A Sobering Post on Alcohol in Speculative Fiction

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.

1874 temperance movement political cartoon

1874 American political cartoon, “Woman’s Holy War: Grand Charge on the Enemy’s Works,” depicting women in chainmail smashing barrels of booze with axes. I love that the crusading Valkyrie in the center is riding side-saddle!

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.

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5 thoughts on “A Sobering Post on Alcohol in Speculative Fiction

  1. Cassandra

    “This is because a husband could drink away his wife’s wages…”

    That is concentrated awful. I sure am happy I can now own a bank account. It also just occurred to me that none of my characters drink, because I don’t. Way to broaden my horizons!

    Reply
    1. mattevanprobst Post author

      I think fiction writers, particularly those in speculative genres, have to always be wary of unconsciously biasing things towards their particular cultural and life experiences.

      As someone who drinks very rarely and is quite disconnected from drinking cultures in the U.S., it can be challenging for me to accurately depict characters who are much friendlier with booze. Asking around for advice and doing research is usually how I work to fill in the gaps in those cases.

      Reply
      1. Crow Unlimited

        There’s also a lot of depth and variety to drinking culture, even beyond the initial surface of it. You’ve got base mass-produced beers that just substitute as the common beverage for some people at sporting events and neighborhood pubs. There’s the immense context of wine culture, with stuff like meal pairings and wine investment, and the greater association with the wealthy than other forms of drinking. You’ve got craft beers that, to a great extent, mirrors the intricacy and workmanship that most people typically associate with wine culture, but has a much more local and homegrown context. And then you’ve got the prevalent mixed-drink culture of dance clubs, metro settings… and what I find interesting about all of these different settings is how little crossover there appears to be between them.

        I think it’s also a good consideration, if you’re going to write about a character drinking, that you ponder why the character wants to drink. Drinking as part of a disguise in a high-society event might call for wine culture. Drinking purely to get drunk? That might be something you do with Bud Light if you’re not interested in taste and have a lot of time and beer to kill, or it’s something you do with vodka if you want to do it quickly AND hate yourself.

        Then again, there’s a lot to be said about how valuable first-hand knowledge of this type of thing is, and the inherent dangers and expenses associated with that first-hand experience. Moreover, like any other researchable subject, if one spends too much time trying to recreate a tangible experience in the written word, you run the risk of alienating the reader who isn’t interested in that experience, AND the risk of alienating the reader who knows more about that subject than you do. Cf. technical advisers on the movie HACKERS.

        Reply
        1. mattevanprobst Post author

          And then there’s the fact that the entire nexus of drinking cultures you describe in your first paragraph are fairly specific to the U.S. As with just about everything else in life, the closer you look the more complicated and interconnected it gets.

          For a speculative fiction writer, there’s no need to go into that degree of depth in most situations. But it is important to convey a sense of realism to drinking and to recognize when you are unnecessarily slipping into a shorthand based on your own culture that would not necessarily apply to your imagined world.

          You are correct that conveying all this requires a deft touch to avoid over-sharing with uninterested readers while still establishing important details about the world and not alienate folks with greater knowledge on the subject. Quite the delicate balance to pull off.

          Reply
          1. Crow Unlimited

            I’d argue that all of the cultures are pretty applicable in Europe as well, but even then, that’s still not a huge portion of the world’s overall culture.

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