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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Does alcohol still make sense in the future?

The artwork in this post is by My Orange Hat.

As a futurist I can't help but think that every time I put a glass of scotch or whiskey in one of may characters' hands I'm being lazy. Some of you are asking why, and the answer is actually pretty easy. As a leisure drug, alcohol doesn't make sense.

Before some of you rush down to the comments section to tell me why I'm wrong, let me give you a little background on my thinking. By its very nature, alcohol is a depressant. As soon as you add the substance to a social occasion the chances of violent behavior and injury start multiplying. Those are indisputable, proven facts that have come from decades of concentrated research conducted around the world. Alcohol also contributes to many diseases if consumed in too large a quantity (as little as 3 drinks a day, most new research says), and under age drinking has been proven to hamper development as well as cause behavior problems that often last for the rest of a young person's life. Again, these are all facts.

Now, I'm not going to say prohibition is the answer, it certainly isn't, and I'm not going to look down my nose at anyone for having a drink or three. Everyone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook knows I have the occasional drink. The last one I tried was called a "Lemon Bomb" [1 shot lemon juice, 4 shots rum, 7oz ginger ale over ice. I enjoyed it, but next time I'm doubling up on the ginger ale]. My long time favorite is Guinness, however, and I'd have a picket sign in my hand within seconds if the government threatened to take that away!

What I'm asking with this post is simple: In the distant future, wouldn't it make sense for people to socially drink beverages that don't feature alcohol, but some other mood altering substance? I know I explored that a little at the end of the First Light Chronicles: Freeground, where we're introduced to a blue beverage that left the drinker with a euphoric buzz. No one has complained thus far.

In reality, more than one chemical company is looking for a replacement for alcohol that they can introduce into foods and drinks. One such company in London, England is testing this chemical on closed groups, intoxicating them for hours then using an anti-inebriant to completely remove the effects in the space of 5-10 minutes. From the little the subjects could say on the BBC documentary; "Do I Drink Too Much?" the feeling of this intoxicant had most of the highs of alcohol, but none of the lows and very little of the dis-coordination that we all suffer when we've had too many. The reading I did on the topic didn't have testimonials, sadly, so we're left with the single subject's opinion. It was good, really good, but not overpowering, more simply altering. Walking wasn't a huge challenge, and he'd do it again outside of the testing environment. Driving and using heavy machinery seemed to remain out of the question, however.

In one of my books one of the guards threaten to use an anti-inebriant to sober an officer up, what I don't tell the readers is that the officer in question wasn't drunk on alcohol, but a random mixture of substances he drank earlier that night. It resulted in behavior that was similar to alcohol, to be sure, but it was clear he was more than drunk when the chapter was originally written. In the end the substance was written out, since I know parent groups love slamming books that contain drug use. Letting the audience think my character was inebriated due to an over consumption of alcohol would actually draw less attention.

The most recent example of self censorship rests in a drink that Ashley has in Broadcast 5: Fracture - The Licorice Doll. The name is a loose translation of an Asian drink that uses licorice alcohol as a base. As originally written, the beverage has roughly the same effect as Valium, only at a recreational level. To avoid controversy I left that bit of description under the white out, so to speak. I think it's a perfectly fine favorite beverage for that character in particular, it seems to suit her personality.

Back in the reality of 2010, where drug abuse is a real problem, and the fight against recreational drug use is well justified, I'm left to wonder how necessary those edits are. I'm against drug abuse, including the over-use of alcohol and legal drugs. I also think that future recreational drugs should be vigorously tested before they head to market, and wonder what would have happened if we tested the heck out of alcohol 30,000 or so years ago when our ancestors were getting buzzed on fermented berries. Would it be the substance of choice today? Or would we be socially consuming something else?

I don't think society is ready for chemical and food companies to try to replace alcohol just yet, but my futurist thinking leads me to believe that most people will imbibe something with more sure-fire effects. Alcohol will always be around, I think, if for no other reason than how easy it is to make, but I don't think it's the buzz of the distant future.

In the end what I'm asking is if readers are ready for characters in a science fiction series like Spinward Fringe to start openly using the alternative to alcohol. This question is especially important right now because I'm slowly working on final edits of each book in the series, and I'm wondering if I should re-insert the material that includes descriptions of substances that are non-alcoholic mood altering substances. Upcoming scenes in the books I'm working on right now involve settings where beverages and food are served as well, so I'm wondering of self censorship is actually something I have to worry about.

