From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Taboos in Speculative Fiction

I was reading a blog entry recently by “Mighty God King” (subtle) called MGK Versus His Adolescent Reading Habits, as well as an article on the censorship of a Wikipedia page for the rock band The Scorpions by a British anti-pedophilia group a few weeks ago. In the blog, MGK takes old SF and fantasy book covers and gives them new titles, titles more accurate than the authors might have intended. My personal favorite is My Little Pony Goes to War (Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Price).

The censorship of The Scorpions’ Wikipedia page was a big flap for a week or two. Thirty years ago, The Scorpions put out a rather tacky cover featuring a naked preteen girl in a provocative pose. It didn’t help that the album was entitled “Virgin Killers” and the band subsequently changed the cover, having concluded (along with pretty much everyone else) that it had been a less than classy idea.

Flash-forward thirty years and a British anti-pedophilia group suddenly decided that this album was dangerous, that it might encourage pedophiles to do…whatever, and prevailed upon Wikipedia to cut it from the group’s Wiki page. This resulted in many British users being unable to access the page at all. Some of them couldn’t even use Wikipedia.

Cue much screaming about censorship by private groups and the like and much pointing out that when the album came out, people thought it was smut, but attitudes about this sort of thing were very different (Lolita, Pretty Baby, that sort of stuff). Who would have thought that the lame ’70s would be a time of happening experimentation compared to the Brave New World of the early 21st century?

And the biggest irony of all was that the album cover could be readily seen elsewhere, including on the band’s official site (though they’ve since removed it). Ooops. So much for closing the barn door after the horse had cantered out and gone romping around the fields.

Then there is the MGK experiment. Humor, of course, does a really good job of exposing, sending up and skewering taboos like so many clay ducks. Well…good humor, anyway.

The new titles for MGK’s spoof book covers expose a few things that, like The Scorpions‘ cover, are pretty iffy, namely: incest, pedophilia, atheism and dirtbag heroes. As such, you get titles like: “Let’s Have Sex on Mars” (Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, of course), “Child Porn Is Acceptable in Some Cultures” (Piers Anthony’s Dragon on a Pedestal), “Hey, Kids! God Isn’t Real!” (Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights) and “Asshole Leper Hero” (Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Illearth War). There was also some speculation in the discussion thread about whether E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman series and George R.R. Martin should be included on the incest bandwagon, as well. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon certainly got off easy on that score, maybe because the incest was inherent in the legend.

Some of the above author names aren’t exactly surprising. Heinlein and Anthony have been annoying feminists for a long time while Pullman has had equal fun with religious believers of all types. You could also add names like Philip Jose Farmer and Ted Sturgeon to the list. And lest we leave out the women, Joanna Russ, Anne McCaffrey and Bradley have angered their fair share of SF and fantasy fans over the years.

What’s interesting is that none of these covers are “fantasy” covers, as it were. They are all real covers of real books that have been published–popular ones, too.

There could be a couple of reasons for why so many of the featured books have some questionable themes and agendae that aren’t exactly mainstream. One is that unusual stories that actually reach the publication stage can become greatly popular and iconic, but that doesn’t change the general run of what’s published.

Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies came out in the late 1960s and early 1970s and were deliberately set up to blow taboos wide open. They included stories like Richard A. Lupoff’s “With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama” (white supremacists in a space war with everybody else), Theodore Sturgeon’s “If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” (a utopian society where father-daughter incest is A-Okay), Piers Anthony’s “In the Barn” (in a world with no animals, where humans get used as moo-cows, is screwing one bestiality?), Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Word for World Is Forest” (aboriginal aliens are good; white humans are bad), Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed” (men arrive on an all-female world–and the women are unimpressed), and of course the double-whammy of Robert Bloch and Ellison’s two stories about Jack the Ripper in the future: “A Toy for Juliet” and “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” (early splatterpunk, basically).

The two anthologies garnered many awards and made a few careers, though not all of the stories have aged well over the past four decades. But despite the fame of the anthology, stories in the general run of mainstream SF did not follow suit, at least not until the 1980s. Nor did the anthologies unseat the golden-age authors who still dominated the genre at the time. Mainstream specfic genre in the ’70s was a bit more Star Wars than I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Dangerous Visions was a landmark anthology series, but how much it changed the genre is debatable.

The other reason is that taboos change and not every theme that seems taboo now was taboo when such books came out. Some of the strongest taboos can come and go within a generation, while others simply mutate. For example, people now talk about homosexuality openly. In some circles, homophobia is what is now considered to be unacceptable. So now, something like Sturgeon’s groundbreaking “The World Well Lost” (1953) seems a bit repressed. The “tragic gay people” storyline isn’t exactly hyper-tolerant by today’s standards, but it was revolutionary in 1953 for showing sympathy toward homosexuality. Similarly, a lot of people have criticized Heinlein’s apparently pervy view of women while ignoring that when books like Stranger in a Strange Land came out, any open discussion of sex in speculative fiction was revolutionary.

This type of trend can also go in reverse. Contrary to what many like to think, society does not become automatically more tolerant of different ideas as time goes on. Sometimes, it becomes less tolerant. This would explain why the film V for Vendetta (2006), for example, created an uproar with its apparently pro-terrorism statement, even though it was based on a rather old graphic novel from the 1980s that criticized Thatcherism. You’d have thought that people would have become a bit more blasé about it by 2006, but apparently not.

“People should not be afraid of their governments,” states the story’s faceless antihero V. “Governments should be afraid of their people.”

Never mind that this sentiment fueled the American Revolution–it’s bad. Kill it.

Taboos are a funny thing. We’ll always have them, though the ones we have are constantly changing. In a way, they’re necessary for dividing the acceptable from the unacceptable. But as far as art is concerned, they are a mixed bag. Sometimes (as with Dangerous Visions), they actually foster creativity. And other times, they can muzzle it. It all depends on what you do with them.

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