Humour

Tagged: Theme

There is a false belief that sf and humour do not mix. Certainly sf has produced many bad jokes – Arthur C Clarke's Tales From the White Hart (coll of linked stories 1957) is entirely devoted to them – but from the beginning it has also produced many good ones. Much sf humour takes the form of social Satire, and stories of this kind are discussed mainly in that entry. While the discussion below naturally includes satires also, it focuses on sf that elicits laughter rather than a wry smile.

The wittiest sf writers of the late nineteenth century were probably Mark Twain, Samuel Butler, Ambrose Bierce and H G Wells. The humour of Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), like so much humour generally, is rooted in self-confident prejudice: Twain clearly found the bumbling incompetence of the Middle Ages irresistibly funny. Butler's satire in Erewhon (1872) often consists of topsy-turvy analogies, as in the comparison between UK churches and Erewhonian banks, pointing up the self-interest Butler supposed to be the motive for religious devotion. Bierce's short stories often have a grim and macabre humour. Wells's, on the other hand, are often jolly, as in "The Truth about Pyecraft" (April 1903 Strand). Other early works of sf humour are Mr Hawkins' Humorous Inventions (coll of linked stories 1904) by Edgar Franklin and Button Brains (1933) by J Storer Clouston, a novel that introduced several Robot jokes which have since been overused.

Also working in the 1930s was John Collier, whose short stories amuse through the sometimes poisonous sharpness of their language and a cruel sense of the ironies of life. Roald Dahl and – to a degree – Gerald Kersh were to write rather similar stories later on, but these writers, working in the tradition of Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's Contes cruels ["Cruel Stories"] (coll 1883), were primarily fantasists who used sf themes only occasionally.

Occasional humorists have consistently popped up in Genre SF, and with the advent of the magazine Unknown in 1939 they had a platform. Unknown specialized in whimsical fantasy, sometimes dealing with Supernatural Creatures, very often set in Parallel Worlds. Anthony Boucher was an important contributor, and many of his stories of this type are collected in The Compleat Werewolf (coll 1969). Even better remembered are the Harold Shea stories by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, later collected as The Complete Enchanter (coll 1975): propelled back into versions of a mythic or literary past, Shea has a terrible time coming to terms with the local customs in worlds where Magic works. The early 1940s also saw a whole series of broad but accomplished jokes by Eric Frank Russell, usually featuring cunning protagonists who deflate the pretensions of the brutal, the stupid and the pompous in various interplanetary venues. Examples from a slightly later period, when Russell had perfected his wisecracking style, are "... And Then There Were None" (June 1951 Astounding), Wasp (1957) and The Space Willies (June 1956 Astounding as "Plus X"; exp 1958 dos; vt Next of Kin). From the same period come many of Fredric Brown's amusing stories, like "Placet is a Crazy Place" (May 1946 Astounding), in which the eponymous planet apparently meets itself during its orbit, creates hallucinations, is undermined by heavy-matter widgie birds and becomes the locale for horrendous puns. Brown's outrageous inventions have appeared in many collections, including Angels and Spaceships (coll 1954; vt Star Shine) and Nightmares and Geezenstacks (coll 1961). A less well known funny sf book of that period is The Sinister Researches of C.P. Ransom (coll of linked stories 1954) by Homer Nearing Jr.

Humorous genre sf is more common in short stories than at novel length. Three of sf's premier humorists worked commonly and perhaps at their best in this form, with the result that, perhaps, their full stature has not been generally recognized: Henry Kuttner, William Tenn and Robert Sheckley. Kuttner's humour may have dated the most quickly, but "The Twonky" (September 1942 Astounding) as by Lewis Padgett is a classic (filmed in 1952 as The Twonky), as are his Hogben stories (October 1947-October 1949 Thrilling Wonder) and the Galloway Gallegher series, collected as Robots Have No Tails (stories January 1943-April 1948 Astounding; coll 1952). Tenn's style is more polished; but it is Sheckley who for many years remained the most consistent humorist of them all. Nothing is ever quite what it seems in Sheckley's urbane stories, and, with an inventiveness that lasted through the 1950s and 1960s, he depicted the naive but sometimes successful struggles of little men against an unimaginably absurd and rather menacing cosmos. Philip K Dick, although a fundamentally more serious writer, had something of the same quality, and most of his novels have a rich sense of the various comic ways in which the life of the future might thwart us; he is especially well known for robots that talk back.

