Monday, March 23, 2009

Taboos


Sf Signal, in its Mind Melds section, recently posed a question to some writers about whether they have had difficulty getting something published or found themselves self-censoring due to some sort of taboo that they were violating. Are there still such taboos in science fiction, they were asked. Way back in the day, especially before the New Wave, sex and swear-words were rare in sf, but are there new things that arouse similar uneasiness now? The writers had some varying opinions on the topic, and then there were a bunch of comments by site readers. The comments were mostly fairly tiresome and unenlightening (as people arguing with each other in blog comments tends to be) but it got me thinking about the subject.


If you're a reader or a writer and can think of something That Dare Not Speak Its Name in an sf story, go ahead and leave a comment here. I'd love to hear what you think.  And if you're a writer, maybe go ahead and write the controversial tale and send it to me and I may publish it in the zine. I haven't turned away a story yet due only to its subject matter (unless it was just not in the genre, like a story about the Ghost Hunters guys finding evidence of the ghost of the Loch Ness Monster), and I am having a hard time dreaming up a subject that would make me blanch and say, "No, this story is waaaay too controversial and taboo-ridden." Obviously it would need also to be an entertaining story, not just some piece of prose constructed just to be shocking. Writers for and readers of M-Brane already know, of course, that I don't buy into the "rated PG-13" mentality that has overrun almost the whole culture. I don't think everything needs to be for kids, and I don't think it would be even in the least desirable for me to try to tailor it for such an audience.  Most everyone else seems to be servicing the kindergarchy already anyway. So there have been and will continue to be (as soon as 4/1 when #3 comes out) some swear words and sexual references published here and there in M-Brane. And there are some stories in upcoming issues that get fairly edgy in their subject matter. But I don't think I've published or scheduled for publication yet anything particularly "taboo."  I probably would, however, if someone came up with it. But would I even recognize it as such?  Let's find out.

Related Articles :


Stumble
Delicious
Technorati
Twitter
Facebook

22 comments:

John D. said...

Thanks for the link!

derekjgoodman said...

There are three taboos I can think of off the top of my head that seem to still make people sufficiently squirm: incest, sexual situations between adults and minors, and necrophilia. And yes, I've felt like I've to self-censor myself on all three topics. In fact, Chris, now that I think about it I did that with the story you just accepted from me. I sent it to a different publication before you, and they were squeamish about sex scenes. So I cut the scene out (which was tough, because in the original draft it was integral to the plot progression). I ended up making it work in the end, but I don't know that the story is stronger for it, just different.

D. D. said...

My only question with taboos is this: Is it essential to the plot, or is the author just throwing something out there for shock effect.

Nithska said...

I grew reading Clive Barker back in his 'There are no Limits" days, supplemented by post-New Wave SF and the stuff that Delany (I have a kid named after him), Ellison (another child named after him), Sturgeon, and Alice Sheldon wrote. They all, at times, pushed various limits, and this is something that I tried to emulate.

But, I think you have to make doubly sure that the curse word or explicit scene or taboo element is appropriate and needed. Most stories are improved with the removal of the bad words. That's just the truth. Most stories I have seen that include those few truly taboo subjects either do not handle them well enough or stray into the down-right creepy.

Now, on the other hand, SF as a short story community here on the web tends toward a target audience that falls into the 'PG-13' label. Add to that some guidelines that actually specify things like 'no alternate lifestyles' or 'nothing that offends traditional values' and I start to wonder what genre they are publishing.

SF should be THE place to explore issues of identity and the nature of reality, and that is going to include sex. It should be appropriate, handled maturely, and absolutely not disrespectful. But the total absence of sex is like a flag waving 'we are not relevant'.

As for taboo, I would not write anything that is abusive of children or portrays sexual abuse/domination as anything other than criminal. And if my story required someone who does terrible things, this is a place where less is more. Portraying abuse, it is very easy to move from good intention to pornography of the worst sort very quickly. So the writer who chooses to take on such topics, in my opinion, accepts huge responsibility for the way in which she handles the subject matter.

So my position is not 'you can't do xyz' but 'you better take care to handle it well if you do'.

Last, I personally, will criticize any big group that claims authority of any kind over people, but I also seek to show basic respect for people by portraying a shared humanity regardless of belief system or political stance, etc. I guess, avoid generalizations. It is easy to portray some group that is alien to us as bad in some way, but it is usually lazy on our part and untrue to boot.

Oh, so it's late and I'm rambling, but the point that I kind of skirted around just above is this: SEX is not a taboo, which is to say, sex among consenting adults. Or maybe, it is taboo only insofar as there are age-appropriate ways to address the subject which should be taken into account based on one's target audience.

