There’s plenty of recent controversy in the science fiction field, most of it having nothing to do with books themselves. So let’s put the controversy limelight back where it belongs. We asked a panel of esteemed guests the following question:
Read their answers below…and tell us which ones you think are controversial.
Everybody and their dog is going for Starship Troopers, right? It’s the obvious choice. More controversial than Bester’s The Stars My Destination, which despite its wonderful “Christianity-as-porn” element was universally hailed for its high ideas-per-page ratio. More timeless than The Female Man, which in addition to being stuck in its era is also more of a rant than a story. More *legitimately* controversial than the Harry Potter books, which are only regarded as such by brain-dead bible-thumpers with barely two neurons to rub together. And longer than Godwin’s “Cold Equations” or Sturgeon’s “If all men were brothers would you let one marry your sister”, which aren’t actually novels but which I feel compelled to cite anyway because of the whole “controversial” thing.
But I’m not going to go with the Heinlein. I’m going with Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany. There’s something in that book to piss off almost everyone: the lack of a conventional linear plot; complete disregard for the tying up of any loose ends (or beginnings, or middles); whole swaths of text literally scratched out and written over fer chrissakes; an endless narrative loop with neither beginning nor end. A story that might not even be science fiction, might not even be fantasy, although it contains explicit elements of both. Enough florid verbiage to drop the shuttle out of orbit. And let’s not forget all the explicit gay porn.
A brilliant fucking book, even if I still don’t know what the hell it all means.
This was a hard question for me because I kept getting caught up in what exactly it meant. It seems like there should be an objective way to determine what books are the most controversial. Counting up the number of times they’ve been banned or the column inches devoted to talking about them or something (in which case I believe In the Night Kitchen wins). There are a lot of books that we think of as being controversial that haven’t (in my experience) generated any controversy. Who took the opposing position on 1984? Or Little Brother, for that matter. In order for something to be controversial, it needs opponents, right?
So, with the admission up front that I don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s my top 5 controversial science fiction and fantasy books (and one honorable mention):
- The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
I know it’s not shelved with the genre stuff, but I’m not going to let marketing decisions keep us from calling it one of our own. It has characters changing from human into divine (or satanic) beings, it has fantastic dream sequences that we may or may not read literally, and the fatwa against Rushdie presaged the most painful, complex, and bloody cultural conversation of my generation. Hands down.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speaking of not letting where a book gets shelved define its genre . . .
I loved The Handmaid’s Tale. I think Atwood’s use of language is gorgeous, her psychological insights are depressing but apt, and it has one of the best ending lines in literature (if you ignore the last tacked-on section, which I do). It’s a near-future world in which computers (specifically a deeply integrated banking system) has provided the tools to strip women of their property and relegate them once again to being the slaves of men.
The idea of genre is artificial. It works best when you don’t look at it to closely. And there are, I’m sure, any number of other good examples which predate Atwood. But in my experience, Atwood was the first literary writer to write science fiction while at the same time publicly denigrating the rest of us. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of other first class authors (Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Faber, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, etc.) strip mine the insights and conventions of genre for their own use. Some of them have been respectful of us (thank you, Mr. Chabon). Some continue to maintain that *their* story transcends genre, or else claims to invent it as if nothing like it had ever been before. Whether or not “real” writers are of the body is a conversation that’s going to go right on hurting feelings for years.
But The Handmaid’s Tale was the seed crystal of the controversy, so I’m giving it the nod.
- Dangerous Visions & Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison, ed.
Part of the problem I’ve had thinking about controversy in science fiction and fantasy is that I came in late in the game. By the time I started being aware of the Great Controversies Within the Genre, science fiction and fantasy had already become so popular and diffuse that there wasn’t a body of work every fan could be assumed to have read. If Neal Stephenson or Chine Miéville or M. Rickert don’t float your boat, there’s no call to argue about it. There’s a thousand other books to read this year alone, and the chances are slim you can find someone else who’s read the same books it unless you’re seeking them out to pick a fight.
