unsaid" —even though no one actually said them.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power: The mithril comes with two warnings which if are not listen, only bad things will follow. Mithril can be used to stop the fading away of the Elves, but king Durin the Third refuses to let the Elves mine for mithril because sometimes you have to allow things follow their natural evolution, stating that the elves' time has come to an end and that this was decreed by far wiser minds. His judgement is harsh but entirely accurate, and the elves themselves eventually will have to see this as well. The second warning is about the greed of the Dwarves and what happens if they dig to deep for mithril. This one is a Foregone Conclusion.
  • Lost in Space had an early episode in which the Robinsons discover an alien machine (in a crashed spaceship) that provides whatever they think of. The machine makes life so easy for the family that some of them stop taking care of things or showing initiative. Then all the goodies start falling apart/not working, and the machine's guardian shows up to take it back into the spaceship.
  • Star Trek:
    • The spore drive in Star Trek: Discovery is initially this; it can take you anywhere in the galaxy, but you need to torture an animal to do it,
    • Star Trek: Enterprise also gets in on the act with Trellium-D, used to insulate Enterprise from the harmful effects of the Expanse. Unfortunately it also degrades the neural pathways of Vulcans, causing loss of emotional control. T'Pol starts taking "carefully controlled" doses of Trellium-D in order to loosen up a bit and becomes addicted, permanently damaging her ability to control emotions. She also gets Pa'nar Syndrome, an allegory for AIDS, which also causes a loss of emotional control.
    • The crew of the Equinox in the Star Trek: Voyager two-part episode of the same name are built up as sympathetic and being more down on their luck than Voyager; then they do a Faceā€“Heel Turn. Any audience sympathy they might have had is destroyed by the discovery that their improved warp drive runs on the corpses of sentient aliens.
  • One Tales from the Darkside episode has an old man and his daughter finding a fountain of youth. It is guarded by a Native American-esque spirit who says "You must sacrifice one form of immortality (i.e. your child) for another." The old man sacrifices his daughter, then finds he ages like a rock—veeery slowly, but lives like one—taking years to blink.
  • Used in the TV series The Tomorrow People (1973), where the main characters' telepathy makes them incapable of killing.

  • The ring of Gyges (a Persian folk tale that was old when Herodotus heard and repeated it) allows the wearer to become invisible. Gyges, freed from the fear of punishment, kills the king and marries the queen, making this one Older Than Feudalism.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons Dark Sun setting, magic use can destroy the environment, killing plants and making the land infertile. Arcanists that choose to draw magic without environmental damage are called preservers.
  • The first two Grimtooth's Traps books both feature one extra trap not mentioned until the very last page of the book. The first book has been coated with a completely undetectable contact poison, and the second book's spine is filled with invisible microscopic worms that infect and kill anyone who touches it. In both cases the Aesop is "Never try to steal a troll's secrets."
  • The New World of Darkness gives us at least two:
    • In Werewolf: The Forsaken, spirits are the source of all magical tools, gifts, and powers. However, spirits have their own sometimes-delicate ecosystem, and removing one (to bind it into a tool or simply destroying it because it's dangerous) can have disastrous consequences for other spirits in the area and the things they embody in the real world. Since this is a Green Aesop, sometimes failing to hunt or destroy certain spirits can have similarly terrible effects.
    • In Mage: The Awakening, souls are a viable power source, as are demons from "the void". You can probably figure out what the issues with tapping either tend to be. On the plus side: immortality!
    • The more-universal Humanity system makes morality itself a form of Phlebotinum. Each splat has a set of hierarchical sins, with things on the order of 'occasionally thinks unkind thoughts about others' at rank ten and 'genocide purely for the purposes of entertainment' at zero. Committing sins on the list below your current rank pulls you downward, while only abstaining and spending experience points can pull you up, so you tend to 'level out' at one rank above the sins your character abhors enough to avoid even when they're necessary... and, being a Crapsack World, staying above the rank of 'murder' is often near-impossible if you want to survive. Higher Humanity improves the natural reaction of things like spirits and muggles to your presence, and lower morality increases the chance of your splat's primary downside occurring.
      • And then the downsides themselves can often lead to further sins, so the first step can lead to a bit of a vicious cycle: the downside for Mages, for instance is literal insanity, and for Werewolves it's turning into a gigantic out-of-control murder-beast whenever something provokes you. For Vampires, their humanity is almost visible, making it difficult to find food at low Humanity and thus more prone to hunger-induced killing of mortals, and Changelings can completely forget which world they are currently in.
      • Further complications arise from each splat having a different list or ranking of sins; Harmony (the Werewolf version) ranks disrespecting a pack elder or great spirit where the human version ranks multiple homicide, and the highest Wisdom (the Mage version) requires never using magic to do something that you could achieve through mundane means, essentially a 'don't use magic' rule since any magic that couldn't be done through mundane means breaks the Masquerade.
  • Shock Social Science Fiction encourages this in its worldbuilding phase.