Then again, I was reading Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine when I was 16 and I turned out ok. :)

B

Christopher Fletcher said...

Derek, those are some good picks for squirm-factor. I wonder if there are some sf stories that we can think of where these things were touched upon in an artful manner. Some examples from the horror genre come to mind: Poppy Brite's novels, for example, get into all of that (and all the main characters are gay males to boot).

DD, I'd agree that the so-called taboo MUST be integral to the logic of the story in order to not just be gratuitous. Though even that's often in the eye of the beholder. I'm sure there are plenty of things that I might read without batting an eye, but which might strike someone of a very different worldview (like say a conservative Okie Pentacostal fundamentalist) as totally scandalous to where they can't see the story through it. Back in 1990s when the splatterpunk thing was going strong in the horror genre and a lot of the point of the form was to turn up to new heights the violence and the grisliness of the telling of it, there was plenty of writing that got out there that was probably just for shock and didn't need to be so excessive. There was a lot of great work that came out of it, too, but not enough for that mode to remain a real, thriving genre unto itself. In the mid-90s I had a story published in a splatterzine, but when I look back on it now, I think the horror and creepiness of its premise would have come through without the level of grue being as high as I made it. I could, in fact, have told the story in a very understated fashion and made it great, too. On the other hand, I'm glad that I went ahead and wrote what I wanted to write without censoring myself.

Brandon, it appears that you and I had a lot of the same reading "upbringing" in our formative years with the Barker, Ellison and William Burroughs etc. (Somehow I was a real late-comer to Delany, having just caught a short story here and there only to realize much more recently who and what I was reading--so I've spent a lot of time during the last year or so reading with my jaw dropped open in utter astonishment at his skill as I have worked on catching up). Since we have that similar foundation, it makes sense that I agree with everything you say here.

I'll add that your next appearance in M-BRANE with "Abraham Discovers an Object Impenetrable to All Harm" in #5 is probably pretty appropriate to your comments above with its intersection of images and issues that are certainly uncomfortable but get treated with great care.

Nithska said...

Christopher, Thank you for the kind words.

I named my (now 8 year old) daughter Delany on my love of Dhalgren alone. Though I totally love Mieville and Vandemeer (sp?) the only recent book that approaches that experience for me is K.J. Bishop's The Etched City. If you haven't read it, I recommend it.

Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree jr., is for me the pinnacle. 'I awoke and found me here on the cold hills side' changed my life. It was so good to my 16yo mind it hurt to read that story.

anyway, take care and props on such a good post topic. :)

Christopher Fletcher said...

BB, that's SOOOOO COOL that you named your daughter Delany because of that. The only thing that could maybe possibly top it is if you had just gone ahead and named her Dhalgren (imagine explaining THAT to everyone...). Speaking of which, I recently got hold of a fresh new copy of the nice Vintage press edition of that with a foreword by William Gibson. I had only read it for the first time just last year, and that was from the library, so I was pretty excited to get my own copy to keep (Also got the Vintage edition of Babel-17 and Empire Star which they printed together in one volume but in a reverse back-to-back manner like an old Ace Double).

And, yeah, thanks for bringing up Sheldon/Tiptree. I love her stories and am wondering now why I don't have more of her collections on my shelves. The first one of hers I remember reading and associating the story with the name was "The Milk of Paradise" in Again Dangerous Visions. This is its first paragraph: "She was flowing hot and naked and she straddled his belly in the cuddle-cube and fed him her hard little tits. And he convulsed up under her and then was headlong on the waster, vomiting." And then the story gets weird. It's blunt and visceral, but also kind of sexy and ugly all at once. She had such a knack for picking just the right word in nearly every sentence.

Ok, all, here's a quick attempt at a scandalous premise: two paranormal researchers, sort of like GHOST HUNTERS guys (THAT again!), are investigating what appears to the amazingly well-preserved remains of SOMETHING. Oh, I ought to mention that these dudes are brothers and incestuous lovers. They didn't come to this due to any sort of evil influence: they just dig doing each other, and they like it rough. (And it was originally the younger of the two who initiated this behavior back when they were very young.) Anyway, after much prodding and poking into the putrescent remains of some sort of enormous dead animal/monster (LOCH NESS monster?), and after making fevered, hallucinatory and delirious (and coked-up) bro-on-bro love to each other while rolling about in all this grue and gore, the beast corpse starts to show signs of life, maybe reassembling bits of entrail and bone somehow to create a blood-drenched Clive Barkeresque simulacrum of a man. It become clear that a blasphemous revelation is about to befall us, as the reborn beast says "I am the Alpha and the Omega...I am He who liveth and was dead and who holds the keys to Hell and Death!" ....OK never mind! That's no better splicing together tape of GHOST HUNTERS and HELLRAISER and calling it a story.

derekjgoodman said...

