Our general theme for this month is drugs, but I’m going to start off with a category whose most common members are rarely thought of as drugs at all: stimulants.
(How many of you reading this have a mug of coffee or tea in front of you right now?)
Stimulants or “uppers” make you more energetic and wakeful, can sometimes improve your mood or increase your libido, and help you focus, up to a point — too much of a stimulant winds up having the opposite effect. Given our productivity-driven society these days, it’s unsurprising that we rely so heavily on this class of drugs in our daily lives. Yes, we may like taste of tea, coffee, and chocolate . . . but caffeine isn’t the most widely used psychoactive drug in the entire world purely for reasons of flavor. Nine out of ten North Americans consume it every single day, and many of those freely admit they rely on it to function.
Natural sources of caffeine have had a profound effect on history. When the phrase “not for all the tea in China” came into use, it was not simply a reference to quantity; tea was incredibly valuable, to the point where the British East India Company resorted to industrial espionage, smuggling tea bushes out of China and into India so as to break the Chinese monopoly on the stuff. Tea caddies from the eighteenth century have locks on them, and the mistress of the house kept the key, in order to prevent servants from pilfering it. Even sailing technology was influenced by tea, with the fastest clipper ships being used to ferry tea from China to Europe (along with other goods like opium and spices).
The history of coffee is intensely bound up with that of slavery. Native to tropical Africa, coffee bushes can also be grown in Southeast Asia and Central and South America, where European powers created vast plantations to fuel the demand in their home countries. Meanwhile, the cocoa bean — native to Central and South America — got exported to Africa and Southeast Asia, with similar conditions of production. (And this is, in part, why many people of color these days object to descriptions of skin color that are based on comparisons to coffee or chocolate: they’re not only cliche, but a callback to colonial oppression and commodification.)
Caffeine isn’t the only option, of course. There’s also nicotine, found primarily in tobacco — oh, hey, we’re back to plantations and slavery. Apparently our appetite for stimulants is such that we’re very prone to exploiting them on a huge scale, and exploiting other people in the process. And then there’s the coca shrub, aka the source of cocaine; chewing the leaves gives a much less intensive dose than consuming pure cocaine, and has been traditional in the Andes for thousands of years. In the Pacific and Southeast Asia, people wrap areca nuts in betel leaves; in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula it’s khat instead. We seem to have a deep-seated need to wake our brains up.
Even if getting the material to do so is a labor-intensive process. Many of these stimulants need processing of some kind before they’re suitable for consumption. Cocoa beans have to be extracted from their pods and fermented with their pulp to make them less bitter, before being slowly dried out and polished, then roasted. Coffee undergoes a similar process, and tobacco has to be cured, i.e. dried out and oxidized. The different “colors” of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black) don’t come from different plants, but rather depend on the degree of wilting, oxidization, and crushing the leaves undergo.
That’s before you even get to the question of how the stuff tastes. While some people prefer their coffee black, our palates aren’t generally wired for us to like bitter things — in nature that often signals a poison — and many stimulants are naturally bitter. We therefore adulterate them with other substances to make the result more palatable: honey, sugar, milk, cocoa butter in the case of chocolate, flavorings in cigarettes, and so forth.
We also build vast cultural edifices around the consumption of our uppers. The Japanese tea ceremony is probably the most famous one in the west, but the general practice is widespread throughout tea’s original cultural sphere in Asia. In North America, indigenous peoples often used tobacco in their ceremonial pipes (though they also used other plants), with the sharing of the pipe helping to cement a peace agreement or the smoke carrying prayers to the world of spirits. On a more secular level, the adoption of coffee in Europe and colonial America coincided with the development of newspapers and resulted in the coffee-house: a place where people could drink coffee, read the news, and gossip . . . or foment political revolution.
I think it’s rather telling that some equivalent to coffee or tea shows up quite often in fiction — even fiction set in other worlds. Anne McCaffrey gave Pern the klah tree rather than leave her poor dragonriders without any substitute for coffee. Tea-drinking is an easy way to signal either a pseudo-British or pseudo-Asian setting. Given how many authors fuel their work with endless mugs of those drinks, it’s hardly surprising that it percolates into their stories. (Sorry/not sorry.)
Other stimulants are less common, though. For whatever reason, I feel like I encounter chocolate only rarely in stories — books like Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia (later subtitled or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot) being the exception. I’d also love to know if the depiction of tobacco in science fiction and fantasy has dropped off over time, as smoking becomes less acceptable in real life. As for chewables — coca leaves, betel nuts, and khat — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them in a secondary world story, except for me putting an unnamed coca-type plant into Within the Sanctuary of Wings. Even chewing tobacco only seems to show up in things that are explicitly trying to feel like Westerns.
Whether that’s because science fiction and fantasy writers aren’t chomping down on such things while they work, or for some other reason, we will simply have to wonder.