Taboo: noun (plural taboos)
* a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
Taboos fascinate many writers and artists because we are rebels at heart. We’re drawn to the forbidden, the denied, the unacceptable. In order to show the world in all its beauty and grossness, we portray both the sacred and the profane, sometimes in the same sentence (holy shit, it’s true!). Many speculative fiction readers also find taboos fascinating, because they show what is different or excluded in humanity. A good percent of science fiction fans already feel quirky or weird compared to the ordinary world; it’s hardly surprising that stories about taboos often appeal to these readers. In this article, I’ll discuss briefly the nature of taboos and why speculative fiction is uniquely well-suited to handle these topics.
Taboos fall into two general categories: universal and culturally-specific. We have relatively few universal taboos across the majority of cultures; touching or interacting with feces is one of the few that might qualify. But even this taboo has exceptions, such as a parent changing a baby’s diaper (though the circumstances are controlled; no changing of baby’s diaper next to the Christmas goose!). Taboos as widespread as this one tend to come from some universal aspect of human behavior, which would certainly include excretion. (Hmm, I should have sold ad space to the book Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi.) The exact details around the prohibition vary heavily by culture; taboos might include the hand that wipes, in much of the Middle East; the people who clean up the feces, such as India’s untouchable caste in some cases or the night-soil men in old London; or mentioning the word in polite company for many modern societies. Consider all our euphemisms for bathroom activities; it would be so much simpler to just tell your coworkers you need to take a shit. Such verbal efficiency would probably shorten corporate meetings by 1.2%.
But most taboos are actually created as a fiction within a society; a way to socially control people and force them to comply with approved cultural values. Culturally specific taboos are constructed around what a society deems unworthy, impolite, or improper. In many Arab regions and in Thailand, showing the soles of your feet is offensive (such as putting them up on an ottoman—a furniture ottoman, not the Turkish Empire). The soles are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. This makes good logical sense—but it’s a taboo that most Americans do not share. Another example is the Victorian woman’s ankle; showing even a bit of ankle was considered racy for much of the early 20th century. In fact, this taboo extended to the mention of limbs at all; some people covered the legs of their pianos in fashionable little skirts. I don’t know about you, but seeing a woman’s ankle has never spurred me into uncontrollable lustful advances. Nor has showing my ankles attracted unwanted attention from the kind of men who forget to doff their hats for ladies, though now that I think about it, maybe that would be rather fun. Anyway, my point is that there is nothing innately problematic to these behaviors; another culture may not share that same taboo, and might find it puzzling or odd. (Note that these taboos can be extremely relevant and important to the culture which keeps them; I am not saying these taboos are meaningless, but simply that they may not be universal among all cultures.)
Cultures build milder taboos around societal structures they wish to protect; it’s no coincidence that Americans are taught that it’s impolite to talk about salaries, because keeping that information private allows pay discrepancies to continue and discourages union formation. The interesting thing about these culturally-specific taboos is that often people don’t notice they are fundamentally different from more primitive taboos. Cavemen who held their preschools in sewage pits would probably perish from disease, but they probably would survive if Oog underpaid Thak for his labor. Thus the controlling powers of the world have a vested interest in encouraging socially-constructed taboos to persist. In fact, they have a strong interest in blurring the line between fundamental taboos about health and disease with those that are complete fictions. After all, if people can’t tell which taboos have good reasons and which don’t, then all taboos look similarly prohibitive. Very useful for social control, and thus very useful to groups which have held power for a very long time.
So there’s a lot of power in examining these taboos closely. Once you examine taboos, it’s easier to break down traditional controls on your thinking, and learn to think more freely. Of course it’s a risky process; some taboos have good reasons, such as those prohibiting rape and murder. But it’s not rocket science to realize that when questioning a taboo, you have to consider factors such as who benefits from the taboo, who suffers from it, and who would be harmed in the absence of this taboo. Fiction is obviously a terrific tool for teaching people to question, understand, and think for themselves. By engaging people’s imaginations, you help them see alternate realities; you can substitute your fictional world for the real one. Your readers will see a world they otherwise couldn’t. Reading good fiction really does make you smarter. (All you readers, give yourselves a congratulatory pat on the back. And remember to rest your eyes occasionally or you’ll get a headache, dammit.)
The key point of my argument, aside from getting to swear heavily in a nonfiction article, is that speculative fiction is particularly well equipped to examine taboos. Taboos and boundaries are where society breaks down, and SF/F shines when exploring damaged societies. When you write about taboos, you’re writing about the things we hide in an effort to seem civilized; the way we distance ourselves from our animal origins. (We are, of course, still animals at our core—which is why some the taboos we share with many animals, like eating feces, are more universal than the societally created ones.)
