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Funny Business

Phlogiston Forty-One, 1994

It doesn't pay to analyze a joke too much. There is a terrible risk that all the humour will disappear. It probably isn't all that wise to try and describe a joke either. Second hand humour is never funny. But let's try anyway.

If you look closely at the SF of the so-called golden age and later, you find a surprising amount of humour and light-heartedness. Perhaps the first sign that a genre is growing up is its ability to laugh at itself. Far too much of the Ur-science fiction from the 1920s and thirties is ponderously serious and dull. The authors who came after were more laid back, willing to indulge in a joke, sometimes for satirical or allegorical purposes, but more often simply because it was fun.

Science fiction is a genre that lends itself well to humour. After all, so many of the stories are so outrageous and the gadgetry so surrealistic that it always borders on the absurd anyway. It doesn't take much of a shove to cross the barrier. (Many of the Goon Shows were arguably SF).

So, equipped with the spaceships and ray guns of an earlier generation we now have writers such as Bob Shaw who have no compunction in describing a spaceship with a matter transmitter in the rear and a matter receiver in the front and which travels the universe by being repeatedly transmitted through its own length. Or Harry Harrison with his coal powered robots and even (in A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah) a coal powered aeroplane!

This latter is also a perfect demonstration of the total lack of a sense of humour that many SF fans exhibit. After its first magazine publication, the magazine received a letter (Analog Nov 1972) discussing the story in general and the coal-powered aeroplane in particular. The tone of the letter was such that it was perfectly obvious the gentleman in question had not realised that the story was an enormous leg-pull. It burbled off into arcane engineering points that Harrison had "got wrong", but eventually concluded that yes, perhaps the aeroplane was feasible after all. I seem to recall a rather spluttering reply from Harry Harrison which said, in words of one syllable, "It was a joke, you cretin!" (all right -- cretin has two syllables, but I'm paraphrasing).

Perhaps the golden age writer who first and best realised the essential absurdity of many science fictional situations was Fredric Brown. The 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. In his novels What Mad Universe and Martians Go Home (in my opinion his best novel) he has enormous fun with SF clichés. The first describes an alternate world in which the SF clichés are actually true history. The second is, quite literally, about little green men.

A writer who seems to have fallen into obscurity these days is Henry Kuttner. He died young and his reputation has been eclipsed by the writers who came after him. But both on his own and in collaboration with his wife C. L. Moore he produced some of the funniest stories I have ever read. Some have been collected -- though long out of print Robots Have No Tails occasionally surfaces in second hand bookshops. Make it your business to seek it out. It contains all the stories about Galloway Gallagher, a man whose subconscious is a brilliant scientist. When he is sober he is just an ordinary person, but when roaring drunk his subconscious takes over and makes the most incredible inventions. The stories concern the efforts of a hungover and very repentant Gallagher trying to figure out just what he's built this time. Why, for example, could he possibly have built a robot with a transparent body? And having done that, why did he make it so vain that all it wants to do is stand in front of a mirror watching its cogs go round? To find the answer to that conundrum, read The Proud Robot.

As far as I know Knutter's other connected stories have never been collected into a single book. The stories about the Hogbens, a very unusual family of hillbillies, are unfailingly funny and virtually impossible to find. I have one or two in a collection published by Mayflower in 1965 (The Best of Kuttner -- Volumes One and Two).

In See you Later, the Hogbens fall foul of another hillbilly family known as the Tarbells. The eight Tarbell boys:

...all come over in a bunch with their shooting irons and busted their way in. We didn't want no trouble.

Uncle Lem -- who's Uncle Les's twin except they was born quite a spell apart -- he was asleep for the winter off in a holler tree somewheres, so he was out of it. But the baby, bless his heart, is gitting kind of awkward to shift around, being as how he's four hunnerd years old and big for his age -- 'bout three hunnerd pounds I guess... then there was Grandpaw in the attic and I'd got sort of fond of the little Perfesser feller we keep in a bottle...

Saunk Hogben, the narrator of the story, finally solves the feud by splitting himself into two billion, two hundred and fifty million, nine hundred and fifty nine thousand nine hundred and nineteen parts, travelling forwards in time, standing in front of every person in the world, handing each of those people a stick of firewood and then spitting in their faces.

