Tackling taboo subjects

  1. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Generally, I think it is important that writers do at least attempt to discuss these things - perhaps especially in SF. The modern tendency to tell someone you disagree with that their view is not just incorrect, but something which they are not entitled to have or mention (ie taboo), has to be fought if literature is to remain "free". That means that unpopular or "taboo" subjects have to be fair game. Of course, one writer might deal with such a topic with a lot more skill and taste than another. Marathon Man and Saw are both horrific films, but to my mind only one is a work of art.

    Almost every historical character (of, say, 50 years ago and more) would hold views that we consider taboo now. In the as-yet-unpublished fantasy novel, an otherwise sympathetic character catches a boat with a group of religious refugees and, despite their plight, despises them as followers of a lesser god. It was only as I was writing it that it occurred to me that it was fairly weighty stuff. So maybe it's not that you can't mention certain things, and more that you need a good sense of when you're getting into deep water to avoid seeming exploitative.
     
  2. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    So is a covert taboo no longer taboo? Suppose there was something sexualised about it in the mind of the person who devised the ritual (I'm not saying there was, by the way), would that change its non-taboo status?

    I'm not sure about that. I think it's still unusual to include it without a degree of humour or mockery. But there are actually a couple of stronger taboos in that section.
     
  3. The Big Peat

    The Big Peat Well-Known Member

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    Possibly? I'm sure most of us have things we have no compunction about doing in private that we'd feel mightily embarassed about in public.

    Whether that applies in this situation, I don't know.
     
  4. Hex

    Hex Write, monkey, write

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    I'm not sure which particular bit you're talking about (or I've forgotten), which makes this discussion deeply mysterious. Anyone fancy elucidating (under a spoiler tag)? Or is it all too taboo?
     
  5. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    You mean this?

    It's when Shoggu is preparing to Inspire Tashi on the island, and Tashi finds his memories of Hana are threatening to corrupt him and decides to discharge them.
     
  6. Hex

    Hex Write, monkey, write

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    Good for Tashi.

    I did read something a few years ago bemoaning the lack of such scenes in YA fiction.
     
  7. HareBrain

    HareBrain Bunny of Wonder Staff Member

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    Or not, as it turns out.

    On a wider point, I wonder where we're going with taboo and where it will end up in fiction. Back in the middle of the last century, very few characters in fiction were openly gay ("openly" to the reader, I mean). The author had to use allusion and subtext. If you picked it up, it gave you sense of being "in the know", and even now, though there's something quaint about it all, there's still sometimes a faint whiff of transgression.

    Few educated people in our culture would now think of a homosexuality as at all transgressive (not the vanilla variety, anyway), which is obviously of huge benefit to gay people, but not necessarily to literature, where allusion and subtext add interesting depth. And the same will happen to a lot of traditional taboos, especially those to do with sex. Boundaries will keep getting pushed in fiction, and that itself will erode the cultural taboos, until maybe nothing will remain of the old set but paedophilia and the worship of disease and excrement.

    That's why it must stop now. Ban this sick filth -- if only to keep the sick filth interesting.
     
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  8. TitaniumTi

    TitaniumTi Well-Known Member

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    It depends on the taboo, I think. Despite my dislike of Jojo Moyes' Me Before You,the exploration of voluntary euthanasia in the book was effective because of its real-world setting. It would be harder to set that narrative in a fantasy or science fiction world and make the reader (or me, at least) care, because the unreality of the setting would make the choice seem less real. And also, if I may digress into a rant for a moment, because death has so often been exploited for cheap effect in SFF that it has become almost mundane.

    On the other hand, I imagine that an exploration of involuntary euthanasia in the context of battlefield injury or impending disaster, for example, might be more effective in SFF or historical fiction than in any of the contemporary genres, because the added distance would allow the reader to suspend social and moral judgement.
     
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2017
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  9. Hex

    Hex Write, monkey, write

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    I don't think so, @HareBrain, because new taboos are being created all the time. For all that I roll my eyes when I see some news outlet squawking about 'political correctness run maaaaaad!!' I do think society is changing (as it always does) and while we are becoming more permissive about some things, we are considerably less permissive about others -- e.g. while we are more permissive of homosexuality, we are less permissive of discrimination based on someone's sexuality or race, or whatever. Well, some of us are, and at the crispier edges it gets completely black and white and crazed all over.

    The alternative, of course, is that the crispy people/ paranoid historians are right and we really are seeing a 1930s-like situation in Europe (and the US), in which the other crispy edges, the alt-right, will prevail, tumbling us back to a kind of post-Weimar dystopia where everyone has to fit neatly into heterosexual, white, middle-class, Christian/atheist boxes or be condemned. That would make literature a lot more interesting, but I'm not sure the sacrifice is worth it.

    (EDIT thought: I guess part of what makes the alt-right seem sexier than the fat dads of the KKK is the idea of transgression and common codes -- so there's that number they print on things to celebrate white supremacy.

