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MIND MELD: Taboo Topics in SF/F Literature

Times change, and taboos change with them. What sort of taboos exist nowadays in the world of publishing?

Q: Once upon a time, sf/f was full of taboos: no swearing, no sex, etc. We’re thankfully past those days, but are there any taboos still remaining or new ones that have sprung up? Have you ever had trouble with publishing something, or caught yourself self-censoring?
Peter Watts
Peter Watts (Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth and Blindsight) is a disgruntled sf writer who has failed to win every major award for which he has ever been nominated. You might be surprised by how pleasant he can be in person, though.

I don’t actually believe that we’ve come quite so far as the question would suppose. In fact, I would argue that taboos are more restrictive today that they have been times past. Back in 1967 Theodore Sturgeon’s “If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” argued that incest was a Good Thing. Around the same time, Moorcock’s time-travel tale “Behold the Man” showed us the blessed virgin as a slut and Jesus Christ as a drooling, congenital imbecile.

What mainstream sf outlets would have the balls to publish those stories today? Down in the US, a half-second flicker of Janet Jackson faux-nipple on national television sends the whole fucking country into an uproar. Over in the UK, it has recently become illegal to own pictures of legal sexual acts; the ownership of sufficiently “extreme” pornographic images is enough to get you registered as a sex offender. And in my country, Canada’s so-called “premiere science fiction magazine”, On Spec— a publication that once had the guts to publish a story of mine that dared to portray a racist as a sympathetic individual– refused to run a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit, renegeing on a written commitment explicitly designed to ensure that such censorship wouldn’t occur. (It only adds to the irony that the image was intended to illustrate an editorial celebrating science fiction’s potential to explore “dangerous ideas”.)

So, you guys think we’re “thankfully past those days” of censorship?

Tell me, what colour is the sky on your world?

Steve Aylett
Author of Lint

More so even than honest emotion or unevaded truth, genuine originality inspires a gut revulsion on the rare occasion it’s encountered. People think they want it but when the real thing comes along they discover they really, really don’t. There’s nowhere to put it – a slot of the right shape doesn’t exist in the head, because nothing like the idea has ever been seen before. It’s sad that the SF world, too, has this almost primal fear of the unfamiliar. I would have hoped for some precocious curiosity, some openness to exploration, rather than timidity disguised as mere conservatism. SF publishing is like a teenager who’s yearned for sex and then is freaked out by the reality. Pathetically squeamish about anything genuinely new, it huddles about its strangely parochial center. So we see the white-on-white effect of publishers putting out more of the same. They carefully skirt raw, from-the-ground-up thought while simultaneously denying its existence. I can’t believe SF authors haven’t read enough to know what’s already been done. Yet they spend the bulk of a book tamping down any visionary possibilities in order then to spring a tired analog of a revelation. We’re given Lukyanenkoan agents, yet more Clarkean space artifacts and the retreading of ye olde evolution into virtuality and beyond. Get far enough away that all this dwindles into a single dot, then choose something else. There is more than one star.

Glenda Larke
Glenda Larke is an Australian who lives in Malaysia and works in rainforest and avifuana conservation. She has seven published fantasy novels, four of which have been shortlisted for the Aurealis best fantasy novel of the year, and has another three in the pipeline. Her next book is The Last Stormlord, to be published 2009/2010 in UK, US and Australia. She can be found at

There are very few blanket taboos left, thank goodness. Where I live in Malaysia, you can still be jailed or fined for having a child out of wedlock or crossdressing or fellatio (yeah, even if you are a married couple!)…even so, a local author published a sympathetic work of fiction centered around a prostitute, and it remains popular and on sale many years later. Even here, people can nibble away at the edges of the taboos.

However, I think some of us writers have possibly become too cautious about offending others. We’re fine with swearing or graphic sex, but we back away from taking a hard look at someone else’s religious beliefs or cultural hang-ups in our work, although we feel free to poke fun at our own.

I know I’ve retreated from such topics, fearing accusations of cultural appropriation or prejudice or insensitivity. I have spent all my adult life living in other cultures, in communities practising religions which are not mine, so I am uniquely situated to write about these things with an outsider’s (possible) objectivity – yet I don’t.

Instead I write fantasy, and cloak my look at real religious foibles and cultural oddities by placing them in a fantasy setting. I’d like to believe that readers are prompted into thinking about their own prejudices and sacred cows as a result, but I suspect I am naïve. In all probability, they either don’t recognise themselves, or the sub-text simply passes them by as they get caught up in the story.

And who am I to complain? I am first and foremost a storyteller and doubtless I have my own numerous biases anyway. And yeah, I’m a rank coward. I don’t have permanent residency…

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the author of the Retrieval Artist series. Her new novel, Duplicate Effort, the latest Retrieval Artist book, will appear in February from Roc. Her novel, Diving In The Wreck, based on the novellas “Diving into the Wreck” and “The Room of Lost Souls” will be published by Pyr later this year or early next year.

Are there still taboos? I don’t think so. There are so many markets and so many diverse publishing experiences that even if a mainstream publishing house won’t take a particular topic, someone will — provided it’s well written and the story is good.

Margo Lanagan
Margo Lanagan writes fiction. Her latest novel is Tender Morsels, published by Allen & Unwin in Australia, Knopf in the US and David Fickling Books in the UK (mid-2009. I’ve also published three short story collections White Time, Black Juice and Red Spikes.

I don’t know that taboos — particularly sex and profanity taboos — necessarily apply to some genres and not others (I don’t think of young adult fiction as a genre); I think they’re individual things. I also don’t think they’re things of the past, by any means. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. As the whole RaceFail bunfight proves yet again, writers need repeatedly to be reminded that the world isn’t just story-fodder — there are all kinds of people out there, made differently, thinking differently and feeling differently. I don’t think we ought to be writing pap so as to avoid offending anyone, but periodically being kicked awake to sensibilities different from our own can only be a good thing.

‘The reception of “The Goosle”‘ that you speak of was one reader whose particular buttons were pushed by ‘The Goosle’, or were pushed one too many times for him to bear. The story is a continuation and a complete fouling-up of ‘Hansel and Gretel’; it contains dirt-eating, largely off-stage homosexual predation (you get to see the preliminaries and the aftermath), audible but not visible heterosexual sex, a witch fondling Hansel’s penis, cannibalism, an off-stage axe-murder and beheading of the corpse, and many, many other corpses. This SOUNDS as if I dreamed up a list of horrors on purpose to shock people, but I’m talking retrospectively here. The story began with the word ‘gunsel’, which I discovered in the dictionary. It means, according to the Shorter Oxford – you can find variations online – something along the lines of ‘a young man or boy kept for homosexual purposes, especially by a tramp’, so it was never going to be a nice story. (But it didn’t have to be. The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was never envisaged as a children’s or young adults’ anthology, and that was where my critic got the wrong end of the stick.) Then on top of that dictionary definition, the word ‘gunsel’ suggested ‘Hansel’ to me, and the old folk tale mated with the definition and started spawning horrors.

Quite a chorus of people within the genre leaped to my defence when Dave Truesdale lashed out, rather than joining him in his protest, which makes me think that he was rather the exception than the norm, and that nobody’s really fussed about such stories as ‘The Goosle’ existing. Readers are sensible enough to avoid what they don’t like, what makes for a too-difficult read for them at a particular time in their life.

But there are also readers who are in search of a challenging read, for whom reading is, as writing is for me, a bit pointless unless it’s pushing their own envelope, doing something exploratory, making them discover something about themselves or the world around them. I think the challenging reads should exist, as well as the safe, reassuring reads and the downright escapist ones, for those times when we need them.

Taboos are a particular issue in relation to young adult fiction, which my novel Tender Morsels is, in the US, although it’s published as an adult book here in Australia. If people feel strongly about their own taboos, they tend to come down even more definitively on behalf of their children. We want our children to be resilient, but it’s sometimes hard for us to let them go through the experiences that are going to give them that resilience, and for some parents and teachers that extends to experiences they find in a novel.

When I was writing Tender Morsels, I was still thinking it would come out as young adult everywhere. But also, in terms of the story, the events that had to happen at the beginning of the story to justify my heroine’s being given her own personal heaven were so horrible that if I presented them in all their gruesome detail, there was a risk that the story would become unbalanced, and its beauties and its message would be overwhelmed by all the suffering. So the ‘self-censoring’ I did was as much a technical issue as a considering-young-adults move on my part.

What I did was, I suggested enough about the sexual assaults for adult readers to work out what was going on, but not quite enough for young people who didn’t want to look too closely at the facts of incest and rape to have to admit to seeing them. As a result, many adult readers seem to have a harder time with this book than young adults, because they can usually imagine quite clearly what Liga has gone through, while younger readers are spared seeing all the details; they can jump across my jump cuts without putting a whole bunch of implied icky stuff in place there; those without the equipment or experience to cause themselves the pain of imagining simply won’t.

I don’t think the censoring should be happening at the point of writing. Readers are efficient enough at screening out material they don’t want to encounter; my job is not to protect them but to be true to the story that presents itself, to help it go where it needs to go, however unpleasant and dark the places it leads us may be.

Mark Budz
Mark Budz (Clade, Crache, Idolon, Till Human Voices Wake Us) works and plays near the largely imaginary community of Silicon Beach. He occasionally finds the time to write a short story, the latest of which can be found in Seeds of Change.

