Addiction in Fantasy

I started reading Dune again.

I’ve said it before, but I encourage you to read it if you haven’t.

To catch up those unfamiliar, a central theme of the books (though I keep primarily to the first one) is a commodity known as melange, colloquially known as “the spice,” in a science-fiction future set approximately 24,500 years after the 21st Century. Melange is a naturally-occurring substance from the fictional planet Arrakis (otherwise known as the titular Dune) that proves to be the focus of high politics and war, being of pivotal economic importance. When consumed, the spice provides life-extension and, in some, a degree of prescience, which is essential for deep-space travel.

Basically, the concept is that mechanical computers are, to put it lightly, long since out of fashion, and calculation of warp-drive jumps through space is done by human minds. The spice is required (to augment the navigators with prescience) in order to predict whether or not the ships will collide with obstacles (such as asteroids, planets and suns) as the travelers careen through the Known Universe.

In other words, no spice, no interstellar travel, no empire. It was important stuff, oft-cited that one briefcase of the spice could buy you a planet.

But apart from granting extended lifespans and the ability to peer into the future (to a limited degree), melange also had the effect of being highly addictive – and withdrawal is fatal. Extensive, long-term use apparently had the effect of warping the human body, turning the Navigators into beings that were simply “human once.”

Frank Herbert was not afraid to make a variety of drug references in his work — some of an experimenter himself — and it is the use of these things in storytelling that I write about today. Addiction is a powerful thing, something not to be discussed lightly, as it is in our lives – all of us – even in its most minute forms. Johann Hari talks about how we look at and treat addiction in our world now in his excellent TED Talk.

But in Dune, not only is a major plot device a mind-expanding drug, but the use of addiction as a means of controlling an individual is employed in another, less over-arcing plot point. Another drug, called semuta, is the apparent addiction of choice for the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen’s guard captain, Nefud — an interesting study all its own, as the drug taken alone doesn’t do much, but after taking semuta, it is triggered by listening to “semuta music,” which apparently activates it while in your body. In any case, it is also highly addictive, and the baron uses this as a means of controlling Nefud.

The Dune novel is about many, many things, and cannot be summarized easily. A soul once asked whether the book was an allusion to marijuana — it isn’t, at all, and one guy does a damn good job summarizing what the book really is about here. But when we talk about addiction in terms of a plot device, or as a motivation (incentive?), or even simply something to spice up the story or character, we have the makings for something that is very believable and convincing.

There is even a website dedicated to geek-themed cooking recipes, not least of which this Dune-inspired one.

And if your idea of drug addiction is associated primarily with the so-called hard-drugs like cocaine and heroin, consider that non-outlawed drugs are bloody everywhere, from caffeine to nicotine to alcohol.

Humans are flawed and prone to fill the void (or as Johann Hari from the TED talk would put it: the lack of connection) with something – anything – whether its the chemical response to the artificial euphoria of cocaine, or what I’ve heard described as the contentedness bestowed by marijuana, or the pleasurable escape from reality provided by video games, television and Facebook. These are real things the likes of which each of us, or just as often someone we know, must contend with at some point or another in our lives.

Speaking from experience, and without any official medical testing, I’ve come to believe I have something of an addictive personality — that is, I’ll latch onto something as a means of escape even when I know I ought not be doing it, and it usually takes the form of video games. It’s all too easy for me to lose more hours than I can count at a game such as League of Legends and World of Warcraft, both of which are expertly crafted games made for the express purpose of forever being uncompleted.

As something of a pseudo-ex-gamer, I found myself going into a relapse not very long ago, and then it hit me – if I had enemies who would seek to control my activities (or lack thereof), what would they do to exploit my weakness? What would be a subtle, sinister way to prevent me from being productive, or otherwise prevent me from treading down a path that someone might otherwise not want me to do?

Disclaimer: I know I’m not remotely important enough to have an individual enemy of that caliber.

But if I did, they would probably see to me having in my possession a powerful computer system, like the ones I used to build for myself in the past, loaded with easily-accessed and notoriously addictive games, like the aforementioned LoL and WoW. Hell, I even went through a Hearthstone phase a few months ago.

Would it that I were to win a lottery, the prize of which being said gaming PC, for example. The world probably wouldn’t hear from me for some time in such a scenario.

This line of thought inspired me for a character I’m writing, a flaw of whom is a penchant for drinking. Now, what would someone of power need to do in order to keep this character under control? Provide the easily accessed alcohol, of course – and in a manner so as to not rouse the character’s suspicions. Here’s a glimpse into the character, as well as a bit of a plot-element for my Work-In-Progress:

Radh lost someone dear to him, and not for error of another, but that of his own. He is convinced she died because of him, and unable to come to terms with overwhelming guilt, he crawls into a wine bottle — but before doing so, he also saw something he shouldn’t have, something that a trusted ally would otherwise want to keep secret.

The ally, a high-ranking and influential individual, is threatened by Radh’s possible recollection of the Thing He Shouldn’t Know. Thus he sees to putting Radh in a safe, secluded location and, rather than simply having Radh killed, the undoubtedly more secure of options, the ally will instead engineer an environment in which Radh will take to drinking himself stupid again.

Out of context, and written purposefully vague as it is, I would expect readers to look at the above few paragraphs which fingers scratching their heads. It’ll be clear when the novel is released, which is also why — as I’ve said in the past — I’m so paranoidically avoidant of sharing specific details.

In any case, addiction is a powerful character trait; old school Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict, and the otherwise extremely likable Jonathan Clemens from Alien 3 had battled with a morphine addiction. Not to mention Dr. Gregory House.

Do I draw that addictions are required to make a successfully interesting character? Not necessarily — but they can add depth to an otherwise shallow one in need of it, or provide a glimpse of another facet to someone we thought we knew. A character trait like this can help us paint the picture of a Functional Addict or, if used (arguably) lazily, supply the motivation for just about any nefarious activity.

I know what I’m doing with this information. Have you any ideas for yourself?

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