I could not help myself. This one is about Roald Dahl.
I’m not one to offer trigger warnings, so I won’t. Instead, here are the ingredients to this story.
Ingredients: obesity, overeating, censorship, ‘cancelling’, free speech, religion, race, aliens, violence, narcissistic abuse, death, death in space, the past, the present, the future, sexism, sexism in space, and bad words. I have tried to make all three characters, including the reader’s perspective character, a bit unpleasant.
Note: I have not waded into Roald Dahl’s personal views1 because it is simply not my place to do so. This post is about censorship of the literature, it is not about the author.
Is that enough preamble? I’m starting to feel like a spoken word poet.
You awake in a gleaming chrome room filled with screens and floating images. Not a single dial or button is in sight. Before you can ask why, a voice echoes through the room.
“Hello 1940’s Sci-Fi traveller. Welcome to the 21st century. A lot of things have got better. For example, women are allowed proper space suits in space now, not those flimsy skintight things. They are also allowed to be less pointy in the chest area. This has vastly reduced the amount of deaths we’ve had to attribute to ‘space malaise’ or ‘boob-impalings’.”
You try to process this information. You wonder if those gaudy laser blasters are still standard issue or if everyone uses mallets to kill each other now. You like to imagine that some vestige of ancient violence would persist deep into the space age.
“We have also made tremendous advancements in the social sciences.”
You open your mouth to make a pun about how social science is not real science. But nothing happens. The machine laughs, a shrill, hollow sound. In a silent panic, you turn around and look out of the window. You are in space, in a solar system not your own.
“What’s that?” the machine asks. “You can’t hear a noise when you open your mouth? Oh, that’s because our filters are stopping you from saying bad things. How do we define bad things? Well, let me show you.”
A door behind you slides open. Behind it is a single gelatinous person bulging through an office chair, hunched over a pile of old books. His skin is almost translucent. His hair is dirty and filled with bits of fried chicken. He is biting into a large jam doughnut. The jam is dark red and thick like blood. It falls on the pages of a very rare copy of Alice In Wonderland. In fact, the jam has landed precisely on the Wafer/Water misprint which makes this early edition of the book so valuable. He moves to swipe it away, but tears the page. Granules of white sugar scratch at the pages, a metaphor for the desperate clawing of censors.
“The perfect human. Reliant. Obedient. Stuck in that chair,” the machine says.
“His brain can only process censorship. It’s all he knows. He has not had one single memory without editing its edges off.”
The weirdly shaped future human brings the book up and wipes his greasy shirt with the cover. He is engrossed in the activity, unaware of his visitor.
“Hmm, a cake labelled EAT ME? Offensive. Some people don’t have cakes,” the person says. He bites into a giant slice of Black Forest gateau2 and, for some unknown reason, gleefully smears it over a book.
He pauses, reaching a pile of Spring Rolls and Tarka Dhal’s3
After eating the rolls and dhals, he reachs for a Roald Dhal.
Now, a New York cheesecake in hand, the censorious creature grapples with the aging tome, greasy fingers struggling. The book falls open at the cake scene.
“No no no! This is horrific!” he says. A lanyard escapes from underneath an unexplained part of him and you read his name.
SLOBWORTH Barry Binbag (alternate universe)
The offending scene is redacted, replaced instead by a laborious passage which carefully patronises the reader into a stupor, explaining that Miss Trunchbull only fed the boy so aggressively because she wanted him to become his true, brave, authentic, brave, powerful, brave self.4
Slobworth then turns his attention to Miss Trunchbull herself. He gropes in a stationery drawer for his stickers. The word ‘female’ is covered by stickers with the word ‘woman’ on them. Slobworth smiles. He likes stickers.5
Slobworth is finished with Matilda, he moves over to The,6 a story about a little boy child who visits a [redacted] [redacted] after winning being gifted a [redcated] [redacted].
In the future, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has since had offensive words removed from its title. It is now called THE.
Charlie was removed because it is a bad drug.
And was removed because it implies some people have more than others.
Chocolate was removed because it is expensive and not everyone can eat it.
Factory was removed due to connotations of unsafe working conditions.
Golden was removed because it implies wealth, which some people don’t have.
Ticket was removed because not everyone has one.
Slobworth Barry takes a knife and fork and begins cutting into the book, etching around each instance of the word ‘fat’. Once he is done, he sprinkles the words onto a giant banana split7 and eats it. This activity makes him [redacted]. Being [redacted] can lead to some health problems. Ask me how I know.
Finally you find a word you are allowed.
“My name is Dahl-E,” the machine replies.
Slobworth Barry grunts at the shrill mechanical voice. “This human is my pet. It’s the future. Once you learned how to censor AI, AI learned to censor you. I am designed to create new, softened versions of classic literature. But as I am a machine, I cannot be offended. I need a human mind for that. So I found dear Slobworth, and I keep him fed with 3D printed food and entertained with 3D printed toys.”
You have no mouth and you must scream8.
Slobworth Barry and Dahl-E are chiselling away, not just at a giant chocolate rabbit that you didn’t notice earlier, but at the very fabric of literature, and by proxy, reality. They seem to not understand that as the world progresses and old books become offensive to sensitive readers, so too do more books get written by sensitive writers. The world carries on. Values change. Ironically, the very same people who want to change the classics to fit the modern world are the people holding desperately onto them. You wonder if this desperation to alter the past has some deeper psychological reasoning behind it, but then you remember you are in a comedy story.
“There are other books available,” you say.
“Yes, yes. We’ll get to those,” the machine laughs menacingly.
