|Original text, or expurgated?|
In 1953, Ballantine Books published Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a novel set in a near future in which books are banned and burned. Twenty five years later, in 1967, in an effort to capture the “school market,” Ballantine published an expurgated version of the novel. The words “hell,” “damn,” and “abortion” were deleted. A “drunk” man becomes “sick.” A man cleaning his navel becomes a man cleaning his ear. Seventy-five passages (in a 150 page novel) were changed.
The expurgated edition was sold in U.S. schools, with no indication in the book that it had been altered. Six years later, Ballantine tired of marketing two different versions of the same title, so they discontinued the original. From 1973 through 1979, only the expurgated edition was available in the U.S.
All of this was done without the knowledge of the author, or pretty much anyone else.
In 1979, Bradbury learned of the hacking and raised the Fahrenheit on Ballantine. In 1980 the original was restored.
Happy ending? Perhaps, but suppose Bradbury had been dead, or had remained unaware of the literary vandalism? There have been similar “sanitations” of books such as Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Expurgated versions of Shakespeare’s plays have been widely used in schools.
To younger readers, this may seem like ancient history from the dark ages. I assure you it is not. Many authors, including myself, have had their works translated into other languages, or digitized and made into ebooks. Have these books been expurgated, bowdlerized, or censored without the author’s—or the public’s—knowledge? Almost certainly.
Today, an increasingly large percentage of our reading is electronic. Nothing is easier than for an individual censor to alter a text (one could search and replace “damn” with “darn,” for example) then disseminate it. All sorts of documents, from the Library of Congress to publishers’ catalogs, are vulnerable to attack.
I was thinking about that when I wrote The Forgetting Machine.
The Forgetting Machine is set in the near future, when cloud-based ebooks have mostly replaced printed books. How far in the future? I dunno. Most of the story is about a machine that can directly input information into the human brain, although for every bit of info inserted, some other bit gets deleted.
This creates serious problems for the heroine, Ginger Crump, whose boyfriend learns a great deal of American History, but forgets her.
At the same time, as Ginger is reading Charlotte’s Web on her e-reader, the book’s files are globally hacked to eliminate any mention of talking animals. Ginger and her memory-impaired boyfriend set out to discover the identity of the hacker and restore Charlotte’s Web to its original form.
The Forgetting Machine will be published on September 20.