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The Use of Drugs In Fantasy

As fantastical as our genre is, there has always been some leakage from the real world to the ones lodged between the pages we devour. Love, war, anger, sex, despair, greed, politics, disease, mythology…After all, it is hard to forge a book 100% removed from ours. My question today is if real-world elements sneak into our books all the time, then why should the subject of drugs be any exception?

(Just a quick word of clarification here, we’re talking about the, illegal, narcotic kind of drugs. Not our average friendly paracetamol you can get from the pharmacy. Just in case!)

Mushroom Bog by Matt GaserMy initial answer is they shouldn’t. Drugs are ubiquitous in our world, whether we like it or not. They come in many shapes and sizes, and with an array of properties and affects and dangers. Drugs also mean a lot of things to a lot of people, depending on who and what you are, and where you’re from. Drugs could be a positive; they could be a negative. Drugs have social connotations, their own political agendas, legal consequences, criminal aspirations, controversial natures, and emotional baggage to boot. They are complex beasts, not just in their chemical makeup, but in their existence as a whole.

Personally, as a writer, that complexity is a gold mine of possible plots and characters just waiting to be written. Writing this blog, I actually came up with no less than five new ideas for future and existing books, all revolving around drugs. Actually, I think my questions should now be this: Given such a universal and fiery concept, why should drugs NOT appear in fantasy? After all, fantasy authors are nothing if not bold in crossing lines. In fact, fantasy authors simply draw new ones, so why not?

Well perhaps they already do. Consider the old fairytales and the classical fantasies of the past few centuries. What were all those witches brewing up in their cauldrons? What hallucinogenic secrets were the wizards hiding in their multi-coloured vials, stashed high on unreachable shelves? Was it a rabbit hole Alice fell down, or was it something in the punch? I suppose down at their bare bones, these could be thought of as innocent drug references – homemade distances with dubious and strange effects…

Of course, there is a difference between ingredients, or alchemy, and drugs. It’s a fine line. But what I’m talking about is something a little darker, subversive, something more contemporary. Like the drugs of today.

A Gun and Dime Bags of Crack Cocaine by BoogieDrugs, at their very core, are consumed for theirs effects. So where does that come into fantasy? Well sometimes, I have to just grin at our genre. What other genre is there that gives its writers and readers such license, such excuses, to go utterly wild, to abandon any guidelines. It’s in the name: Fantasy. What better genre is there for the existence of strange drugs and even stranger affects?! Fantasy provides endless excuses for this subject. We can have outlandish drugs that could literally do anything. Drugs that have side effects of shape-shifting for example. Invisibility. Even comical or satirical affects, if you’re more of a Pratchett fan.

It bodes well for writing too. We can have characters with addictions or vices that provide motivation and conflict. We can twist the drug cartel idea on its head. We can add richness and seediness to worlds and races. Define social circles. Introduce epidemics and crime cabals. The list goes on, and I want to see more of it.

This isn’t an entirely new concept, as drugs do already exist in today’s fantasy books. Brandon Sanderson features a drug in his Stormlight Archive books. It’s called firemoss, and involves rubbing it between finger and thumb to produce a heightened state of being and euphoria. It’s mentioned briefly, but for some reason it’s always stuck in my head. The protagonist, Prince Regal, in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is a drug addict, and that’s used to sour his character. LOTR’s lembas bread might be thought as a type of drug and J.R.R. also references pipeweed, a form of tobacco.

Bilbo and Gandalf SmokingOne book that uses the reference of drugs heavily, and we’re straying briefly into sci-fi here, is Dune’s spice. It promotes longevity and health and in large doses triggers precognitive abilities and mutation. Not to compare myself to these greats, but I have a drug in my books called nevermar. Its effect is an intense and debilitating euphoria, but it also cancels out magical ability, and worse still, my main character, a mage, is addicted to it.

