Humour in Fantasy and SF

Joe Monti’s piece on the Tor.com website In Praise of Humour in Fantasy and Science Fiction prompted the following thoughts.

I’d love to be able to write humour. Joss Whedon is my hero for his snappy one-liners. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and even the one liners in Toy Story for which Whedon was a script doctor, are a true delight.

(Disclaimer: When humour occurs in my books, it’s accidental, though I do try to write lighter moments, of course.)

I’ll certainly try a few of the titles on Joe’s list, especially Connie Willis whom I’ve been meaning to read for some time, and John Scalzi’s Redshirts which I bought some time ago and is still in my (unread) Strategic Book Reserve. (Must try harder.) However I’m not sure Joe’s sense of humour entirely lines up with mine. I love Diana Wynne Jones, but was Dark Lord of Derkholm supposed to be funny? Oops. But that makes a point for me. Humour is entirely subjective, and can differ according to mood, geography and cultural understanding as well as personal taste. (Another disclaimer: I’m British, and not just British, but Yorkshire, where dark humour abounds.)

An author who is lauded for her plotting, characterisation and style, though not neccessarily for her humour is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her Vorkosigan books often have laugh out loud moments that have earned me odd looks from those unfortunate enough to be in close proximity. No, she doesn’t write books that fall into the comedy pigeonhole, but, damn, she can write a funny scene. For many reasons she’s very high on my list of top ten authors of all time.

Whedon quoteI love the dark humour, or should that be grimdark humour in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy – though comedies the books are not. Humour is especially effective when offset by (or offsetting) dramatic tension. The sharp contrast acts as punctuation and gives us a breathing space.

I think that (sometimes) authors try too hard when deliberately setting out to write a funny book. I can think of a few that haven’t quite worked for me. Comedy that evolves naturally often works best, though what works for one reader doesn’t work for another, so a funny book that has a great plot and/or brilliant characters will compensate for individual taste and the mood of the moment, and work on many levels for many readers.

Discworld is a phenomenon not just because of the humour, but also because the worlbuilding, characterisation and plotting are top notch. Though even a genius like Pratchett can occasionally misfire. I’m thinking especially of The Last Continent which is a geographic ramble, episodic rather than tightly plotted, and relies too much on jokey sideswipes at Australianisms. (And you’re all going to tell me that it’s your favourite, aren’t you? Well, fair dinkum.) Whereas the finest (to my mind) Discworld book, Night Watch, is so tightly plotted the dramatic tension is palpable.Vimes accidentally travels back in time while on the trail of a desperate thug and becomes the mentor to his younger self during troubled times in Ankh Morpork. He knows when his mentor dies. Can he change things? Can he still catch his man? Will he get back to his own time before the fateful moment?  You honestly don’t know until the very end. Pratchett has killed off beloved characters before. (Mort, for example.)

Most recently I’ve read Jodi Taylor’s St Marys books starting with Just One Damn Thing After Another, a madcap take on a time-travelling historical research unit that’s fuelled by tea and good intentions. Funny? I think so. Maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but certainly smile-while-reading funny.

So, what do you think? I’ll take suggestions for your favourite moments of humour in fantasy and science fiction. Leave me a comment.

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About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / Border Agency licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificate of Sponsorship).
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2 Responses to Humour in Fantasy and SF

  1. CJ Jessop says:

    My favourite Pratchett book was Monstrous Regiment. I’ll agree on the Last Continent, though and I do love a Vimes novel, and a Granny novel, and of course a Death… I might as well just come out and say I loved them all!

    As for humour in other works, it depends. I enjoyed Redshirts, but preferred the occasional humour in Old Man’s War, if we’re talking Scalzi. Scott Lynch made me laugh out loud several times in the first of the Gentleman Bastards novels. If the humour arises out of the story and the characters it’s wonderful. If it’s satire, double points from me.

    • Jacey Bedford says:

      Oh, yes, I adored Monstrous Regiment, too. (I am a self-confessed folkie so the ‘female soldier’ trope is very familiar.) I don’t think I’ve ever read a Pratchett that I didn’t like, but Last Continent is definitely at the bottom of my list. I haven’t read Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It’s on my list. I absolutely agree about Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards books, though the humour is interspersed with some pretty desperate action and suspense, which brings me right back to my comments about contrasts. I’ve had the next Lynch book on pre-order for some time and await it eagerly.

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