Both Dick and Sheckley often published in Galaxy Science Fiction, a magazine that, notably under Horace Gold, encouraged wit, satire and a moderately demanding literacy in its writers, who also included Frederik Pohl and Alfred Bester, both of whom were as much at home with the humorous story as with the serious sf for which they are best remembered. Bester's "The Men who Murdered Mohammed" (October 1958 F&SF), a wry and funny Time-Paradox story, appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the home of Reginald Bretnor's appalling Ferdinand Feghoot series of vignettes with punning punch-lines (see Feghoots).

Most well-known sf authors have tried their hand at humour at one time or another, sometimes rather heavy-handedly, as in Keith Laumer's Retief series or Gordon R Dickson's and Poul Anderson's Hoka series. More successful in this line has been Harry Harrison, who has often amusingly parodied the excesses of genre sf, as in the Stainless Steel Rat stories and in Bill, the Galactic Hero (December 1964 Galaxy as "The Starsloggers"; exp August-October 1965 New Worlds; 1965). A wry, Irish humour of sharp observation came often from Bob Shaw, who also had a good line in pastiche; his comic novel Who Goes Here? (1977) straight-facedly produces a spaceship which has a matter transmitter at each end, and thus can be driven by being repeatedly transmitted through its own length (see Matter Transmission).

Comic sf of the 1960s and 1970s tended strongly towards satire, and its comedy – especially that of the New Wave – was often black. Nearly all of John T Sladek's work is of this sort; it tends more towards irony than farce (although he has also written raucously funny farce, notably in Parody), blending comedy with nightmare in tales that often deal with technology running amok and mankind being manipulated. His one-time collaborator Thomas M Disch is one of the most formidable of sf's wits and stylists, though again it is the wry smile rather than the outright laugh that is evoked. Michael Moorcock often deals in a comedy of unexpected juxtapositions, as in his Dancers at the End of Time series, where time-travellers constantly misunderstand one another's customs. In the same period, however, Ron Goulart became known for knockabout, satiric farce. Gaining notoriety late in the 1960s, R A Lafferty is offbeat in quite another way. His bizarre, quasi-surrealist humour depends strongly on the exuberant idiosyncrasy of his language; his flamboyantly tall stories are seen by some as morally stringent, dismissed by others as empty games. His work has never fitted the conventions of genre sf, floating somewhere between sf and fantasy. The same could be said of the 1975 Illuminatus trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, a rambling story of conflicting conspiracies and secret cults which persuasively argues for the accuracy of a paranoid (see Paranoia) view of Politics; a sometimes bloodshot view of the vagaries of human behaviour is expressed through farce, wisecracks and general lunacy.

One of the least plausible of all comic sf novels is Piers Anthony's Prostho Plus (stories November 1967-October 1970 If and November 1967 Analog; 1971), featuring a kidnapped Earth dentist forced to practise on a hideous variety of alien teeth; it is carried off, against all the odds, with verve. Anthony subsequently became known for comic fantasy rather than comic sf, his tone being in the tradition set by De Camp and Pratt in their Unknown stories. Along with Christopher Stasheff's Warlock series, Anthony's novels set a trend, in the 1970s and 1980s, for novels sited in alternate fantasy worlds featuring slapstick, agonizing puns, and a Twain-like juxtaposition of modernisms with archaisms. Alan Dean Foster, Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert Asprin and many others have worked in this subgenre, which has proved commercially very successful, though it includes more dire undergraduate humour than is digestible for grown-up readers. The first great success story of written sf humour in the 1980s – a decade not generally notable for funny sf – was Douglas Adams. Other producers, on a much smaller scale, were Rudy Rucker and Howard Waldrop in the USA and (more recently) Robert Rankin in the UK.