I’ve thought about this question for a couple of days, but I personally haven’t run into any explicit taboos or censorship in the field. Maybe I’ve just been lucky with the editors I’ve had, but I’ve never been asked to remove, reword, or tone down anything to make it more palatable.

One taboo I can think of that might cause problems would be child pornography. Lolita managed to do it, but even with that as a precedent I think this would still be a difficult subject to write about on a number of levels. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable if the situation ever came up as a necessary element in a story. I’d be very worried and self-conscious about how I approached the topic. It would be like walking into a minefield.

Anna Tambour
Anna Tambour’s next novel is Crandolin.

 Taboos are hard to recognize if you haven’t bumped into one. I once spent a considerable time in a place that had a taboo against any public eatery staying open during mealtimes, but if I hadn’t been hungry when the restaurant owners were at home eating their breakfast, lunch and dinners, I would never have known. In the case of some writers, either they or their publishers have censored meaning and plot, presumably because they dammed the flow of words. But, like sex, I think it’s a matter of courses and what the rivermasters allow to flow down them. However, I’ve observed a few snags that might stop great stories getting through. The first snag is sex-based. “Interesting story, well written,” read the editor’s note to a friend who happens to be male. “Although the portrayal of women characters will offend our readership. Are you interested still?” The story was about a man who had been working for some time in the garage on an invention he thought would “save the world”. Meanwhile, his wife put up with her car living rough out in the snow. And she not only wasn’t much interested in the details of her husband’s project, but she couldn’t have invented it herself. She was a great cook. When it came time for him to demonstrate his invention, she was more interested in how fast he could get the garage cleared and how much money they’d make from it. I feel personally responsible for the failure of this author to get this story published. He asked me about it, and I said to leave it as it was. It was, of course, sf/f, so the readers would know this isn’t exactly as reality ever is.. After the rejection, the author flipped the sexes and had the husband making the peach cobbler, but somehow, the story never made it into publication.

Another observation, this one garnered from my recent trip to the asteroid *. The *ians are voracious readers. With their one taste-organ orifice, they consume books with a sound that, if you’re not born there, takes some getting used to — and they consume so many books so fast, that *ian authors must imbibe inspiration in some way inhumanly possible as they work without rest, coffee or praise — for on asteroid * there is an inverse of the Earth ratio of fiction writers to readers. With nothing else to eat on *, fiction production isn’t an aspirational profession, just as cooking isn’t for the majority of people who end up doing the cooking on Earth. The most popular theme in *ian sf/f today is visits to Earth and interactions with the dominants there, uh, here: iron atoms. The plots of *ish books are fast and nutritious; but unlike power drinks on our planet, *ish books are packed full of everything delicious –plot, emotion, character — betwixt *lings and these iron atom earthlings (with a smattering of other species they imagine on our planet, but I think some sort of taboo against featuring other species from their asteroid). I’m no reviewer, so I’ll just say simply: I love these books. But *ian sf/f has some guidelines that might be universal today. No cats, no puns, and certainly no fluffy kittens. They’ve had those guidelines since the Pure Fiction Act of 1.9908 eons ago — which means that Lewis Carroll is still banned on *.

As for me, in fiction I always censor and I never censor. Always censor, in the case of telling a reader what I really think. In my opinion, a story shouldn’t tell a reader how to think or what to ditto, any more than a peach telling a stomach how to digest. And I never censor anything I think needs saying. A story is a consumable, but a great story not only feeds. It infects.

One place that I would advocate censorship is the autobiography. I miss *.. Nobody there cares about the life of writers. In fact, on *, if a writer wants to say a character is dull, they don’t write “accountant”, probably because their accountants are as creative as those on Earth. They write “writer”. On *, a writer’s apprenticeship requires — for entry level: three utter failures in life (not having to do with writing); and after entry: two spursecs masticating proofs before a writer (snacks) achieves a Probationary Certificate. When I asked if the * apprenticeship program would be interested in a writing workshop taught by my species from my planet, my visa was revoked. “Writing isn’t taught,” I was told (tersely, some would say). “Observation is. You haven’t noticed that.” I said I don’t believe that writers should autobiograph, but one more personal admission. I still resent that they stamped my passport “Unobservant Alien” and confiscated my stash of *ish books before they sent me home.

Jason Sanford
Jason Sanford co-founded the literary journal storySouth, through which he runs the annual Million Writers Award for best online fiction. His fiction has been published in Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, Interzone, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, The Mississippi Review, Diagram, Pindeldyboz, and other places. He’s also published critical essays, book reviews, and news articles in places like The New York Review of Science Fiction, The Pedestal Magazine, and The Fix Short Fiction Review. One of his stories is forthcoming in Year’s Best SF 14.

The biggest taboo in science fiction and fantasy is showing humans in a positive light. According to the experts, there are so many problems in our world–global warming, overpopulation, the looming singularity–it will be a miracle if humanity survives the next hundred years. As a result, many writers of speculative fiction self censor, embracing doom and gloom under the belief that doing so gives “depth” to their writings. They create nothing but dark and moody antiheroes living dark and moody lives in dark and moody science fiction and fantasy worlds, where ironic quips have taken the place of actual human qualities like self sacrifice, love, and hope.

Ironically, this causes much of SF/F to miss the true depths of humanity, and likewise causes the genre to misunderstand our ability to overcome our self-created problems. Humanity has been engaged in a million-year flirtation with extinction–but we’re still here! Research suggests that tens of thousands of years ago humanity dwindled to a few hundred people. Yet those people didn’t give up. Instead, they spread across the entire globe and created the civilizations which nurture us all. I see no reason why today’s humanity won’t also overcome the problems that threaten both us and our planet. But in today’s SF/F, this positive view of humanity’s past and future is one most writers avoid like the plague.

Nancy Jane Moore
Nancy Jane Moore is part of the writer’s consortium Book View Café, where she’s publishing a new flash fiction story every Thursday. Her collection, Conscientious Inconsistencies, is available from PS Publishing, and her novella, Changeling, is published by Aqueduct Press.

In recent years, I’ve been exploring gender issues in a lot of my fiction, and I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I’m a feminist. I hadn’t thought I was violating any taboos by doing that, but a comment in a positive review of my collection, Conscientious Inconsistencies, has given me some food for thought. On The Fix, Lyndon Perry wrote, “To classify this collection as feminist literature, in my opinion, might unnecessarily marginalize these stories away from the very genre fiction scene it seeks to represent.”

His observation, which was based on the fact that the introduction and the jacket cover both discuss feminism, has made me wonder if some of the rejections I receive have to do with the fact that many of my stories do touch on gender issues, or if – as Perry suggests – my reputation as a feminist makes some editors (and readers) dismiss my work without paying close attention.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that a taboo exists against feminist material – or political material generally. Frankly, I hope Perry’s wrong, much as I appreciate the nice things he said about my stories. But it does seem as if fiction that goes farther than simply writing a woman character into a role once reserved solely for male ones is not common in mass market fiction. It’s nice to see the kick-ass heroines, but I am hungry for meatier material.

Thinking about this hasn’t driven me to self-censorship, though. The truth is, I just find gender issues too interesting to stop writing about them. And I’ve been told “girls can’t do that” too many times to let any criticism stop me from being a feminist.

Ellen Kushner
Ellen was raised in Cleveland, studied at Barnard & Bryn Mawr, worked as a fiction editor in New York City and as a public radio host in Boston. She is now best known for her nationally-broadcast radio program Sound & Spirit, and as the author of award-winning novels including Thomas the Rhymer, The Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of Kings (with Delia Sherman).

Far from worrying about censorship, I keep thinking I’m not pushing things as far as they could actually go. For me, it’s a question of aesthetics rather than taboos.

I had a brilliant Shakespeare professor in college (Edward Tayler, at Columbia) who pointed out to us that much of literature is about who you are forbidden to marry or have sex with – and that since the rules relaxed in the mid-twentieth century, there was almost nothing left to construct a drama around; he cited Nabokov’s incest (Ada) and child-loving (Lolita) as merely attempts to find something that still could move us to gasp at forbidden romance the way class issues could move Austen or Bronte’s readers.

We all swear too much these days, especially I! Since I moved back to NYC, I’ve reverted to the potty-mouth ways I’d pretty much tamped down while living in Boston (and working on WGBH radio). My 9-year-old virtual niece (from Boston) was quite shocked when she visited me in NYC; I explained the situation, and now when I use strong language she has permission to rap me on the wrist or just glare and say, “New York!” We agreed, however, that “crap” was allowable, or I would be tongue-tied. Rude language can spice up a conversation; but on the page it rapidly cloys. New writers often mistake curse words for expressions of strong emotion: if I’ve read “‘Damn you!’ he cried.” once, I’ve read it a thousand times, and winced each time. You don’t want to be mealy-mouthed, but I tell my writing students they have a “Swears” budget, and they must spend it wisely.

Hal Duncan
Hal Duncan was born in 1971, brought up in a small town in Ayrshire, and now lives in the West End of Glasgow. A member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, his first novel, Vellum, won the Spectrum Award and was nominated for the Crawford, the BFS Award and the World Fantasy Award. As well as the sequel, Ink, he has published a poetry collection, Sonnets for Orpheus, a stand-alone novella, Escape from Hell!, and various short stories in magazines such as Fantasy, Strange Horizons and Interzone, and anthologies such as Nova Scotia, Logorrhea, and Paper Cities. He also collaborated with Scottish band Aereogramme on the song “If You Love Me, You’d Destroy Me” for the Ballads of the Book album from Chemikal Underground.

