New Worlds: Stimulants

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Stimulants — 13 Comments

  1. I’ve often wondered how the Romans managed to dominate such a large territory without stimulants. As far as I know they had nothing to counteract the wine or beer hangover!

  2. Some writers do put other chewing/drinking herbs in, but their worldbuilding slides them into the story in such a way that they slip by.

    What’s interesting about our various cultural conglomerates is trying to see what is legal and what isn’t, what was legal and now isn’t and the other way around, through the eyes of aliens. The fact that alcohol is legal and so are tobacco but hemp isn’t (though changing), etc, might seem completely random . . . except if you delve into the politics of them, especially that history of the slavery triangle of greed and death.

    • Oh, I’m sure I’ve encountered it more than one — I don’t have the encyclopedic memory some do for details of that kind. I think the coffee substitutes are more memorable for me because they’re often given some kind of distinct term that calls attention to “I’m coffee by another name!”

      And yes, the pattern for what we permit and what we don’t is based on a whole mess of history. I’m not aware of any sound medical reason for why alcohol and tobacco are totally normal but marijuana isn’t — if anything, my impression is that marijuana may be less harmful. (Though admittedly we also don’t have the same body of clinical studies about its regular, long-term use.)

      • Also, there is tobacco as it was, and the lethal stuff developed during the twentieth century in order to make it more addictive and to burn faster–upping the toxin content considerably.

        • I wasn’t actually aware of that change — but it parallels the changes in marijuana; apparently it’s more difficult now to find weed that will give a mellow effect, as growers have bred for strength.

      • Yes, much less harmful. No physiological addiction, no ability to die by overdose. Smoking a joint may be no better for your lungs than a cigarette, but you don’t smoke nearly as many, and of course there’s a wide range of non-smoked pot ingestion options. Pot generally doesn’t make people violent; there was a story years ago of the Dutch police making sure pot was available to keep soccer crowds from rioting.

        In terms of addiction and death risk, most of the hallucinogens are even safer than pot. There’s some debate about whether they might be psychotically bad for the occasional unlucky brain.

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  4. What I’ve seen over the last half-century is that tobacco use becomes a class marker rather than anything else: It’s frequently a sign that a character has arisen from lower-class (or “colonial”) roots to becoming a character, especially when it’s used as a “pacifier” rather than outright stimulant. This ranges from Ursula Le Guin’s “denics and trancs” (The Lathe of Heaven) to the smoking behavior of two important characters of lower-class/colonial origins in Kristine Smith’s Jani Killian books, and a wide range of other areas.

    Interestingly, tobacco use somehow seems to figure in almost all military science fiction, despite the US and European military attempts to suppress its use in the last half-century. It’s often used as a signal that a particular character isn’t a deep thinker, just a guy who gets the job done. Which is actually inconsistent with “real world” experience in the 1970s through 1990s — heavy smokers tended to be inefficient at all of the tasks in the military necessary to get ready for combat.

    • I have to admit that when I think about tobacco + military, my mind offers up countless images of square-jawed dudes chewing on cigars that are totally not a symbol of anything, nosiree.

      I probably should have had more smoking in the later Onyx Court books, but because it’s been in decline for most of my adult life, it isn’t as much on my radar as fit the period. I do have one bit in a (not yet published) piece where a character ends up using snuff tobacco because she’s in desperate need of a stimulant jolt, and she has too much of a caffeine tolerance for tea or coffee to be the answer.

  5. All the odder in that “pipeweed” featured heavily in an — influential work.

  6. Pern klah. Dragaera klava (actually a special way of preparing coffee.)

    I forget if Hodgell’s books have stimulants; her Highborn are nearly impossible to poison, and will drink hemlock for I think calming effects.

    The Liaden books have coffee and coffeetoot (“chicory-laden synthetic coffee substitute”), and lots of tea.