Scide Splitters: Antigrav: Cosmic Comedies by SF Masters edited by Philip Strick

Hutchinson & Co, 184 pages, 1975
Hutchinson & Co, 184 pages, 1975

There are, in my opinion, too few science fiction humor anthologies. I have about twenty, which might be close to all there have been published. If you have a voracious appetite for humorous SF, finding more to feed your hunger can be challenging, particularly when some of the material is not marketed as humor, as was the case with the original publication of Antigrav, an anthology edited by film critic Philip Strick. The initial British release in 1975 barely gave any hint that the focus was on humor, unless you consider the picture of a grinning skull a giveaway, but then, what human skull does not look like it is grinning? This was rectified in the 1976 US release when the title was appended to Antigrav: Cosmic Comedies by SF Masters, though the American cover art left much to be desired.

Perhaps the greatest value of anthologies is that they expose the reader to a variety of authors, thereby opening new avenues to explore, samplers that can lead elsewhere. Antigrav featured a mix of reprints and originals by some of the foremost names in SF humor at the time, including John Sladek, R. A. Lafferty, Ron Goulart, Stanislaw Lem and Harry Harrison. These stories come from a period when humor was enjoying a boost in prestige thanks to dark topics like Vietnam and Nixon and the success of Kurt Vonnegut. People seemed eager for a laugh, so much so that where prior to the 70s SF humor anthologies were nearly non-existent, the early to mid-70s saw no less than four such themed volumes.

There are fifteen stories in Antigrav. As usual, I’ll try to keep the story descriptions spoiler free:

“Space Rats of the C.C.C.” by Harry Harrison – Military recruits train for the Combat Camel Corps. Classic Harrison, a hilarious spoof of space opera, reminiscent of Bill, the Galactic Hero. This also appears in This is My Funniest, an anthology I reviewed in January.

“How the World Was Saved” by Stanislaw Lem – A fable from Lem’s Cyberiad. Constructor Trurl is showing off his latest machine to his nemesis Klapaucius. It can create anything that starts with the letter N. Klapaucius tries to prove that the machine is worthless. I’ve often wondered if the clash in Futurama between Professor Farsnworth and Doctor Wernstrom isn’t at least partially inspired by Lem’s two competing inventors.

“It Was Nothing—Really!” by Theodore Sturgeon – Starts with the premise that not all simple scientific principles have been discovered yet. A man has a eureka moment while using toilet paper in his office bathroom. Government agents worry that his idea could bring the military-industrial complex to its knees.

“The Glitch” by James Blish and L. Jerome Stanton – A computer repairman foresees a glitch in the great supercomputer being prepared to connect and coordinate all computers worldwide. No one will pay heed to his warnings, so he plans to be far away when things hit the fan. Though it does contain some funny material, advances in computer technology have left this one a bit dated.

“Conversation on a Starship in Warpdrive” by John Brosnan – Boredom on long spaceflights leads to interesting attempts to relieve it, including variable internal weather. A passenger leaves his cabin to avoid the snow and finds a seat in the steam shrouded passenger lounge. When the fog lifts, he finds himself seated next to a naked man who initiates a rather entertaining conversation.

“The Alibi Machine” by Larry Niven – Niven is always good for a story exploring the unexpected or unintended consequences of technological advances. In this one, a displacement booth (teleportation) is used to commit a murder. Well told but not one of the funnier stories in the anthology.

“Emergency Society” by Uta Frith – Civilization has advanced to the point where catastrophes and other emergencies are reintroduced to foster morale and bring people together.

Taplinger Publishing, 184 pages, 1976
Taplinger Publishing, 184 pages, 1976

“Look, You Think You’ve Got Troubles” by Carol Carr – A Jewish man disapproves of his daughter’s marriage to a Martian (a plant with legs, as he sees his son-in-law). Mixed marriage at its funniest. Highly recommended.

“A Delightful Comedic Premise” by Barry N. Malzberg – Written as correspondence between Malzberg and Ed Ferman (longtime editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) in which Ferman, upon hearing that Malzberg is actually a rather funny person, requests that he submit a humorous story rather than a gloomy one. A self-effacing and funny look at the sometimes over-serious side of SF and the sad economic plight of the SF writer. Also appears in This is My Funniest, reviewed in January.

“Trolls” by Robert Borski – The world has been mostly paved over with concrete. Residual nature freaks (trolls) are sport for drivers. Perhaps it was funnier at the time (in a dark way) when it seemed few people were paying attention to environmental issues.

“Elephant with Wooden Leg” by John Sladek – One by one, futurologists at a government institute are going crazy. One thinks she is being stalked by a synthetic a priori proposition, another is trying to get parrots to squawk out the time, and the main character thinks that cockroaches are the secret masters of the world. Crazy stuff, lots of fun, and a good introduction to Sladek’s considerable comedic talent.

“Planting Time” by Pete Adams and Charles Nightingale – Like the Brosnan story above, boredom is a serious problem for the interstellar travel. Nine months into a trip, the ship’s Companion (computer) is no longer able to sexually satisfy its lone space traveler and stops off at a planet to resupply. While the ship takes care of collecting supplies, the man takes a much needed walk in the sun only to find an island filled with attractive women eager for his attentions.

“By the Seashore” by R. A. Lafferty – A young boy finds a large seashell that he talks to and grows up with. Family reactions to the boy’s oddities are humorously offbeat. Weird, but that is fairly normal for Lafferty.

“Hardcastle” by Ron Goulart – A man and his wife are renting a fully autonomous house with a German accent and plenty of opinions. Man and house do not get along very well. Good fun.

“The Ergot Show” by Brian W. Aldiss – The story plays out like an art house movie. One film director is making a movie, the other is making a movie of the other director making a movie. Ergot ads a touch of lunacy. Some interesting views on population pressure and human evolution. Not laugh out loud hilarious, but entertaining non-the-less.

As is usually the case with anthologies, your millage may vary due to your particular tastes, but on the whole the stories are of good quality. Since this has long been out of print, available used copies of Antigrav may be limited. Many of the stories, however, can be found in other anthologies or author collections. In particular, I would recommend seeking out the Harrison, Brosnan, Carr, Sladek and Goulart stories. They are what I consider to be the funniest of the group.

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