Hmm. You know, Chris, as I tried to think of any sci-fi stories where those three taboos were handled in an artful manner I came up with nothing, but as soon as you mentioned Poppy Z. Brite (that sex scene between the father and the daughter in Lost Souls burned a permanent place in my head) I realized that I can think of examples of all three in horror novels. Completely makes sense, I suppose; horror is all about making people squirm in one way or another.

Also Chris, I find it strange and interesting that you claim not to like fantasy much but seem pretty well read in horror. I can think of many works that straddle the line between the two genres, and wonder where you put your foot down and say "I'll read this but not this." Just curious.

Christopher Fletcher said...

I can't think of many sf examples either, Derek. If I remember right, I think in Ursula LeGuin's LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, where the people are androgynes who can select their own sex during their mating period, there is some sibling-mating and a social stigma about it. Heinlein's TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE has some sibling incest in the segment focusing on the twin slaves that Lazarus Long buys. Lazarus has no problem with this and seems entirely unconcerned with sexual mores throughout the book, probably the result of having lived for centuries, fathered lots of kids and being genetically related to nearly everyone. So there's some incest in sf for sure, but I haven't thought of any necrophilia (probably much more the realm of the horror genre) or much in the way of adults/minors sexual relationships. In Delany's DHALGREN, the three-way sexual relationship among Kid, Lanya and Denny could maybe be considered such a thing, but the boy Denny, while not an adult in years, is established upon the reader's first meeting of him as a very sexually active teen and the depiction of the character and his activities is very gentle and sympathetic throughout, so it doesn't have the creep factor that it would if it had been portrayed as an abusive or manipulative kind of thing.

As for the fantasy thing...yeah, it's hard to say where that line is for me. Horror can certainly be regarded as a sub-set of fantasy, where the main idea of it is that Something Wicked intrudes into the "real" world, and the Something can be either really mundane, like a serial killer, or something really fantastical like Lemarchand's puzzle box and the cenobites, and I suppose I have embraced a lot of that because I'm drawn to the darkness for some reason. I guess I'd say that on the spectrum of fantasy, the further it gets from Tolkien-type ancient-lands-and-magical-creatures stuff and the closer to, say, Clive Barker's WEAVEWORLD or GREAT AND SECRET SHOW or GALILEE, the more chance that I'll like it. Maybe because the settings are more contemporary and not Second World. I don't know. I'd also add that I really dig Gene Wolfe's New Sun books which sort of occupy a land between sf and fantasy because of how its weirdness is a good measure science fictional but but it also has a lot of sword-and-sorcery ambience. I also liked pretty well Mieville's PERDIDO STREET, which I read a few months ago, but my appreciation of it I think had more to do with how fantastic his prose is than how much I liked the magical goings-on in that world. I'm considering give some of that "New Weird" stuff some more chances, however, because I did like that one. Brandon mentioned Jeff Vandermeer and KJ Bishop in a comment above, and I think their work is in that realm also and always seems to be highly recommended.

As for what I'm taking for the magazine, I've been fairly rigid on the genre boundary as I see it, turning away stories where the intervention of the strange is plainly magic-based and not science-based (or at least arguably "sciency"). I've gotten some Greek myth-based and princesses-in-towers tales even though I think I discourage that fairly well in the guidelines. So those get the reject note. Then I also get a fair amount of submissions from writers who say they don't write much sf or genre fiction at all and evidently haven't READ much of it either because they seem to not understand what the genre is. They'll send along a story that is basically a mainstream "literary" piece and the only strangeness or wonder about it will end up being something that exists only in the main character's head. Somebody just THINKING about aliens or carnivorous onions doesn't make it sf. I'm getting way off topic, but I'll add that I did schedule a story for one of the summer issues that has blatant fantasy-world magic in it in a scenario where a magical race and a scientific race exist side-by-side but separately. (It's not a taboo-buster, though there is an inter-species mating of a sort and some bizarre gender politics).

D. D. said...

I have one about a dwarf black lesbian dominatrix who was raped and impregnated by her brother. In a unique twist of cross-dimensional time travel she gives birth to herself as a man, only to undergo a horrific accident during puberty, where he is reconstructed as a woman. WIll that break enough taboos? (I was looking for maximum offensiveness on all levels.)

derekjgoodman said...

"It's not a taboo-buster, though there is an inter-species mating of a sort and some bizarre gender politics."

Which suddenly makes me think of another taboo: bestiality. This one, I'm sure, we can find more examples of in sci-fi depending on how you define it. Strictly speaking, if you consider it just sex with animals, I can't immediately think of any. But when you expand the definition to a human having sex with anything that is not another human, there are lots of examples.