So, what do you think of social consumption of mood altering substances (besides alcohol) in science fiction?

RL

I'm looking for as many comments on this as possible.

5 comments:

Allan B. said...

Alcohol has always been around, and i feel it always will. Though I believe you are correct in what you say, i also never underestimate the human desire to wallow in self pity or want to drown their sorrows at some point. Also, distilling alcohol is far easier than concocting some chemical compound not naturally available or as easy. Sailors have found ways on ships, soldiers in the battlefield, and during prohibition, micro-breweries took full form. I dont think alcohol in the future is lazy, i think it's accurate.

Jason Black said...

Wow. What a question. That calls for more like a term paper answer than a comment, but here goes.

1. For the record, alcohol's effect on the limbic system is dose-dependent. At lower doses, it acts as a stimulant. At higher doses, a depressant. Nicotine, as it happens, does the same thing. This type of bimodal response pattern is comparatively rare in drugs generally.

2. I think alcohol in the future makes plenty of sense, as one option among many.

History shows that the number of drugs available is a function of time. These days, there's a whole litany of stuff the Drug Enforcement Agency goes after. Two hundred years ago, there was booze, tobacco, hashish, and opium. And that's about it. Drugs just don't ever go away, not really. The only one I can think of where you might make a case that it had is absinthe, which I would argue was never a drug of the "common man" anyway. So it makes sense that in the future, and especially with space travel, there would be WAY more drugs to choose from.

It also makes sense to me that advances in medical technology would probably have ameliorated many of the negative effects of drug use. Nano-bots in the blood stream could be going around reparing your liver and brain cells, et cetera. Chances are, chemists would have figured out how to tailor the effects of drug compounds to achieve the high without a lot of the negatives drugs come with now. (i.e. "meth mouth")

You could even argue that appropriate brain-modifying technologies could prevent addiction at all.

All in all, I see the future as a place where there's lots of drugs to choose from, they're probably legal (although this would of course vary by culture), and de-stigmatized so long as you're using them responsibly (i.e. taking your anti-addiction countermeasures, etc.), and you can choose from a palette of sensations/experiences they'll give you.

Would there be alcohol, though? I think yes, absolutely. Two reasons. Well, three reasons. One, it's a huge industry now, and I can't see them going without a fight. Two, the specific delivery mechanism of _drinking_ (the act of imbibing) and that alcohol mixes readily with other beverage substrates means that it will remain a natural choice for enhancing social situations that are based around food. That is, so long as parties continue to feature food and drinks, the drinks will continue to include alcohol. Three, alcohol is a dead-easy molecule to manufacture (so easy humans started making it entirely by accident), meaning that on your frontier worlds and other rough, outer colony type places, it will be a drug of choice because it can be made locally with such ease.

Anyway. Alcohol in the future? As sure a bet about the future as any, I would think.

freeflight6 said...

Alcohol will always be around if for no other reason that it is fairly easy to concoct.
However, I'm sure as more discoveries in chemistry etc..(assuming mankinds penchant for mood alteration continues)and some potential changes in humanities attitudes, other substances will be used.

Calvin said...

As far as Alcohol goes I'm of the same opinion as the previous three commenters. As for your other question concerning the other mood altering drugs/beverages you mentioned. Personally, I'd rather see more explanations as to what they are, what they do, and how they're made/obtained. Such as through a complex chemical process or as an extract from some alien plant or animal for example. Should all of that information be in the regular books? Maybe not, though personally I wouldn't mind one bit. Should it be made available to the readers at some point? I believe so. I seem to remember you mentioning a 'Spinward Fringe Bible' you had made with information on the major players in the galaxy, the various alien species, how the technology works and examples of ships in different classes by different companies/governments. Were you to ever release that bible to the public (sans potential spoiler information) then the majority of the information concerning the new substances could be included within it instead.

Michael said...

Its seems to me that many of the other posts see a more benevolent development of intoxicants, note the word alone is based on toxic. When you look at this development so far we have moved in the direction of the greater high, more addictive, and more damaging.

I think of the book nueromancer were the main character is cleaned up for a job with a liver that won't let him get high, and what does he do. He spends extraordinary effort to get high and replace the liver with one that will that will allow the old favorites to work again. Never underestimate depression and escapism.

Finally, in spinward fringe universe with its amoral, immoral corporations it wouldn't surprise me to see a few designer drugs that are highly addictive. We all know now how dangerous many current drugs are and the great war on drugs has had a negligible affect, many because we don't target users and demand and much as suppliers, but thats another discussion.