A recent blog post about Slaughterhouse-Five being banned (yet again) got us to thinking: How many other SF and fantasy books have been banned over the years? How many are banned right now? Then, we looked at all of the lists we maintain and realized there might be one list that doesn’t yet exist… perhaps the most necessary list of all: Banned Science Fiction & Fantasy Books. To celebrate the launch of our new list, we thought we’d discuss just a few of them.
There are many reasons a book might get banned. Here are three examples from our list.
Animal Farm had problems getting published from the very beginning. George Orwell tried to publish it in the early 1940s, but publishers were loath to print anything that might threaten the British alliance with Russia. When Orwell finally did publish it in 1945, his preface on the English self-censorship was itself censored from the print runs.
In 1963 the John Birch Society challenged its status in Wisconsin schools, despite its anti-communist stands, simply because it contained the phrase "masses will revolt." Just in case that wasn’t ironic enough, a district in Georgia received challenges to the book because it had objectionable "political theories." The same thing happened in New York state because, a study concluded, "Orwell was a communist." At least the Russians understood what Animal Farm was about when they suppressed its presentation at their 1977 book faire!
The most recent attempt to ban Animal Farm was in 1987, in a fascinating case where the banning of one book (for obscenities) led to the district having to ban 64 classics out of consistency, which also included (or should we say excluded) 1984. The embarrassment led the district to eventually reinstate all of these books.
Today, it’s more autocratic regimes that tend to proscribe the book. In 1991, Kenya quashed the stage adaptation of Animal Farm, because it criticized corrupt leaders and Kenya’s one-party rule was, well, corrupt. Most recently, in 2002, the United Arab Emirates banned it for "contradicting Islamic principles."
It came as no surprise to me that Stranger in a Strange Land is often banned for sexual content. It is, after all, a very sexy analysis of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. What did surprise me was that Brave New World is challenged even more for the same reason. It was banned right out of the gate in Ireland in 1932, for being "anti-family" and "anti-religion." Today, parents are far more likely to object to the fact that it addresses sexual promiscuity. Nevermind that Huxley himself was depicting the sexual acts as a negative example of disconnecting love with the act.
In many ways, his novel’s ban confirms Huxley’s own predictions. In this classic dystopian novel, all pain is eliminated so that citizens won’t have to deal with the burdens of knowledge. One California school board might have been thinking the same when they decided the classic contained too many "negative activities." Apparently, students were only supposed to think happy thoughts. Perhaps it is incidents like these that lead Huxley to proclaim, in 1959, that the dystopia he foretold is developing far faster than he originally predicted.
The second most challenged book(s) in 2010 was Philip Pullman’s very popular His Dark Materials Trilogy. Far from being sorry about it, Pullman must be thrilled. It wasn’t too long ago that he expressed surprise that so many people were objecting to Harry Potter, yet weren’t more upset about his books. After all, he exclaimed, "My books are about killing God." Well, Mr. Pullman, you got what you wished for. Bill Donahue, of the Catholic League, has called for a boycott Pullman’s works, describing it as "atheism for kids." A boycott isn’t a ban, however. In fact, it’s democracy in action. If you don’t agree with a book, then don’t buy it.
Making decisions for your whole community is another matter. The Halton Catholic school district went that extra step in 2007, when they pulled the His Dark Materials series from their shelves (while still allowing students to request the books from behind the counter). Shortly thereafter, the Calgary Catholic School district also pulled books from their library shelves. To their credit, after reviewing these decisions, both districts restored His Dark Materials to the shelves. The Calgary board noted, "There is no doubt that the text is harsh in terms of its language about organized religion and that it presents a consistently negative view of church, clergy and faith-based institutions; however, there are glimpses of light with opportunities for positive reflection." Criticism of the Church, they added, can be better answered without censorship, so that Catholic teachers can answer the criticism.
Although the Catholic districts (and there were far more than these two) got a lot of attention for trying to ban His Dark Materials, they were private institutions (albeit, ones that received government funding). Public districts, however, have received challenges so often that only a book about gay penguin dads beat it out for the most challenged book of 2010. Better luck next time, Mr. Pullman.
Lest you think we’ve told the whole story of banned SF/F books, know that we have merely scratched the surface. No doubt there are other SF/F books that have been banned or heavily challenged so if you know of any that we should include here please let us know, and we’ll add them to the list.