|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #54, August 1999|
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There's a wonderful quotation going the rounds, in which barmy US evangelist Jerry Falwell explains why he loves sf: 'The decline in American pride, patriotism, and piety can be directly attributed to the extensive reading of so-called "science fiction" by our young people. This poisonous rot about creatures not of God's making, societies of "aliens" without a good Christian among them, and raw sex between unhuman beings with three heads and God alone knows what sort of reproductive apparatus keeps our young people from realizing the true will of God.'
Unfortunately it's a hoax, invented to discredit Falwell (who actually thinks Tinky Winky is a Gay Pride symbol and thus threatens our children's precious bodily fluids). But doesn't it make sf sound lots more exciting than the drab reality?
Traditionally, sf publishing has always been prudish. As recently as 1986 my sf newsletter featured William Gibson hopefully plugging his latest UK edition: 'I would like to point out, for the benefit of my massive and utterly devoted British following, that the version of my second novel, Count Zero, which will run in serial lumps (three) in Asimov's SF, is a special Lite version with reduced motherfucker-count and no graphic but intensely poetic and moving descriptions of oral sex. "At Asimov's" I was told, "you can't come in anybody's mouth." I should also point out that these changes were made under my supervision and with my express approval. I agreed to go along with them, after due soul-searching, when it was pointed out to me how urgently young people in small towns in the US need fiction of this sort, and how much my new car is going to cost. But with Gollancz, friends, you get it all!'
I've told the story of the great 1940s struggle to get anything resembling a dirty joke past Kay Tarrant, puritanical subeditor of Astounding, and how George O. Smith did it in a 1947 'gadget' tale by mentioning 'the original ball-bearing mousetrap' ... that is, the tomcat. But who would be first to sneak the Big F-Word into the austere pages of US magazines? Robert Silverberg, that's who.
The swinging 60s were nearly over, but still no rude words were permitted in Galaxy. Then Silverberg got handed one of those odd magazine assignments, to write some fiction to go with this cover painting showing gigantic periscopes. Easy – he shoved them into the story ('Going Down Smooth', 1968) as one of the hallucinations suffered by an insane computer. A foul-mouthed insane computer, that said:
Victorian obscenity often appeared in what they called the decent obscurity of a learned language: Latin. It made sense for the dirty bits in American sf to be concealed in binary ASCII code – which, of course, hardly anyone knew in 1968 ...
Things were looser in Britain at the time, but New Worlds magazine – then edited by Michael Moorcock and supported by the Arts Council – got into trouble that same year for serializing Norman Spinrad's now rather tame-seeming Bug Jack Barron. This was mostly about corrupt politics and, prophetically, the excessive power of TV, but it had some floridly lyrical sex scenes. As with Gibson, there were episodes of what critic Kenneth Tynan (himself famously the first person to say 1000110 on national British TV) called 'the sin that dares not speak its name, because its mouth is full.'
It wasn't so much that, according to legend, a Tory MP put down a stern Question to the Minister for the Arts about spending public money on filth. The snag was that W.H. Smith got nervous and refused to distribute New Worlds any more ('Someone could sue us for obscenity and make a lot of money'), which was a distinct kick in the financial goolies.
One classic fantasy novel had even more trouble: James Branch Cabell's Jurgen (1919), which contains no rude words at all – just some mild naughtiness as nubile ladies praise hero Jurgen's enormous, thrusting sword, staff, sceptre, and so on, under circumstances where it's remotely possible they may be talking about something else. So the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice got the novel banned for three years.
Cabell had learned his lesson, and in his next novel Figures of Earth he took no chances. When this new hero and his wife decide they want children, three magical asterisks are ceremoniously placed on the floor, and the happy couple step across them to the next paragraph. Then they wait for the arrival of the stork.
David Langford is **** *** **** * *******.
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