It says a lot for Kuttner's sense of plot that he managed to make you believe that this preposterous nonsense was the only possible solution to the problems raised in the story!

Kuttner had a thing about blue eyes. He seemed to find them irresistibly funny. One of his most famous opening lines, from a short novel published under the pseudonym of Lewis Padgett and called The Far Reality (also published as The Fairy Chessmen) is:

The doorknob opened a blue eye and looked at him.

That one, along with L. Sprague de Camp's famous "Yngvi is a louse!" have entered the folklore.

Until it was killed by the paper shortage during the second world war, the magazine Unknown published an amazing number of satisfyingly funny stories. It was edited by John W. Campbell, a man not known for his sense of humour, and yet his lightness of touch on this magazine proved, if proof were needed, that he really was an editor par excellence. It was in this magazine that L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt chronicled the misadventures of Harold Shea, the incomplete enchanter. Even writers whose major works tended towards the serious produced light-hearted pieces that fitted perfectly into the mood of the magazine. Lester Del Rey's stories about the elf Ellowan Coppersmith appeared here as did H. L. Gold's Trouble with Water.

Campbell's clown prince, though, was Eric Frank Russell, a British writer who, in the 1940s and 1950s, published story after story in Astounding. He was very good at lampooning the bureaucratic mind and he poked fun at the military. His masterpieces are the fix-up novel The Great Explosion and the novels Wasp and Next of Kin (sometimes published under the title The Space Willies -- it is one of the funniest novels I've ever read, and if I hadn't quoted from it extensively in another article, I'd quote from it again here). In 1955 Russell won a Hugo for his short story Allamagoosa, an anti-bureaucratic satire which packs a tremendous punch

An author whose name is not often associated with comedy is Philip K. Dick. This is a shame, because many of his stories demonstrate a wonderful sense of the outrageous and bizarre and contain moments of genuine comedic genius. I defy anyone to read Galactic Pot Healer without cracking up. Joe Fernwright, an unemployed ceramics technician (the "pot healer" of the title) is employed by an alien being called the Glimmung to help repair the pots in a cathedral which is to be raised from the bottom of the ocean on a distant planet. Joe receives the job offer from the Glimmung as a message in a bottle which he finds floating in his toilet bowl one day. The Glimmung seems fond of this means of communication. Later in the novel he is engaged in mortal combat with his deadly foe the Black Glimmung at the bottom of the ocean. Joe and Willis (a robot whose ambition is to be a freelance writer) row out to the scene of the fight.

...A large bottle. And in the bottle a note.

"Another message from Glimmung," Joe said acidly as he unscrewed the lid of the bottle and dumped the note out; it fluttered on to the bottom of the boat and he retrieved it carefully. Holding it in the light of the torch he read it.

Watch this place for hourly progress reports. Cordially, Glimmung.

Later, as the battle progresses, another note arrives.

Good news! I have routed the opposition and am presently recovering.

In disbelief he read the words. Is it a gag? he wondered. Fake bravado at a time like this? ...A second bottle, smaller than the previous two, floated to the surface. He sequestered it, unscrewed the lid, and read the brief note within.

The previous communique is not a forgery. I am in good health, and hope you are the same. G.

Even Dick's serious novels are not without their moments of mirth. A Scanner Darkly is probably his best book, a monumental and serious work about the problems of drug addiction. But even in its darkest scenes we find moments such as the section where Charles Freck attempts to commit suicide by drinking a bottle of wine heavily laced with a drug overdose. Unfortunately he has been swindled by his dealer and instead of dying he suffers an hallucination wherein a fearsome creature from between dimensions appears at the foot of his bed clutching an enormous scroll.

"You are going to read me my sins," Charles Freck said.

The creature nodded and unsealed the scroll.

Freck said, lying helpless on his bed, "And it's going to take a hundred thousand hours."

Fixing its many compound eyes on him, the creature from between dimensions said, "We are no longer in the mundane universe. Lower plane categories of material existence such as ‘space' and ‘time' no longer apply to you. You have been elevated to the transcendent realm. Your sins will be read to you ceaselessly, in shifts, throughout eternity. The list will never end."

A thousand years later... they had gotten up to the third grade when he was six years old. Ten thousand years later they had reached the sixth grade. The year he had discovered masturbation.

