Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 3 April 2023. Tagged: Theme.

Icon made by Freepik from


The Polynesian word "tabu", from which the English term is taken, was first recorded in 1777 by Captain James Cook (1728-1779) near the end of his last tour of the South Pacific on behalf of the expanding British empire; unsurprisingly perhaps, the word "taboo" was initially applied by early anthropologists to representative of other, exotic, "inferior" cultures: white civilization had evolved beyond taboo (see Evolution). Within that frame of application, the term was early on defined as meaning something like "forbidden" to normal use, set apart for the hierarchy or the gods, an injunction enforced by sometimes supernatural sanctions, and explicative of the inner workings of the "souls" of primitives. This use of the term by professional advocates of Empire who conceived of themselves as inherently immune to "superstition" tended to exempt from analysis both their own inextricably taboo-ridden behaviour, and that of the Western World they represented; and clearly diverted attention from the fact that, in Polynesia and elsewhere, a proper application of the term would take into account not simply the element of prohibition, but also the argument that taboos could properly be understood as marking boundaries between the sacred and the profane.

This epistemic blindness inevitably stained much of nineteenth and early twentieth century Fantastika, much of which – adventure tales for boys in particular, and epics of exploration, and almost any story touching at all upon matters of Sex – tended to focus on the exotic and/or the conquerable (see Imperialism; Race in SF), as evidenced in a tale like The Great Taboo (1890) by Grant Allen. In work of this sort, the existence of a taboo (understood as a form of superstition) was sufficient to justify almost any act of imperial cleansing, often with a Christian apologetic attached (for it was self-evident that the savage mind could not genuinely contemplate the sacred). After 1950 or so, it became very difficult to glorify this demeaning vision of the other, even in popular fiction. Perhaps coincidentally, many sf stories from this point onward are set in alien societies, whose imprisonments by taboos (usually as observed by human intruders) may justify either protectorate status, or the application of the Prime Directive to give the natives time to evolve. More interesting perhaps, are many tales by Robert Sheckley and Jack Vance, where taboos are seen relatively lightly, and are, sometimes comically, exposed; but often with these authors conveying a biter-bit sense that the observer is observing himself. Some stories of this sort are discussed under Anthropology. Sf has claimed for itself credit for attacking the sacred cows and breaking the taboos of our own society; but it could not be seriously argued that twentieth-century sf as a whole, certainly American Genre SF, was governed by a Satirical view of the world its authors and editors and readers occupied; or that genuinely transgressive analyses of the Western World were common. Indeed, it might be suggested that any radical examination of the actual history of the twentieth century, as far as most sf writers were concerned, was itself taboo. As far as the decades until around 1965 are concerned, this entry focuses instead, therefore, not so much on taboos as on censorship, on prohibitions set up not by society or by the law but by sf publishers (see Publishing).

Over the years, Mainstream Writers of SF have been subjected to no more censorship in their speculative endeavours than in their work in general, and indeed have often used appropriated sf themes to dramatize their discussion of "taboo" subjects with comparative freedom. Things were very different, however, within Genre SF, where publishers were unwilling to alienate any part of their readership, and therefore set a great many taboos into operation for a period that lasted at least from the inception of the SF Magazines in 1926 until well into the 1960s. Most of these taboos related to Sex, profanity and Religion. Several examples of stories which broke religious or sexual taboos, and consequently had difficulty in finding publishers, are discussed under Aliens. To mention a single example, Harry Harrison had great difficulty placing "The Streets of Ashkelon" (September 1962 New Worlds; vt "An Alien Agony" in More Penguin Science Fiction, anth 1963, ed Brian W Aldiss) – a story about the anthropological ignorance and stupidity of a Christian missionary on an alien planet, and about the damage he does – on the grounds that Christians might find it offensive. Similarly, magazine sf and genre sf generally remained downright prudish even after the pioneering work (see Sex) of Theodore Sturgeon – whose "The World Well Lost" (June 1953 Universe) centres on homosexuality and homophobia – and Philip José Farmer.

Not all subjects were taboo. Violence, for example, was (and is) permissible, and extreme conservative Politics (see Libertarianism; Social Darwinism) was acceptable to editors like John W Campbell Jr, whose own editorials on possible justifications for Slavery (though not just for Blacks) were notorious. Campbell's Astounding also exercised several quite subtle taboos in addition to those regarding sex and profanity; notably, he strongly disliked publishing downbeat stories in which humanity was somehow unsuccessful, or outwitted by aliens. This sort of prejudice did not precisely take the form of censorship, but the writers all knew very well what sort of stories would be acceptable to which editors. (Later Roger Elwood, who for a while in the 1970s controlled a large percentage of the Anthology market, was well known for his extremely conservative views, both religious and sexual, and bought stories that did not violate these views.) There seems to have been a kind of unspoken agreement in America – though not in the UK, where the Scientific Romance tradition was far more friendly to political cognition – not to publish stories of a socialist orientation – although it may just have been that few were written, unlike the position in the early decades of the century when socialist writers like Jack London or Upton Sinclair were at work and being readily published (Mack Reynolds could be perhaps be defined as American sf's tame socialist). And until the 1960s Black writers, and indeed Black issues, were rare in magazine sf. Racial problems (see Race in SF) tended to be discussed symbolically, in terms of meetings with alien races, rather than directly.

