Stimulants in fantasy worlds

Here’s a post from Marie Brennan at Book View Cafe: New Worlds: Stimulants

The post caught my eye largely because I just finished reading the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. Brennan says:

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.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a chewable stimulant in any SFF novel either, except that one. Anybody?

Honestly, though, the reason chocolate is encountered rarely is probably that everyone knows cocoa is a New World plant. Right? People may not know that peanuts originated in South America, then were transplanted to Africa, then were transplanted from Africa to North America. But everyone pretty much does know that chocolate is New World. So if you put chocolate into a fantasy novel, that does odd things to the feel of the world.

Stuff that seems normal in a bog-standard fantasy setting: wheat, wild boar, wolves, beer (or ale), tea. Stuff that seems out of place: pronghorn antelope, elephants, potatoes, chocolate.

Incidentally, I’ll raise my hand as someone who needs caffeine to function — but I don’t like coffee or tea (or soda, for that matter). I take 100 mg of caffeine in tablet form the minute I get up every morning. It helps prevent headaches — and it does also make me feel more awake, so at least I understand why people swear by coffee.

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10 thoughts on “Stimulants in fantasy worlds”

  1. The Vlad Taltos series has kelsch leaves, whose stimulant properties when chewed are particularly important in Taltos while they’re in the Paths of the Dead. (Since if they fall asleep, they’ll never leave.)

  2. Of course Tolkien had both potatoes and tobacco in LotR (IIRC eventually handwaving their presence as Numenorean introductions) as well as Oliphaunts, though not chocolate or peanuts or pronghorn.

  3. Well, Tolkien. I mean, when HE does it, it works.

    Actually he used potatoes specifically to evoke the feel of English village life, setting the Shire apart from the larger world. Tobacco too, maybe. I think that’s why it worked.

  4. I recall several other secondary worlds that had chewable stimulants but I am completely blanking on the details. I don’t recall them being big plot points – just treated like coffee or tea. So, not a satisfying answer, but I’ve seen it enough that it doesn’t strike me as unusual when I run into it in a novel. Come to think of it, the fact that it is done so matter of factly and isn’t a big plot point is probably why I can’t remember the details. Just a bit of background color for the world.

  5. I’m with Allan, I know I’ve run across them, but other than remarks about stained teeth in the users nothing much is made of them.
    I also vaguely recall running across occasional references to stuff I’m pretty sure is a form of chocolate.

    Back in the before time I ran across an essay by a fellow who’d talked to people in Kentucky who known Tolkien and the essayist wondered if that was part of the why behind the tobacco. … essayist’s name is almost …. Aha, Guy Davenport. And with that, I find someone put the pertinent part online:

    The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien’s. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.
    “Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.”

    And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbits’ pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality …. Kentucky, it seems, contributed its share.

    Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them, and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: “I hear tell,” “right agin,” “so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way,” “this very month as is.” These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.

  6. What was that gimer stick Yoda was chewing on anyway?

    I’m with Allan and Elaine in vaguely remembering seeing that sort of thing in books but not remembering book names or specifics. In that vein, I seem to remember reading a sci fi work recently where Earth was valued in the galactic/alien community for chocolate exports.

  7. Stephanie Burgis features chocolate in her latest middle grade series, DRAGON WITH THE CHOCOLATE HEART! But I guess I wouldn’t think of chocolate as a stimulant in the same way, even though it is. I think it’s popped up in a few other stories recently, all with some awareness of cross-cultural exchange (ie, it didn’t feel out of place in that context). I didn’t make a note of which ones, though now I wish I had!

  8. Ellen Kushner’s “Tremontaine”, a collaborative sequel to “Swordspoint”, has chocolatl front and center. (And yes, use of the Mayan matters.)

    It is also at least modestly important in “Dragon with a Chocolate Heart.”

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