He shut his eyes, but he could still see the multi-eyed, eight foot high being with its endless scroll reading on and on.

"And next -- ", it was saying.

Charles Freck thought, At least I got a good wine.

There are many characteristics of humour. In my opinion the most successful humorous books derive their success from the innate situation they describe. Perhaps the secret is that the characters do not know that things are funny. Charles Freck really was trying to commit suicide and for him the creature from between dimensions was a terrible and embarrassing consequence of that attempt. Joe Fernwright was unemployed and the job offer from Glimmung was his last hope. We can see the humour in the grittily surrealistic scenes that Philip K. Dick describes for us, but we are standing outside. That different perspective makes a lot of difference.

But humour manifests itself in many ways. Where would science fiction be without the pun?

Probably the worst puns (or best, depending on your point of view), appeared in a series of vignettes that were intermittently published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. They were known as Feghoots, because they described the adventures of one Ferdinand Feghoot. They invariably ended with a punch line that was a most excruciating pun. They were perpetrated by the anagrammatical Grendel Briarton (real name Reginald Bretnor). They were collected together in a book called The Compleat Feghoot which was published by Mirage Press in 1980. I challenge anybody to read more than three consecutive Feghoots without giving up in pain. Over the years, once Briarton had showed the way, many other writers contributed Feghoots to the magazine. But none were ever as good as the originals.

Under his own name, Bretnor was responsible for an amusing little tale called The Gnurrs Come From the Voodvork Out. The United States is at war with Bobovia, but Papa Schimmelhorn has the answer. He has invented a secret weapon -- a musical pipe. When it is played, gnurrs come from the voodvork out and eat everybody's trousers. All we have to do is arrange to have the pipe played in Bobovia and gnurrs will from the voodvork come out and eat all the Bobovian trousers. Being trouserless, the enemy will also be demoralised and will immediately surrender. What army can fight without trousers?

The pun can be overdone and sometimes far too much reliance is invested in it. I enjoy a good pun as much as the next triffid, but they can get a little wearing. Even the clever ones (and few are clever) grow tiresome. They even leap out at you from the titles. Andrew Harmon has published The Sorcerer's Appendix, The Frogs of War and The Tome Tunnel and early in 1995 will inflict 101 Damnations on his long-suffering public.

Probably the worst contemporary punster is Piers Anthony. The Xanth novels, of which there are far too many, seem these days to have no other reason for existing. Fans make up excruciating word plays and send them to Piers Anthony and if he likes them he will include them and mention the contributor in his Author's Afterword.

In a way this is a shame. The first three Xanth novels are surprisingly good. The ideas were fresh and funny and worked very well indeed. But they quickly became tired and I gave up round about number eleven. They are still appearing with great regularity and selling well, so they must be popular but for the life of me I can't think why.

Anthony's comedic tour de force is without doubt Prostho Plus -- a fix-up novel combining a series of novelettes about the adventures of an intergalactic dentist (of all things). I have a phobia about teeth and dentists and I cannot read the book without simultaneously squirming and giggling. Brilliantly funny and not recommended reading just before having your wisdom teeth out. You wouldn't believe the many different kinds of alien teeth and dental problems that Anthony's fertile mind invents.

Anthony is an exasperating writer who has produced a body of very fine work. It is just rather hard to find sometimes. A good example of this is his new novel Isle of Women. Don't let the punny title fool you into thinking this is another Xanth novel or a spin off -- it isn't. It is not a funny novel at all. It is a thoughtful and serious work, probably the first of a series (sigh) and Anthony has taken for his canvas nothing less than the entire history and prehistory of humanity. That is a large subject, of course. That he succeeds at all is astonishing. That he succeeds as well as he has is nothing short of miraculous. A first class novel. But I digress

One of the things that makes humour so difficult to write is that it does not translate easily across cultures. Even within the English-speaking world we find that something an American finds side-splittingly funny will often leave an English person completely unmoved. And vice versa of course. Once you start to translate from a foreign language and culture there is a danger of losing both the baby and the bathwater.

