An Element of Comedy

Saturday , 9, December 2017 16 Comments

Humor is an often neglected aspect of science fiction and fantasy.  Not only does it significantly improve less serious works, but it can make deep, thoughtful stories more memorable and engaging.  However, if it were so simple, then every book in those genres would be a barrel of laughs, right?  Not only is there the tremendous difficulty of writing a funny joke, which must elicit laughter without a comedian’s timing or pantomime, but there are several other pitfalls we shall examine.

The Central Plot of the Story Should be Treated Seriously

This is vital.  I’ve praised Harry Harrison’s outstanding Stainless Steel Rat series before, which is constantly humorous.  And yet, the villains are as menacing and ruthless as they come, committing wanton murder and torture.  The stakes are high and the action scenes are as tense as any other work of action science fiction.  Even Douglas Adams, with his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, never treated the central plot as a joke.  Sure, the characters and situations might be humorous, but the central quest was serious and at times, even tragic.  This is also true of books in Pratchett’s Discworld series, where the villains are terrifying and the final act is classic high stakes adventure.

By contrast, the plots I’ve read in Scalzi’s work are silly and treated as childish nonsense.

The Author Should Avoid Being Smug

Nothing ruins comedy more than an author who thinks he is especially clever and the characters and situations should cause humor by themselves, sans any jokes.  Sadly, this occurred in the last few books written by the aforementioned Pratchett, starting with Unseen Academicals.  He wrote a bunch of stock characters, often lazier versions of the ones that had appeared many times in earlier Discworld entries, and put them in weird situations.  However, there wasn’t actually anything funny going on.  One can empathize here, as Pratchett had been told by everyone he was a comic genius for at least the past 20 years, and was undergoing severe health problems.  Nevertheless, this should remind all writers of the need to avoid egotism in one’s own writing, especially with regards to humor.

Related to this,

The “Comedy” Shouldn’t Be An Angry (Often Political) Screed in Disguise

Once again, this is something that the excellent Sir Terry Pratchett succumbed to in his last few years, as Discworld started pushing more and more Social Justice issues, particularly an irritating form of feminism.  In one book, the once-sensible patrician Lord Vetinari states that he will force mass immigration and globalism upon the citizens of Ankh-Morpork….whether they like it or not.  Readers, of course, can see right through this bullshit for the mindless screed that it is.  And nothing kills humor quicker than banal political propaganda.

It need not be purely political, though.  In Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire (discerning readers will remember her as the author who got British comedian Jonathan Ross, an actual funny person, uninvited for Hugos, for fear that he might have told a fat joke), the author, through main character October “Toby” Daye, states that cops are very much like children.  It’s meant to be funny.  But whether one likes cops or not, it’s a puzzling, stupid statement.  Moreover, it has nothing to do with the main story of faeries fighting one another, and the police are barely present in the book.  So why include such a random, jarring screed?  Because Social Justice Warriors can’t control themselves and lose a sense of how an ordinary reader will react to such a rant. Don’t fall into this same trap, and peddle dogma, political or otherwise, under the guise of “humor”.

Comedy Need Not be Ever-Present

Obviously, humor is the main element in works by Harrison, Adams, and Pratchett.  Without it, the books wouldn’t be the same, and in the latter two cases, particularly good.  But writers like Lem and Heinlein used humor in more moderate doses to great effect in their works.  A joke here and there, and perhaps a light-hearted narration, but one hardly remembers the work as a comedy.  Which is fine.  Better to tell one joke which succeeds than tell a hundred jokes, eighty of which fail, and be considered a lousy comedian.

What say you, dear readers?  What are some of your favorite examples of humor in science fiction and fantasy, and what are some atrocious, Scalzi-esque horrors to avoid?

16 Comments
  • Anthony says:

    The first time a Hitchhiker’s book really HAD a plot was in book three.

  • Frank Luke says:

    The last two Discworld books I read were Unseen Academicals and Making Money. I had enjoyed everything in it I read prior to that, to various levels of enjoyment. Strike that, I detested Monstrous Regiment. The Tiffany Aching stories had eye rolling moments of feminism, but I kept going. With the comic thud of MM and the political screed of UA, I just left it.

    Add to the list of failing humor the Xanth series. I read, read, and reread those books until about a decade ago. Then I read Cube Route, the first new one I’d read in at least five years. The jokes fell flat. The plot was formulaic for the series. I gave up on it then, and from what I’ve read about the series since, I’m glad I did.

    • Vlad James says:

      I actually liked Making Money a lot. It stayed away from anything Social Justice or political, too. Amusingly, I’ve heard from friends that Raising Steam is even worse than Unseen Academicals.

  • John Cunningham says:

    Philip Jose Farmer’s Retief books are hilarious sendups of the US State Dept.

  • Eric says:

    The last 5 or so Discworld books were heavily ghostwritten by his daughter, or so I’ve heard; the later the books, the more ghostwritten they are. This article suggests that the ghostwriting started no later than 2012.

    • Vlad James says:

      Very interesting. Would explain a fair amount, too. I imagine she was involved in the series in some capacity well before that, though.

  • Andy says:

    Readers, of course, can see right (not “write”) through bullshit..and don’t peddle (not “pedal”) dogma.

  • Patrick C says:

    Was hoping to see more about “Variety Detective”!

    My entirely biased opinion is that humor doesn’t work with sf at all. Humor depends on some kind of twist on the familiar, on common experiences. Science fiction involves, well, the opposite.

    In TV land: the worst (original) Star Trek episodes were the “funny” ones – “Mudd’s Women”, “Trouble with Tribbles”, etc. The most unbearable episodes of “Next Generation” involved the (awful anyway) android being “funny”.

    As for real sf, I’ve never read more than a few pages if the author attempts to go for laughs.

  • Robespierre says:

    ERB interjects a good bit of humor without distracting from the story. In Tarzan #22, one character actually mistakes Tarzan for Johnny Weissmuller – both household names when the book was written. I laughed and laughed, and could just imagine Burroughs sitting at his typewriter laughing himself silly. He must have had a lot of fun creating his stories.

    The only Scalzi book I read was Red Shirts. I love the redshirts from the original Tek series – many were played by beefy actors who seemed appropriate for security details unlike later Trek security.

    I was hoping Scalzi’s book would give the feel of an old Trek story – it didn’t. Short of that, it should have at least been funny, given the plot.

    Spoiler alert?? – the protagonists are self-aware characters on a SF TV show, who somehow confront the writers of the show to get them to stop killing off all the characters. But Scalzi’s characters are so flat and unlikeable that I didn’t care if they lived or died. The “men” were milquetoast shadows and the female lead was a slut with, ironically enough, about as much feminine allure as a Peterbilt dump truck. I wanted the writers to whack ’em all.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Even better–he is mistaken for Johnny Weissmuller after he is forced by circumstances to do something he’s never done before–swing across a gap on a rope. And he hesitates, because it’s such a cliché. And sure enough…

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *