As a teen, my first exposure to comic space opera came in the form of the Phule’s Company series by Robert Asprin (replete with some of the most enjoyably egregious puns in the English language), followed by a brief addiction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After such a promising start, it seemed like funny science fiction should be everywhere. And while there IS humor in places in a lot of sci-fi novels, if you Google lists of funny science fiction novels, you get hits containing about the same twenty or so titles.
It can feel like a bit of a puzzle why sci-fi tends to take itself so seriously, even though the genre was basically founded on satire (Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was supposed to be a scathing indictment of then-current class issues, not just a convenient Jack Black vehicle) and parody (such as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).
But then we get to the original Frankenstein, arguably the first “real” science fiction novel. Teenaged Mary Shelley looked at the then-cutting-edge science experiments making the news – involving electric current, dead frogs and the attempt to re-animate cold flesh – and she saw hubris. The warning she gives isn’t funny in the least. It’s cold and violent – and yet, on the level of intent and the taking of ideas to extremes, it shares a lot with the “proto-sci-fi” writers, who were using humor and absurdity to get people thinking.
Serious sci-fi still does that. It looks at nanobots, or cloning, or the latest whiz-bang possibility and asks us to explore the implications. The author stands in the same place as Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park (which is, after all, the same story as Frankenstein) and says to the world, “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
And by doing so, science fiction helps shape the next generation of scientists, and makes the rest of us stop and think about things we’d otherwise have no reason to explore – unless a real-world breakthrough makes the future whiz-bang a part of our everyday reality. Like Jules Verne exploring the concept of electric submarines, not long before they were invented. Or other writers with self-driving cars. Or pocket computers (a.k.a. cell phones). In some ways, science fiction writers shape where technology is headed, by fueling the imaginations of readers who wish hard enough for the awesomeness they saw on the page to be so, that they go out and make it themselves (kinda like the alien fans do in Galaxy Quest), even if it means going to college to get that bio-engineering degree. It’s heady stuff. Of course it’s not funny.
But Jurassic Park itself (especially the first film) is an example of how situational humor and one-liners can make the drama and violence involved in exploring the consequences of hubris palatable to a modern audience. It can make the characters feel more resilient and more real – as long as we avoid letting the characters become jokes. It’s arguable that Jurassic Park crosses the line on that one – or at least tiptoes up to it – with the character of Dennis Nedry (who, to be fair, was drawn sliiiiightly more subtly in the novel). The whole opening with Nedry is cringeworthy – and that portrayal has turned at least one of my friends off from the entire franchise – while the same screenwriters gave us the whole “now we’re back in the tree” scene, which blends humor and action so masterfully.
Which means what? Remember the anecdote – itself an example of gallows humor – about the comedian on his deathbed? According to one version of the story: A visitor approached the actor who was (fatally) ill in a hospital and said sympathetically, “This must be very difficult for you.” The actor lifted his head, smiled weakly, and disagreed, saying: “No. No. It is not too bad… Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Humor really is hard, you guys. Especially when you’re trying to balance it with underlying meaning. Do it wrong, and you’re bound to lose part of your audience. Forever. If the scene goes wrong, it will wind up awkward and embarrassing rather than funny, and nobody likes to feel embarrassed for your character. Or that they’ve been cast into the role of a bully or a psychopath by slipping into the head of an inappropriately wise-cracking protagonist or narrator who takes cheap shots at other characters. We laugh at the “dying is easy” line because it’s clear that the character – the actor – would be okay with it. (We also tend to feel justified in laughing when the character has an illusion that they are in control of the situation, but things just aren’t going as planned, which is why we can crack up over I Love Lucy – even when Lucy’s mortified – without feeling mean.)
I play a bit with gallows humor in Free Chocolate – after all, half the book takes place on an alien warship where your superior officers can eat you should you disappoint them – and, yeah, it’s a fine balance. You don’t want to make death meaningless, even as the characters acknowledge the precariousness of their situation. Because if death becomes meaningless – or, worse, funny – then the remaining characters’ lives aren’t so important anymore. Tension drops. The audience finds something less “silly” to read. You know, every writer’s worst nightmare. We want our characters to be like that unnamed actor, finding dignity and a sense of psychological well-being, even in the face of absolute horror and near-certain death.
Speaking of which… I once read that science fiction is a society’s hopes, fantasy its daydreams, and horror its nightmares. (I cannot find the citation for this one – sorry, awesome writer, from the mid-90s.) I think that’s another reason SF writers so seldom venture into pure comedy. In our real lives, our dreams are so often laughed at, and it can make us defensive. And with sci-fi, you spend so much time building a world that needs to be convincing, an entire vision of the future, or an alternate past, or an alien landscape, and you put so much of yourself into sharing the things you hope and fear. You want it to be bulletproof in the reader’s mind. It’s hard, then, to acknowledge the absurdity of many of those fears, the impossibility of some of the hopes, to let yourself be laughed at, even in a positive way.
Plus, when you introduce humor, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone out there is not going to laugh when you want them to. Different people find different things funny. After all, as Psychology Today puts it: “Humor is serious business. Sure, there’s simple comedy like a pie in the face or an Adam Sandler movie, but a lot of jokes display real intellect, and despite much reflection and experimentation—both in labs and on stages—no one has yet discovered a unified theory of hilarity.”
But consider the awesome connections that are made when we acknowledge the flawed, complicated people that we are and the craziness of the world around us. Our readers see themselves in our characters, as long as we have created psychologically sound individuals, reacting as real people would, no matter how skewed the situation we’ve put them in. This is exactly why Guardians of the Galaxy was such a sleeper-hit. You get characters like Rocket, a snarky talking raccoon, of all things, but with his own backstory and a consistent worldview – and that one glimpse of all the metal embedded into his back – he achieves an improbable level of pathos that I can only hope to have done half as well in my own work.
So. I hope I’ve inspired you to find a funny science fiction novel to read today. After all, mine won’t be out until summer 2018.
Free Chocolate by Amber Royer: Latina culinary arts student Bo Benitez becomes a fugitive when she’s caught stealing a cacao pod from the heavily-defended plantations that keep chocolate, Earth’s sole valuable export, safe from a hungry galaxy. Forces arraying against her including her alien boyfriend and a reptilian cop. But when she escapes onto an unmarked starship things go from bad to worse: it belongs to the race famed throughout the galaxy for eating stowaways. Surrounded by dangerous yet hunky aliens, Bo starts to uncover clues that the threat to Earth may be bigger than she first thought.