In 1967, the majority of the folks voting for the Hugo had read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Babel-17 and Too Many Magicians and Flowers for Algernon and The Day of the Minotaur and the Witches of Karres. Apples could be compared to apples, oranges to oranges, and so the field as a whole could still be steered one direction or another, provided someone with a big enough rudder showed up.
And thus Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. Love them or hate them, these collections changed the focus and direction of the work that followed. and their DNA is still in a great deal of of the science fiction and fantasy published today. These are books that took to the field of battle and won.
- The Last Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison, ed.
The most controversial science fiction and fantasy book that doesn’t exist.
The Last Dangerous Visions, third in the DV series, has become a story of its own, something told to young writers to make them behave. It was first slated for publication in 1973. The fount of all things probable, Wikipedia, cites Ellison still talking about as recently as 2007. Christopher Priest (the guy who wrote The Prestige) had a story accepted for the collection, and later published an essay criticizing Ellison’s failure to live up to his publication promises. Priest had the essay up on the Internet, but has asked that it be taken down. There might be a copy out there somewhere. I don’t know.
SF fandom (and the professional class that has risen from it, myself included) prides itself on tolerance and inclusiveness. Yes, trekkies are our people. Yes, whatever we think of it, (fill-in-the-blank) of Gor is part of our literature. We celebrate individuality, eccentricity, and sometimes out-and-out mental illness. If you doubt that, go read Valis again.
The Last Dangerous Visions is the icon of that tolerance’s problematic consequences. Ellison has been at the center of a semi-infinite run of petty dramas since I personally was old enough to read. The man himself is either a brilliant gadfly, the Loki/Coyote/trickster figure at the heart of the genre or else he’s mentally ill, his symptoms enabled and ignored in light of his reputation. I have my opinion, but I’m not going to share it. I have already been warned that I’m asking for trouble just by *mentioning* the topic.
How’s that for controversy?
- The Terminal Experiment by Robert Sawyer (or pretty much any other book that has won an award)
Either Robert Sawyer killed the credibility of the Nebula, or he didn’t.
Robert Sawyer has a reputation for being, among other things, a master of self-promotion. He’s neat. He’s organized. He’s dead professional about making sure that the marketing end of being a writer is covered. And by doing that part of the job, and doing it effectively, he alienated a fair slice of his colleagues, even before his notorious-in-some-circles stint as president of SFWA.
The Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1995 was The Terminal Experiment. It was either a really good book or a triumph of log-rolling that put a merely mediocre novel up in the ranks of The Dispossessed, Rendezvous with Rama, and The Forever War.
But again, the book itself is a stand-in for the conflict around it. I have it on good authority that there was pretty good grousing going on in certain circles when The Dispossessed won too.
(Honorable Mention: All “divinely-inspired” books in which the reader do not themselves personally believe.)
I’ll let others weigh in about the past, but I’d say the most controversial books of our time are the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling.
Really. Harry Potter. I’m completely serious. Before you roll your eyes, let me tell you why.
Well, for one thing, they are the most frequently challenged books of the 21st century (so far). Objections range from “too scary for kids” to “the portrayal of witchcraft is confusing to children” (who presumably would then go on to befriend a witch in a gingerbread house and be eaten or something). So, just by the numbers, Harry takes the prize.
But the real controversy isn’t about the witchcraft; it’s about the money. Why in the world have so many copies of these books been sold? Everyone has an opinion about this. Hermits have opinions about this. Hermit crabs have opinions about this.
Some say it’s the writing. They love the characters, the adventures, the world. They say Rowling tapped into something that we were all waiting for, even if we didn’t know it. Some say it’s the marketing. They say we fell prey to an “everybody’s-doing-it” peer pressure that spread faster than the stomach flu at Wiscon. Some people criticize her writing (for example, the famous Wall Street Journal review by Harold Bloom), or they criticize the critics (see the May 2008 Guardian article about the sexism in some Rowling-bashing)… It goes on and on in articles, books, blogs, random conversations around the world.
