Drugs and rock n’ roll

My last non-quickie post was about sex, so this week I naturally decided to write about the use of recreational substances and rebellious music in fantasy. Yay!

Except I can’t honestly speak much to music. I’ve never really had interest in music as a textual form, so although a number of my favorite fantasy authors have produced music and lyrics to accompany their works, I rarely read those or listen to audible renderings thereof, and I’ve never considered anything like that for my own work. I do, however, love reading about musicians in fantasy — bards and minstrels, schools of music, singing mermaids and so on. I especially like seeing musicians depicted in fantasy as my favorite musicians often act in real life: as change agents and revolutionaries, using their art to spy against corrupt leaders or fight oppression or simply act as the voice of society’s overlooked and forgotten people. Aside from one old example — Alan Dean Foster’s “Spellsinger” books, which I read as a kid — I don’t see this trope used much in fantasy. Usually fantasy-novel musicians seem to be entertainers or educators, playing nice societally-acceptable, dominant-morality-reinforcing music. Not a whole lot of rock n’ roll, in other words, though maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff.

Drugs, though, that I can talk about. =) Not because I’m a fan — my favorite drug of choice is a nice late-harvest chenin blanc. But I think drugs fit very well into fantasy-novel worldbuilding, because they offer an easy shorthand for a created society’s values, fears, and taboos. For example: one of my unpublished novels takes place in a city where controlled dreaming is something every citizen is taught to do from childhood. Their recreational drug of choice is one which destroys this control, allowing them to dream freely. In the sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (which I just turned in to my editor, yay!), one character runs an organization that traffics in “godsblood”, which is exactly what it sounds like — small vials of blood drawn from willing gods. Ingested by humans, the blood confers temporary magical powers and a feeling of invincibility. (The substance isn’t illegal in this society, but authorities don’t like it because they’d rather the oppressed population not develop a taste for power.) In both cases, these created drugs offer valuable clues about how the people of these societies think, their legal system, their economics, and more.

Which I think is why so many fantasy authors from more recent literary movements like the New Weird school, or “outsiders” like Stephen King, don’t shy away from tossing drugs into the fantasy ring. King’s dark fantasy opus, the Dark Tower series, features a world in the process of “moving on”, its people slowly being consumed by technological and social decay. One way in which this decay manifests is through the use of “devil grass”: a weed which, if smoked or chewed, brings lovely visions, but slowly destroys the user’s soul (and life). It fits the stark, haunting environment of the novels perfectly: it’s free and easily accessible, it resembles tobacco (thus adding to the Old West aesthetic), and its effects are just as dangerous metaphysically as physically. In another example, one of my favorite (but obscure) novels, Storm Constantine’s The Thorn Boy posits an ancient Persia-ish society in which lovely “boys” (actually young men, but low in status and thus called “boy”) are treasured as sex slaves by kings. The boys see it as an honor, not slavery; the story is told from the perspective of one of these young men, who regards his role as “just business.” When he begins to lose that objectivity and fall in love with a fellow “boy”, he is troubled; he visits a temple for guidance and is given a drug which causes him to abandon all his inhibitions, both physical and emotional. This marks a turning point in the story, because afterward the protagonist increasingly loses control of his life in other ways. The drug didn’t cause this loss of control, but it made for great foreshadowing/symbolism.

I also think the personnel of the drug trade make for great fantasy characters — not just users and dealers, but also growers and importers, smugglers and distributors, and so on. After all, in our own world the sale of illicit drugs accounts for billions of dollars in trade, forms a significant proportion of the GDP for many nations (e.g., Columbia, Afghanistan), and drives several legitimate industries. (That’s not even counting drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals, which are legal in most societies.) These people are everywhere. So what could make a better viewpoint character than a drug dealer? Unlike most other characters in stratified fantasy worlds, dealers interact across a wide cross-section of society — from the poor to the wealthy, criminals as well as the establishment. They’re involved in day-to-day hand-to-mouth economics, yet through them it’s also possible to show an audience the “big picture”.

Yet I can think of only a handful of fantasy characters who even use drugs, let alone manufacture or distribute them. The best examples I can think of are from a completely different cultural tradition: Japanese manga. Off the cuff I can think of Fullmetal Alchemist (in which the protagonists find themselves searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, which is treated as the ultimate magical drug in the story), Wild Adapter (about rival yakuza groups fighting over a creepy drug that causes people to turn into monsters and then explode… uh, yeah…), Legal Drug (about two guys who work in a drugstore that probably sells marijuana among other things; there’s ghosts involved), and Yuu Yuu Hakusho (which features one character who uses magic herbal plants as weapons).

What’s up with the dearth of drugs and rock n’ roll in Western, English-language fantasy? Yeah, morality, I know; drugs are bad, m’kay? I get that. But rock n’ roll isn’t bad, despite the protestations of censors back in the 1950s, so why isn’t there more fantasy featuring music as a revolutionary force? And regardless of morality, fantasy is the literature of imagination. For that imagination to be too closely-bounded by the strictures of modern Western morality is dangerously limiting, in my opinion. I want to read fantasy that reflects the full complexity of human life and history, warts and all. I want characters who are stoners as well as saints. One day, I hope, fantasy will oblige me.

(Hmm. Despite all my “fight the dominant paradigm!” talk, I can’t escape a certain feeling of moral responsibility here, so… hey, kids! Drugs are bad, unless they’re prescribed for you and manufactured in accordance with government-acceptable quality control standards. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle!)