Overall, I’m not condoning any drug use here, no more than I’m condoning violence, war, disease, or politics. What I’m saying is that if real-world elements, like love and war, can sneak into fantasy, then why can’t, and why shouldn’t, drugs and their baggage? I move that it makes for some intriguing and powerful writing. Of course, as a writer, I will exercise caution in not glamourising such a lifestyle, but that’s a line I personally choose to tread. I think drugs are perfectly viable in the world of fantasy, and are cause for richness and depth.

But enough about me, what do you think?

This article was originally posted on July 29, 2012.

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23 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Hey Ben,

    Interesting article there, sir.

    Why are drugs not written about so much in fantasy? It’s a tough one. I think that as a writer you often try to write about things that interest you and that you know something about (or can have fun researching). For a lot of writers drugs won’t be that interesting off the bat – unless you are prompted (by an article such as this) to really think about it – it is easy to overlook how easily drugs can add an interesting dynamic, a shade of grey and a cast of characters with interesting relationships to your novel.

    Even more so than that, though, I guess most authors would worry that by writing about drugs they are promoting themselves as supporters of them or setting themselves up to preach against them. I think authors have to be very careful to minimise their attitudes towards certain issues within a book, because their readers may disagree with what they are presenting as their belief and find their book too preachy.

    Actually, a book you really NEED to check out is: Lowtown – The Straight Razor Cure, which happens to be this month’s book club read. The protagonist is a Drug Dealer and drugs are very much part of the story.

    Thanks again for an interesting read 🙂

    • BenGalley says:

      My pleasure Marc!

      I agree – I think you do run the risk of choosing a camp with drugs sometimes, or at least, being thrown into a camp against your will. I think it’s why some authors steer clear of the subject as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, as I said, it’s a personal choice!

      I’ll be buying Lowtown today 😉

      Thanks again,

      Ben

  2. Gravey says:

    Stacia Kane’s Downside series (UF) is very very heavy on the drug usage.
    It’s a very major theme in this series, with her protaganist a flawed and heavy drug user.
    I believe she does a brilliant job exploring what that means for a person, in terms of their job, friends and relationships, without glamourising them, but still managing to tell an interesting and involved story that revolves around a drug addict.

  3. Terry Dassow says:

    I think drugs play a role in many Fantasy worlds, it’s just that the drug element is usually very much interlaced into the universe or culture. In many fantasy worlds, such as that of Michael Moorcock’s “The Elric Series”, the drug use has a weak presence and isn’t a heavy part of the conflict. I agree that it’s probably just the interests of the writer and their storytelling goal which determines its level of inclusion in the story.

  4. AE Marling says:

    It all depends if the drug use is inserted to bring a fantasy down or loft it up. By “bringing it down” I mean a drug that is reminiscent if not identical to a real-world drug which provides a touch of realism to the story. A spoonful of reality helps the fantasy go down. I would also lump all mentions of alcohol and pipeweed into this category.

    A drug could be used to bring the story up, if it’s original and adds to the narrative, and I think Ben Galley’s magic-suppressing drug is a great example. It adds conflict and tension, as drugs are want to do. Another option is to have other fantasy elements to have drug-like effects. The One Ring (and its power) is certainly addicting, and I feel that imagery like this helps us explore moral choices in a way that’s more palatable than real-world stories. The distance adds perspective. Likewise, I enjoy creating magic systems that are addicting. In one, illusionists create new body images for themselves, and over time they begin to see their illusions as more true than reality.

  5. Of course, one drug’s ubiquitous in fantasy – alcohol. Unless, of course, the elf, dwarf, barbarian and the rest who meet up at the tavern are drinking lemonade.

    Although I can’t think off-hand of an example, drugs were often referenced casually by the older fantasy writers like Dunsany. After all, most of the “illegal” drugs were both legal and socially acceptable when he was writing. During WW1, when wealthy families bought hampers to go out to their relatives at the front, along with the champagne and paté de fois gras, they routinely included supplies of cocaine and heroin. The concept of drugs being illegal is quite a modern one – which is something else to bear in mind when creating drug-use in a fantasy world.