The inter-species mating, however, is far enough from "bestiality" that I don't think it presses so many buttons anymore. The first example I can think of this would be Phillip Jose Farmers "The Lovers." It's not explicit or taboo busting by our modern standards, but at the time it came out it was revolutionary.

derekjgoodman said...

And immediately after posting that I thought of an example of bestiality in sci-fi. The story "The Coon Rolled Down and Ruptured His Larinks, a Squeezed Novel by Mr. Skunk" by Dafydd ab Hugh takes place in a future where a plague has slightly raised the intelligence of all animals, but also lowered the intelligence of humans so they are equal. Although it is still a taboo with the culture of the story, a human boy has a sexual relationship with a dog. It's been a long time since I read the story, but I vaguely remember the scene as being kind of graphic.

D. D. said...

And don't forget the Cordwainder Smith story "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" and all of his other Underman stories. serious interspecies romancing going on there.....

Christopher Fletcher said...

Oh, you guys are on a roll now....I have to cook dinner but I will be back later. I'll have something to add, also, to DD's idea...you're all forgetting about hard drugs...

Christopher Fletcher said...

Derek: glad someone remembered "The Lovers" (Farmer). Yeah, it doesn't freak anyone out too much now, but it was wild in its day. Actually, by the rated PG standards of the recent era, it probably WOULD horrify people (particularly those who don't READ stuff but get all their media by TV). Really, a lot of the way things are now comes from that. I am unfamiliar with that Dafydd ab Hugh story that you mentioned, but now I have something new on my List of Things to Read.

D.D.: EXCELLENT recall on the Cordwainer Smith stuff. What an awesome and bizarre universe he created. There's not enough of that around nowadays. OK...now here are some suggestions to add to your pitch for the story about the lesbian dominatrix: when she is reborn by herself as a male, she is also reborn addicted already to some kind of "future" form of heroin (for some reason) and thrown into an alternate future (time warp, whatever) where the alleged Reagan-era CIA/Trilateral Commission plot to wipe out black people by deliberately propagating crack and AIDS has more or less worked and he/she finds him/herself in a hideously racist white supremist fascist Amerika. Driven by intense drug addiction, our character claws his/her way through all kinds of desperate and repugnant situations, eventually overcoming the odds and rising to tyrannical supremacy over this crazy future world by the expedient of gradually addicting everyone to a drug--derived from her own frakked up blood--by putting it into baby food. And maybe making expectant moms eat it in the form of candy at baby showers. Oh, and there'd be all kinds of effed uo sex in every other scene. Including bestiality.

Ok. I gotta sleep and then go to work all day tomorrow....I think I'll have weird dreams though.

derekjgoodman said...

If you want to talk hard drugs then we have to bring up Phillip K. Dick. The one that springs to mind as a perfect example of the drug culture in sci-fi would be A Scanner Darkly. Most of that was loosely taken from his own life, from what I've heard.

derekjgoodman said...

You know what, Chris? If that story were handled right someone might actually be able to make it really good. Going beyond just the taboos, you could have a lot of food for thought in it.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Good point about PKD and the drugs, Derek. Scanner Darkly, of course, but also the totally whacked-out drug-weirdness of Three Stigmata. I think this little discussion has probably told me that all these so-called taboos were addressed decades ago and by some of the greatest writers ever. So is there no chance of creating a "New" New Wave? Maybe not. But if there is it would have to be something other than anything I've thought of so far.

D. D. said...

If you want total weirdness from PKD, I think the ultimate story for that is UBIK. Every time I read the story or even think about it, my mind immediately starts playing King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" as the accompanying sound track. And Chirs, you wanna do a coll-aberration on that story? I like where you took it!

D. D. said...

Oh, and if you want weird New New Wave, try "Light" and it's sequel"Nova Swing" by M. John Harrison. It starts out with a scientist serial killer and ends up somewhere beyond bizarre.

Christopher Fletcher said...

UBIK is hardcore crazy. Look at the entry on Wikipedia about it when you get a second--there is an image of the awesome spray-can cover art of the first edition. It's too late at night for me to even be thinking about it--I will definitely have some kind of bizarro dream now. That might be a good thing, though, because dreams help me solve problems with my writing sometimes and I need some UBIK-nuts help with a conundrum in my blasted bloody novel.

pateisel said...

Coming in on the tail end hear but maybe the Drug can be derived from the characters semen actually masturbated into the mouths of those attending showers....my taboo for the list = sexual deviance...

 

M-BRANE SF Copyright © 2010 Premium Wordpress Themes | Website Templates | Blogger Template is Designed by Lasantha.