7 Responses to “Drugs and rock n’ roll”

  1. March 5, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    “Spellsinger” was the first book that leapt to mind when you mentioned drugs & rock ‘n’ roll in fantasy. Wasn’t there something in the Mythadventure novels? I know Pratchett has a Discworld novel that features ‘music with rocks in it’ and his Discworld books often talk about ‘slab’ and other recreational Troll drugs which are starting to become a problem in AnhkMorpork. You’d think Brust’s Vlad Taltos books would be the perfect place for drugs & rock music but while he does talk about drumming a bit I don’t recall anything about drug use outside of the effects of witchcraft. XD

    I wonder if, sometimes, magic isn’t the substitute for drugs in many fantasy novels? You often read about the temptations of magic/power, and how if you start using magic you will keep on wanting more.

    I think what keeps rock ‘n’ roll and drugs out of a lot of fantasy novels is their setting; most seem to be set in pseudo-medieval/Renaissance Western civilization-based worlds.

    In a non-fantasy setting I am quite enamored of Sherlock Holmes and the protagonist in ‘From Hell’ precisely because they manage to be so brilliant even tho they are users.

  2. 2 Layla Lawlor
    March 5, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Excellent post. I think part of the problem is that fantasy, as a genre, is so conservative — not in the political sense necessarily, but it’s just not a rule-breaking sort of genre, in general. I find this bizarre, because, as you pointed out, the possibilities are so endless, and I treasure the fantasy novels I’ve found that do take it to different and unusual places (and I’m quite looking forward to yours!).

    But it seems that most fantasy isn’t about challenging the reader’s presumptions; it’s about wrapping the reader in the safe and familiar. There’s rebellion, but in the form of the safe and traditional — overthrowing a corrupt leader, say, not struggling with larger questions of right and wrong. There are scoundrels and rogues, but sanitized versions, who hardly swear more heavily than a PG rating. Alternate sexuality appears for background color if at all; religion is either the tool of a corrupt king or the literal truth at the heart of the magic system, but rarely something more nuanced.

    I might sound like I’m ragging on the fantasy genre, but it’s not that — I adore fantasy, but I haven’t read much of it in the last decade or so, because I’m having so much trouble finding something that I haven’t read a dozen times before. I want to see it push boundaries and challenge assumptions and achieve its potential in the same way that the best SF does. At the very least, I’d love to see more fantasy with the kind of detailed world-building that you’re talking about — I think that the kind of complex stories I want to read tend to follow naturally from a detailed and realistic world.

  3. March 5, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Hi Layla,

    I’ve actually begun seeing better scoundrels, more alternate sexuality, and nuanced religion a lot in the past few years. Off the cuff I can think of a couple of examples: Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner novels, in which the main couple are two men who are eventually romantically involved (and they’re spies, willing to kill if necessary to accomplish their mission); Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows and sequels, about a magical assassin who drinks and whores and works for the “good guys” — a criminal cartel. We’re seeing a lot more of the underclass, and also more takes on religion from within — Karen Miller’s Godspeaker books, frex.

    But you’re right, I think, about fantasy being inherently conservative. I think you’ve hit the reason for that on the head: fantasy is comfort food, pure escapism, for a lot of people. So is science fiction, but the escapism of SF seems more willing to overturn the core structure of society, at least along narrow lines (like all the new “post-scarcity” stuff, which just doesn’t impress me — just a new face of utopianism). Fantasy seems obsessed with keeping society exactly the way it is (or was), except maybe tweaking this or that little thing. Might be why there are so few China Mievilles out there; I don’t know if the market could support too many of them.

  4. 4 rachelaaron
    March 7, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Wow, I just got the time to read this and I’m so bummed I missed out on commenting earlier, what a great post!!!

    I also love drugs in fantasy, especially if there’s magic involved. Magical underworlds are one of my favorite playgrounds (which is one reason why I loved Tim’s first book, Blood Engines, which I got to read and love and OMG about this last weekend while we were snowed in). I mean, why should crime be confined to the thieves guild? (Which I never bought, why is there a thieves guild and not a mofia-like cartel?)

    Drugs are especially nice in fantasy because you can use them to show so much you never otherwise.

    Ack, I’m not making sense. No sleep last night. Anyway, awesome post!

  5. 5 MidSouth Mouth
    March 10, 2009 at 7:27 am

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I have not read as much fantasy as SF, so my comments can be bracketed with that in mind.

    I agree about the conservative, comforting bent seeming more prevalent fantasy.

    Perhaps the urban fantasies allow more drug use but isn’t it usually on the mundane parts?

    I think that Jen Manley’s Dicebox, which is actually SF, has some drug action.

  6. 6 Saladin
    March 11, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Nice post. We spoke about this a bit before, but I definitely see drug culture as minor worldbuilding detail more and more. There’s bits of it in George Martin’s fantasy and in the novels of those writers who take some cues form him: Lych, Rothfuss, etc. For what it’s worth, my own first published story (out next month, plug, plug!) has a brief mention of someone drinking ‘wormwood wine’…

    But it would be awesome to see more sociologically savvy depiction of this stuff. Like “The Wire” crossed with Lankhmar or some such…

    As far as the ‘magic as drug metaphor’ thing, I know that as a younger reader I often found myself picking up on crypto-drug references in essentially harmless fantasy. What was up with Raistlin from Dragonlance!? “Cough-cough! Whoo! Lookit them magic lights I just made! Cough-cough! Caramon! Get em my little pouch full of herb!”

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