    This kind of thing, for example. What total loons: Fourteen Words - Wikipedia)
     
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2017
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  10. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    It would also make literature a lot more difficult! The trouble about keeping things taboo is that, largely out of ignorance, their depiction becomes inaccurate and ultimately slanderous. There seems to have been a belief, in the middle of the 20th century, that homosexuality was a sort of gateway drug for paedophilia, and sexual oddity led to political extremism (there's a truly bizarre section in a book called Insanity Fair by Douglas Reed, who was very popular in the 1940s, that attributes the rise of Hitler to the Germans spanking one another). Leaving aside wider political issues, for a depiction of a personality trait to stand up to later readings, it needs to be credible, which requires accuracy.
     
  11. Ihe

    Ihe Forum Revolutionary

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    Yes, that's what I meant. I wasn't saying SFF does taboos better, I was just pointing out it can give a different flavour. And as far as the immediacy of the subject to the reader, suspension of disbelief, which SFF relies on to a great extent, does dull the emotional significance of transgressions and other hard moments (although this is also debatable, as a good immersive book can reach the same levels of intensity IMO), but that can work to the writer's benefit, possibly giving us more freedom to push the boundaries that extra inch "realists" can't get away with--you know, because it's all gnomes and jedis.:LOL:
     
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  12. The Big Peat

    The Big Peat Well-Known Member

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    Ihe, do you mean the suspension of disbelief *can* dull the emotional significance, or *always will*? Because the former I can agree with and the latter I can only say is the opposite of my experience. If anything, I think the juxtaposition between 'make-believe' and harsh human experience can frequently make transgression all the more jarring.
     
  13. Ihe

    Ihe Forum Revolutionary

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    I meant it as *almost always does*, but I see your point. A transgression in SFF can be quite poignant when taking it as an allegory/parody/comparison of/to the real world, but that will depend largely on the context of the plot, and in what specific angle the inner workings of your book world mirror our world, in order to properly blow up the significance of the scene. Also, some people will not allow themselves to engage with/think about taboo subjects, and escapist lit can help them do that without feeling uncomfortable, thanks to the perceived distance. So in that instance, disbelief actually helps to start an internal debate the reader wouldn't have had otherwise.

    Thing is, I was thinking of the average reader, not so much the avid SFF fan. For us, suspending disbelief is a non-issue, but not everyone can consistently achieve that state of mind while reading, not without practice. For the average reader, a taboo situation in an impossible setting (ie, being in the centre of the sun, in the cave of a diabolical talking dragon, or being married to a bioengineered Space Marine fighting for the Galactic Human Empire 5000 years from now, etc) is tasted differently because the setting and incredible situations themselves can sometimes overshadow the scene (ie, "Holy crap! I'm inside a black hole fighting a cyborg mage, who cares about incest right now?!").

    Whatever the case, I believe suspension of disbelief is the main predictor in the emotional connection to a book. The more you need of one, the less you'll see of the other. The trick is to make belief and disbelief irrelevant for the time it takes that single important scene to develop. Let me try to explain:

    Just knowing that the story isn't real is enough to create cognitive and emotional distance between story and reader (all fiction is make-believe, I know, but SFF is considered to be doubly so). Now, if you go all the way by wilfully increasing said perceived distance, taking the idea as far from reality as you can, make the reader aware of such distance, and then show the reader how the transgression is still relevant, then the transgression can become a symbolic interpretation of the taboo, as it is so far off from known reality that it sheds its physical body and cuts all ties to belief and disbelief alike, becoming an ethereal element in the mind of the reader. Only then is suspension of disbelief made irrelevant, the cognitive barrier goes down, and the full emotional brunt of the scene comes through. This is possible once you force the reader to stop comparing your story to the real world, and help him/her perceive certain things in a more symbolic form, which is a form that can do no wrong to their cognition. That's why I think that the more extreme the SFF, the more significant taboos can be in the story. So I find that the impact of taboos follows a "U" shaped progression through a graph that goes from "realistic" to "way out there", dipping in the middle, where the more subdued SFF is, and then picking up again into the more ludicrous section of the library. Anyway, that's been my experience. The reason why, in my opinion, "partial" SFF has the hardest job of dealing successfully with taboos is because it tries too hard, picking up flight into SFF heavens while being constantly jerked down by the chain that ties it to the real world. The story can't make up its mind therefore neither can the reader, and this confusion/ambivalence can get in the way of an emotional connection. But once you forgo attempting a resemblance to "reality", then the reader can jump on-board, suspension of disbelief becomes the default background state, and the reader no longer thinks about it or subconsciously analyses the emotional distance. So, for me, taboos work best in "very real" scenarios, or "very strange" ones.

    So, to summarise, suspension of disbelief is the primary predictor of emotional connection to scenes, IMO. It is the way a writer handles that suspension that makes or breaks a poignant scene though (so there is some wiggle room in my theory :p--THEORY, that's what it is. I'm not being categorical in any way). And obviously, the reader's ease to achieve suspension of disbelief plays an important role too.

    Don't know if I explained myself even remotely well, but this felt like trying to put into words a very complex feeling (as a reader), more than an intellectual argument (as a writer). So apologies for the possible "huh?"s this might raise :D.
     
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