EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Alex Shvartsman on the Humorous Side of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Alex Shvartsman has been published in Daily Science Fiction, Nature, Penumbra and Buzzy Magazine. Besides being a writer, he’s a game designer, a business owner and has traveled to more than 30 countries playing a card game for a living. He recently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund Unidentified Funny Objects, an anthology of humorous SF and fantasy stories by such writers as Mike Resnick, Ken Liu and Lavie Tidhar. UFO will be published in November.

SF Signal had the opportunity to chat with Alex about the humorous side of science fiction and fantasy.


JAMES AQUILONE: John Scalzi recently told Locus magazine that “humor is one of the great taboos of science fiction.” Why do you think that is?

ALEX SHVARTSMAN: The short answer is: because writing humor is hard. Much harder than writing drama.

I think it only fair that I shamelessly swipe the long answer to this question from John Scalzi himself who explained it better than I can during the Redshirts book tour. I’m paraphrasing what he said, below:

Suppose I want to write a very sad scene and I’d like it to be powerful enough to make the reader cry. If you read it and cry, I’ve succeeded. If you read it and feel very sad but don’t actually shed tears, I succeeded a little bit less but the scene still worked, for the most part. If you read the scene and are touched just a little by its content, that still gets a passing grade. I only fail if you read it and feel absolutely nothing. Now suppose I want to write a scene that’s intended to make you laugh. You read it and you either laugh, or you don’t. Being mildly amused won’t cut it. Thus, my likelihood of success in creating such a scene is much, much lower.

Many writers don’t want to take a chance on humor, because the odds of really connecting with the reader are so much lower.

JA: Have you had trouble selling humor stories? What reactions have you gotten from editors after submitting comedic SF stories?

AS: As any working writer will tell you, selling any sort of a story to a worthy market is a challenge. Humor stories are more difficult still. For one, there are far fewer markets that will even consider them. Plenty of the top magazines and anthologies lean toward darker material.

Most of my own funnier stories remain unsold at this point, even as my more “serious” stuff finds markets with reasonable consistency. I’ve never had a particularly bad experience with any editor; it’s just that there are only so many humorous stories that will be considered even at markets that do publish some material.

Of course, the other alternative is that my humor stories aren’t as good as I think they are. But that couldn’t possibly be true, could it?

JA: Is it harder to be funny in science fiction than in fantasy?

AS: I think it’s equally difficult, but it’s possible that fantasy tropes lend themselves to humor better than science fiction tropes. When I was reading submissions for UFO, the most common type of humor story I received was urban fantasy. It seems writers find vampires, gods placed in an urban setting, and especially zombies irresistibly funny.

JA: There have been plenty of comedic SF TV shows and movies. So it can work. But why the taboo when it comes to the literary side of the genre?

AS: I’d argue that comedy is more difficult to do in the written form than on video or other platforms. Consider that some of the funniest standup routines wouldn’t be all that funny if you were to read them on paper, because so much of it is in the delivery.

JA: What are some of your favorite funny SF stories?

AS: First, there are the classics. Fredric Brown, Robert Sheckley, Douglas Adams, Harry Harrison are excellent examples of writers who produced great, funny SF and fantasy. But if I had to choose just one funny SF story as my favorite, it’d be Wikihistory by Desmond Warzel.

JA: Who else is writing great, funny SF stories today?

AS: I’m a huge Mike Resnick fan. He’s churning out lots of great short stories and novels and many of them are very funny. John Scalzi is hilarious as well; Redshirts is a must-read for any SF humor aficionado. There are excellent newcomers as well. One writer to watch is James Beamon. Although he’s had only a handful of short stories published so far, he is blessed with an amazing sense of comedic timing and I’m confident that you’ll be seeing his name a lot more in coming years.

JA: Speaking of Redshirts, do you think Scalzi’s book will open the door for more humor in science fiction?

AS: I really hope so. There are plenty of people out there who prefer light, humorous stories to the grim stuff. And in case of Scalzi’s Redshirts, they voted with their wallets to make it a New York Times bestseller. This should make publishers take notice. Will it result in an entire crop of imitator novels the way Twilight did with glittering vampires? Probably not, but I’ll consider just a few humorous manuscripts getting a closer look at various publishing houses a win.

JA: You’ve put together an anthology of humorous SF stories, Unidentified Funny Objects. Tell us about it.

AS: I set out to create a forum for the kind of funny stories that may be getting the short end of the stick in other markets. A collection that would feature all kinds of lighthearted stories, from slapstick to satire to absurdist to gentle humor.

The resulting book is a collection of 29 stories, including tales from Jody Lynn Nye, Ken Liu and Lavie Tidhar.

Mike Resnick contributed an awesome novelette which is worth the cover price of the book all by itself.

I’m especially pleased to include a story by Sergey Lukyanenko, which I translated from Russian. Although he isn’t very well known in America yet, Lukyanenko is hugely popular in Europe. His books have been translated into dozens of languages, and they are absolutely amazing. I was thrilled at the opportunity to both translate and publish one of his stories.

Jake Kerr wrote a story told entirely through a Twitter feed — so we coded it to look like a Twitter page and posted it on our website as a free preview for the book. You can check it out here: ufopub.com/twitter

I can keep going on, but you get the idea: I think this book is pretty amazing. I’m biased, of course, but I’m also right :)

JA: What was the initial reaction when you said you wanted to do an anthology of humorous science fiction and fantasy stories?

AS: I suspected right from the start that I wasn’t the only one who’d want to see a humor SF/F anthology come to life. Even so, I was blown away by the amount of support and encouragement I got from everyone. Just look at the names above — how likely would some of them have been to contribute to an anthology being put together by a first-time anthologist and published by a brand-new company if they weren’t interested in seeing Unidentified Funny Objects succeed as a concept?

In a three-month submission period, my team and I read over 900 submissions from writers who wanted to be a part of this project.

But it wasn’t just writers who got behind this project — I was able to raise over $6000 on Kickstarter (which is 20 percent more than I set out to do) with well over 200 individuals backing the project. The book is due out in November, but I’m already getting pre-orders through the website on a regular basis.

I was able to spend some of the extra cash from Kickstarter and pre-orders on buying even more stories and publishing them for free on the ufopub.com website. We have a lineup of stories to post through February. The first one was Ogre King and the Piemaker by Tarl Kudrick and it went live on September 29.

I hope that Unidentified Funny Objects is successful enough to become an annual anthology but also successful enough to prompt other publishers to print more humor stories.

After all, I have lots of humor stories on my hard drive and I need more places to submit them to!

James Aquilone is a writer and editor. Visit him at jamesaquilone.com.

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