I’m not sure there’s much left in terms of unbreakable taboos, not in terms of subjects that are simply no go areas. Thirty years on from the New Wave and twenty years on from cyberpunk, the genre is far more comfortable with confronting the “less savoury” aspects of society than with brushing them under the carpet for the sake of “decency”. So… swearing, sex, drugs — these things still push the panic buttons of conservatives, but we can kinda tune out from the bleating that ensues, go on with writing and reading what we want to. Burning Harry Potter because it has “witchcraft” in it just makes people look like cranks.

So that conservatism didn’t present any problems for me in getting Vellum and Ink published. The swearing and sex in those books was never an issue, because the reactionaries that are going to freak out at the mere fact of a foul-mouthed cocksucking hero — they’re not the market for those works. The nearest I got asked to toning things down was a suggestion that I drop the odd “fucking” here and there towards the start, just to break the reader in gently. I don’t self-censor and I’ve never felt a pressure to within the industry. Actually, any suggestion that you “just can’t” tackle a certain topic at all is liable to make me want to prove that you can.

These topics aren’t even that marginalised any more. The most straightforward mainstream fantasy that’s aimed at the broadest commercial market is free to tackle the same subjects these days. So you end up with Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, for example — and Morgan’s sex scenes are a fuckload more graphic than mine. So if you want to write a story with that level of… meatiness, there’s not a lot of excuses for not doing so. It’s just not a big deal any more — that’s my perception of it, at least.

TV is lagging behind here, right enough. I think it’s significant that the sexuality of the Gaeta character on Battlestar Galactica is relegated to the webisodes, a marker of the extent to which a “delicate subject” can still bring out cowardice in the Powers-That-Be, the degree to which the media still do buckle to reactionary moral dicta and select simple avoidance as the safe option. I don’t know the truth of the rumour that Rick Berman ruled out having a gay character on Star Trek, but if that’s the case… ? That’s a pretty clear-cut case of a taboo, I’d say. With Gaeta, it’s possible there was never any conscious decision to marginalise his sexuality — just an unconscious failure to pay attention to it — but it doesn’t seem too unlikely that someone somewhere did actively /chicken out/, decide that they could throw a crumb to the gay viewers in the webisodes… but that maybe it was best, you know, not to upset the apple cart in the actual broadcast series. Because homosexuality is a “delicate subject”. That would be a taboo in action.

There is still a sort of moral consensus that defines certain subjects as “delicate”, gets kind of antsy when such topics are broached, but the consensus seems to have shifted from a conservative default to a liberal one. Because of this, I suspect if you ask enough people about new taboos, someone will start muttering about “political correctness” at some point, about how it limits what can and can’t be written these days. Look, they’ll say, even if dirty words and dirtier sex don’t raise an eyebrow, there are things like racism and homophobia, paedophilia and anti-Semitism which the contemporary moral consensus condemns in no uncertain terms, subjects which can generate huge outrage because the very people who won’t blink an eyelid at “motherfucker” will be horrified at the word “nigger”. We get the same passionate condemnations of acts we class as abhorrent, so aren’t these just a new set of taboos? This is where you get all those claims you see that it’s “gone too far”, that the Draconian decrees of a “PC thought-police” are forcing the poor writer to self-censor, or even exerting a pressure that’s tantamount to censorship in its own right.

The argument is bollocks. It’s a straw man argument belied by the reality. Paedophilia is abhorrent. Fascism is abhorrent. But if you tackle those subjects you’re more likely to be lauded for it than reviled for breaching the taboo — assuming you’re approaching them /as topics/ rather than just expressing some fucked-up personal freakery. If you do find it harder to get some Nazi kiddy porn story published, it’s going to be because of the ethics of /advocacy/, not a taboo that simply prescribes /representation/. It’s about /how/ you address those subjects, not /whether/ you address them at all. People berating you for writing Magic Negroes or Mandingos, Castrating Bitches or Depraved Faggots — that’s not censorship. Not being able to find a buyer for Nazi kiddy porn bullshit is not a free speech issue. The imperative being applied here is to treat the subject well, not to avoid it completely. It’s not about taboos.

And the reality is, you might actually /find/ a buyer for that Nazi kiddy porn story. In Military SF and Epic Fantasy the same old reactionary shite is still churned out by the bucketload, and readers lap it up. There’s so much baggage inherited from Romanticism that a watered-down fascism is virtually written into the tropes; and the symbolic formulation that just regurgitates what’s gone before will happily spew this out without a thought — racial essentialism, heroic individualism — in the most unreconstructed form. A lot of readers are simply oblivious of the ethics of a “good story” and would prefer to remain that way. A work can have the most repugnant subtext and you’ll still get apologists saying “You’re not supposed to read it like that” when you point that subtext out. This is fascist, you could say, and creepy in the way it treats underage characters. It’s just a story, they’ll say. So the market for that shit persists. Write a novel which celebrates a Spartan-style totalitarian autocracy in space, and which fetishises redheaded teenage girls, and you’ll just as likely get hailed as the heir to Heinlein as castigated for it.

So, no, it would take some work to convince me that there are a lot of whole new taboos arising in the field to replace the old ones. Though I’ll be interested to hear what others say on this, as maybe I’ve just been lucky in not running up against much of the pressure.

David D. Levine
David D. Levine is a lifelong SF reader whose midlife crisis was to take a sabbatical from his high-tech job to attend Clarion West in 2000. It seems to have worked. He made his first professional sale in 2001, won the Writers of the Future Contest in 2002, was nominated for the John W. Campbell award in 2003, was nominated for the Hugo Award and the Campbell again in 2004, and won a Hugo in 2006 (Best Short Story, for “Tk’Tk’Tk”). His “Titanium Mike Saves the Day” was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2008, and a collection of his short stories, Space Magic, is available from Wheatland Press. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kate Yule, with whom he edits the fanzine Bento, and their website is at

As with so many things in today’s individualized, Internet-connected world, taboos have become less universal, and now vary considerably from market to market. Analog, for example, is unlikely to accept a story with a gay protagonist, which causes no problems at all for F&SF or Asimov’s. Specialist erotica presses such as Circlet now give respectable publication and distribution to frank erotica, which would have been strictly under-the-counter stuff fifty years ago, and many paranormal romances include explicit erotic passages that would once have given librarians fits. Between the extremes, the mainstream has definitely opened up since SF/F’s formative years; profanity, descriptions of sexual activity, and “adult themes and situations” are now unlikely to cause a submission to be rejected or to be edited out.

Some lifestyles that would have been completely taboo in the past can now be portrayed in fiction, such as bisexuality, transsexuality, polyamory, and dominance/submission… but even today it’s unlikely that you’ll find protagonists with these lifestyles; they are more commonly seen in villains. It’s particularly noteworthy, I think, that the evil alternate-universe versions of characters such as Willow in Buffy and Major Kira in DS9 are shown as bisexual leather doms. I do wish polyamory were more accepted in protagonists, because it makes such wonderfully complex romantic plots possible.

Many of the taboos that do exist today seem to turn the old taboos on their heads; the explicit racism and sexism found in Burroughs or Lovecraft would make a novel unpublishable today by any legitimate press. This is not to say that overtly racist and sexist characters don’t exist, but even when they are viewpoint characters they are still portrayed as evil, comedic, misguided, or just “of their time.” Nor is this to say that racism and sexism have been conquered, but it’s more subtle than it used to be.

Taboos about sex also still exist, though the bar has been raised. Bondage and sadistic/masochistic acts are rarely portrayed on the page outside of explicit erotica, though they can be referred to, and the same is even more true for coprophilia, necrophilia, zoophilia, and other paraphilias. The one paraphilia that remains absolutely verboten is pedophilia. Even the fictional portrayal of any form of sexual activity between adults and minors is so stigmatized that no legitimate publisher will touch it, and pedophilia is the one character attribute that is considered to be ultimately, unmitigatedly evil.

In my own writing I haven’t bumped into many of these taboos. I did write a hard SF novella with several gay characters (whose gayness was integral to the plot), which in hindsight was probably a mistake, because hard SF and homosexuality don’t seem to mix. That one remains unpublished. In another unpublished story, involving a teenager’s sexual attraction to an adult, I was strongly advised to raise the teenager’s age from 13 to 15 to avoid accusations of pedophilia (even though the adult did not return the teenager’s advances). And when I got the galleys of my Writers of the Future story I found that all but the very mildest profanity had been edited out.

Neal Asher
Having written for the small presses for many years, Neal Asher was taken on in 2000 by Macmillan who have since published ten of his books. These have gone on for translation in twelve countries across the world. His latest novel, Line War, completes his Cormac Sequence and he is currently working on Orbus, a follow-up to The Voyage of the Sable Keech. Later this year Scorpion Memory (Night Shade Books) and The Gabble and other Stories (Macmillan) should be hitting the shelves. Neal blogs at

Well, every writer has had trouble getting stuff published, but probably because they breached the publishing world taboo of writing crap. For me, beyond 2000 when I was taken on by Macmillan, I’ve been censored all the time in that respect – it’s called editing. But no, I don’t really have much trouble getting stuff published and I don’t self censor … except all the time in regard to that first publishing taboo. Doubtless, in years to come some minority group lobby will run out of larger targets and focus its attention on SF books, and then violence, drinking, smoking and excessive consumption of beefburgers will be a no no. I just hope I’m in a position to give them the finger by then.