Because it’s presented under the umbrella of “what if,” speculative fiction allows people to consider how society can break down, independently of their preconceptions about their own society. You can write a world where the taboo is something specific, like hands touching each other, and everyone wears gloves. To someone from this society, it would be disgusting to see ungloved hands—but for us as readers, we get to confront the concept of constructed taboos without triggering our own. (Holly Black uses this taboo in White Cat.) When you invent a fictional culture, people can think about the issues rationally, rather than being influenced by their own ingrained prohibitions. It’s easy to imagine an alien race which would be mystified by our taboos around multiple lifemates, religious debates, or eating vomit. Heck, many dogs like eating vomit; perhaps they’ll invite the aliens to dinner parties. Readers can engage with these stories on a theoretical level—allowing them to examine their own beliefs without the social pressure of compliance. For example, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury allows a reader to think about issues of censorship without tangling with specific real-world instances that might confuse his or her thinking.
So through speculative fiction, you can pry into our fundamental societal habits, and consider what the world would be like without them. Of course, in doing so, you’re actually teaching the world about what the world is like with them, as speculative fiction is fundamentally about our world in the end. By digging into humanity’s depths, a writer can explore what it means to participate in a society—or to flout that society without complying. A talented writer can influence the reader’s worldview about what is acceptable and what isn’t. The taboo has power; your blades will cut deeply.
Consider a few examples of stories that tackle taboo subjects in recent years. Kij Johnson’s Nebula-winning “Spar” leaps to mind, which effectively smacks you in the face in the first two paragraphs and announces that it will be one hell of a messed-up story. Rachel Swirsky is well known for exploring taboo subjects; her recent “Fields of Gold,” nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, explores cousin incest in the afterlife. Ann Leckie’s “The Snake’s Wife” handles involuntary human castration. And Jennifer Pelland’s Nebula-nominated “Ghosts of New York,” published right here in Apex Magazine, condemns innocent ghosts to an infinite loop of jumping from the Twin Towers, in a gruesome 9-11/Groundhog’s Day mashup. What do all these stories have in common? They hit hard. They’re stories that grab you and won’t let go. This is the power of the taboo: you tap into the darkest emotions we possess—the feelings which we do not dull with repeated daily use, but rather tuck away and forget in the unexamined corners of our minds. These stories hurt, and that’s why they move us.
Every year at WisCon, I run the Taboo reading series—now in its 7th year—along with Rachel Swirsky, Jennifer Pelland, and assorted guests. We’ve read stories with everything from gambling to anal sex to kissing a dead dog. We do post warnings about our mature and troubling content, but nonetheless we sometimes drive listeners out of the room. (More often, we attract people who overhear us and stay through to the end.) I have seen firsthand the potent effect that taboo topics have on our listeners. People gasp, lean forward, or—in the case of our friend M.K. Hobson—yell “EWW!” in the middle of the reading, giving us comedy fodder for the next few years. (Hi Mary, we love you!) What we don’t see are bored or unengaged listeners. By skirting the edge of what’s acceptable, we immerse the reader deeply in the story, and that’s what most of them want to experience.
Of course, the challenge of writing taboo subjects is that many magazines won’t print those stories. Pretty much by definition, taboos are things we don’t speak about or explore. Not only are you more likely to offend an editor, you’re more likely to offend a reader—and thus many magazines won’t buy stories that contain swearing, explicit sex, or several other taboos. Unfortunately, for writers interested in exploring the forbidden topics of our society, edgy writing can work against them when it comes to publishing stories. Writers who engage taboo topics have to either be better than the competition—much better—or self-publish. Or both. People who live on the cutting edge must step lightly to avoid losing a toe. Society pressures everyone to conform to its taboos—otherwise why have them at all?
But the flip side of that is that taboos are potent. They speak to the raw, the naked, the bleeding parts inside ourselves. They have the power to grab the reader by the lapels (or if necessary, the bare collarbones) and shake him or her into a new understanding of the world. Creativity thrives when pressed against boundaries; like an octopus hiding in a jar, eyeballs get squished against tentacles, and we see the reality from new angles. By tearing the world apart, we can reconstruct it into something new, something amazing and brilliant.
So why explore the taboo? Because you shouldn’t, and that’s why you must.
Vylar Kaftan is a Nebula-nominated author who has published about three dozen stories in places such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy. She has an alternate history Inca novella coming out in Asimov’s in February, 2013. She’s the founder of FOGcon, a new literary SF/F convention in the San Francisco area, and she blogs at www.vylarkaftan.net. For examples of her taboo fiction, try “Break the Vessel” or “Kill Me”.