This seems to be particularly true of eastern european languages (and perhaps that says something quite profound about the enormous differences between the eastern european and western european cultures). It is well known, for example, that Franz Kafka used to read extracts from his works to his friends and would often cry with laughter as he read. Yet his novels in an English translation are unspeakably grim and frightening. In science fictional terms, I suspect Stanislaw Lem is a similar case. His wit and wisdom are highly praised by those who have read him in his native Polish. The flavour of this comes across a little in his translated short stories (particularly in The Cyberiad, and Tales of Pirx the Pilot) and yet his novels are almost invariably clumsy and cumbersome.

Since we see this effect so clearly in English translations of foreign works, I often wonder how successfully humour translates from English into a foreign language. I am thinking here particularly of Robert Rankin, an SF writer of whom I am inordinately fond and whose books are among the funniest I have ever read. And yet I fail to see how anybody who didn't grow up in England in the 1950s could possibly understand his obsession, in novel after novel, with brussels sprouts and split windscreen Morris Minors. Even English speaking people from countries other than England would probably find that this left them cold. How much more so someone coming across them in (say) German. Do such things get translated literally? I strongly suspect not. But it would take a translator of genius to find the cultural icon that corresponded with these things in a different society. Indeed, they may not even exist.

Mind you, the British are notorious world wide for having a sense of humour that is comprehensible only to themselves. Perhaps a foreign reader would approach sprouts and Morris Minors in that frame of mind. But what would they make of "taking tea with the vicar", Rankin's euphemism for something sexually perverse which he never actually describes. (On occasion his characters have also been known to enquire of each other as to where the gerbils are kept).

One writer who has succeeded in crossing the humour culture barrier is Harry Harrison. He is an American writer with a large and fanatical following in all the English speaking countries (and for all I know the non-English speaking ones as well). His stories of the Stainless Steel Rat (and to a certain extent Bill, the Galactic Hero) though they have satirical overtones, are more often than not simply an excuse for a jolly romp. He claims that the first Stainless Steel Rat story came about when he was practising writing "teasers" -- opening sentences that are supposed to grab an editor's attention and force him to want to continue reading. One day Harrison wrote a teaser that was so intriguing he decided that he really had to write the story that went with it, just to find out what happened. Thus was born Slippery Jim diGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat himself. Here is the teaser:

When the office door opened suddenly I knew the game was up. It had been a money maker -- but it was all over. As the cop walked in I sat back in the chair and put on a happy grin. He had the same sombre expression and heavy foot that they all have -- and the same lack of humour. I almost knew to the word what he was going to say before he uttered a syllable.

"James Bolivar DiGriz I arrest you on the charge -- "

I was waiting for the word charge, I thought it made a nice touch that way. As he said it I pressed the button that set off the charge of black powder in the ceiling, the crossbeam buckled and the three-ton safe dropped through right on the cop's head. He squashed very nicely, thank you. The cloud of plaster dust settled and all I could see of him was one hand, slightly crumpled. It twitched a bit and the index finger pointed at me accusingly. His voice was a little muffled by the safe and sounded a bit annoyed. In fact he repeated himself a bit.

"...On the charge of illegal entry, theft, forgery -- "

He ran on like that for quite a while, it was an impressive list but I had heard it all before. I didn't let it interfere with my stuffing all the money from the desk drawers into my suitcase. The list ended with a new charge and I would swear on a stack of thousand credit notes that high that there was a hurt tone in his voice.

"In addition, the charge of assaulting a police robot will be added to your record..."

The origins of his other major comic character Bill, the Galactic Hero are more complex. The book that was eventually published under that title was a satire poking some quite sharp barbs at Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers (with a few digs at Asimov's Foundation stories thrown in for good measure).

Mingled in with the satire are some appallingly bad jokes (I love them). Bill has saved money by putting some of his wages aside. He kept his savings in a rubber toy cat. And bit by bit the kitty grew.

The original novel has recently been followed by several sequels, written in collaboration with a number of different authors. They are much less successful and seem quite clumsy by comparison.

In recent years the bookshelves have begun to groan under the strain of supporting vast numbers of enormous tomes with ethereal anorexics and mythical beasts on the covers. We are living in the age of the fantasy novel. And sometimes we poke fun.

The first of the modern fantasy satires was probably the Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, an enormously funny pastiche of the Tolkien classic (their Doon -- the Dessert Planet should not be missed either). There are, however, two writers of humorous fantasy who stand head and shoulders above the rest. Terry Pratchett and Tom Holt leave the competition standing.