In a lot of ways, the Harry Potter books are very traditional — the boarding school, the wizard-in-training, the hero with his friends against the villain who doesn’t understand love, the triumph of good over evil, etc. They don’t have the graphic violence or sex that you’d expect from controversial books. They aren’t overtly contentious or philosophical — their goal is to entertain, not spark deep thought or debate. But I’d say the Harry Potter books are the most controversial of our time because I believe that these books have caused more discussion, debate, snark, and impassioned defenses than any other books written in recent years.
Back in the day, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land became hugely popular (and reviled) as one of the death knells of the conservative Fifties. Released in 1961, Stranger is the story of the unconventional Valentine Michael Smith, the sole child of a doomed Mars expedition. Smith is raised, schooled, and empowered by the strange and mystic Martians themselves before returning to Earth, where he begins to spread his innocently subversive philosophy of free love, communalism (that’s almost Communism!), and sacred cannibalism. What? Well, it makes more sense in the context of the book… it’s an excellent novel… and it was mad, provocative stuff in the first heady days of Sixties, not to mention an apparent self-betrayal by the right-leaning grand master himself, who, until then, had written mostly about clean white American boys with good old American courage and know-how.
We’ve come a long way since then. I think it’s hard to get a rise out of anyone in the 21st Century except for fundamentalists of one stripe or another. The books that are controversial continue to be those that put a new light on sex, religion, or politics.
When J.K. Rowling toured the U.S., she was reportedly confronted, more than once, by God-fearing Christians who accused her of promoting witchcraft, which as we all know is a gateway to opening yourself to the devil. Is that a widely held concern? No. Rowling has sold umpteen millions of books to happy kids and adults alike, but there remains a certain minority who is offended and upset.
Another easy example is the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code – and here’s a controversy inside a controversy for you. It’s my contention that authors like Dan Brown, James Rollins, and Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child are writing science fiction themselves, which is more alive than ever. I keep hearing how the genre is graying, but people still love crazy ideas. They’ve simply lost interest in clean white American boys in space, because, honestly, that’s no longer representative of how we see ourselves, except for some hold-outs who cling to their small worldviews.
Seriously, this stuff isn’t alternate history or straight-out sci fi?
- Jesus is revealed to be a normal man who sired a child and his royal bloodline continues on today, hunted by the very Church that must deny his mortality to maintain their grip on the faithful? (The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.)
- A present-day secret base of Nazis survives in the Himalayas, using quantum physics to advance a super-soldier genetics program begun near the end of WWII? (Black Order by James Rollins.)
- A mysterious, impenetrable asteroid found in South America proves to be one of the world-seeding panspermia devices of an unknown alien race who apparently created life itself on our world? (The Ice Limit by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child.)
Back in the Dark Ages, you would have been burned at the stake for even suggesting such nonsense. Today, only The Da Vinci Code sparked dismay and denouncements – and widespread excitement. Many religious leaders found the questions it raised to be awkward indeed, which only helped to propel the book to its staggering success.
For my money, controversy is good. It makes you think, and thinking keeps you adaptable, and we’re all better for using our brains instead of merely doing what we’re told because it’s more profitable for various power structures.
The grand master had it right. Question everything.
When your question arrived, what first came to mind was the musical “Rent.” No, it’s not SF. (If you want to see a spectacular science-fiction musical, go see “Urinetown”–I know, I know, but just ignore the name and go see it if you have the chance. You’ll thank me for recommending it. Promise.) But it came to mind because I remember my reaction after seeing it: “That won a Pulitzer?” “La Boheme” handles similar material with a much better score, and much like “The Fantasticks,” after intermission, “Rent” just doesn’t entertain nearly as well.