About Karen Burnham (82 Articles)
Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She has worked on the Orion and Dream Chaser spacecraft and written for SFSignal, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine.

37 Comments on MIND MELD: Taboo Topics in SF/F Literature

  1. “Once upon a time, sf/f was full of taboos: no swearing, no sex, etc. We’re thankfully past those days…”

    Thankfully past? Oh, no my friend. With all due respect, not all of us give thanks. The coarsening and shallowing of the culture is an ongoing disaster.

    In an effort to find something new and honest to say, untalented writers merely resorted to vulgarity and rancid lewdness.

    A talented writer can always be shockingly honest without being shockingly vile. DUNE propounded the shocking idea that religion is a dangerous bedfellow for politics, and that even a messiah cannot control what comes of his messianic mission. LORD OF THE RINGS propounded an idea even more shocking to our modern age: that power, especially power over nature, industrial and scientific power, corrupts and deadens life.

    STARSHIP TROOPERS shocked its audience at the time by having a black main character, female pilots, and still shocks audiences with its unabashedly pro-military preaching; WIZARD OF EARTHSEA and LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS had a more vaired color palatte for its characters than Anglo-Saxon off-white. And yet these books abided by those standards for whose passing you give thanks, and included not a single swearword, not a single sex scene.

    I am trying to picture a really good SFF book that would have been made better by including soft-core porn, perversion, or some really course swearing. Maybe having someone call Sparrowhawk a crow? Maybe showing Baron Harkonon sodomizing a ballgagged catamite? Maybe having Frodo, when his finger is bitten off by Gollum in the cracks of Mount Doom shout, “FUCK! You fucking bit my finger off, you fucker!”

    Hm. Somehow, I am not sure that would have made it into a classic.

    Those customs were rooted in practical wisdom, and were meant to sustain a certain habit of virtue and decency difficult to maintain: the ultimate aim of virtue being human happiness. Our current taboos, including the spectres of Political Correctness, encourage vices ranging from sexual abomination to mere selfishness, and require a devotion to intellectual dishonesty to maintain. Their ultimate aim I do not care to speculate.

    What you call taboo is a dike, that once held back the sea of foetid shit in which we now all wade. And the smug yet superficial people who call themselves bold for breaking taboos bemoan the fact that we don’t have enough porn in our lives, not enough polygamy or sadomasochism. There is no stopping point, once the dikes are down. Having developed a taste for shit, a delight for the scent, their hunger knows no satiation.

  2. It’s much harder to have taboos when your potential reading public can access just about anything with the click of a mouse. Antisemitism and child porn and glorifying terrorist killings are probably the three subjects most likely to be considered abhorrent by most people, but you can supposedly still find web sites and chat rooms and binary downloads that will provide you with your fix if that’s what you’re looking for. Most everything else seems to have at least some niche publishing house that will put it in print, from Aryan Nation style apocalyptic porn to ecodystopian tree-hugger porn to female vampire romance porn to manly military worshiping porn to Big Important People With Trillions of Dollars And Lifestyles To Match porn. Marketing has engulfed porn and incorporated it into its own DNA at this point, so perhaps the only taboo for publishers now is whatever can’t be marketed.

  3. The content may not have much in the way of taboos. (And, when they do give in to taboos, they look like fools, not good guys… see Mahomet in a spacesuit, above.) However, the delivery method is still rife with taboos.


    Self-publishing is oft-reviled, for instance. There is a lot of controversy over digital rights management, and it is – in some ways – taboo to talk about agreeing with DRM. There is controversy in portraying religious, conservative individuals as thinking, logical humans operating under the best knowledge they’ve been able to obtain in life.



  4. Try writing an Iain Banks-like “Singularity” story where the wise AIs attempt to, and then defeat, the last stronghold of religious people—-Jews! I use that as an example because most SF takes place in a nonreligious environment in a future where it’s dead, but few stories ever tackle how the religions we all know got killed off.

    There’s no way that would get published, and it might be a career buster.

  5. I’d take a story for my magazine like the suggestion above by TheAdlerian if it was entertaining. I don’t claim that in the so far short existence of my magazine that I am, as an editor, tearing down any kind of taboos or attacking deliberately any sort of dumb conventions, but I don’t turn away stories just because of subject matter, and I specifically reject the whole “rated PG-13” mentality that pervades everything now (EVERY godsdamned thing does NOT have to be for kids!  Screw the kindergarchy–hey, maybe that’s a new taboo!). I don’t look for things like harsh language or sexual content just to offend the easily offendable, but I’ll certainly print it in an uncensored manner if its part of an entertaining sf story. And I’d LOVE to see something REALLY taboo-busting come into my in-box.  It just hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t even know what it would be until I see it.

  6. “There’s no way that would get published, and it might be a career buster.”

    Actually, having once heard a rumour that stories containing evil Jewish characters would be pretty universally taboo, I set out to write a tale about an evil* Jew. Not only did it get published (in Nature) without any trouble, but it was even reprinted in Hartwell and Cramer’s “Year’s Best” anthology.

    If my career is in fact busted, I don’t think that story had anything to do  with it.


    *(Insofar as you even buy into concepts like good and evil, of course.  They don’t seem to have a lot of functional utility.)

  7. Thanks to Peter Watts for bringing up Islam. Christianity is the go-to punching bag for repression in all fiction but Islam is rarely mentioned and never mentioned in any negative way. To do so courts violence, threats of violence and, in Europe and Canada, government accusations of “hate speech”. While Islam has admirable qualities, it also features on a regular basis:

    Daily repression of women
    Honor killings
    Torture and execution of homosexuals
    Torture and execution of rape victims

    These are not actions taken by radicals or nuts but actions sanctioned and often carried out by governments and religious leaders. The above list could go on and on but we all know this stuff by now. Everyone dances around the subject as if it didn’t exist. They dance around it out of fear.

    So, there’s your taboo.

  8. I wasn’t implying a story about an “evil Jew” but rather the last of the “nice” ones getting proven to be wrong and defeated by a bunch of witty AI, as if they were cavemen with mentally retarded beliefs. Any religion can have bad guys, but to make what the average modern thinks to be the “good religious person” the bad guy would be quite a story.


  9. Neal, I don’t know what world you live in, but it must be a marvel. I’ve never seen a “publishing world taboo of writing crap” or even so much as a nation, state, or revolutionary council that has this taboo. Is the art that taxes pay for there uncrappy, too?

  10. Hljóðlegur // March 20, 2009 at 11:02 am //

    <i>And yet these books abided by those standards for whose passing you give thanks, and included not a single swearword, not a single sex scene….Maybe having Frodo, when his finger is bitten off by Gollum in the cracks of Mount Doom shout, “FUCK! You fucking bit my finger off, you fucker!”</i>




    Point to you, my friend.



  11. Luke Shea // March 20, 2009 at 11:18 am //

    Once again, Mr. Wright, you express everything I was thinking in terms exponentially more profound than I could have hoped for.  You seem to do this on about a bi-weekly basis.  I thank you for it.

  12. Did a say it doesn’t get published, Anna? It’s a matter of degree. What might be viewed as a crappy book by some is the one that’s managed to wend its way through the process that rejects thousands of even crappier typescripts. Ask any publisher.

    As for ‘art that taxes pay for’ well, those buying it are spending other people’s money which is always so much easier, and they are always less discerning than, say, someone walking into a bookshop to spend hard-won wages.

  13. I want to echo Jason Sanford, in that I think it’s become somewhat “uncool” to tell positive stories about humanity.  Protagonists can’t be straight-up good, decent people anymore.  They always have to be several kinds of screwed up, to include selfish, greedy, cowardly, and worse.  The anti-hero was daring and bold a few decades ago, but now it seems we’re afloat on a sea of anti-heroic characters.

    Maybe I’m old fashioned, but when I read fiction — or watch television or movies — I always need at least ONE of the main characters to show traces of having positive moral and ethical fiber.  I am not a big fan of those television programs, movies, and books, which wallow in human beings at their worst: liars and cheaters, crooks and thieves, fakes and frauds, et al.

    If I can’t locate and root for at least ONE decent main character, I tune out.  The writing might be top-notch, the prose and scripting excellent beyond measure.  But if the people in the story are forever screwing eachother over all the time, lying, and otherwise showing not a shred of decency or conscience, I tune out!  I don’t need to watch or read that kind of crap.  The world is ‘fallen’ enough as it is.  When I watch or read something, I want to be inspired.

    I suspect I am not alone.  I don’t think it’s an accident that movies such as “300” and the magnificent “Lord of the Rings” series attracted so much attention and were so popular.  These were bold tales, told boldly.  The heroes are good.  We can root for them without blushing.  They fight against tyranny and evil.  We can hate the enemy without blushing.

    To me, this is the art of legend-making that has become “uncool” in an era of irony, smugness, and cynicism.

    Bring back the virtuous knight in his armor, astride a noble steed.  Bring back the valkyrie with spear in hand, staring down the beast.  Bring back the legend-making, which told larger-than-life stories that subtly — or not so subtly — gave us lessons about life, love, heroism, sacrifice, and honor.  That inspired us to be better people, do braver things, go where no one has gone before.

    This does not mean the heroes don’t have flaws.  Often in classic myth, the hero had at least one big flaw, as a way to illuminate certain aspects of action and consequence, choice and repercussion.  The tragic hero is still a hero, even if his wrongs are his undoing.

    But a lot of current protagonists never even bother to try doing anything other than wrong.  They wrong their loved ones, they wrong their friends, they wrong themselves, and in the end I feel like they wrong the audience.  Maybe some people like seeing humanity at its worst, because they think this is simply art reflecting reality.  Me?  I say, no thanks.  Give me the bold tale, told boldly.  And the gutsy protagonist who makes the hard choices and fights the hard fights, not for seflishness, but because these are the right things to do.


     I use that as an example because most SF takes place in a nonreligious environment in a future where it’s dead, but few stories ever tackle how the religions we all know got killed off.


    Do religions typically get killed off or do they simply wane and disappear into obscurity?

    And I’m not so sure its accurate to say most SF takes place in a nonreligious future.  Quite a lot of it depicts future religions—even into the very distant future. 

    Part of the backstory of Dan Simmon’s ILIUM/OLYMPOS was the attempt by Muslims to take over the world and destroy the Jewish race (if I recall correctly, its been a couple of years since I read it).

    I do recall him getting a bit of backlash over his depiction of Muslims.

    On a separate note I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Orson Scott Card on homosexuality and gay marriage.  The effect on a writer’s reputation of crossing a taboo is probably far stronger when its done in their nonfiction or their public comments and is an explicit statement of their personal views. 

  15. How funny!  The real taboos are those that no one will think to bring up.  One cannot publish a story centering around any realistic concern related to an older female protagonist.  I did read Margo Lanagan’s story “The Goosle” and considered that the actual underpinnings of the real Hansel and Gretel, which was a horrible witch feeding up an abandoned brother and sister who were initially abandoned by their weak, wimpy father at the urging of his second wife, their mother having died – is actually “worse” and nastier than the homosexual exploitation, mistreatment and disgusting situations portrayed in the story.  Hansel and Gretel from the point of view of the witch sexually exploiting Gretel and then eating Hansel in front of her, for example – yum yum!  Gretel says, “I love you, Witch.  Let us find another to replace my brother.”

    Or perhaps, a sympathetic story about the Baba Yaga sexually targeting a handsome young male or female – or both.  What really goes on in that chicken bone house? 

    We are not in the most particularly gutful publishing situation in this industry at this time.  I just read some of the late 70’s and 80’s stories of Octavia Butler.  One of the stories that inspired me to go to Clarion and write was her famous story “Bloodchild.”  That story is about humans living as symbiotic housepets to female arachnid-like aliens who use a biological drug to calm and addict the young humans, then implant their larvae in them – hopefully not killing the human in the process.  The conflict of the story revolves around the young human male whose turn it may – or may not be – to serve as this type of incubator.  This story was the production of a complex and subtle mind. 

    When I was pregnant with my daughter, I did feel as though – strong, willful child that she is – she was “sucking the life out of me.”  Biologically, the pregnancy did affect my immune system, so I wasn’t “imagining” things, nor am I saying I was or am an “unnatural” mother who resents my child.  I can read “Bloodchild” today and look at complex interrelationships of reproduction, of male and female, of parent and child, and the “alien” context enabled them to be viewed in many different matters.

    There are a million things that we “cannot publish” today because they are limited by what people will even think to voice in the first place.  To me, a story like “Bloodchild” examines human matters in what could be thought to be a “shocking” manner (if one thinks about the aliens giving drugged “eggs” for these people that live like hamsters, basically – to suck, in order to pacify them so they can implant embryos in them and they’ll be reasonably happy about it) – and it examines human relationships to animals.  I don’t imagine cows much like being stunned with airguns, or chickens living in cages that deform their bodies, being forced to lay eggs until they die.  We think less about it than those aliens thought about their human symbiotic “pets”. 

    I quit writing sci fi because it’s not exactly “rewarding” to get paid $500 every six months, you know?  It’s even more frustrating to publish something and have 3 people read it, two of whom state they could have done better, and the third of which says “I’ve read that all before.”  (I’m exaggerating).

    There are no taboos any longer?  It’s not taboo that prevents or admits any particular type of story or subject.  It is the limitation of the mind of the creator him or herself.  And that is far more directed by larger social and collective consciousness issues than anyone here seemed/seems to realize.



  16. Excepting John – of course.  I don’t know what it is about these pages, but I had to look three times to see John’s cogent commentary.

    Taboo is one aspect of human living – taboo is a way in which people set governors upon their social/personal/moral/physical behavior. 

    The thought that – thought – represents an advance by somehow “challenging” or breaking down “taboos” which were here presented as sexual or moral exclusively –

    That’s not an “advance.”  John is right.  An advance is a real advance.  It is a flexibility of mind and clearness of sight.  It’s consideration of the fullness of the world we see, and the possibilities of things other that we can glimpse.  What could be lacking, is depth and breadth or genuine variety and thought and examination of our world.  That’s limited by us as human beings for our nature is that limitation.  No, there’s nothing particularly along the lines of forward movement in assertions that revelation of various aspects of sexual, cruel, violent or scatological behavior are considered enlightening or entertaining or “progress.” 


  17. “One cannot publish a story centering around any realistic concern related to an older female protagonist.”

    Paladin of Souls?  Cordelia’s Honor?  Ekaterin — though Cordelia and Ekaterin are in their thirties, which isn’t really old, which may support your point.  Ista might qualify, though.  And I can’t think of any other example, even Pratchett.  But is it “can’t publish” or “no one writes”?

    “Taboos”… I don’t read enough current SF to know what’s not getting published, but I’d imagine getting a story about genetics and intelligence published could be hard.  Pace the “last Jews” suggestion, I don’t know of stories on the transition to religionless futures (which aren’t universal but are certainly common); religion is there and respected (or unpleasantly crusading) or absent (perhaps with a tiny fringe group), not uncomfortably diminishing but still significant.  Or it gets handwaved away, like Clarke in Childhood’s End and 3001 (I think?)

    And then of course different publishers and reader populations may have different taboos.

  18. John Wright and Brad R. Torgensen, are “spot on” in their commentaries.

    There seems to be lack of truly meaningful, positive stories…perhaps it is necessary, for the world we live in is worse than we would like to admit. Still, the inherent goodness of human beings, and the stories of those people of good-heart and beautiful soul tends to get lost in the shuffle of the harsh reality that we can all see and experience for ourselves via the wonders of technology and an increasingly smaller, overcrowded, rude, crude and violent world. Just looking at recent news, I see that Hawaii’s Native Birds are losing ground, the U.K. has new terrorism laws that are deemed necessary, and an underwater volcano erupts off of Tonga. Human beings are still be slaughtered in Darfur, the Sudan, and women are still being mass raped in The Congo. Space debris is becoming a major problem as it circles Planet Earth and global warming is still not being addressed as an important global issue. What of taboos? How important are they in the scheme of things?

    As for taboos still existing in the writer’s realm – it is a reflection of the times. The world we live in. It is also true, that if a writer does want to be published, and make a living as a writer, then the writer does have to take into account who would be reading his/her material. I don’t know of too many people who would want to read something that includes, for instance, pedophilia, except for pedophiles, unless the pedophilia was indeed important to telling the story. But still, that would be a hardsell. I have read the true-life story of Somaly Mam, who was a child sex slave, “The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine”, and it is a reality for many children in this world. I do not at all see why fictional pedophilia would be of interest to anyone, really, other than those who have inclinations or curiosity about it.

    In the realm of adults, orientations of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, swingers…shouldn’t be an issue. Life is not a fantasy, and as such, the days of Star Trek and Star Wars is long past. The last scifi movie I saw was “Sunshine”, and it was excellent. More realistic in it’s story. As much as I love the logical Vulcan-half human Spock, I think intelligent lifeforms that SETI is searching for might turn out quite different from Whitley Streiber’s “grey aliens”, the alien that Jodie Foster met in “Contact”, the baddies in “War of the Worlds” and the one’s that Ripley battled in the Alien Trilogy. Maybe they will be more like “rolling prunes” that eat human beings, like “The Blob”, or perhaps they will be more plant-like as “Triffyds” or “Body-Snatchers”? Sci-Fi and Fantasy should be open enough to allow writers to imagine and re-imagine, as well as depict reality, in ways that inform, challenge and provoke the reader. It is up to the reader to choose what they want to read.

    Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” is one of my favorite books, not because it was different from what was “popular”, but because it is simply a great story. I think the popularity of such writers as Dean Koontz, who has all sorts of strange, weird and perverted baddies as well as flawed heroes in his stories, is due to the “good winning over evil” of each of his stories. However, as in reality, good people are harmed and die. Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and “Neverwhere” have a strangeness that transcends a mere shock and transgressive realm. Even fairytales, such as those by the Brothers Grim are not exactly kiddie fare, and Mother Goose Rhymes are rather dark, compared to Dr. Seuss stories. Science Fiction and Fantasy should be able to explore the realm of humanity and the world , in all of its’ bad and good, faults and foibles, light and dark – whether good wins over evil is up to the writer as to the direction of his/her story. George R. R. Martin, who is said to be “the American Tolkien”, grounds his stories in a harsher realm of a grittier, darker nature, where the world his characters exist within is somewhat more realistic, as the characters shift between bad and good, there being no clear demarcation of the white-hatted goodies versus the black-hatted baddies – I think that in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee had a thing for Frodo, although not overt, it was there, and underlying “bromance” between Hobbits from the Shire…and Sméagol/Gollum who hated Bagginses and Hobbitses, was seemingly after more than the precious on Mr. Frodo’s finger.