Tom Holt's field of fun is mythology and legend and his best comedic effects come from juxtaposing these with modern day reality. In Expecting Someone Taller, Malcolm Fisher inherits the Tarnhelm, which allows him to assume any shape he wishes, and the Ring which makes him ruler of the world. Serves him right for running over a badger who turns out to be Ingolf, last of the giants. The stage is set for a Wagnerian romp

Over the course of a dozen or so books Tom Holt has romped along with greek mythology, the Faust legend, the Flying Dutchman, Blondel's pursuit of King Richard the Lionheart and the legend of the sleeping hero who returns with his knights when the country is in peril. Here is the scene, from Who's Afraid of Beowulf, when the sleepers first awake:

Something moved in the darkness and moved again with the restlessness that attends on the last few moments before waking. "For crying out loud," said a voice, faint and drowsy in the darkness, "there's some of us trying to sleep."

The silence had been broken irrecoverably, like a pane of glass. "You what?" said another voice.

"I said there's people trying to sleep," said the first voice. "Shut it, will you?"

"You shut up," replied the second voice. "You're the one making all the noise."

"Do you two mind?" A third voice, deep and powerful and the structure of beams seemed to vibrate to its resonance. "Quiet as the grave, they say. Some hope."

"Sorry," said the first two voices. The silence tried to return, as the retreating tide tries to claw its way back up the beach.

"I told you, didn't I?" continued the third voice after a while. "I warned you not to eat that cheese, but would you listen? If you can't sleep then be quiet."

...Somewhere in the gloom there was a high pitched squeaking sound... "The wizard says try counting sheep," said the second voice.

"I heard him myself," said the third voice. "Bugger counting sheep. I've counted enough sheep since I've been down here to clothe the Frankish Empire. Oh the Hell with it. Somebody open a window."

There was a grating sound and a creaking of long-relaxed timber. "Sod it," said the first voice. "Some clown's moved the ladder."

Terry Pratchett operates in a completely different (but just as funny) world. The Discworld is an enormous disc resting on the back of four elephants which are standing on a giant turtle called A'Tuin. In 16 novels, a Companion and a Mappe, he has explored the world and its somewhat eccentric characters. The seventeenth novel (Interesting Times) is due for publication even as we speak. The riotous success of these novels (they invariably head into the best seller lists) has made Terry very rich and the rest of us very happy. He writes the kind of book that should never be read on a bus since people will look at you in wonder as you snort and giggle. Mind you, it probably means that you will always be able to sit comfortably -- nobody will want to sit by you in case it's catching.

Probably one of the reasons that the Discworld stories have succeeded as well as they have is because Terry never makes the mistake of making his characters funny to themselves. The real Discworld has no humour in it at all. In some ways the Discworld is the example par excellence of the point I made earlier on. The books are funny only from outside. The Discworld is real life to the characters who inhabit it and they do not know that outsiders are watching them and laughing (and they would be mortified if they even suspected it).

For example, Mr Ixolite is a banshee with a speech impediment. This makes it almost impossible for him to sit on a roof and howl when people are about to die and therefore he just writes them a note instead ("OooeeeOooeeeOooeee") and slips it under the door.

Now this may be funny, and it always gets a smile when I mention it. But just consider it from Mr Ixolite's point of view. He is a banshee who is physically incapable of doing what banshees are supposed to do. He is a sad and depressed person, and with very good reason. He is the Discworld equivalent of an opera singer whose vocal chords are strained, or a long distance runner confined to a wheelchair after an accident. How do you imagine those people feel when their major occupations are no longer possible? Now consider Mr Ixolite again. The best comedy is often not very far removed from tragedy.

The Discworld has some medieval trappings and among these are the various guilds. According to the Discworld Companion (by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Gibbs, Gollancz 1994), the Fools Guild (or to be strictly accurate, the Guild of Fools and Joculators and College of Clowns) was founded some 150 years before the present by one Charles Nixon, former Fool to the Duke of Quirm. The motto of the Guild is "DICO, DICO, DICO" ("I say, I say, I say"). The current King of Lancre is a graduate of the Guild. I like to imagine him hitting his courtiers with a pig's bladder and saying:

"Dico, dico, dico. Quis erat pullus viam transvenit?"

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