TT: Humorous SF/F

Looking for the Wednesday Wanderings?  Just page back one and join me, George R.R. Martin, Ellen Datlow, Steve Gould, and many other writers, editors, and devoted readers as we wander on about the books that made a difference when we were just getting started reading SF/F.  Then come back and have a laugh with me and Alan as we take a look at what we find funny.

JANE: One type of SF/F I’ve really wanted to discuss with you is humorous SF/F.   I think it would be fascinating to find out where humor does and does not cross cultural (not to mention gender and age) lines.

Books of Wit and Wisdom

Books of Wit and Wisdom

ALAN: It’s an all or nothing thing – you can’t be a little bit funny. Either it works or it doesn’t.   It’s funny or it isn’t.

JANE: Before we get started, I should warn you.  I strongly suspect I don’t have a sense of humor or, if I do, it’s a bit skewed because I often don’t find funny things other people find hilarious.  Here’s an example…

Are you familiar with the movie Raising Arizona?

ALAN: I know of it, but it’s a movie I’ve gone out of my way to avoid seeing because I know I’ll hate it.

JANE:  Hmm…  Then you probably have heard it’s about the lengths to which a childless couple will go to acquire a baby of their very own.

Jim thought it was one of the funniest movies he’d ever seen – not because he’s particularly cruel to children or anything, but because of the outrageous situations.  So, when we were dating, he rented it to show me.  He was appalled to discover that I found it very, very sad.  Maybe I’d known too many people who desperately wanted children, but I didn’t find the childless couple’s predicament funny at all.  I also didn’t find what the baby went through funny either…

So, be warned, you’re going to try to discuss humor with someone who doesn’t find lots of funny things funny at all…

ALAN: Well actually, measuring by that yardstick, I think we have rather similar tastes. I find no humour in other people’s tragedies and disasters. Perhaps I’m just too empathic.

JANE:  Good, then, we won’t be advocating humor based on cruelty, but I bet we’ll be able to find a lot we both think is funny.

From the “tour” of Australia we did via The Last Continent, I already know we both love and admire the works of Terry Pratchett.

ALAN: We actually wrote four of them: 9/2/2012 – Visiting the Last Continent, 16/2/2012 – Legends of the Last Continent, 23/2/2012 – Meat Pies and Cork Hats, 1/3/2012 – Strine and Newzild.

JANE: Even if you do insist on writing the dates all wrong, thank you very much!

Anyhow, from comments you have made here and there, I realize that sometimes I’m missing a lot that a British audience would immediately grasp.  For example, I’d never realized that many of Nanny Ogg’s bawdy songs were in the tradition of the Pantomime Dame and music hall burlesque.

I wonder what else I might have missed?

ALAN: You need to read The Annotated Pratchett File which is a compendium explaining the many, many, many references that Pterry builds into his books. It can be found on the L-Space Web (named, of course, after Pterry’s delightful notion that all libraries are interconnected in L-Space). You can waste many happy hours browsing through it.

JANE: Pterry?  You’ve used that term before.  I suspect it is a joke.  Can you explain it?

ALAN: Pratchett has been known as Pterry ever since a very early Discworld novel called Pyramids which was set in the Discworld version of Egypt and which featured characters called Ptraci and Ptaclusp, etc. — obvious references to Ptolemy, of course. I thought the joke was well-known, but perhaps it hasn’t made it over the pond. Certainly it’s ubiquitous in Right Pondia, to the extent that I actually find it difficult to write Terry. The word just plain looks wrong without the silent P…

JANE:  Ah!  It was a joke, but very much an “in” joke since, if you don’t know the linguistic gimmick in Pyramids, it’s not going to make any sense.

The Annotated Pratchett File sounds like a very attractive time eater!  Could you maybe give one small example of the treasures we might find?

ALAN: How about this from Small Gods where the book title Ego-Video Liber Deorum is translated as Gods: A Spotter’s Guide. The annotation says:

“Actually, the dog-Latin translates more literally to The I-Spy Book of Gods. I-Spy books are little books for children with lists of things to look out for. When you see one of these things you tick a box and get some points. When you get enough points you can send off for a badge. They have titles like The I-Spy Book of Birds and The I-Spy Book of Cars.”

JANE: Lovely!  We have similar games here, but I do think the “I spy with my little eye…” probably came from you folks.

I think that one reason Pratchett’s humor works cross culturally is that much of his humor is universal.  British or American, a reader is going to find the idea of an orangutan librarian funny.  However, it’s Pratchett’s particular genius that he can make the idea appealing and strangely practical as well.

ALAN: The thing that makes the books work so well for me is that they contain almost no jokes (I seldom find jokes amusing). The humour rises naturally out of the situation and is often not funny at all to the people involved. I’ve heard Pterry talk about this aspect of the Discworld many times. An example he often uses is the character of Mr Ixolite, a banshee who has lost his voice. He cannot stand on the roof and howl. All he can do is write “Oooh! Oooh! Oooh!” on a piece of paper and push it under the door. From our point of view this is funny, but consider it from Mr Ixolite’s point of view and it becomes a tragedy – he’s lost his whole reason for living. He can’t do what he’s supposed to do. It must be unbearable for him. So why are we laughing?

The art of the theatre is symbolized by the masks of comedy and tragedy. There’s no doubt that the two are closely related. And I’m uncomfortably aware that I’m contradicting myself here. I find Mr Ixolite funny for exactly the same reason that I don’t find Raising Arizona funny.

