Monday, October 16, 2017


This was always going to be an interesting topic! We kept it broad, because instead of just doing alcohol or drinks, we wanted to cover solid, liquid, and gaseous intoxicants. You can inhale them, ingest them, inject them, or even apply them topically. These are mind-altering substances, and they are woven into our social fabric, and have a strong influence on society. They even lie at the root of major cultural changes like the American Prohibition and its consequences (including organized crime).

Kat said we should make sure to include things like licking frogs. It's not just people who are interested in intoxicants, either - animals have been found deliberately ingesting fermented fruit or juice, etc.

If you are including intoxicants in your worldbuilding - and it would be very surprising if you did not - you should think about how they are delivered, and what their consequences are.

Alice in Wonderland features a lot of ingestion-leads-to-weird-effects, ostensibly real ones, that were probably inspired by the effects of intoxicants.

Many intoxicants are also ritualized in various ways.

As with many topics, we have to be careful to avoid exoticizing intoxicants and doing the "mysticized spiritual path plus intoxicants" story.

Intoxicants seem to be normalized more in fantasy, where taverns are incredibly common. One of our discussants asked, "If you're on a quest, should you really be taking psychotropics?"

We encourage all readers or listeners to avoid doing a last-minute story twist where "it was all a pipe dream or an intoxicated hallucination."

Star Trek has a long history of featuring intoxicants, including Romulan Ale. We thought it was interesting how Alien Nation used the idea that the aliens would ingest sour milk to become intoxicated. Alternate intoxicants like this are less common. Ian Banks novels include social use of intoxicants. The Fuzzy books by H. Beam Piper have a TON of cocktails, and in fact these are cocktails of the period in which the books were written, which led one of the discussants to call them Mad Men in space. In the case of these books, there was a pretty direct transfer of the social milieu of the writer and its social significance into a far-future context.

We thought it would be interesting to consider what intoxicants might be in an environment of scent communication. Would squid or octopus ink cause intoxication?

There are always intoxicating herbs, like catnip.

People tend to take their local grains and sugars and turn them into alcohol or a local beer.

Intoxication of the mind-altering type always borders on literal toxicity. You can poison yourself with ergot, or mushrooms, or peyote. Sometimes it's ingesting the wrong thing accidentally that poisons you; sometimes it's just overdosing on the intended intoxicant. This is certainly common with opiods!

We talked about absinthe, which is made with wormwood. Other artemisia relatives are also made into intoxicating liquors. There is a very long world tradition of soaking things in alcohol. Sometimes, alcohol intensifies the effect of other intoxicants.

We asked whether we had ever seen a story based on, "We are on a quest for strange new drugs." We did know about plenty of stories about "We are on a quest for strange new highs with existing drugs" like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Pineapple express.

Intoxicants can take a different form in Cyberpunk or hard science fiction. People can be "brain jacked" or stimulated in an intoxicating way. Snow Crash features some of this, and so does the new book by Annalee Niewitz, Autonomous.

In my own novelette, "Cold Words," I featured an alien protagonist who was addicted to an intoxicating substance. One of the things I tried to do with the story was have the purpose of his choice be misunderstood and judged negatively by humans who were imagining drug use in the context of their own social models.

We thought it would be interesting to see an alien who found the human environment intoxicating and needed a filtration system in order to interact with us. It would also be interesting if humans were intoxicated by the aliens they interacted with, and for some reason ambassadors to them kept making bad judgments... We would love to see an alien say, "Humans exhale carbon dioxide, it's amazing!"

We agreed that it was weird and troubling when stories about kids accidentally ingesting alcohol and getting drunk were considered funny. Our society's understanding of intoxicated or drunk characters has changed over time. Back in the classic Disney films, they were often portrayed as funny. Now, they are more likely to be portrayed as pathetic or ill. Glorification of drug use happens in stories; so does stigmatization of drug use. Kat says that these days she sees less "nudge nudge wink wink," or fewer stories about "I got drunk and I did bad things ha ha."

Alongside stigmatization comes the edgy countercultural rebellion angle of drug use.

We talked about casual users of intoxicants that we had seen in fiction. One example we saw was Masterharper Robinton in the Pern books, who used a lot of wine.

C.S. Friedman had an interesting situation in her novel This Alien Shore, where space pilots were people who were psychotic unless drugged, and had to be off their pharmaceuticals in order to function well as space pilots.

Dune had the spice, of course.

One relatively common narrative features hallucinogens leading to a higher truth. The Oracle of Delphi inhaled volcanic gas. Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg featured a special kind of wine that would induce spiritually meaningful and sometimes prophetic dreams.

Use of intoxicants by different social groups can lead to very different narratives. Cocaine was used by rich white people and spoken about in one way; crack was used by poor black people and spoken about in a very different way. Racism plays out in how this happens. We noted the difference between the way the opioid crisis among white people is treated differently from previous drug crises that affected others. Kat noted that cyberpunk has dealt with questions of social stratification.

Ask what is high class and what is stigmatized.

Sometimes you see people in real life who have undiagnosed mental disorders and use intoxicants as self-medication.

It's fascinating to look at cultural changes over time, such as that surrounding the use of cigarettes, as well as looking how their use has changed around the world.

Kat also brought up a really interesting question to ask: Are intoxicants sequestered, i.e. used in very restrictive contexts, or are they woven into the fabric of life?

We also briefly mentioned the problems of supervillains being caused by physical enhancement drugs gone wrong.

It would be possible to do a whole hangout on performance-enhancing drugs, but they were barely mentioned here.

Brave New World has state-mandated drug use to pacify the populace.

Consider whether in your worldbuilding you would prefer to keep the social role of intoxicants the same, and just substitute in fantasy/alien words for existing substances, or whether you would like to do more work and redesign the social phenomenon of intoxicants from the ground up.

These were some really interesting thoughts! Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion.

Dive into Worldbuilding meets this week on Thursday, October 19th at 10am Pacific. We'll be talking about activities that are associated with particular times of day. I hope to see you there!