Crossroads: The Importance of Parody to the Speculative Fiction Genre

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Last week, we talked about how every piece of humorous speculative fiction inevitably gets compared to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But as I outlined, Adams’ comedy of the absurd operates very differently from the vast majority of humorous speculative fiction out there. Most funny speculative fiction squarely operates within the realm of parody, and in doing so it plays a significant role in the genre’s development.

Literature in Dialog with Itself…

There’s a nearly universal school of thought which suggests that literature is a conversation, that every work is in some sort of dialog with the works that preceded it. In some cases, this dialog is fairly obvious: Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia is explicitly in dialog with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, which itself was (somewhat less obviously) in dialog with Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. In others, the nature of the conversation is less obvious: Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, for example, consciously eschews the pastoral sentimentality of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the broadly uncritical heroism of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.

Dracula by Bram Stoker I Am Legend by Richard Matheson Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

The conversation of literature is one of devices, structures, and conventions. Archetypes and clichés are exchanged, subverted, inverted, reconfigured. The horrific device of one work (say, Bram Stoker’s vampire in Dracula) lives to become the next evolutionary stage of humanity (in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend) or problematic and sparkly angst-ridden teenagers (in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight). Throughout this process, parody is one of the most powerful tools for shaping future conventions.

…While Genre Tells Itself Jokes

Every work of fiction is built upon a house of cards. At the base of that house are the nebulous concepts of cultural relevance and plausibility. For a while, a certain set of conventions and narrative devices are both culturally relevant and deemed plausible. But over time, we start to notice the wires and greasepaint. Parody points them out to us, helps us to recognize the flaws inherent in the genre’s conventions, and challenges us to build more culturally relevant and plausible fantasies.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Consider the latest parody to top the genre bestseller lists: John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Its central conceit – and the source of its parody – lies in recognition that the behavior of “red-shirted” crewmen on Star Trek is implausible at best.

On a superficial level, the method at work in Redshirts is typical for most genre parody. The novel relies on the audience’s familiarity with the conventions being subverted, and then makes the story’s protagonist explicitly aware of those conventions. Ensign Andrew Dahl recognizes the ridiculous behavior expected of throwaway characters in his universe, responds to it by rejecting that behavior, and subsequently explores the reasons underlying such self-destructive tendencies. By applying a critique which the reader has long held, the protagonist and the reader are both in on the joke, and the natural gaps and weaknesses of the narrative convention are therefore put into stark relief.

In the case of Redshirts, this parody is made explicitly meta-fictional. Ensign Andrew Dahl’s exploration of the reasons for such crazy behavior lead him to discover a meta-fictional relationship with (it would seem) a reality much like our own. Yet not all parodies are meta-fictional, and in most cases the protagonist never overtly realizes that they are operating within a story.

Unidentified Funny Objects ed. Alex Shvartsman

Consider the short stories collected in Unidentified Funny Objects. In just about every story, we find a protagonist applying values tangential to the commonly-accepted conventions of the story’s genre. As a result, we have a vampire “vampire hunter” hunter (in “The Working Stiff” by Matt Mikalatos), Santa Claus confronted by zombies (in Siobhan Gallagher’s “All I Want for Christmas”), and aliens frustrated by Twitter’s “pics or it didn’t happen” culture (in “The Alien Invasion as Seen in the Twitter Stream of @Dweebless” by Jake Kerr).

In few of these stories does the protagonist acknowledge their own fictional nature; however they apply values and logic from outside of the story’s frame to their own fictional situation. This creates a simultaneous incongruity between our expectations (which are themselves founded upon genre convention) and the character’s actions. Where such parodies are effective, such incongruity aligns with what we would consider a plausible “real-world” response to the fictional situation.

Parody Played Straight

Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez Parody tends to be amusing, but it is not always intended to be comedy. A. Lee Martinez is often labeled a “comedic writer”, and frequently bristles at the appellation. What others consider comedy, he merely thinks of as good writing. However, while Martinez’s intention may not be to write humor, he does employ parody in his fiction.

Unlike John Scalzi, whose Redshirts explicitly acknowledges parody’s intertextual nature, Martinez’s fiction subverts genre conventions without explicitly observing that it is a story. While Martinez characters like Emperor Mollusk or Never-dead Ned live in fantastical universes (with aliens and interplanetary war or ogres and monsters, respectively) their worldview would not be out-of-place in our mundane, quotidian existence. The parody in these works – intentional or not – stems from the incongruity such attitudes produce in the reader’s mind: for the characters, there is no incongruity. There is simply their reality. Whatever incongruity (and resulting humor) their attitudes produce stems entirely from the reader’s preconceived notions about genre and speculative reading protocols. In other words, parody can still be parody if it is all in our heads.

Flying Dutch by Tom Holt

Tom Holt, who, unlike Martinez, explicitly acknowledges that he writes humor, constructs his parodies in a similar fashion. In Flying Dutch, Holt’s Captain Julius Vanderdecker and his accountant heroine Jane are the modern characters existing or thrust into an environment of anachronisms. Their need to integrate the mores, cultural values, and reason of the modern age with the consequences of past alchemical screw-ups establishes an incongruity which automatically subverts and examines the conventions of urban fantasy.

More than Mere Laughs

Although parody makes us laugh, it can be more than “mere” humor. In the best parody (such as Scalzi’s Redshirts or Martinez’s A Nameless Witch), the themes of the story go beyond the interrogation of genre conventions and addresses broader societal, ethical, or philosophical questions both directly and obliquely.

Parody need not be precious, saccharine, or self-aware. It can reach for thematic depth, and it can succeed in moving us on both emotional and philosophical levels. Parody need not be about the genre conventions it subverts.

In situations where parody stretches beyond an examination of genre conventions, it is tempting to consider it satire. But satire works differently from parody. Parody as a comedic device focuses on subverting the conventions of genre, essentially focusing its humor on the genre it is interrogating. Satire, by contrast, focuses its barbs on our society and its values.

The distinction may be fuzzy but it is important if we want to understand what both do and how they work. Next week, we’ll be taking a closer look at the way satire intersects with genre, specifically discussing the work of Terry Pratchett and James Morrow.

Meanwhile, what do you think of parody in speculative fiction? What are some of the parodies you’ve particularly enjoyed?

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice survey of genre parody.

    Some of my all-time favorite TV shows and movies are genre parody – Futurama, Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Young Frankenstein, Galaxy Quest. In the written form, my favorites include Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency & Bill the Galactic Hero.

    Perhaps it is the humorist in me, but I often find parodies more entertaining than the original. For instance, I have read and seen many Arthurian stories, but my favorite would have to be the Python. I enjoyed Shelley’s Frankenstein, and several cinematic incarnations, but would have to pick Young Frankenstein as my favorite.

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