    Video Games 
  • Command & Conquer gives us Tiberium, which is extremely valuable as it leeches minerals and valuables from the soil and brings it to the surface for easy harvesting in the form of green crystals, which grow blue as they grow more saturated and valuable. There's just the tiny list of problems to go with it; It's radioactive, mutagenic, spreads like Alien Kudzu - because it is - by assimilating everything it touches into more of itself if not handled correctly, and, if blue, has a tendency to set of explosive chain reactions at the slightest provocation. Ironically enough, Tiberium used as a fuel is actually a source of incredibly efficicent clean energy compared to alternatives like fossil fuels or nuclear power, which leads humanity to become more or less dependent on it even though it's completely destroying Earth and all life upon it. In short, it's the stuff of Al Gore's nightmares.
  • Crusader: No Regret introduces "di-correllium", a substance found mostly on the moon (about half the known deposits are there) and that the entire world energy supply is based around. It's to the point that the cartel charged with mining it murders researchers and suppresses information that could lead to the use of alternative energy sources. (As if that weren't objectionable enough, they use slave labor—mostly political prisoners—to do the mining. Did we mention they have minimal safety equipment and di-cor is extremely radioactive and toxic?) And by the end of the game, the moon and its di-cor is under the control of a group of terrorists.
  • Argent Energy in Doom (2016). Samuel Hayden protests the Doom Slayer's casual destruction of a literally unholy energy supply, saying it "solved an energy crisis the world had no answer for." In the sequel, they find out how it's produced: mortal slaves are supernaturally tortured on an industrial line until their souls are mulched into corrupted essence and processed into Argent. The refuse of their undead corpses forms new demons. This finally disgusts Hayden enough to abandon its pursuit.
  • Mako in Final Fantasy VII. An energy source that is derived by leaching energy from The Lifestream. Usage causes vast expanses of land to be rendered desolate. When humans and animals are overexposed to it, expect a Body Horror of excessive mutations and outright supernatural transformations. With the Shinra Electric Power Company's global dominance and control of the media, few people know and fewer care. You'd think that they would have noticed that something was wrong the first time a Mako reactor exploded, but it took an Eldritch Abomination alien, an Omnicidal Maniac, and a team of Well Intentioned Extremists to shake them from their haze. Immediately after Mako fell out of favor, they resorted to oil.
  • Aer and Blastia in Tales of Vesperia. Aer is a substance that exists naturally but large quantities have harmful effects on the environment and living things. Blastia are Magitek that convert Aer into energy, and most human civilization is reliant on them. The heroes eventually discover that overuse of Blastia will cause disturbances in the Aer and summon an Eldritch Abomination called The Adephagos that will destroy the world, and your party can only stop it by ending over-reliance on Blastia and replacing Aer with Mana, a much safer form of energy. All of this is a not-so-subtle metaphor for fossil fuels and global warming.

    Western Animation 
  • In the 3-2-1 Penguins! episode "Compassion Crashin'", there is a machine called the X-Five One Behavior Modifier which can change one's attitude with great ease. Fidgel planned to use it to make himself, Jason, Zidgel, Midgel, and Kevin compassionate so that they could listen to Michelle when she was feeling sad. However, thanks to Kevin breaking the modifier, Jason and the penguins became the opposite of compassionate.
  • Batman Beyond had "Splicing", a new technology that allowed a human to mix their DNA with that of an animal, giving them cool features. It's safe, we assure you. Naturally, it became an allegorical aesop for drug abuse and extreme body modification.
    • There was also an episode where future VR near-perfectly resembled reality - which made the unregulated versions of the perfect drug to push. We also see that the addicts had crippling home problems which made them desperate for any way to experience the illusion of a normal life.
  • One DuckTales (1987) episode features the titular "Pearl of Wisdom", which will grant whoever holds it at a certain point at sunrise temporary infinite wisdom. Every person who has ever stolen it and used it in this manner realizes the error of their ways during their "moment of wisdom," and voluntarily returns the pearl to the islanders from whom it was stolen. This is why the islanders are never bent out of shape whenever the pearl is stolen - they know it will eventually be brought back to them.
  • Visionaries had such an example built into the wizard spellbook: the Secret Secret Spell. Anyone who steals the book and casts it creates what appears to be The End of the World as We Know It and finds themselves racing back to the legitimate owner of the book so he can reverse it, restoring things back to normal.

Alternative Title(s): Aesoptinium, Aesoptonium