  19. sugarman // March 22, 2009 at 7:41 am //

    So many people miss the point, as to be expected. Namely the whole thing about taboos and breaking them, self-censorship and all the rest of it. All this rests on the false assumption that somehow “serious” SF and imaginative fiction writers are above ALL TABOO, which is simply so wrong. Thus they may not even think to challenge the sacrosanct status of many taboos, never mind write about it. Namely the SF (and non-SF) writers have their own taboos they are not even conscious of, since these taboos are not perceived as taboos to be challenged at all, but truths to be protected from challenge at all cost. The reason being that these taboos may well be and are deeply held by many writers and editors and their readership, writers being all too human and a product of their culture and times with all its taboos! It is not something that, by its very nature, people and that includes SF writers, would be conscious of. As somebody comments above, whose taboos?

    What is taboo for one group of people is not taboo for another, and vice versa. Most SF writers and editors, as is the case in the Western world with those involved in the arts and literature, are of a Leftwing political bent, and as is the case with conservatives, the Left has its own deeply held taboos that if challenged earn the ire and condemnation of the Left, as is to be expected, since that’s what breaking a taboo effectively translates to. When commentators here, like Hal Duncan, speak of challenging taboos, he means challenging taboos of conservatives and religious conservatives especially including taboos relating to sex and homosexuality. He does not mean the taboos of the Left, to whom Duncan shares allegiance. The same would go for conservative writers who would welcome challenging the taboos of the political Left for example, but not their own.

    Since the culture of the arts, like literature, theatre and cinema, and that includes “serious” imaginative fiction is, to hammer my point, dominated by the Left, to challenge the taboos here, would earn the ire of the majority of one’s peers. This includes of course publishers, editors, fellow writers and one’s readership. A conventional leftwing writer would not even think to challenge the taboos here, to repeat myself, since to him these taboos are not taboos to be mocked but self-evident truths to be defended.

    So for example, to challenge say the beliefs of a conservative Christian culture and its frowning on homosexuality is not as strong as a taboo as it once was decades ago, with the weakening of Christian values in Western society as a whole over the last century, and this is reflected in our literature. However to challenge the taboo of Islam is in fact more of a taboo than ever before in the West (in the Islamic world it can be a death sentence) for a number of reasons, not least of which is threats of violence (it may be twenty years since the Salman Rushdie affair but things have only gotten worse for writers in the West mocking Islam in the time since) but also the Left’s softness and apologetics re Islam. This leads to something else very pertinent and related to the subject of taboos and Islam, namely making mention and mocking the widespread phenomenon of many on the Left’s alliance/apologetics with many reactionary Islamists is not permitted by the Left – it is taboo – since they are the very ones engaging in this self-same alliance or turning a blind eye to it ie enforcing the taboo. The often irrational responses to the very mention of this phenomenon is indicative of how taboo it is to bring it up; namely denial, name-calling and straw-man attacks on conservatives and the like.

    Another example, keanani writes above “global warming is still not being addressed as an important global issue”. Nothing could be further from the truth, global warming is constantly fretted over. And fretting over it has nothing to do with taboos in SF or elsewhere, if we are going to stick to the subject. An irony lost here is that there is a taboo relating to global warming…

    It is of course not in challenging anthropogenic global warming skeptics and selling global warming alarmism, as a SF writer would be wont to do, that is breaking a taboo, it is the exact opposite that is taboo. Writing in favour of global warming is propagandizing against the taboo of AGW skepticism, since man-made global warming is the consensus, especially among the Left. To break the taboo here, would be to challenge the consensus of global warming alarmism, not promote it. I am not saying man-made global warming is fiction, nor am I saying it is fact. I am merely pointing out that the taboo here would be to challenge global warming alarmism (rightly or wrongly), not to promote it as say Kim Stanley Robinson and other SF writers have done. Writing some story of a global warming end-of-world apocalypse is about as taboo as writing a story mocking and deriding the USA’s most recent ex-president ie it is not taboo, it is anything but taboo, since it is consensus opinion – safe, conventional, easy and dare I say it lazy.

    Were Hal Duncan to write a story whose homosexual hero or anti-hero was a Muslim in say Saudi Arabia or Iran or even in the West, and faced hostility and threats from these Sharia law supporters, that would be breaking a very real taboo, mocking Islam. When the Islamic fanatics are joined in their pursuit of our protagonist by their WASP allies from the Socialist Worker’s Party and their ilk, that would be breaking a double taboo. 
    Guess that story will be forthcoming when hell freezes over (wink wink get the joke?). Thing is it couldn’t even get published I bet.

  20. After I submitted my post for this Mind Meld, I had a burst of enlightment (fueled by reading Ursula K. Le Guin) and wrote a post for the Book View Cafe Blog entitled “Things I Didn’t Say on the SF Signal Mind Meld” that specifically addressed the older female character issue that Amy brought up.

    Amy’s right: there’s a definite dearth of older female characters. And if Damien really thinks that stories about women characters in their 30s qualify as stories about “older” women, that just proves the point.


  21. Anonymous // March 22, 2009 at 1:42 pm //

    sugarman states -“Another example, keanani writes above “global warming is still not being addressed as an important global issue”. Nothing could be further from the truth, global warming is constantly fretted over. And fretting over it has nothing to do with taboos in SF or elsewhere, if we are going to stick to the subject. An irony lost here is that there is a taboo relating to global warming…”

    Gee sugarman, I guess you missed it when the scientists during the Bush Adminstration were “muzzled” when they went anywhere near stating “global warming”. If it is “taboo” for scientists to even make it a definitive issue in non-fiction writing, why indeed would it be “ironic”? Fretting over something is not the same as making it an issue. Anyone can fret to the end of time and nothing advances because of it, making something an important issue by addressing it beyond the mere hand wringing is on the path to actually doing something about it.

    Besides you misread my words…I did not state that global warming not being addressed is a “taboo”, I spoke of the lack of positive stories and brought the current news into the forefront as a possible reason for the dark, gloomy, negativity that may be “popular” at the moment in SciFi and Fantasy fiction. This was in direct response to what Wright and Torgensen said…about the “positive stories”. I asked, after listing some current news issues, how important are taboos in the scheme of things, compared to what is the reality of life on this planet.

    I also believe in the freedom as a human being to address what others have spoken of on this particular site – the writers were the ones who were being asked the “taboo” question specifically – anyone who read what the writers wrote could comment on what the writer’s said, which was not just about taboos. It would be nice if people could freely discuss issues and any attendant matters, even if some go off on a related tangent without someone trying to control the free-flow exchange of thoughts on interesting issues, by attmpting to “censor”, “bully-argue” and twist the words of another.

  22. sugarman states – “Another example, keanani writes above “global warming is still not being addressed as an important global issue”. Nothing could be further from the truth, global warming is constantly fretted over. And fretting over it has nothing to do with taboos in SF or elsewhere, if we are going to stick to the subject. An irony lost here is that there is a taboo relating to global warming…”

    Gee, sugarman, I guess you missed the fact that scientists during the Bush Adminstration were “muzzled” when they went anywhere near stating “global warming”. If it is “taboo” for scientists to even make it a definitive issue in non-fiction writing, why indeed would it be “ironic”? Fretting over something is not the same as making it an issue. Anyone can fret to the end of time and nothing advances because of it, making something an important issue by addressing it beyond the mere hand wringing is on the path to actually doing something about it.

    Besides you misread my words…I did not state that global warming not being addressed is a “taboo”, I spoke of the lack of positive stories and brought the current news into the forefront as a possible reason for the dark, gloomy, negativity that may be “popular” at the moment in SciFi and Fantasy fiction. This was in direct response to what Wright and Torgensen said…about the “positive stories”. I asked, after listing some current news issues, how important are taboos in the scheme of things, compared to what is the reality of life on this planet?

    I also believe in the freedom as a human being to address what others have spoken of on this particular site – the writers were the ones who were being asked the “taboo” question specifically – anyone who read what the writers wrote could comment on what the writer’s said, which was not just about taboos.

    It would be nice if people could freely discuss issues and any attendant matters, even if some go off on a related tangent, without someone trying to control the free-flow exchange of thoughts on interesting issues, by attempting to “censor”, “bully-argue”, “marginalize”, “mock” and “twist” the words of another. Too bad, for such a “chilling effect” will lead to people not wanting to participate in things that really matter.

    It would be good-heartedly human of you, sugarman, if you could muster a little bit of humility when you address the thoughts, views and experiences of other humans, instead of dismissing what someone else thinks or how they view something which is based upon their own particular life, experiences and knowledge – you are not in the shoes of another.

    Sorry, I am not a fembot, Borg, android or lifeless machine, so sticking ramrod to “the issue” is not in my nature. Taboos in scifi-fantasy fiction as asked of “writers” of this genre is the question, I am a reader, so I do not have to stick to the issue like a fly in a web.