Humour notoriously translates badly, and the wit of Stanisław Lem in such works as Cyberiada (coll 1965; trans as The Cyberiad 1974) and "Kongres Futurologiczny" (in Bezsenność, coll 1971; trans as The Futurological Congress 1974), while attested by his Polish readership as being full of subtle ironies and linguistic fireworks, appears rather crude in the English-language versions.

Sf humour has been a mainstay of both the small and large screens. In the USA, humorous television series have included The Jetsons, My Favorite Martian, My Living Doll, Mork & Mindy, ALF and Futurama, most of these being sitcoms in which human foibles become all too clear when seen from an alien or futuristic perspective. A very selective list of humorous sf movies from the USA would include The Absent Minded Professor, Android, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Dark Star, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; Earth Girls Are Easy, Flesh Gordon, Galaxy Quest, The Ice Pirates, The Man with Two Brains, Men in Black, Meet the Applegates, Monkey Business, The Nutty Professor, The President's Analyst, Real Genius, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Schlock, Short Circuit, Sleeper, Spaced Invaders, Terrorvision and Weird Science, a list which should, perhaps, include as well the films of Larry Cohen and David Cronenberg which, though mostly sf/horror, are also shot through with dark humour, as are some Splatter Movies, like Re-Animator. There is a small subgenre of joke Superhero or supervillain films, such as Despicable Me, The Incredibles and Megamind. No clear conclusion can be drawn from the overall list, which contains few really good films and few really bad. It does contain a notable amount of pastiche and Parody, something that normally occurs fairly late in the history of any genre, and it is interesting to note that the majority of the films listed are relatively recent; many are aimed at a younger audience.

The story is a little different in the UK, where sf humour for the big screen is rare and, when it does appear, usually poor, as in Morons from Outer Space. But there is a long tradition of light-hearted humour in UK television, which bubbled up strongly in much of the long-running Doctor Who series. It did not, however, reach cult proportions until the television version of the radio success The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy appeared in 1981. This was written by Douglas Adams, whose Hitch Hiker books, developed from the radio series, became bestsellers. Behind the extremely funny absurdity of the series there seems to be a mournfully nihilist view of life on Earth (and in the cosmos), where nothing means very much at all, and we are all shuttlecocks racketed around by fate or, if it comes to that, Entropy. A similar view of the soft white underbelly of human existence reappeared in 1988 in the (also very successful) television series Red Dwarf (1988-current), a Space Opera with an unbelievably small cast, only one of them indubitably both human and alive.

There is one line of development visible among the variety of authors named in this entry: sf humour has by and large been pessimistic. The ordinary guy battered by circumstance, trying to find meaning or justice in a Universe where these commodities may be nonexistent, is a character running through from Collier via Sheckley, Dick and Sladek to reach perhaps its apotheosis in Adams. Indeed Kurt Vonnegut Jr, probably the most famous of all sf humorists, fits squarely into this tradition. In, for example, The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Cat's Cradle (1963) – and with a somewhat more brittle and fatalistic air in Slaughterhouse-5 (1969) – Vonnegut contrives scenarios at once witty, sardonic and nihilistic, though in the earlier books the nihilism is softened by the affection he shows for the absurd and doomed ambitions of his protagonists. Some see Vonnegut as a fierce wit in the tradition of Jonathan Swift; others find his black comedies increasingly facile, repetitive, and disfigured by the literary equivalent of nervous tics. So it goes.

David Langford's parodic bent infiltrates much of his fiction, though it is most clearly expressed in He Do the Time Police in Different Voices (coll 2003), which assembles parodies of various writers and tendencies. But the great UK comic success of the 1980s is Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld books climb to the top of bestseller lists with satisfying regularity, and who writes work both joyful and delightful, allowing the little man his triumphs as well as his agonies. Most readers would call these books fantasies, but besides frequently exploring innovations and Inventions with a distinctly sf sensibility they are, after all, set on a planet other than Earth. It is, one must confess, a very flat planet, and perched on the back of a giant turtle.... [PN/DRL]

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