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!)
My 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.
Drugs, 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.
One 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.