TT: Humor Surreal

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and hear both about a new short story and what went on at this year’s Bubonicon.  Then join me and Alan as we enter the world of the surreal.

Solidly Surreal

Solidly Surreal

JANE: Last time, we were just getting into the surreal element in SF/F humor.  Pray, continue.

ALAN: I think it’s the edge of surreality that comedy can bring to SF which makes some of the odder stories work so well. Fredric Brown’s remarkable short story Placet is a Crazy Place takes place on a planet which meets itself coming back in its orbit, causes hallucinations and is inhabited by widgie birds which are made of matter so dense that the planet itself appears to them as thin as air appears to us. They have a habit of flying through the foundations of buildings, thereby making the buildings unstable.

JANE: Sound like a variation on the Higgs Boson particle to me.  I was just reading an article in Smithsonian magazine which used the analogy that a fish physicist would have a great deal of trouble analyzing the watery world in which they dwell because they are completely surrounded by water and its influences.  Seems as if the super density of widgie birds is playing off a similar idea.

ALAN: Quite so. And I imagine when the fish went exploring on land, it would be utterly astonished and bewildered by the first fire it found. Stories like Frederic Brown’s put us in the position of that fish. You have to admire the cleverness of that, even while you are laughing at all the fun he’s having with the odd ideas.

JANE: Yes!  The best of SF in its speculative mode as well as something funny.  Who could ask for more?

ALAN: Henry Kuttner was another brilliant practitioner of surreal humour as well. I have a very soft spot for his Hogben stories. The Hogbens are hillbillies who are so inbred and mutated that that they have magical powers. For example Uncle Lem is so lazy that he spends most of his time fast asleep. When he gets hungry he wakes up just enough to send his mind out into the forest where he hypnotises a raccoon which gathers up a pile of firewood and carries it back to Uncle Lem. Then it builds a fire and cooks itself so that Uncle Lem can eat it. Only one thing worries the narrator of this story. He’s never been able to figure out how Uncle Lem gets the ‘coon to skin itself first…

JANE: Uh, oh…  Tangent warning…  I think of “hillbilly” as a very American term.  Is there a British equivalent?

ALAN: Not directly – I think it’s because the population density is such that there simply isn’t room for an isolated community like the hillbillies to survive. Though having said that, we do have gypsies (and their modern equivalent, the travellers) who are isolated mobile communities and who do share many of the characteristics of America’s hillbillies.

JANE: Thanks!  I’d never compare hillbillies and gypsies, though…  Still, I can see what you mean.  Both are cultures that evolve within larger cultures.

Kuttner was also responsible for the humorous Galloway Gallagher stories.  I was too young to encounter them in their original format as short stories published in Planet Stories, but a few years ago we were given a collection of the stories (Robots Have No Tails) by a friend.  Since I’d liked some of Kuttner’s  fantasy, I sat down to read them with great enthusiasm.

The basic gimmick is that when Gallagher is drunk he is a genius and clueless when sober.  He invents a machine when drunk then, when sober, has to deal with the consequences.  The problem is, he suffers alcoholic blackouts, so he usually doesn’t remember what he has done.

ALAN: I always liked the odd images that the stories evoke. One of the machines that drunken  Gallagher builds is a narcissistic robot with a transparent body. The robot spends most of its time standing in front of a mirror admiring its cogwheels as they spin. The sober Gallagher has no idea why he constructed such a complex and seemingly useless machine and he embarks on a quest to solve the mystery. And the ultimate purpose of that robot is, at one and the same time, both very practical and very silly. I’m actually smiling as I write these words – the story is that funny and that memorable.

JANE: I’ve actually wondered if that robot – Joe is his name – influenced Marvin, the depressed robot in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

ALAN: I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it, but I would not be at all surprised to find that Joe and Marvin were siblings.

JANE: I think, for me at least, the Gallagher stories would have worked better in their original format.  Despite some very clever tales and peculiar characters, the similar element tended to drown the fun after a while.  If I was ever to give someone the collection, I’d say, “Read no more than two at a time.  You’ll like them better.”

I did love the Lybblas – cute little bunnies from Mars with a vicious intent to conquer.

ALAN: I think I’d agree with that. The stories’ impact is much greater if you read them at widely spaced intervals.

JANE: There’s more to humor even than this, but – funny as it may seem – I really should go write.  Let’s pick up with this next time.


7 Responses to “TT: Humor Surreal”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Great to read about stories I’d never heard of. One complaint though: has anyone actually thought through that fish in water comment?

    I mean, we know sharks can detect a drop of blood in a swimming pool, while salmon know the taste of their home waters that they can swim back to them, even if those natal waters happen to be next to the one freshwater spring in an otherwise toxic volcanic lake (reference). They all have these cool lateral lines that allow them to feel pressure waves, so that some species can move in these massive coordinated schools in large part just by adjusting to the pressures of the bodies around them. Fish even migrate in the ocean up or down to find the proper temperatures and oxygen levels. And don’t forget, all those electro-sensing and electrical species live in water too.

    Fish know more about water than we do, and I suspect that, if they had a language, we’d have a heck of a time translating their understanding of water into something that made sense to someone other than a hydrologist or oceanographer.

    I’d say that, rather than fish in water, we should be talking about how most humans experience air. If you really want a truly surreal experience, start paying attention to all those little winds that dance around you all the time. It might make you start believing in elementals.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I don’t see why you’re complaining to us, sir. We did not invent that analogy…

      You may be right and fish may have as many words for water as the Greeks did for “love,” but maybe, like humans, they don’t pay any attention.


    • Heteromeles Says:

      Well, I’ve got to change the vinegar in my fly trap while I watch for my teapot to boil, so sometimes common wisdom is so blatantly wrong that it’s worth pointing out.

  2. Paul Says:

    Has anybody ever read a book (from the ’60s, I think) called “The Butterfly Kid” by Chester Anderson? A hilarious send-up of hippie-dom, in which the drug culture meets aliens.
    Having just read a certain story featuring Hamlet’s father, I find that even Shakespeare’s tragedies can be turned on their heads to be funny!

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’ve seen the book but haven’t read it. Now to go and see if it’s on my shelf.

      Alan? Have you?

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Oh yes! “The Butterfly Kid”. It’s the best novel you’ll ever read about the Earth being invaded by giant lobsters and being foiled by hippies and lots of good drugs. It’s very, very funny. It’s the first book of a trilogy, though interestingly the other two books are not written by Chester Anderson. They are “The Unicorn Girl” by Michael Kurland and “The Probablity Pad” by T. A. Waters. Each author is a character in the books by the other two, and they insult each other unmercifully. Great fun!


      • Louis Robinson Says:

        huh! I’d never noticed that The Unicorn Girl was related to The Butterfly Kid. I know I didn’t read the latter; I picked up the former, but can’t remember any of it, so it may well be part of the compost at the roots of Mt Toberead.

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