So why did I think of “Rent?” Because in the end, I had to take a step back and remember that I saw “Rent” nearly eight years after its Opening Night, and needed to put it into historical context. When “Rent” first opened, it tackled important, timely issues with a frankness that was rather uncommon for popular entertainment, especially Broadway shows. And when it comes to controversial SF, historical perspective should also be applied. Doors were kicked down and skeletons were dragged out of the closet for all the world to see, and what seemed edgy back when the “New Wave” arrived can seem tame in this day and age–not to question the quality of the writing or the importance of the work, but from the standpoint of a modern sensibility. But you need to give the historically significant works their props because they helped change the modern sensibility.
So if we’re going to talk about the most important controversial works of SF, I start with the classics: Brave New World, Fountainhead, 1984, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse-Five, Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange all certainly qualify as important, controversial works of Science Fiction, even if they weren’t published as SF.
Then you get into classics that were published as SF, like Flowers for Algernon, The Left Hand of Darkness, Dhalgren, Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers (probably should put something from John Wyndham on the list, so let’s go with The Chrysalids). The New Wave deserves recognition as well, but rather than get into a list of novels, I’ll pick the anthological exemplar, Dangerous Visions. And let’s be sure to include Neuromancer by William Gibson.
For more contemporary works, there isn’t much SF that I consider controversial in terms of content, though there certainly have been controversies surrounding books, whether we’re talking about Philip Roth allegedly inventing a new subgenre with The Plot Against America <<*cough*cough*>>, or the tempest in a teapot stirred up about a fantasy novel involving dragons and the people who love them, or even the issues of copyright stirred up by the works of Cory Doctorow after SFWA erroneously stuck their nose where it didn’t belong. But controversy swirling around SF is at least as old as the beef between Verne & Wells, and it doesn’t mean the works themselves were truly controversial.
I suppose there are a number of Baen books that some might consider controversial, but I just don’t see it that way. If an author espouses a political or social idea which falls outside the mainstream beliefs of society, I don’t necessarily label that controversial. This is the United States of America, and we are a melting pot of peoples, cultures, and, most importantly, ideas. And the freedom to express those ideas is as fundamental as it gets. (That being said, I can’t wait to see the reactions to John Ringo’s newest novel, The Last Centurion, which comes out in August. Let’s just say John doesn’t keep his opinions to himself.)
Certainly, SF has been tackling a number of potentially controversial issues that we as a society are only beginning to explore (e.g.the ethical implications of genetic engineering, which has been the stuff of sf for decades, but has barely begun to be explored legally and ethically on a practical basis), but I don’t see it as controversial. I see it as SF fulfilling its role of exploring ideas, creating fictionalized thought experiments that also entertain. In fact, there isn’t a work mentioned here that I truly consider controversial. Brilliant, inspiring, troubling, or any number of other adjectives, certainly. But I don’t consider them controversial, and that’s the question: What do I consider the most controversial. (No wonder I was unimpressed with “Rent”.)
I recall one fateful Friday afternoon, back in 2005, when I received a phone call from BBC radio. They were looking for an SF editor to interview about a recent raid on a “Gorean” cult somewhere in England, i.e. some sexual fetishists inspired by the works of John Norman that the local peasantfolk felt didn’t belong. And even then, I just couldn’t see the controversy (and I’ll point out that in fact, the police didn’t make a single arrest in the raid, since everyone in the apartment were consenting adults). On the other hand, I did seize the opportunity to take a shot at the mass media, criticizing them for ignoring science fiction unless there was a Klingon in a kilt or some sex cult to provide lurid spectacle and spice up the headline.
So perhaps I have the wrong idea. Maybe SF should be all about controversy. How dare we explore ideas. How dare we create new worlds out of our own imagination. Somebody call CNN, we’ve got some freethinkers around here. Isn’t the US government against freethinkers?
Wait a minute, I know: Anybody out there want to introduce me to a cute dragon?
Three books come to mind immediately, though each for a different reason. They are (in chronological order) Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, Dr. Adder by K.W. Jeter, and the series His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) by Philip Pullman.
