Censorship and Genre Fiction—Let’s Broaden our Broader Reality

I want to talk about genre fiction’s power to battle censorship and misinformation. I am, in my capacity as a historian, in the middle of a multi-year project on the history of censorship1, and in my capacity as a genre fiction reader and writer I keep coming back to two observations about genre fiction and censorship, one simple, one complex.

The simple one is that genre fiction has a great ability to bypass direct censorship and get away with representing things societies and governments don’t permit in realist fiction. When I presented the Campbell award in 20182 and 20193, I talked about Osamu Tezuka writing in post-WWII Japan, when American occupation censorship and domestic restrictions combined to make it nearly impossible to write about the war, or the racism that shaped it. While newspapers didn’t even have the blocks to print ‘atomic bomb4, censors paid little attention to science fiction, so Tezuka could publish stories where the atomic-powered robot Astro Boy battled the genocidal dictator ‘Hitlini’5, met with American civil rights activists6 to learn about hate groups7, helped robots run for office8 and campaign for equal rights9, and learned from aliens about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Similarly, in 1964, New Zealand10’s Indecent Publications Tribunal11, after banning Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch12, decided to allow his later novel Dead Fingers Talk13 because it was “the fantasy world of science fiction” so between that and its unusual pastiche structure, “the author’s manner of writing has so effectively restricted his potential reading public that in our opinion no further restriction seems called for.” These are just two of many examples when governments, or the executives who censor forthcoming books and films, have scrutinized genre fiction less rigidly than realist fiction, viewing it as less influential despite its vast audience. Genre fiction is not immune to censorship—there are many cases, from China’s 2011 ban on time travel fiction14 to the erasure of same-sex romances15 from 1990s translated anime—but the sense of unreality, of otherworlds which don’t quite count, has let innumerable works, from Astro Boy to Star Trek’s famous interracial kiss16, break barriers.

The more complex one, which has become clearer and clearer the more I study censorship in general, is that genre fiction exerts an enormous, even dominant influence on how people around the world understand censorship, and consequently on when people do or don’t organize to oppose it. Fictional depictions of censorship absolutely dominate the way we think about it. Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopias spike every time a major government or leader does something which resembles Orwell. Journalists quote Orwell, activists slap his words on posters, advertisers borrow his imagery, and the demand for dystopian, grimdark, and apocalyptic fiction surges whenever public trust in government erodes.

One of the most fascinating works I have analyzed in my project is the script for the first episode of the new 2014 Cosmos TV series with Neil deGrasse Tyson, which depicts the Inquisition’s persecution of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600. That the episode makes historical errors is not exceptional, but what is telling is that virtually every error stems from the writers’ assumption that the Inquisition must resemble Orwell. As an Inquisition specialist I’ll be the first to confirm that it was terrible and did terrible things, but three minutes on Wikipedia will show how multi-function an institution it was, yet Cosmos confidently characterizes it saying: “[the Inquisition’s] sole purpose was to investigate and torment anyone who dared voice views that differed from theirs. It wasn’t long before Bruno fell into the clutches of the thought police…” They describe his expulsion from the monastery as a kind of blacklisting, “the last steady job he ever had,” and depict his famous ‘years of wandering’ as Bruno shivering homeless by a campfire, when he was actually wandering from royal court appointment to royal court appointment. These and other false assumptions, consistently attributing Bruno’s troubles to his ideas and omitting the charges of plagiarism, spying, and political entanglements which really shaped his path, form a narrative which exactly matches Winston Smith’s rumination on the fate of unpersoned thoughtcriminals: “Sometimes they were released and allowed to remain at liberty for as much as a year or two years before being executed. Very occasionally some person whom you had believed dead long since would make a ghostly reappearance at some public trial…” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, part 1 ch. 4) These mistakes were not the result of a lazy writing team—this was an educational series which prided itself on the accuracy of its science, on up-to-date research—but when depicting history they were so confident that the Inquisition must resemble Orwell, that all major censorship regimes resemble Orwell, that writers who did meticulous research on science were content to fill in the skeleton of what they knew about the Inquisition with Orwell, confident that they were right. They didn’t doubt it, didn’t stop to check—even while celebrating Bruno’s willingness to question assumptions—they didn’t stop to check if real censorship might not resemble what science fiction showed them.

