For too long I have avoided all humor in my SF/F/H reading trends. I generally opted for books very dark and void of even hope; however, recently I’ve been finding myself reading some SF/F/H books containing humor and really enjoying them! I caught myself laughing out loud at bits of dialogue, connecting with a character’s comical reaction, and relating to bumbling missteps as characters interact. Humor sprinkled throughout a book can help the narrative flow and create nuanced depth to the characters.
The cliched saying of “everything in moderation” holds true for me in writing as well as most things. Some of my favorite authors use humor and levity to balance the more serious aspects of their work. Look at Shakespeare: even his most serious plays had buffoons. The balance, the moments of laughter, make the dramatic moments more powerful. Life is not one monotonous emotional tone, and I find that the greatest work reflects that. There’s a rhythm to the ups and downs that great writers capture utilizing comedy.
A personal anecdote: my father worked in the parking control division for the city of Topeka. All I knew about my father’s job was that he hated it. He hated getting up every single day and going, but he had a strong work ethic. I imagined that his job was never-ending toil and misery. Then one day, he took me work with him, and I spent an hour or two in his office. Imagine my shock and surprise when all these men and women spent their time telling one another jokes and laughing. And my father, he was funny and not at all miserable in those moments. It changed my worldview about humor and work completely. Even though my father hated working for a living (and who doesn’t sometimes), his job wasn’t a constant slog. It had bright, humorous moments. The comedy made the time pass faster. It balanced the bad. Myself, I try to look for the humor to balance the bad things in life.
I absolutely enjoy the work of straight-up humorists and satirists, including but not limited to Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Esther Friesner, and Connie Willis. But I think it’s also important to recognize authors who see the value of utilizing humor as one of many notes, or one of many tools. This kind of humor use often goes unrecognized in science fiction and fantasy, but I think it’s just as important. Would Andy Weir’s The Martian have been anywhere near as successful if his titular character had not kept a good sense of humor through his trials and tribulations? Without it, I can’t imagine he would have been able to get out of bed in the morning.
Some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy stories have an organic humor that propels the story forward. Take, for example, the exploits of Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. His continuous bemusement drives the story forward through some of the most insane sci-fi scenarios imaginable and gives Adams an opportunity to introduce the reader – also a fish out of water, in their own way—to his world. Hapless protagonists who act as foils to the much more knowledgeable characters who inhabit a world works equally well for fantasy authors. No one uses this better than Terry Pratchett. The Color of Magic and its sequel The Light Fantastic introduce readers to Discworld through the eyes of Rincewind – a thoroughly awful wizard—and Twoflower – the aforementioned hapless protagonist. Rincewind acts as a guide to Twoflower and the two could not be more different. Rincewind is a consummate curmudgeon and Twoflower is a wide-eyed, optimistic tourist. Humor blossoms naturally from this odd couple relationship, but Pratchett always uses it as a way of fleshing out and developing his characters while simultaneously making a broader, usually satirical, point.
Many readers consider Adams and Pratchett to be almost exclusively humor writers who happen to place their stories in science fiction or fantasy worlds. However, even more “serious” writers have written humorous stories. Stanislaw Lem, author of Solaris, wrote a series of hilarious short-stories about a space traveler named Ijon Tichy. Lem gives us this description of Tichy’s reaction to an on-board malfunction which has ruined his best cut of sirloin:
“I momentarily lost my usually level head, burst into a volley of the vilest oaths and smashed a few plates. This did give me a certain satisfaction, but was hardly practical. In addition, the sirloin which I threw overboard, instead of drifting off into the void, didn’t seem to want to leave the rocket and revolved about it, a second artificial satellite, which produced a brief eclipse of the sun every eleven minutes and four seconds.”
Humor works only when it is treated as a natural extension of the story, something that comes organically in the telling. It can’t be shoe-horned in and still be expected to have the same impact. The addition of genre elements gives the author even more tools to use to craft a humorous situation.