JANE: Certainly this is true.  Many of Shakespeare’s comedies, for example, only fail to be tragedies because the resolution of the play ends with a marriage rather than a funeral.  The same can be said for Mr. Ixolite or Otto, the vampire who insists of using flash photography, even though the bright light reduces him to a heap of ash.  Their actions are comic because they have figured out ways to cope, despite their disabilities.

ALAN: I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. That’s almost certainly why I can laugh at them with a clear conscience.

JANE: So I’ll agree…  To a point.  Mr. Pratchett is not above the Pun.  Indeed, one reason I will not listen to his works on audio is that I like it when one of his puns sneaks up on me.  I read by shape, rather than by sound, so I was well into Small Gods before I realized the main character, a monk named “Brutha,” was, in fact, “Brother Brother.”

The one that really snuck up on me were the revered Ankh-Morpork firm of Burleigh and Stronginthearm.  American English does not always pronounce “leigh” as “lee” so while I caught the silliness in the second word, I completely missed that the first should be pronounced “burly.”  When I did, I was so delighted that I had to run off and make sure Jim caught it, too!

ALAN: As you know, I’m from Yorkshire. We have a saying: Yorkshire born and Yorkshire bred, strong in the arm and thick in the head. I’ve no idea if Pterry was referencing this, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised…

JANE:  Eep!  You’re admitting to it?

As for “jokes,”  I’m not sure how you’d define that in prose…  Pratchett certainly is not above taking a situation and taking it to its extreme for the sake of humor.  The scene that springs to mind is the one in Guards, Guards where it’s going to take a one in a million shot to hit the dragon in its vulnerable spot.  The positions into which Sergeant Colon is twisted to make sure the shot might qualify as a one in a million shot are a very visual joke.  And so is what he falls into when he falls…

Wouldn’t you call that a joke?  It’s certainly seemed like a joke to me.  Yes, I know the situation wasn’t funny to the characters – since when is a dragon attack funny? –  but this seems different from the plight of Mr. Ixiolite.

ALAN: And as Pterry well knows, one in a million chances work nine times out of ten…

Actually you’re right. But Pterry’s jokes tend to arise naturally from the situation. There are some so-called humorous novels where the situations are twisted to fit the joke and these never work for me. I can’t think of any SF/F examples but, in the mainstream Tom Sharpe is a very popular writer, but I’ve bounced off every one of his novels that I’ve tried to read for that very reason.

JANE: I absolutely understand…  A careful sculpting works – as in Roger Zelazny’s classic “Then the fit hit the Shan” from Lord of Light – but when the story is wrenched around and forced to be “funny” it usually fails horribly.

There’s another element in Pratchett’s humor that can’t be overlooked.  He has the ability to take humor and twist it into wisdom.

One of my favorite examples comes from Small Gods.  The novel opens with one of those “cosmic” passages that violate just about every rule for narrative hooks by being strange and nearly unintelligible.  The theme of this one is tortoises and eagles.  It ends with the line “One day a tortoise will learn to fly.”  And when it happens…  Heavens above!  It’s both a laugh out loud scene and one to bring tears to your eyes…

That combination doesn’t happen very often.

As we have already proven, we can do multiple posts just on Terry Pratchett’s work.  However, there are other writers of humorous SF/F.  Let’s move on to some of these works.

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4 Responses to “TT: Humorous SF/F”

  1. Paul Says:

    I think the first humorous SF writer I encountered was Robert Sheckley, but I really liked the humorous ones by Eric Frank Russell, usually involving a lone earthman creating trouble for a bunch of unlikeable aliens (think Bruce Willis in the first “Die Hard” movie). There was a radio show which adapted stories from Galaxy and Astounding to radio. If anyone’s interested, here’s where you can listen to one of Shekley’s:

    http://www.tangentonline.com/old-time-radio/1753-x-minus-one-the-lifeboat-mutiny-by-robert-sheckley

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Personally, I’m hoping the Hoka make their appearance next week, possibly along with Drake Maijstral or Retief.

    Anyway, an anecdote about PTerry: a friend and mentor of mine was undergoing chemotherapy some years ago, and his wife was an avid fiction reader. She’d never read Pratchett, so I told her about him. At my mentor’s memorial service (some time after his funeral), I asked her whether she’d enjoyed PTerry’s books. She broke into a big smile and said she’d loved them all, but that sometimes she’d ended up laughing out loud in the chemo infusion center, which annoyed the other patients. Oh dear.

    The great thing about PTerry is that his works have a great humanistic compassion that’s missing from a lot of other comedy. His characters are flawed, often hapless, but we care about them anyway. As a result, he can bring joy into some dark places.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I also read a lot of Pratchett at a time when I was incredibly down.

      By coincidence, Jan and Steve (S.M.) Stirling moved to Santa Fe right after Roger died. They were incredibly supportive and when they heard I was at a loss for something to read trotted out to their yet unpacked boxes, opened the “P” box and handed me stacks of Pratchett’s novels.

      That combination of clever humor and “great humanistic compassion” was a major element in my willingness to pick myself up and keep going when all I wanted to do was crumple into a ball.

  3. OtherJane Says:

    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the funniest F/SF I can remember reading. Adams had a wicked sense of the absurd.

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