We teach people what censorship is. We craft the otherworlds, the failed futures, the surveillance states, the resistance fighters, the many archetypes which shape how people respond to real world events: what to look out for, what to resist, when to blow the whistle, and when to be silent. We propagate assumptions about what kinds of censorship are normal, ubiquitous, acceptable, inevitable, objectionable, or real. Likely some of you, like me, remember vividly the moment in The Martian when NASA is looking at the photo that proves they stranded a man on Mars, and they say: welp, we’re obliged to release the photos within 24 hours, so better prep the press conference. It was stunning. The government didn’t cover it up. It was surprising that they didn’t, even though that is the real world policy, but in a hundred other genre works, from X-Files episodes to high-tech thrillers, the government always covers it up, deletes the files, locks the Ark of the Covenant away in its infinite warehouse of secrets. We have normalized through repetition the expectation that government cover-ups are a constant reality, one we should accept, and cannot change. That resignation is a fruit of genre fiction. We need to understand this when we write about censorship and similar issues, that our depictions have enormous power, both to galvanize, and to excuse.

When I see people debate whether a particular action is or is not censorship, or is or is not justified, one very consistent attitude is that people today feel viscerally that things are censorship when they’re power-seeking, malevolent, centralized, top-down, when they feel like Orwell. And correspondingly, people often say things aren’t censorship, or that they’re acceptable, okay, not “bad censorship,” when they don’t resemble Orwell, and especially when they’re perceived as well-intentioned—when it’s the good guys doing the censoring. I encounter this attitude in newspaper columns, in editorial meetings, in everyday conversations, and several fellow scholars of censorship have told me they find the same. Once in a group discussion in our library I set side-by-side a copy of a Renaissance scientific treatise with condemned passages cut out by Inquisitors’ razors, and next to it a copy of Twilight: Breaking Dawn in which the mother of the under-aged owner had cut the sex scene out with scissors—the same physical act, cutting the pages, so why, I asked, did it feel so different? Part of the answer, of course, is that a YA vampire romance is in the genre fiction category of things we don’t feel are as important to defend as a weighty scientific tome, but one suggestion someone voiced in the discussion stunned me: unlike the Inquisitor, “the mother believes she’s doing something good.” As a historian I know the Inquisitor also thought he was doing something good, but this speaker, many people—like the Cosmos TV writers, the X-Files watchers, the Orwell readers—have learned over and over that the bad guy does bad censorship, for power, for himself, to feel his iron boot stomping humanity, that those we must resist resemble the O’Brien of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That when good guys do it it’s not the same.

We do depict good guys doing it. Mike the computer in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress who limits information to a small in-group even after the revolution succeeds; Pham in Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky who keeps a secret surveillance system to himself for centuries; the A.I. in Naomi Kritzer’s wonderful “Cat Pictures Please,” who no sooner becomes sentient than it starts to show people information it thinks they should have and conceal information it thinks they shouldn’t; even Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hundreds of similar action fantasies show secret heroes who know about the existence of magic, or gods, or vampires, or the afterlife, and hide it from the public—good guys who hide it from the public, often without discussing why. They hide it because hiding it keeps the world more normal, so we can tell stories about special people hidden within our world without diverging too much from reality, but that shortcut means we depict such secret-keeping as a normal good-guy action. Such stories teach us to assume that secret-keeping is normal, the way things naturally are. We depict positive, well-meaning concealment of facts, destruction of documents, manipulation of data, hacking, covert agencies, ancient societies which keep the secret scrolls away from the public and historians, geniuses who sagely judge that the world can’t handle the truth. We should depict a diversity of censors and motives, but we need to be careful when we do so. We need to remember that our otherworlds, far more than anything in this world, form people’s expectations about censorship: how it works, who does it, when it should be resisted, and when it should be tolerated or accepted. Such stories normalize silence, even condone it. Princess Leia on Women’s March posters and Orwell quotes in anti-fascist graffiti are immensely empowering, but correspondingly disempowering is the little giggle when someone browsing Facebook sees a headline about government corruption and posts an X-Files screencap of “Trust No One,” moving on with the assumption that such cover-ups are normal, constant, irresistible, or, if well-meaning ‘good guys’ are behind it, acceptable.

Dystopian fiction has made the public hyper-vigilant against censorship which resembles Orwell, but it has also made the public take less note of forms of censorship which do not resemble Orwell, which don’t come from the inexorable state but bottom-up, or ad hoc, or from people who feel like good guys. We need to remember how powerful genre depictions of censorship are, how much F&SF shapes expectations, activism, hope, acceptance, even legislation. Those who want to use genre fiction as a tool for liberty should depict a variety of censors, motives, and complexities. There is catharsis in revolutionary dystopias where we watch the rebels burn the tyrant’s tower to the ground, but there is a different power in complicating that narrative. We need to tell more stories where governments don’t cover up, where civilians do, where well-meaning censorship has bad consequences, where bad guys expose truth, where plucky rebels debate the ethics of using misinformation even against the evil empire, where the ancient secret society goes public for good or ill, where the vampire hunters try approaching the W.H.O., or where the genius who says the people can’t handle the truth is challenged on that assumption.

The discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic reveals even more clearly the stakes of the stories we tell about government, and about apocalypse. Rumors that the virus was a lab-developed bioweapon were so immediate, and so widespread that nearly every major global news agency has run multiple articles about the question. Separate conspiracy theories swirl around testing, aid distribution, mask hoarding, and supposed concealed cures, making it hard to see the deeds of real bad actors in the sea of paranoia. Of course, genre fiction is not responsible for the existence of conspiracy theories, nor for people’s vulnerability to them, and in 2020 real misinformation is a major factor, but conspiracy theories and misinformation both draw on fiction, and gain plausibility when they match familiar narratives. Most casual consumers of science fiction—people outside the fan community who watch a show here or a movie there—can remember five or ten narratives about bioweapon-wielding arch-villains or conspiratorial governments, and often very few narratives about natural pandemic.

MIT’s recent study17 of news moving on Twitter showed not only that false stories spread on average six times faster than true news, but that bots are not responsible, humans are. False stories are more interesting, more striking, appeal precisely because they are deliberately crafted using tropes and archetypes. Anyone who works with historical fiction knows the hardest part is often that real events are narratively unsatisfying. It’s hard to craft a climax when the conqueror dies by banging his head on a doorframe, and invented pseudo-historical events are often more plausible and satisfying than real history. Just so with news. A villainous conspirator is easier to understand than complex institutional failings. So long as bioweapons and conspiracies are so dominant in our narratives, they will remain familiar and satisfying, lending power to misinformation.

Changing the stories we tell is not a magic bullet that will defeat misinformation in the digital age, but I do think it can help. If we think carefully about our depictions of government, censorship, and silence, if we make a point of varying our stories, alternating villainous conspiracies with tales of honest whistleblowers, institutional goodwill, or community action, we can diminish the expectation that concealing the truth is a natural constant of government and good guy alike. These don’t have to be happy stories—tales of whistleblowing can be grimdark or dystopian too—but simply increasing the variety of claims we make about silence and conspiracy could in turn increase the plausibility of real news, and diminish the persuasive power of some of the most destructive misinformation.

Genre fiction is so powerful, especially with its ability to evade top-down censorship and shape audiences expectations about news, government, the world’s potential for change, and the possibility of positive action. I sometimes think that hearing it dismissed as escapism so often makes even us within the genre underestimate our power. We shouldn’t. The power to influence is not the same as the power to choose outcomes. I’ve never felt so powerful as September 2016 when I received fan e-mail from attachés of both Trump’s and Hillary’s campaigns, and realized copies of my freshly-released first novel were being passed around in the vans with both candidates. It didn’t give me the power to choose the outcome. That does not mean it wasn’t powerful, injecting new ideas into—in the case of young campaign staffers—the future campaigns, and policies, and actions which will shape outcomes for years to come.

I never fail to tear up when I revisit Ursula Le Guin’s 2014 National Book Awards speech18, where she speaks of the enormous power of authors of speculative fiction: “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.” We lose part of that power if, by consensus, we confine that larger reality to usually be one where government conspiracies are normal, where resistance can’t change that, and where even sage mentors and plucky heroes don’t trust the public to handle the truth.

Narrative is not the power to choose outcomes, but it is often the power to tip the scales when someone is hovering between action and despair. You can find hundreds of images of protest signs with lines from Orwell, but a few years ago when Japan hosted a world peace summit, the organizers hung a very different sign in the main hall: “We Must Make a Future That Would Not Make Astro Boy Cry.” So many tools that galvanize resistance come from fantasy and science fiction. We who, with Tezuka and with Le Guin, explore imagined worlds, alternatives, and other ways of being must not narrow that larger reality, not when it has so much power to shape action, hope, or surrender. So let’s keep broadening our broader reality, so we can also broaden the possibilities of this one. 



[1] “Exploring How New Information Technologies Stimulate New Forms of Information Control.” Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions, voices.uchicago.edu/censorship/

[2] ” 2018 Campbell Speech, How New Authors Expand Fields (+Censorship, Manga)”. Posted October 4, 2018. https://www.exurbe.com/2018-campbell-speech-how-new-authors-expand-fields-censorship-manga/

[3] “2019 Campbell Speech + Refugee Charity Fundraiser”. Posted on August 19, 2019. https://www.exurbe.com/2019-campbell-speech-refugee-charity-fundraiser/

[4] Kenzaburō Ōe, Hiroshima Notes. Grove Press (1996). https://books.google.com/books?id=pJdZPKDdU1QC&q=%22movable+type+for%22#v=snippet&q=%22movable type for%22&f=false

[5] Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy Volume 4. Dark Horse Comics (2002). https://books.google.com/books?id=pefov35BKpAC&pg=PA160&lpg=PA160&dq=tezuka+hitlini&source=bl&ots=IKiByQhTsr&sig=ACfU3U0RV4Aq7Omu9B_xiulkmSAPEY79AQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjUl-nEgrvoAhUZV80KHV-7ApIQ6AEwC3oECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=tezuka hitlini&f=false

[6] Frederik L. Schodt, The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution. Stone Bridge Press (2007). https://books.google.com/books?id=WBQkG7kSfCgC&pg=PA124&lpg=PA124&dq=astro+boy+bailey&source=bl&ots=LWYNfHn162&sig=ACfU3U2jEHgIQ3hXHa550HOWjAvvRVRtIQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwieheTEhLvoAhVYXM0KHbA1BgkQ6AEwD3oECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=astro boy bailey&f=false.

[7] Oshima, Tana. “This is when Atom (Astro Boy) meets the KKK during his trip to the USA and is invited to join the dark side, which he refuses by saying: ‘I’m a robot. I can only do good’. What the KKK answers next is very revealing. (1951).”. Instagram, March 24, 2019. https://www.instagram.com/p/BvZQqeTBhh1/

[8] Panel from an Astro Boy manga by Osamu Tezuka. https://3.bp.blogspot.com/-a-nWMcUPbm8/Ut38sQtvSJI/AAAAAAAAB00/hkhA7DVb1n0/s1600/Astro+Boy+Book+2+26.png

[9]  Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy Omnibus, Volume 3 TPB. Dark Horse Comics (2016). Page 167. https://www.darkhorse.com/Books/28-436/Astro-Boy-Omnibus-Volume-3-TPB#prettyPhoto%5B28-436%5D/3/

[10] Christoffel, Paul . Censored: A Short History of Censorship in New Zealand. Produced by the Department of Internal Affairs’ Research Unit (1989). https://www.dia.govt.nz/diawebsite.nsf/wpg_URL/Resource-material-Our-Research-and-Reports-Censored-A-Short-History-of-Censorship-in-New-Zealand

[11] ” Indecent Publications Tribunal.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. Page last edited on 19 December 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indecent_Publications_Tribunal

[12] “Banned Books Awareness: ‘Naked Lunch'” by R. Wolf Baldassarro. Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge. Posted November 9, 2014. https://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/column/2014/11/09/banned-books-awareness-naked-lunch/

[13] “Dead Fingers Talk.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. Page last edited on 5 December 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Fingers_Talk

[14] “‘No more time-travel drama’, authority says it disrespects history”. April 3rd, 2011. http://www.chinahush.com/2011/04/03/no-more-time-travel-drama-authority-says-it-disrespects-history/

[15] “The ‘Americanisation’ of Cardcaptor Sakura”. May 28th, 2011.  https://actar.wordpress.com/2011/05/28/the-%E2%80%9Camericanisation%E2%80%9D-of-cardcaptor-sakura/

[16] “Kirk and Uhura’s kiss”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. Page last edited on 18 February 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirk_and_Uhura%27s_kiss

[17] ” The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News”. The Atlantic. March 8, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/largest-study-ever-fake-news-mit-twitter/555104/

[18] “Ursula K Le Guin’s speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books aren’t just commodities'”. The Guardian. November 20th, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/20/ursula-k-le-guin-national-book-awards-speech

Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s first science fiction novels Too Like the Lightning, Seven Surrenders, and The Will to Battle (volumes 1-3 of Terra Ignota, from Tor Books & Head of Zeus) explore how humanity’s cultural and historical legacies might evolve in a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations. She teaches in the University of Chicago History Department, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and the history of books, publication and reading, censorship and information, especially radical thought, heresy, and atheism. You can find her current project on censorship at voices.uchicago.edu/censorship, including a free online web discussion video series about information control during information revolutions created in collaboration with Cory Doctorow & Adrian Johns. She blogs for Tor.com, consults for anime/manga publishers, and writes the philosophy & travel blog ExUrbe.com.

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