Humor can serve many functions in a story, it can be used to break tension, set the mood for a story, frame a narrative as a parody/satire, or simply make one laugh. John Scalzi often injects humor into his fiction, whether it is a snarky narrator or group of characters, a parody of a genre favorite (Redshirts of course being a loving satire of Star Trek), or most blatantly, by starting his novel with a fart joke, as he did with The Android’s Dream.
“Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could really fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.”
From there, Scalzi takes aim at international relations, or in this case, inter-species and interplanetary relations and even a bit at geek culture. Though not nearly as much as with regard to geek culture as he does with loving joy in Redshirts.
Then there’s Terry Pratchett. Even if folks haven’t read a Pratchett novel, if they’ve spent any time browsing the science fiction and fantasy shelves, they know the name. Though initially his Discworld novels can be seen as poking fun at the genre of fantasy, it grew from there into a smart, incisive, satire on the world at large through the ever-powerful lens of fantastical metaphor.
Sir Terry also happened to pen a very humorous novel poking the bear of Catholicism/Christianity with Neil Gaiman in Good Omens. It has been years and years since I read it (maybe with the pending adaptation now is a good time to revisit it), but I recall enjoying it. Neil has, of course, written his fair share of humorous fictions and fictions with humor, but for my money, the one that made me laugh the most was Anansi Boys. With a protagonist by the name of Fat Charlie, you’ve either got a mobster novel or a humor novel. Gaiman made me smile, he moved me, and unsettled me, often in the same paragraph.
As for taking a jab at the entire genre, many authors do this, but few do it as well as Diana Wynne Jones in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland which is a travelogue of what to expect if one “tours” the genre. The book pokes fun at the trappings/clichés of Epic Fantasy, but in a very endearing fashion and can be considered one very large inside joke between readers (fans and non-fans) of epic fantasy and Jones herself. Should you come to this book having read a fair share of Epic Fantasy, you will likely find yourself nodding and snickering at the CAPITALIZATION of terms, as well as the icons indicating a “cliché,” “religion,” or “transportation.”
Most novels of high fantasy tend to feature the characters of good triumphing over evil, but for a wonderful and humorous take on the army on the side of the dark, Mary Gentle’s Grunts and Ari Marmell’s The Goblin Corps show that there’s much heart, and humor, on the “other side” of the good vs. evil conflict.
Peter David is one of the most accomplished writers in any of the genres, having written hundreds of comics, many Star Trek novels as well as many original novels. Most interesting here would be novels following Apropos, which include Sir Apropos of Nothing, The Woad to Wuin, and Tong Lashing. In these books, David shows how the sidekick wants to come out of the shadows and be the hero himself. Since Apropos is something of a craven, selfish, jerk, you’d think the first person narrative might be annoying, but it makes the books that much more endearing and enjoyable.
“Dying is Easy. Comedy, that’s hard” as supposedly said by Shakespearean Actor Edmund Kean on his deathbed is a nugget of wisdom, especially when trying to find comedy that’s more than a flash in the pan. A joke of the moment is infinitely easier than comedy that is long lasting and eternal. Shelf life of comedy that works on a large scale is awfully short. SF/F/H is no exception to this. Finding comedy in SF that works is hard. Finding comedy that doesn’t go out of date in a few years or even sooner, is an even tougher bar.
There is another problem, too. There a perception, I think, in some genre circles that if we are serious, and dark, and serious, then genre works will be taken really seriously. Take the DC movies, Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. The joylessness, the lack of any sort of fun or humor, or so little as to not to matter, is, I think, an attempt to be a serious film that will be taken very seriously and show that superhero movies are not spandex fluff. Its bollocks and the lack of any humor in these films is a real Achilles heel. Not only aren’t the movies joyless, they aren’t taken as the high cinematic art they jettison any attempt at fun to try and achieve.