  6. Gregory Lynn says:

    One minor point. The difference between the drugs you get at the pharmacy and the drugs you get at Not The Pharmacy aren’t really different. Things have effects. Sometimes we use those effects for entertainment, sometimes for medicine, and sometimes an effect is good enough that we overlook other effects.

    Point being, the only real difference is the laws about them and Fantasy settings often have fewer laws than our real world.

  7. Austin Blanton says:

    Personally, this made me think of the Khajiit obsession with a substance called Moon Sugar, in the Elder Scrolls series of games.

  8. Phil Norris says:

    There’s the drug that Logan uses/mentions a lot in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law universe, but without looking I can’t remember what its called.

  9. Phil Smith says:

    Let’s not forget Patrick Rothfuss’ ‘Kingkiller Chronicle.’ Sweeteaters and denner resin actually play a decent role in those books. If you haven’t read the, denner resin is a drug in Pat’s world that causes it’s users to have unnaturally white teeth. The overall effects seem to be similar to those of methamphetamine. He writes about a young girl who is a bag of bones, dancing naked in the snow for a sailor in exchange for a fix. It’s pretty intense.

  10. Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane both uses drugs and is a dealer in some of the stories. He is an amoral character, and anything goes to serve his purposes. In Howard’s Conan Black Lotus could be both a hallucinogen and a deadly poison. I use drugs in my works (not taking them, just writing about them). I like to differentiate between those which normal people might use to relax at the end of the day (like Marijuana) and those that can destroy lives (like Crack Cocaine, Meth and Heroin). And the one drug that was mentioned in an earlier reply but not really thought about by most was alcohol, which is both an after work relaxant and a destroyer of lives. Can’t have a drunken brawl with bodies everywhere without some of the social lubricant.

    • Yora says:

      I think Sword & Sorcery is probably the most drugged up of all fantasy genres. Decadence and vice are always a strong theme in the genre, and many stories deal with criminals and the underworld. There’s drugs everywhere.

  11. Bronson says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Thanks so much.

  12. CMucklow says:

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned G.R.R Martin’s “Milk of The Poppy” which is fairly obviously opium of some description. Used mostly for medicinal purposes but is sometimes used recreationally. I remember a like about a character called Gregor Clegane who “…quaffs milk of the poppy like wine”

  13. It’s interesting that you say drugs aren’t used much, because I can think of a few examples, enough that I’ve never really thought drugs were ‘absent’ from fantasy. Opium is referenced in a few books I’ve read (Katherine Kerr’s are the only ones I can think of offhand) and the Nyissans use a whole range of drugs in Eddings’ Belgariad, although the effects of most of them are not spelt out, it is clear they are often addictive and many are euphoric or mind-altering. There is a drug in King’s Dark Tower series (they chew it or smoke it, but forget what it was called) and in Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices. Jordan used ‘forkroot’ as adrug to suppress channelers in The Wheel of Time, and other commentators have already mentioned GRRM and Rothfuss and Abercrombie. Indie author Shawn Wickersheim (whose book ‘The Penitent Assassin’ was good enough I gave it to two people for Christmas the year I read it) is totally about magical drugs – it’s kind of a key plot point.

  14. Aldrea Alien says:

    Like others, I can think of a whole mess of drugs in fantasy books, a lot of which are already mentioned. It seems so common to me, that I didn’t think twice about having abuse of them in my own novels, but I digress…
    If we get back into Science Fantasy territory… the Dragonriders of Pern had ‘Fellis’ that, if I recall correctly, was an addictive painkiller. There are also other medicines, like numbweed, spines that were used as needles and the like, but they were used to help people.

  15. Xen says:

    There’s Skooma in the Elder Scroll universe.

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  17. Drew says:

    Since it’s on my mind during my reread, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun has several key plot points revolve around the use of drugs. Without the gland of the alzabo, well, pretty much none of the last 2.5 books would have happened the way it did.

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