Hello, folks! Now that I’m back on my feet, I find that April’s here. A few days ago was April 1st, also known as April Fool’s Day. And while I may not be clever enough to come up with fun jokes for April Fool’s Day, I can at least appreciate the humor. There’s something about humor, about the joy of laughter, that makes me think about comedy every spring. Which is why this month I’m going to be exploring how speculative fiction and comedy intersect.
Comedic Stories vs. Stories with Humor
Comedy and tragedy are some of the oldest genre labels that can be applied. And like their newer cousins (“science fiction”, anyone?), their terrain is broad and their borders porous. Comedy can run the gamut from slapstick and pratfalls (The Three Stooges’ Have Rocket, Will Travel), to absurd parody (Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), all the way out to complex socioeconomic satire (Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal). Between such tent pole examples we can find countless works which are less defined by their humor, but which nevertheless rely on it (John Scalzi’s Redshirts or A. Lee Martinez’s The Automatic Detective both come to mind).
So how does speculative fiction incorporate comedy? It’s a broad and perhaps over-generalized question, but I think that we can draw a distinction between stories that use humor to differing degree:
- Comedic Stories are specifically meant to be humorous (and yes, I know that author intentionality is a slippery critical slope). However, we can discern that intention from the centrality of their humor to the narrative. If we were to remove the comedy, their story falls apart.
- Stories with Humor do not use humor as narrative glue. There may be moments which make us laugh out loud, but removing the humorous elements would not cause the story’s overall narrative structure to collapse (though it might make the story less enjoyable).
At first glance, these seem to be distinct categories. To remove the absurdity of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would leave us with an anemic travel story. If we were to remove the humorous moments from Steven Brust’s Jhereg we would still have an intellectually-engaging mystery (though it would definitely be a much weaker novel). But when we look at what are arguably the highest forms of satire in the field – Terry Pratchett in particular – their refinement of satiric technique means that by removing their humor we are left with exactly the kind of narrative that they are in fact satirizing. So these “seemingly distinct” categories are less disparate for all that, but they remain a good place for us to start our exploration.
Coming Up Next Week…
Next week, I’m going to start by taking a close look at the speculative fiction writer most-often linked to humor. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy (all five books, with a sixth by Eoin Colfer) is a classic in the field, and such a canonical example that the Guardian published a sadly uncritical paean to celebrate Adams’ 61st birthday.
Much as I love Adams’ work, I think it deserves a closer exploration and a more careful comparison to those writers often grouped with him. Specifically, I believe that anyone who thinks Terry Pratchett has done for fantasy what Adams did for science fiction (as David Barnett claims in that Guardian piece) needs to re-read both oeuvres. Yet the details of this argument require us to actually explore how both giants in the field achieved their effects. And next week we kick that exploration off alphabetically, starting with Douglas Adams.