Starship Troopers was the book that provided Heinlein’s critics with a significant source of ammunition when arguing that Heinlein was a fascist, misogynist, and militarist. The novel has also been the topic of an endless series of arguments and discussions, so much so that in my experience, mention of it among any three SF readers almost always provokes an argument.
Dr. Adder was not published for over ten years because of editorial concerns about its extraordinary levels of sex, violence and perversion. While these concerns are common in horror fiction, it is rare for an SF novel to generate this sort of reaction. Though not so extreme by today’s standards for such content, it is still a disturbing and graphic novel.
The His Dark Materials trilogy has been subjected to much the same treatment as the Harry Potter novels by conservative Christians in the US and UK. Unlike Rowling’s work however, it can be argued that Pullman’s books deserve such a reaction, if one adheres to the values of conservative Christians, because the series does present a rather negative image of Christianity. Major elements in the books include a thinly veiled version of the Catholic Church as the temporal villains and it concludes by presenting the Christian God as a well meaning but essentially foolish and weak entity misled by its underlings.
Controversial to whom?
Etymologically, controversy is about one group turning against another, an established opinion threatened by a new one.
This has happened many times in the last half century, with ‘movements’ springing up every decade or so:
- Old Guard vs. New Wave. Early 60s. People like Ballard and Moorcock writing more about inner space than outer space, using tools already old-fashioned in the mainstream.
- Grand Old Men vs. Feminists. Late 60s, early 70s (and, for many, on-going). Suzy McKee Charnas (the Holdfast sequence, starting with Walk to the End of the World), Joanna Russ (The Female Man), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness).
- Humanists vs. Cyberpunks. Early 80s. Bruce Sterling appointed himself messiah and mouthpiece while William Gibson wrote the bestsellers; for the other side, Kim Stanley Robinson railed against CP’s reactionary tropes and Orson Scott Card wrote pastiche.
- Tourists vs. Natives. This is on-going. The most prominent examples in the last few years being PD James’ Children of Men and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (No, I don’t count Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; she’s not a tourist, she’s a native, she’s just in the closet.)
- Adult vs. Juvenile. Also on-going, but doubling in vociferousness when J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire won the Hugo.
Why are these books, these movements controversial? Because (pause and savour the irony) science fictionistas, like people everywhere, are frightened of change.
Change is, people. So is multiplicity. All these movements intersect and intertwine. No human endeavour can be neatly boxed into eras, and it’s all relative anyway (like ‘feminist’ or ‘good’). Everything that today is staid was once edgy and frightening–and still is to some people. Our differences and our artistic debts are many and ongoing. They’re also good for us. Let’s just enjoy the ride.
I think the definition of “controversy” in sf has changed dramatically in the last few years. What was once a controversy that consumed several rounds of letters back and forth in fanzines and magazines, lasting months or even years, has been reduced in the era of the internet to a matter of hours. If you come to the discussion two days late, you’ve missed it. And if you were away for a week, the debate is ancient history.
The longest-running controversy in publishing of late was James Frey’s book which (horrors!) turned out to be fiction, rather than memoir. And it was controversial because Oprah liked the book, not because of the content of the book.
In sf, modern controversies seem to be Dave Truesdale’s dislike of “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan in Ellen Datlow’s The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. And, of course, the current imbroglio over the fact that Locus magazine decides who “wins” their awards.
The most controversial sf novel I can recall was Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and the controversy aspect I only know from reading about it after the fact. A novel of sex (mentioned, but not explicit), cannibalism (again, you have to look hard to find it), the business aspects of religion (which is de rigueur today), and demagoguery, which today wouldn’t even make a ripple in the public consciousness.
I think the longest running, most controversial piece of speculative fiction is the Bible. It’s had long-lasting appeal, incredible sales, and been the basis for not merely disagreements, but outright wars and nation-building. My wife wants me to define why I think the Bible is speculative fiction: it’s got talking animals, rain for 40 days straight that was enough to cover the entire planet in water (and where did that water go afterward?), a guy living to be 969 years old, and it says the Earth is only four thousand and change years old. Oh, and where did Cain’s wife come from?