I had gotten a case of the flu a year ago, In the depths of my misery, I stared at two of my DVDs deciding which one to watch–The Dark Knight Rises, or Iron Man. I picked Iron Man and never looked back, and felt better upon watching. Why? Not just because of the high color action, which definitely went down easy, but because of the banter between Pepper and Tony, because of the joking relationship between Tony and Rhodey, and how funny even Obadiah can be when he’s putting on the charm. That sort of relationship humor, between characters, is the kind of humor that can last longer than one liners about contemporary politics or current events. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man are two Marvel movies that push the humor a little bit more, going for the lighter side, and both of them use character based humor to give us laughs as well as bond with the characters. Just consider the early sequence in GOTG when Rocket, Gamora and Quill are scrambling and fighting each other for the Orb, with pratfalls, reverses, premature triumphs and a lighthearted tone. You’re not worried bystanders are going to die in *this* scramble (that’d be the DC approach) and you are smiling when Quill gets tossed into a bag like something out of Laurel and Hardy.
Print humor can be trickier to manage, I think, than even in movies, which can rely on visual gags when dialogue fails. And even more than movies, humorous SF in print gets short shrift, especially when it comes to critical acclaim.
People invoke authors like the late Robert Asprin, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett because they are the exception, rather than the rule when it comes to humor. The antics of CMOT Dibbler, scheming his way through life in Ankh-Morpork, the puns and wordplay of Aahz the Pervect and Skeeve, and poor Marvin the Android, a figure of comedy in his endless misery, are all timeless. But they are the exception, not the rule, in genre fiction, and it takes time to really determine if the comedy will stick. Most doesn’t.
Will Bob, the elder and quirky Dragon seer of the Heartstriker clan in Rachel Aaron’s series hold up over time? Or the eponymous Owl, in Kristi Charish’s novels, who gets herself in serious and also sometimes rather funny predicaments? Or perhaps the Star Wars quoting Loki in Chadwick Ginther’s Thunder Road trilogy, sowing chaos and discord? Some of the more infamous adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, especially in lighter novels in A Civil Campaign do hold up (oh, and poor Mark and the butterbugs!). Too, Ivan as a point of view put-upon figure works very well in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. The comedy of manners in Walter Jon Williams’ Majistral series is a different kind of humor altogether, and very much a deliberate throwback to a more Oscar Wilde Victorian era kind of comedy with false identities and social miscues being the order of the day. Will its comedy last, too? Time will tell.
I have to agree that I tend to lean toward the dark and hopeless with my SF/F/H reading. I think the reason is because I’m generally looking for something serious to balance all the fantastic. I want to really believe it when characters are frightened or devastated. If there’s death or romance, I want to hurt and fall in love right alongside them. I suppose I have some fear that if a book doesn’t take itself seriously, I won’t take the book seriously.
However, being quite honest, I find it much, much worse when a book takes itself too seriously and the writing can’t hold up. This might be why I’m much more humor-inclined with the SF/F/H films I watch. Shaun of the Dead. Slither. Black Sheep. Housebound. Critters. All these movies, favorites of mine, definitely use humor to their advantage. In most of these films, the actions and reactions of characters, as well as the very premises, are ridiculous and over-the-top. The writers and directors realized that the best way to counter that was to let the audience know that they were in on the joke. As much as I’m a LotR fangirl—for all the series’ lovely despair and desolation—my favorite fantasy film (and perhaps favorite film of all time) is still The Princess Bride.
Bringing it back to books, I’d have to say that when I usually go for humor in SF/F/H, I go all the way: Douglas Adams for sci-fi and Terry Pratchett for fantasy. Both The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Discworld series use humor in similar ways. They make fun of the tropes of the genres. They’re unceasingly sarcastic. They often rely on protagonists who have no desire to be in the stories—or the fantastic worlds—that they’re stuck in. I recently got around to reading William Goldman’s The Princess Bride and found it much the same. Right at the start of the novel, Goldman makes fun of the (sexist) concept of beauty in fantasy by talking about how it was that Buttercup became the most beautiful woman in all the world—who was #1 when she was only in the top 20, how each woman fell from their #1 spot because of chocolate or wrinkles or whatnot. For lovers of genre fiction, I think half the fun of such books is recognizing the tropes and watching how the author makes jokes of them. The humor, for me, is in the deconstruction.