  23. I’m going to say that more than a dozen of my friends have either considered writing stories about older female protagonists and discarded the notion because they already knew these weren’t going to be an easy sell (or easily marketable), and that perhaps another dozen have written such stories and not been able to sell them, like myself.

    Based upon online conversations among my friends 2-3 years ago – you know, female writers not read by individuals generally posting and reading here – like Brenda Clough (superhero mythology – excellent), Maya Bohnhoff, Sheila Finch, Vonda McIntyre, etc. I thought I had this hilarious idea about “Mrs. Brown,” a space-traveling spinster English teacher from an intergalactic high school for gifted aliens. I wrote 3-4 stories about Mrs. Brown, and found they were about teaching and assumptions, including that Mrs. Brown (she’s a “Miss” or “Ms” but all students refer to their teachers as “Mrs.”) could get eaten by a gluttonous alien going through his own “Amok Time” digestive issues and easily survive to disgorge herself and defeat him with her lavender-flavored mints. I had this whole Mrs. Brown and the alien kids explore Shakespeare story. They did A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the silicon-based rock kid proudly portrayed the “wall” in Pyramus and Thisbe. Among themselves, the kids acted out “rock, paper, scissors” in a realistic manner.

    Why even bother thinking about sending them out?

    That article links to a feminist commentary written over 30 years ago as well as a discussion of “The Women Men Don’t See” and Joanna Russ’ “Souls” – both stories published 3-4 DECADES ago. Abbess Radegunde (based on a real historical figure) is seriously the only main female protagonist I’ve ever read in SF that was over age 45.

    Oh, yes, we’ve come so very far, and broken down so many doors and taboos that we can indeed easily publish literary versions of the typical day’s work of Stinky’s Rooter (complete with pocket donut). As long as it’s a young white guy sitting on the pot, ya know.

  24. How could I forget Susan Calvin?  The Robot stories featuring her (which I remember well) were all published in the 1950’s.  However, I should add that I read these stories at a much older age than my “golden age” – so no, I was not alive in the 1950’s.  A couple of of my friends and acquaintances were and even got their boobies grabbed by Mr. Heinlein (yeeesss they did) and several more by the gregarious Mr. Asimov.  I am very sorry I was not of the right age and generation to experience that fun.  I just had a story with a late-30’s female “Calvinlike” protagonist rejected – it was even told from the point of view of a male interacting with her.  “It’s been done before . . . ” Yes!  It certainly has!  OMG – I just don’t write well enough.  I’m not SMART enough.  I don’t know the right ideas.  I don’t have a gift for writing about rape, torture, cannibalism – and especially for the “younger set.”  Dang, when ya get to my age (47) you don’t even have SEX any more so I can’t even convincingly describe a stiffy or oral sex.  When I was 18 years old, I shyly confessed to my future-engineer-of-America boyfriend, the big Harry Harrison fan, that I wanted to write science fiction.  Peter did exclaim, “You have to be smart to write science fiction!”  That would have been in 1980, folks.  In a dorm room at Harvey Mudd College in Southern California, where my boyfriend was the top student in his class.

    HOW MANY HUNDREDS – how many thousands are not even as plug-ass stubborn and unyielding as I am?  How many? 

    Now, this is regarding the matter under discussion – science fiction.  As to its sister genre, I can name many, and many varied protagonists, voices and types of ideas.  I can say “McGonagal,” and “Trelawny,” and their very wicked sister, Dolores Umbrage.  I can refer to the mixed marriage of a werewolf and a witch, and all manner of Muggle/Wizard misdoings.

    What is the difference?  Taboo?  Or blinders?

  25. Amy said: “OMG – I just don’t write well enough. I’m not SMART enough. I don’t know the right ideas. I don’t have a gift for writing about rape, torture, cannibalism – and especially for the ‘younger set.’ Dang, when ya get to my age (47) you don’t even have SEX any more so I can’t even convincingly describe a stiffy or oral sex. ”

    Never give up on your dreams Amy. In all of this discussion about taboos still in place as to Science Fiction, especially, but also including Fantasy, one taboo seems to be ignored in the shuffle, that being how female writers have a harder time being taken seriously as Sci-Fi writers. Sure, there are some well-respected female writers in this genre, but it still is male dominated to an extent.

    Why should your gender and age ever be an issue? There is no need to write about rape, torture, canibalism, sex, etc. to write some really meaningful, interesting and wonderful fiction grounded in science and fantasy.

    As I have already experienced, as a woman, an individual, by my venturing to post my particular thoughts on the issue (that was intended for those who ARE writers of sci-fi, and who are or have published), of which I am not, and my audacity to discuss what others have said in their response to the “issue” of which, they, as writers, responded to, someone on here took it upon himself, as a self-appointed, self-annointed Taliban of the commentary section, trying to control the commentary by denigrating those who “stray from the path that he wants”, to falsely reinterpret what I had said, and then argue that what I said was “a lie” – further from the truth his words were…

    Interesting that he chose to only single out me and something I pointed out in relation to something that was not at all what he was angrily arguing on about. (I am actually in a light mood and smiling as I type this – no anger on my part – such is life when being on the receiving end of someone attacking your statement as false, instead of simply pointing out that they disagree with it and point out the facts as to why…)

    Anyway, I have looked at your site, and think that you should not give up on writing. Even if it seems as if writing leading to being published is a “crap shoot” and may be luck, having the right story, the right publisher and the mood of readers and popular culture at the moment are all aligned like planets in a crystal ball astrological reading, keep writing, if that is your dream and what you believe with all your heart is your calling. Don’t let anyone or anything dissuade you – at the very least, giving it your all with hope, passion and a positive light guiding you. Life is so very full of negativity, conflict, anger, naysayers, attackers, controllers and pessimists. Never give up on your dream.

    Amy said: “Now, this is regarding the matter under discussion – science fiction. As to its sister genre, I can name many, and many varied protagonists, voices and types of ideas. I can say “McGonagal,” and “Trelawny,” and their very wicked sister, Dolores Umbrage. I can refer to the mixed marriage of a werewolf and a witch, and all manner of Muggle/Wizard misdoings.”

    As this also relates to my assertion that I will not be a fly stuck in the web. Certainly, the issue is “taboos in Sci-fi”, that is understood, but life does not exist in a vaccum and neither do our minds. It is also interesting to note, that Sci-Fi and Fantasy are also getting a big chunk of readership diverted by other genres that also include science fiction and fantasy in the storyline. Anyone who has ventured into the realm of the Romance Genre knows that many of the most popular writers (those making the beacoup bucks and are on the bestsellers lists, time and again) ground their stories in science fiction, space, the fantastic, time-travel and psuedo-science paranormal, all of which has characters that are otherworldy aliens, shapeshifting sea creatures and dragons, or long lost archealogical dreams, vampires, werewolves – almost all written by women – and there is usually tons of sex, ranging from chaste to all out beyond erotica, as well as taboo busting along the lines of bromance, “bestiality” in the “safer form” of shapeshifitng animals who are also “‘human” or “humanoid” having sex with “human women”, etc. The crossing of genres into the realms of each other is making it harder to categorize some writings as being solely science fiction, fantasy, epic fantasy, paranormal, supernatural, romance or thriller for example. Some books cross all of these thresholds. It is up to the writer and the publisher to decide who the target audience is and to sell the book as such in order for it to make the most money.

    I tend to like my Science Fiction hard. As long as I know what there is in store for me as to what the writer has laid in his/her book, not anything that would spoil the story, but any themes that it touches upon so I know whether I want to venture into that world, then it is my choice to do so.

    Amy asked: “What is the difference? Taboo? Or blinders?”

    Good question, Amy. 🙂 I think it is both.

  26. Anonymous // March 23, 2009 at 9:37 pm //


    Amy, keenani’s right. “Never give up on your dreams . . . you should not give up on your writing” — that is, of course, if you really want to write those stories you have inside you. I say this though I’m so much not an ‘author’ in the ‘successful published’ sense that I declined the invitation to participate at first, and then skirted the issues with a travelogue.

    But you say some things that I do know enough to respond to. First, that confession: “When I was 18 years old, I shyly confessed to my future-engineer-of-America boyfriend, the big Harry Harrison fan, that I wanted to write science fiction.  Peter did exclaim, “You have to be smart to write science fiction!”

    Confessions like this are great if you have a death wish for your writing. Share your toothbrush before you share your writing plans. Attraction, love and family is complicated enough. Don’t bring your writing into it. Especially your plans for writing, or anything not already written. If you have stories you want to write, then I would further advise: don’t bounce them off anyone, no matter how sympathetic. Just write them. If you love a story you’ve written, then that is the reason you wrote it. Any faults in it can be revised, but the important thing is: the story now exists.

    Write what you are passionate about, then send it out. And when you get rejected, send it out again and keep writing. And keep sending, and keep true to your stories, not your ego. And keep sending, and when you feel like finally giving up, someone will (hopefully, because nothing is certain, but then nothing is worth doing if not in passion) someone will sit up and rub their eyes and smile, because your story is juuust what they were looking for but didn’t know existed.

    You say you wrote those stories about Mrs. Brown, but felt that no one would want to take them. Perhaps you sent out one and got that rejection. That ‘seen it before’ comment. Anyone can write that they’ve seen something before. A man and a woman meet, they hate, they love; a protagonist goes exploring, but lo! there are scary baddies in the way of whatever it is to be conquered; a person is faced with a mystery, and solves it!