The first title to come to mind is Norman Spinrad’s masterful The Iron Dream, which incorporates Lord of the Swastika, a full-length written as if by Adolf Hitler. I’m in awe of Spinrad’s ability to inhabit the mind of such a sick, evil human being so totally as to be able to so convincingly mimic his imagination. It was banned in Germany, of course, for nearly a decade. Brilliantly disturbing and powerful in that it never winks at the audience; Spinrad sustains the illusion with mesmerizing and alarming deftness. Alas, as some readers’ comments make too painfully clear, for anyone already, knowingly or unknowingly, of a fascist mindset the satire can be invisible and the thing can be read as “a rousing adventure” instead of a deeply disturbing journey into the mind of a sociopath, which sadly validates one of Spinrad’s points: within Spinrad’s fictional frame, Lord of the Swastika was both a fan favourite and a Hugo winner — a damning condemnation of what a large subset of the SF audience values and valorizes (see, for example, the popularity of Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, or any number of Niven/Pournelle books).
Also, I’ve always been disappointed that one of the big sacred cows of fantasy has not been more controversial; to my mind, because of its widespread success, it should be: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a book I find not only utterly boring in terms of story but also deeply offensive in terms of theme. No novel so clearly, and unwittingly, highlights that history is written by the victorious. Sauron is so obviously the good guy here, and all the protagonists are total slime, liars, royalists of the worst stripe.
I’ve always found it interesting, and disquieting, that a nation like the USA, which claims to have rejected royalty, should enjoy Tolkien-style epic fantasy so wholeheartedly, with its embracement of the divine right of kings, of the birthright of royal lineage, etc.
Sauron is so clearly a democrat (perhaps even a socialist) vilified by the victorious, villainous royalists, those from whose POV we are told this story. I believe in the POV of The Lord of the Rings as much as I believe that Bush Jr. invaded Iraq for the good of the Iraqi people.
Sometimes I think The Lord of the Rings might be an unconscious aristocratic revenge fantasy in reaction to the success of the French Revolution, an English royalist gut-reaction of fear that something like it might ever happen in England, in which anyone who threatens the sanctity of royalty is transformed into something monstrous, both physically and behaviourally.
And I’ve always been disturbed by the humongous success not only of The Lord of the Rings but of the whole subgenre it spawned. I find this romanticization and fetishization of the royalist worldview alarming — and even more alarming is that so few people seem disturbed by this at all.
It seems to me that the three subjects most likely to spark controversy in the realm of F/SF are probably religion, sex, and preying upon children. Even when dealing with these topics, however, a good deal of the genre material manages to slip under the radar. In my opinion, a few that didn’t:
The Satanic Verses contained some references which many Muslims believed were blasphemous and a fatwa (essentially a death sentence) was declared on Rushdie and his publishers which, I believe, still remains almost 20 years later.
Stranger in a Strange Land is a good example relating to the sexual revolution and it was embraced by the 1960s counterculture as a statement of free love, despite arguments that it contains misogynist and homophobic undertones. Apparently Heinlein wrote the book over the span of ten years in an effort to avoid too much controversy. He could see the changes taking place in society and felt that, in the earlier years of his writing, the public wasn’t quite ready for it.
Though perhaps out of bounds for this question, I think that the publication of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and persecution of the comic book industry is one of the best examples of controversy and public outrage regarding the endangering of children. Wertham’s book discussed his belief that superhero and horror comics were harmful to children and direct contributors to juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. His case was taken before the Senate and the result was a crippling blow to the comic book industry of the 1950s. Whether the controversy stems from Wertham’s book or from the comic books which he targeted, it’s a prime example of public outrage resulting from adult content (though arguable in many cases) surfacing in a medium which had been perceived as being intended solely for children.
