Via Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money, I am reminded that 79 years ago today, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and with it, the disastrous policy of Prohibition. Naturally, my thoughts turned to the depiction of banned and controlled substances in SF&F.Whenever speculative fiction depicts a controlled or prohibited substance, the most obvious parallel is to the contemporary drug war. However, writers can look at the other connections that lead to restricting or outlawing substances. For example, supporters of Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage in the U.S. were closely linked. This is because a husband could drink away his wife’s wages and savings, because under the law at the time they did not belong to her, but to him. As a result, women’s rights activists in the late 19th and early 20th Century frequently made common cause with the temperance movement in order to raise the status of women by outlawing drink. During the First World War, prohibitionists also allied with pro-war politicians and supporters, on the grounds that a sober army would fight more effectively. This confluence of interest groups led to the passage of the 18th Amendment, prohibiting alcohol, and the 19th Amendment, granting American women the right to vote, in the aftermath of the war. Consider how a similar intersection of unlikely interests could be driving the prohibition or restriction of substances in your fictional universe.
More specific to alcohol, it’s also worth considering the drinking cultures of your imagined world and how they might affect the characters, plot, or setting. Drinking culture has varied widely throughout history and across the world. In most if not all Muslim nations, alcohol remains prohibited. In parts of East Asia, the willingness to participate and hold your own in after-hours heavy drinking is necessary to develop personal and business relationships among men. Many of the Anglophone countries like the U.S. and Britain have longstanding problems with binge drinking and alcoholism at significantly higher rates than elsewhere in the developed world.
Consider how your imagined cultures approach alcohol consumption. Is it prohibited? If so, why? The origins of prohibition in Islam are–to my knowledge–driven by a desire to protect women and children from suffering due to an alcoholic father, which is part of the religion’s emphasis on social justice. Is alcohol something to be drunk alone, or is it expected to only drink in groups? Are certain sections of society (children, women, the peasantry) forbidden to drink some or all forms of alcohol?
Consider as well the resources available to your imagined cultures, which helps shape how alcohol is viewed and treated. For example, one major contributor to binge drinking among the Mongols was the fact that the traditional beverage of fermented mare’s milk was a seasonal drink only available in the winter, when there was little else to do but sit around and drink. After the Mongol conquests, when they gained ready access to more durable intoxicants, this seasonal practice of heavy drinking became a year-round affair that produced crippling rates of alcoholism among the Mongol leadership.
Perhaps most importantly, consider how characters who practice one drinking culture interact with those from another. Do they get along? Do they commit an unforgivable faux pa? Are the two cultures irreconcilable? All of these are prime opportunities for conflict and story-telling.
Thinking about details like this can open up new story opportunities as well as provide another bit of lived-in detail that strengthens the foundations of your world-building. A little research into current and historical drinking practices can provide a wealth of information to draw upon.