    Whatever you write, you’re screwed if you look at it in one way–the way of the defeatist. Write something outrageously fresh, and it’ll be rejected by some houses because it’s not what they know, and they feel uncomfortable. As they would say, their readers know what they like and want to read more of it. In another house, readers crave something ‘fresh’ and ‘challenging’–in other words, pretentious crap to yet another house. There are books that are published because they provide the nightmare that their readers look for in a read, while other books are published because they provide a restful sleep, midpage.

    It is not your job as an author, to censor and reject yourself, though you seem to have done a brilliant job of it. As to your rejection, so what? Judge editors’ comments and rejections as finely as you should, your own writing–with complete dispassion. If there is something that you think makes sense, after looking at your story again, then take that editor’s advice and change the story so that it is better written in your own judgment. If not, keep the story the same, and send it out again. Keep a log of where you send your work, and just keep writing and sending out. Send to venues you like to read. You have some idea of how many people read there, so you won’t be able to say 2 or 3 unless you know that to be the case, but you think those 2 or 3 have taste like yours–and you’re happy with this readership.

    I must stress that my own writing hasn’t been widely read enough for me to say anything to you from the lips of a successful author, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be. What I hate to see is what you’re doing–making sure you can never be an author at all by summing up what’s published and what is publishable in ways that exclude your interest in reading and writing and exclude the interests of lots of other people–me included.

    Many authors fail to be authors because they have convinced themselves that what they want to say will be rejected, and because they discuss what they want to write with others who want to write. There are so many taboos that people assume. Their assumptions cheat us all. Writing about the place they live in if it isn’t the USA, or LA or NY, or some uncreepy city. Writing about experiences that are not Western, but are also not pathos-ridden ‘ethnic’. Writing about something that isn’t ethnic if the name of the author is. Setting the story in a small town. A happy ending. Humour that isn’t dumb. Many toe-in-the-water writers pull out and shrivel when they get rejections. Some rejections are very helpful if they could only be recognised as such–if the author divorces the self from the work, the better to objectively examine it. And some ‘editors’ are destructive because their stupid comments are taken to heart when they shouldn’t be, if only the authors could stand back far enough to be objective. Among ‘editors’ and ‘manuscript readers’ comments that friends of mine have received are: “No one wants to read a novel set in New Zealand.” “You say you’re a former journalist. Journalists should never write novels.” “Unless you know someone, you’ll never get your novel published. You’re a middle-aged man, and all the top editors are women.” And to a friend in Mississippi: “Books about the South have already been written.” There’s the editor who wouldn’t know something funny if he slipped on it, but who writes cutting rejections that I’m sure he laughs with. Some rejection letters are dishonest–the form ones that say they value your story but due to …–when the only reading done was by the postie reading the address on the envelope. Getting rejections is part of being a writer, as is the relationship, if you’re lucky, with a great editor who knows or can tease out of you what you meant to say here and here and this point here . . . That doesn’t mean an editor who takes what you meant to say and wants to turn it on its head. Better to be rejected then, and say it somewhere else, if it’s worth saying. And if in your heart of hearts, it’s worth it, then it will be to someone somewhere else, though your manuscript might be very well travelled before that place is found.

    So no matter where you write from, you can be a brilliantly successful non-published whiner certain that your interests are not shared by others, certain that what you write or wannawrite is taboo– who furthermore cheats the rest of us out of the possibility of reading something that enriches our lives–and a smile is the greatest gift in literature. Or you can forget all that projecting of what is possible, and write what you think you’d love to read. Please take the second course.


  27. Sorry. That long post—Amy, keenani’s right. “Never give up—was by me.

  28. I’m inclined to say there are no taboos or restrictions. A quarter of a century ago I had no trouble selling a 4-book series about an orbiting whorehouse, or a novel in which the two villiains were God and the Jewish Messiah. I think the closest thing we have to a taboo these days is Political Correctness…which is to say, science fiction about whorehouses or in which God is a villain is a lot easier to sell than a story where, say, the villain is a black lesbian, or where a right-wing politrician who is reviled by the liberal cognescenti eventually proves to be absolutely correct.


    Mike Resnick

  29. sugarman // March 24, 2009 at 4:13 am //

    yes Mike Resnick (loved your Kikuyu stories btw) that’s the point I was making, the taboo of Political Correctness.



  30. or where a right-wing politrician who is reviled by the liberal cognescenti eventually proves to be absolutely correct.

    What?  You haven’t read John Ringo?

  31. In terms of the “older female protagonist” thread, I’m surprised that nobody’s  mentioned Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey novels.  As I recall those went over pretty well (and with good reason).

  32. Most of the taboos of all the arts, not just science-fiction, seem to be taboos only in the mind of the artist. Audiences have long since lowered their standards on sex, violence and puerille humor, to the point where virtually anything goes. Content Providers are all to happy to have their target markets become such easy targets. Artists themselves are the ones who seem to think that depictions of sex and over-the-top violence will earn them the coveted title of “controversial.” Religious jabs, in my eyes, no longer count as taboo. We no longer in a country of puritans. People who are offended by religous undercurrents in sf and art usually aren’t even the audience. They’re a fringe benefit to a PR strategy. If there are to be any lines crossed, we will first have to figure out what those lines are. What we find may surprise us. This is no longer a parental society, but a society dictated by the aesthetes and values of the adolescent. If we want to be controversial, and push some hot buttons it would seem the new audience to piss off will be someone who is 16, versus 60.

  33. Further discussion at io9.

  34. J. Warner // March 25, 2009 at 8:54 pm //

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Joss Whedon yet and his work within sci-fi relating specifically to the female psyche…

  35. William Russell // December 3, 2009 at 12:39 pm //

    I think Amy should give up giving up giving up. Most of the rest of us should give up too; the less there is submitted, the more of what is left will be published. (kidding) Hungry editors and publishers are less discriminating. ‘The hungry lion hunts best.’ ‘Beggars should never be choosers.’ 

    I too prefer inspiration to gritty realism; life gives us enough of that; why read a novel or watch a movie for that, unless it is just incidental. What we need is a great, hope-filled real vision to aspire to. something we are willing to die for after thinking it through, before we are willing to kill for trying to hold on to anything else, which we know is just the same old crap in a different wrapper with new and improved marketing. It is easy knowing what not to do; what is hard is knowing what to do and how to do it.

    One REALLY BIG taboo of sci/fi is, writing a novel that explains how the common everyday world we take so much for granted we have grown fond of trying to escape from into sci/fi fantasy novels, is in fact the very sci/fi fantasy we wish we were living, if only we had the right perspective on this dream we call reality to see that if we will not be the hero of it, then we will be JUST ONE MORE OF its many villanous fiends.

    For example, a truly great sci/fi book could be grounded in the fully derived implications of the following proof:



    So, yeah, I’m thinking we should all quit and go get real jobs. You know, like Al Gore.

                                                                                                          – – One White Crow

  36. I write crime novels. I have had some of my nonfiction and poetry published in a few major anthologies and regular publications. 

    But in contrast to choosing to avoid taboos, I often embrace what others might otherwise consider taboo. I am an Evangelical Christian and as pro-American as one can imagine, but I write about topics like terrorism, and I portray terrorists as equally sympathetic characters alongside their counterparts in the law enforcement and intelligence agencies who hunt them. I choose to avoid passing moral judgment on my own characters; I don’t know how successful I have been in emulating Kate Chopin in that respect, but I attempt to write with some sense of objectivity.

    I have spent years embroiled in research regarding other religions, languages, and cultures worldwide – with particular emphasis on Islamic culture and theology, and Semitic and Indo-European languages. I don’t claim any special expertise, but I want to portray all characters – of all religions, ideologies, national origins, and other ‘isms’ or group identities – as individuals equally capable of great good and great evil, equally flawed and gifted as their peers. They say that art imitates life, and if that is so, then characters ought be as real as you or me. 

    Though my chosen niche is typically plot-driven, my own work is always character-driven. I am a firm believer in the idea that without strongly developed, round, dynamic characters who can literally leap from the pages of a book, a writer has neglected his or her most important and most potentially powerful asset. Character is a great means to explore the taboo, and thus to provoke important, and perhaps controversial, questions about the state of society, the nature of humanity, or perhaps even the nature of the divine.

    I’m sorry to be sorely lacking in the science fiction and fantasy realm, and breaking a taboo already in that respect by posting here, but I will admit to exploring the genre of ‘urban fantasy’ over the past year. My idea of good fiction is not that it is solely an escape into an imagined world, nor a descent into horrors that cannot otherwise be faced.

    Good fiction for me – of any genre – is writing which tugs at my innermost self, which rips at my heart and empathizes on the most personal level with my own psychology. Writing where I cannot help but grow as emotionally involved as if it were my own life or family or friends for whom the events occur.  Whether it is through the emotions of tragedy or of unspeakable bliss, uncontrollable fury or righteous indignation, sorrows or the most constant of hope… that is the kind of writing that speaks to me.

    I hope that despite my perhaps eclectic predilections, I have managed to make my point clear. The taboo is equally a part of life as is the mundane. For me as a writer? It’s fair game. I hope to connect with my readers in the same way I connect to the writing I chalk up as the best (see preceding paragraph), and to do that, I will happily manipulate the taboo.

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