A Clockwork Orange is an interesting example to me because of the two versions which exist. Though originally published in the UK with 21 chapters, the US printing omitted the final chapter and didn’t publish the full version until over 20 years later. Typically you’d expect this would be for the purpose of making the book more socially acceptable, however in this case I feel it does quite the opposite. The general tone of the story is already saturated in violence. In the edited US printing, the book ends with Alex being “cured” of his cure and able once again to rape and murder freely. The final missing chapter, however, shows him matured and having outgrown his violent youth. Without this epilogue, the entire story has a very different meaning. I find it an interesting commentary on American society for the publishers to have rejected the original ending and opted instead for a bleak final outcome. As the story goes, the publisher felt that it was “a sell out” to have Alex change as a person and they were not interested in that. They felt that the American audience was more interested in reading about a character who was straight up evil with no possibility of growth or redemption.
It’s not really a question of opinion — this matter can be easily determined. ALA, for example, maintains a list of most frequently challenged books, such as the one here. One of course doesn’t have to rely on ALA, but it seems like a good place to start.
There are also lists of most frequently banned books, but we can consider those resolved controversies. But the list of challenged books lists Harry Potter, Bridge to Terabithia, A Wrinkle in Time, and Flowers for Algernon among speculative works — which illustrates the fact that controversies are a poor way of finding books with objectionable content. I mean, Where’s Waldo? Really? Cujo and Brave New World are somewhat less surprising, but still.
As for books with objectionable content — I personally dislike any works that betray their authors’ prejudices. That is, a book that critically engages with a topic of, say, rape or racism or other unpleasantness, will at the very least attempt to say something. A book where every character of color is a stereotype and rape of the protagonist’s girlfriend serves only to motivate him into action is much more problematic, in my opinion, because it says nothing about the issue while perpetuating the noxious cultural norms. Thoughtlessness in fiction (and while challenging books) is the enemy, not the perceived taboo content, and it is the mindless endorsement of the status quo that makes for poor reading.
Dystopian literature often tops the list of “banned” or “controversial books,” especially when that list is science fictional in its focus. Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984 rise to the top quite readily, but there is one little novel that not only predates those fine works, but serves as their predecessor, and perhaps the very originator of SF dystopias (though let us not forget Jack London’s The Iron Heel).
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We was first published by Dutton in 1924, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the book appeared in print in Zamyatin’s homeland, Russia. (The book appears to have first been banned in Russia in 1919.) While it may not be viewed as highly “controversial” in the United States, the simple existence of the book forced Zamyatin into exile. According to Clarence Brown, translator of Penguin Classics 1993 edition, the “Soviet cultural authorities…saw it as a travesty of the regime.”
Both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley read We, though Huxley read the book after penning his masterpiece, but the similarities among these fine works are uncanny. There is the OneState (Big Brother, The World State), the Green Wall that separates civilized people from the primitive natural world (the Reservations of Brave New World), a male protagonist who is obsessed with a female (Bernard and Lenina), identifying people with numbers and not names (okay, THX-1138), strong themes of nationalism, repressed sexuality, and the elimination of self, and, finally, those ubiquitous cameras in 1984 are replaced with evocative glass buildings that eliminate privacy altogether.
That’s just to scratch the surface, but considering that it’s been eight years since I read We, I’d say that recollection is impressive enough to detail the impact We has had on Dystopian fiction. But what I remember most is the sheer pleasure with which I read We. Passages of political intrigue, a war of ideas, the search for self, all laced with science fiction furniture and moments that can only be described as poetry, like this description of the spacecraft INTEGRAL leaving Earth:
“Dull explosion — jolt — aft, a green-and-white mountain of water goes berserk – deck, soft and spongy, vanished beneath the feet — and everything below, all of life, forever . . . In one second everything around shrank as we fell into a sort of funnel: the icy blue convex cityscape, the round bubbles of the cupolas, the lonely leaden finger of the Accumulator Tower. Then — a momentary curtain of cotton-wadding clouds — through it — and the sun was shining in the blue sky. Seconds, minutes, miles — and the blue was quickly becoming firm and suffused with darkness, the stars were emerging like drops of cold silver sweat.”
