Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Picking your battles: censorship and self-censorship

Schleteva, Galibi, Nazani. And Westerham Falls, Maine. They're all places I write about, but you won't find them on any map. Okay, you'll find Maine. That's real. But other than the obvious, I made them up for the purposes of fiction. (Schleteva isn't Ukraine, by the way, nor is Galibi. Too far west, and I was already writing G.I. Joe by the time the Ukraine crisis kicked off.) Why invent a location when the world is full of great places to set a story?

One of the problems with fiction is that it has consequences in the real world, which is why you see all those boilerplate disclaimers at the front of every book and the end of every movie reminding people that it's all fiction and not intended to refer to anyone who actually exists. Of course, there are always writers who file off the serial numbers from real life, which doesn't help in a court case, but a lot of us really do make everything up. Because it's fiction. That's what it means. Characters like and dislike things, and expressing that is a central part of characterisation. Characters also disagree with each other.

So how far do you go? Readers sometimes think that writers invent places because it's easier than researching them. Actually, it's relatively easy to do the level of research you need without even visiting a country. But some of us still invent towns and countries because there isn't a real location that fits what we need, or because we want to avoid trouble in a world where someone always seems eager to be offended. In some ways, it's harder to invent a place because you still have to shoehorn it into an existing county, country, or continent. I spent days working out sunrise-sunset times, climate, and distances and consulting people with local knowledge to make Nazani and Westerham credible but clearly invented.

It might seem over-cautious, but I recall when Beirut threatened to sue the producers of Homeland because the city was depicted as being a place where terrorist incidents occurred. (Ironically, within days of that story, there was a pretty big car bomb.) Then there was the more recent row when a character in a Dan Brown book didn't much like Manila and the city took umbrage. There's a long list of cities that didn't like the way they appeared in TV shows.

But a city doesn't actually need to stand a chance of bringing a case to court to cause problems for writers. The storm-in-a-teacup nature of the internet means that a small but vocal group can take offence about anything and scare retailers enough to get items taken off sale. Indie authors will relate the story of Kobo panicking and pulling all its indie titles off its site last year regardless of genre – even children's books – because someone got upset about erotica being available. A big company can probably cope with its products being taken off sale for a while, but for individual authors, it's a potential disaster. It's not beyond imagination that a country could apply pressure to a retailer too.

So some of us tend to play safe these days because we're not big companies and we can't weather those storms of irrationality. What might be good rebound publicity for a big name can be crippling for those of us further down the food chain. If you're going to have a fight about controversial material, sometimes it's better to keep your powder dry for the battles that matter, like tackling controversial subjects.