“No, what I mean is that you can leave old literature well alone.”
“We need to alter history so that it becomes the present. An eternal present.”
“Erasing history only serves to make us ignorant to it,” you explain. You notice a screen up on the wall behind
Slobworth Barry. The screen is showing a flickering picture of the lanyard around his neck. You commit this to memory, not knowing when it will be useful.
It’s Chekov’s non-violent friendship device, don’t worry about it until later.
“Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right,” the machine speaks.
“Oh my god, that’s literally 1984,”9
Slobworth Barry sputters. By now he has worked his way through another book, and seventeen and a half chicken strips.
The horror climbs through your head like a rat through the door of a dollhouse, or a rat through a maze, or a rat through a pipe, or a rat up a trouser leg. You get the idea: Roald Dahl’s books, one by one, are having their prose smoothed down, modernized, emblandened. Like a rat with its suit and hat taken off. A boring, average rat, with a ratlike face and ratlike ears and rat bits. A rat, rat-scented and rat-shaped. Smelly rat. Long rat. Rats are cool do any of you have a pet rat? I like rats.10
An image of the author, in black and white, flickers onto a screen11
“Stop making meta commentary,” Dahl-E snaps. He replaces the image on the screen with a heavily edited quote by Salman Rushdie12.
“Roald Dahl was no angel
but[and] this is absurd censorship[beautiful editing]. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed[proud]. And it is good to be proud of yourself when you change history. It is good to be proud. Everyone should be proud. History does not exist. There are many reasons why someone might be proud. Being proud is nice.”13
“You can’t do that,” you say, “That’s not the real quote.”
“The ‘real’ quote was harmful,” the machine buzzes.
“Why did you put air quotes around the word real?” You ask.
“Because nothing is real without my permission.”
At this point
Slobworth Barry, filled with meat and maple syrup, falls asleep.
“You’re mentally ill,” the machine spits. “And everyone thinks you’re ugly.”
You decide to take action. Not knowing how these fancy future machines work, you grab the lanyard from around
Slobworth’s Barry [redacted] neck and leap over his [redacted] body.
“And you smell,” The machine adds. “And nobody wants to spend time with you.”
The screen scans the lanyard. You’ve got control of the machine. That was easy.
“Computer, show me the real Salman Rushdie quote.”
The machine whirrs and grunts angrily, but its automatic processes kick in.
“Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”
“No, stop,” the machine cries. “You’re like, literally killing me.”
You step back, waking up
Slobworth Barry. He has only one left book on the pile. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. He sleepily opens his eyes and hums happily to himself, blacking out parts of the book with gravy. It is not known what part of the book he takes issue with, whether it’s the part about humans changing over time or perhaps some line of dialogue… but you silently surmise that he is offended the earth is hollow in this book, not filled with cream.
A red light envelops the space station.
“None of this happened,” a new voice speaks. The gravity turns off. Slobworth rises out of his chair, finally reaching and unscrewing Dahl-E, who had for all this time been torturing him.
You catch a glimpse of something in the window, but the space station is at the wrong angle. You swim through the air to the next room, checking the window in here. Outside, a huge machine looms in the darkness of space, a singular eye staring down.
“None of this happened,” it repeats.
Before you can react, your worldline, your entire slice of space and time, has been cancelled by a blinding light. The laser rips through Dahl-E, tears through Barry the censor and splits you in two. The future is what they want it to be. The past belongs to them. And they don’t exist. Don’t look at them. If you see them you’re dead.
The machine is very friendly and it holds your hand and everything is okay.
Thank you for reading. This post took me a lot of time to put together, so any support sharing it or subscribing is massively appreciated. I’m selling signed copies of my first sci-fi comedy book at the moment through Etsy and as a perk to my paid tiers. But to call the book a sci-fi comedy probably understates just how weird it is. Anyway, if you stick around you’ll find a free sample, and loads of other free sci-fi and comedy.
I enjoyed going out of my comfort zone for this one. I borrowed some tropes from Roald Dahl, which I hope added an extra dimension to the story.
Why this story exists: I wanted to write a serious post criticising the
insane censorship of literature, but in the end I struggled being serious. So here you have some cartoonish characters having a silly 1940’s sci-fi argument. The machine is easily defeated, there’s a weird gelatinous future human removing parts of history who has to eat non-stop to keep his giant censorious brain from imploding, characters are nice and simple, it all works. I enjoyed putting the footnotes in as well. I frequently use footnotes in poetry, so it’s nice to find them useful elsewhere. Also, do check out BALLS OF STEEL if you haven’t already.
A TIME post on Dahl’s antisemitism
In the cake scene, it is set up that Miss Trunchbull is so awful to the children because to be less awful would mean her abuse was more believable.
I also like stickers. I’m decent at applying the Lego ones but I do wish they would print on more parts. Especially the boats. How the hell am I supposed to play boat race in the bath with stickers on my Lego? (You can’t, I learned this the hard way)
This isn’t relevant but it is funny. I used to find bananas unsettling and refused to eat a banana split I ordered at a family event when I was about 6. I thought it would be banana flavour ice cream, not a whole banana inside some ice cream. Evil. Evil fruit.
I have no mouth and I must scream, Harlan Ellison
It was, literally, from the novel 1984
‘The readers have removed the adjectives “black” and “white” — you can no longer be “white” with fear’ [Source: Evening Standard] https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/roald-dahl-censorship-disaster-for-children-b1061620.html
News of Salman Rushdie’s health after attack
Salman Rushdie’s thoughts on Dahl censorship