I really need to read this book again. Controversial for some, sure, and certainly in Russia, but SF readers owe a debt to We. It inspired some of our most loved books, so if you haven’t read it, put it on your reading list. After all, Ursula K. Le Guin calls it “the best single work of science fiction yet written.”
Are novels inherently controversial, or can they only be described as controversial if they generate actual controversy? To avoid a publisher’s natural inclination towards unsavoury favoritism and ludicrous hyperbole, perhaps a clear definition is needed. I’d like to propose the following:
(VBR + VGR)S CONTROVERSY = ------------ NS
Where VBR is the number of Very Bad Reviews, VGR the number of Very Good Reviews and S is Sales. Everything is then divided by Norman Spinrad (a constant value).
Applying this simple equation, it’s clear that any major religious text will score pretty highly, but I’m not sure that we should consider the Old Testament, for example, to be a work of Science Fiction or Fantasy. Actually…no, better not to go there.
Perhaps better to ignore the mathematical approach. However one defines it, without doubt one of the great qualities of SFF genre fiction is its ability to question and challenge the world about us in many different ways. But I’m going to concentrate on books that have caused recent publishing controversy.
Maybe the biggest issue facing SFF publishers at the moment, and therefore the one that has generated most controversy, is how to define the potential audience for SFF. It seems to be a relatively straightforward matter, but approaches vary significantly. For some publishers, our audience is simply the existing SFF readership (or the appropriate segment of it, depending on sub-genre). For others, there is perhaps a broader audience out there – an audience that seems to be attracted to science-fictional, fantastical, and supernatural entertainments in other media, but can’t currently be counted as SFF book readers. It’s a question that every genre publisher has to ask themselves, and a number of books over recent years have presented the opportunity for controversy.
In particular, we’ve seen a number of novels from highly regarded, high-profile authors published outside the SF and Fantasy category, even though they clearly have a great deal in common with SF. We’ve had, in no particular order, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me go, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Will Self’s The Book of Dave, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The novels are not particularly controversial themselves, but from an SFF publishing perspective the repercussions of SFF-ness emerging as a popular component of “mainstream” fiction could be huge. I suspect, however, that the most controversial novel in this regard is unlikely to be found at the literary end of the spectrum: it will be an undeniably and unapologetically commercial SF or Fantasy blockbuster, but one published by a non-genre list. It’s yet to be published, but I have a feeling that it might come along in the not-too-distant future.
On SFF lists, there has probably been more publishing controversy over recent years surrounding Fantasy than SF. (The controversy surrounding SF has focused on the relative absence of controversy in the SF field generally.) Within Fantasy, we have seen a number of writers emerge who present a commercially viable alternative to your basic Tolkien model. China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station caused more than a stir, and more recently we’ve seen the launch of Joe Abercrombie’s uncompromising First Law Trilogy, starting with The Blade Itself. Do these authors represent emerging trends of commercial significance? It’s not yet clear.
Another area of recent publishing controversy has accompanied the emergence of urban fantasy (in the post-Buffy sense) as a major contributor to the SFF market, particularly in the US. The SFF bestseller lists in the US are now dominated – not an exaggeration – by urban fantasy authors such Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison, Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, and Patricia Briggs. How has this domination affected other areas of the SFF field? Publishers can only publish a certain number of books – and more often than not that number is going down. Is this growing market helping SFF lists to thrive or pushing them in a direction that may have serious consequences at some point in the future?
By its nature, controversy is relatively short-lived. Books, authors, or issues that seem controversial today may seem entirely uncontroversial tomorrow. Sometimes controversy is good – contributing to the process of evolution; sometimes it has a more negative effect – spoiling the proper appreciation of a book. Either way, though, it’s usually not a good idea to go looking for it.