In the nations which until recently were often described as the communist-bloc countries, political censorship of sf, as of most forms of writing, remained ruthless, especially from the 1940s through the 1960s. As late as 1966 the Soviet writers Yuli Daniel and Andrey Sinyavsky (who wrote as Abram Tertz) were first imprisoned and then exiled. Political censorship in these nations had its ups and downs in the 1970s, relaxing only in the late 1980s, not long before the Communist Party began losing power throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. The entries for Bulgaria, Czech and Slovak SF, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia and Yugoslavia all (to various degrees) document this phenomenon. Sf, of course, because of its metaphoric flexibility, whereby stories apparently set in the future on other worlds actually tell us something about our world right now, was an ideal medium for Aesopian subversions, as many Communist-bloc writers (and some Capitalist-bloc writers) knew very well.

Moving away from politics, it is discernible that until the 1960s pessimism in magazine sf was largely if not entirely taboo (see Optimism and Pessimism). Cannibalism, on the other hand, was perfectly acceptable in Genre SF. It turned up quite often even before the 1960s, and became central in such late-1960s stories as Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" (April 1969 New Worlds). Also in the 1960s, the anonymously edited Taboo (anth 1964) purported to address forbidden themes, including Fritz Leiber's take on necrophilia (actually well rooted in the Gothic tradition, as in Edgar Allan Poe) with "Lie Still, Snow White", a story original to this book. The already-cited Harlan Ellison was prominent among the Original-Anthology and magazine editors of the New Wave in consciously breaking taboos, notably in his Dangerous Visions anthologies, although a decade later most of these stories seemed tame enough, perhaps in part because the kind of taboo they exposed tended to wilt in the light of day or was less than seriously addressed: Theodore Sturgeon, for example, tackled incest in "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison), but with the unconvincing premise that incest is a necessary precondition for planetary Utopia. The magazine New Worlds, under Michael Moorcock, performed a similar function in the UK at around the same time; other original-anthology series like Orbit and New Dimensions also had an important liberating effect on what could or could not be discussed in genre sf. By 1976 Damon Knight had no qualms about publishing a story advocating incest in a Post-Holocaust situation, Felix Gotschalk's "The Family Winter of 1986" in Orbit 18 (anth 1976); Knight's editorial foreword itself contained a vulgarity which would have been impossible not long before: "The family that lays together stays together." A earlier, less sensational Orbit tale of incest as a last-ditch mechanism of racial survival, Richard Wilson's "Mother to the World" (in Orbit 3, anth 1968, ed Damon Knight), had already received a kind of seal of respectability in the form of the Nebula award for best novelette. But the ground-breaking incest story in Genre SF is very much older: Ward Moore's classic "Lot's Daughter" (October 1954 F&SF).

While the 1980s have been seen, rather like the 1960s, as a period when just about anything controversial could be published in America and the UK, there was, especially in America, a kind of covert censorship operating in some areas; a story like Michael Blumlein's "Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report" (Spring 1984 Interzone) – in which the living body of Ronald Reagan is ablated without anaesthetics and the Genetically Engineered extrusions of presidential flesh are used to feed the world's poor – did not appear in his native land till 1990. Otherwise, though, this was the period when infantilism forcefully re-entered the field, after it had been discovered how extremely young much of the audience was for smash-hit films like Star Wars (1977). Whenever mass-market publishers believe there is big money to be won from the youthful market, then a whole series of taboos comes into operation. (The same syndrome has always been visible in American television programmes like Star Trek whose audiences are known to be predominantly young; Star Trek scriptwriters still have "bibles" to tell them what issues cannot be tackled, and what kinds of language cannot be used.) Thus the 1980s saw the reverse of, say, the 1950s, when book publishers offered more freedom than magazine publishers. The genre magazines of the 1980s could generally be as broad-minded as their editors wished, notably in the cases of Asimov's Science Fiction in the USA and Interzone in the UK. But book publishers, especially those publishing series for the semi-juvenile market, were very cautious about any undue cleverness or sophistication; though, disgracefully enough, editors as usual did not seem too disturbed by violence. Obviously, many publishers paid no attention to restrictions of this sort, but it is fair to say that during the 1980s the proportion of the mass market where writers could expect to have their more sophisticated work published was shrinking relative to the hack-markets operating according to strict (and uncontroversial) formulae.

It would be premature to suggest that the twenty-first century has seen a disappearance of prohibitive taboo from written Fantastika, though many of the shibboleths of previous decades have become Clichés to exploit in the new world. What is taboo is often invisible to its enforcers. At the same time, the rise of the Superhero movie epic based on Comics (see DC Comics; Marvel Cinematic Universe; Marvel Comics etc) has enabled a new form of taboo-maintenance. As described at various points in this encyclopedia (see in particular Terminator Genisys), the use of CGI techniques to sanitize appalling violence copes admirably with industry restrictions on exposing young audiences to the costs of violence. In these films, as in American society in general, the sight of death is taboo. [PN/JC/DRL]

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies