For me, humor is essential to the science fiction genre because science fiction at its core is all about the hope that science and reason will led us into a better age as we blunder into the unknown. And, apart from a towel, there is nothing better to have along with you when you’re venturing into the intellectual unknown than a sense of humor. Even in the darkest moments (like for instance when the Vogons show up) a well-timed joke can help.
We’ve compiled lists of funny science fiction movies before, but I wanted to take a moment to focus on some books. Humor in sci-fi writing is a very particular art, and I think several of these books deserve more recognition!
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
We have to start with Douglas Adams. He was amazing both as a writer and as a sentient lifeform—he was almost in Monty Python, wrote for Doctor Who, and worked as a bodyguard for a while. And he’s the person who brought me to science fiction. It seems weird now, but this was how I came to this genre. I loved his work without having any idea about the tropes he was mocking. (Then I dove into MST3K.) Most of his work could be on this list, but I went with the first. I don’t think I’ve ever made it through a single page of Hitchhikers without laughing. Adams runs his characters through insane scenarios, death-defying escapes, and planet manufacturing factories, and through it all uses a sense of joy to buoy them all up.
The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester
This is not one of Bester’s better-reviewed novels, but I actually love it—I like the word play, I like the inventiveness, and the sheer speed of the writing—for me they overcome the straining of ideas and clunkier moments. So there is a small group of immortals, living and working among us, who were created when great shocks to their systems caused their brains to essentially bypass death. They’ve formed a club, and one of their members attempts to recruit more immortals—by staging horrific murders to try to force likely candidates’ brains to do the whole death-bypassing thing. This does not often work. The one time it does, the new recruit decides things will be easier if he kills off the rest of the club and mayhem ensues.
Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley
Sheckley’s short stories are amazing—Harlan Ellison said he was the literary equivalent of the Marx Brothers—but I wanted to include a novel on this list! An extremely close cousin to Hitchhikers Guide (Douglas Adams said he hadn’t read the book until after writing HHG2G, but called Sheckley “terrifyingly good” competition) Dimension of Miracles is about a Galactic Lottery, which is unfortunately won by human civil servant Tom Carmody. Carmody travels to receive his prize, only to find that he can’t really get home again, and that even returning to an Earth doesn’t mean he’s on the correct Earth. A series of aliens attempt to help him…with varying results.
Cyberiad by Stanislav Lem
A collection of stories about a pair of intelligent robots (contructors) named Trurl and Klapaucius who travel around a pseudo-medieval world searching for happiness, and doing good deeds that often go wrong. This book also has math puns, cybernetics puns, and a pretty large dose of philosophical musing underneath the fables.
The Steam-Driven Boy and Other Strangers by John Thomas Sladek
Sladek was a great satirist, who injected dark humor into much of his work. He moved to England in time to be part of the New Wave movement, and pushed genre boundaries with humor and surrealism. Iain M. Banks said that he “should have been the Terry Pratchett of the seventies.” The second half of The Steam Driven Boy & Other Stories consists of parodies of the greats, such as “The Purloined Butter” (Poe), “The Moon is Sixpence” (Arthur C. Clarke), and “Solar Shoe-Salesman” (Philip K. Dick). I particularly love “The Great Wall of Mexico,” a story told primarily through letters and memoranda between a President and various staff and secret service, and containing an adorable micro-parody of The Man Who Was Thursday. It contains this gem, an order from the President: “I, the State, further do not like science fiction cops. If it is really necessary for them to wear those helmets, plastic visors, tunics, gauntlets, and jump boots, will they please keep out of my sight.” You can read it here.
RedShirts by John Scalzi
Rather than just laughing at Red Shirts like the rest of us, John Scalzi spent time in their world to create a hilarious novel. When Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, he is understandably excited. However, once he realizes that he and his fellow ensigns have a bad habit of dying on away missions, he begins to investigate the rules of the ship, and eventually, his whole universe.
The Bill series was a direct parody of Starship Troopers that evolved into a general military satire, while Stainless Steel Rat was a series of comedic sci-fi/espionage/con artist books. Both drew on Harrison’s own military experience as well as his love of hard SF. James Bolivar diGriz, or the Stainless Steel Rat, adventures through time and alternate realities, collecting a former-assassin wife, a pair of twin boys, and many equally tough enemies as he defends the Earth from aliens and occasionally pulls off bank heists.
Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson
Playing off of L. Sprague de Camp’s Tales from Gavagan’s Bar and Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, Robinson created a sort of Irish Way Station for immortals, space travelers, mutant dogs, and the “ladies of excellent repute” from the brothel down the street to come and tell their stories. The books are narrated by Jake Stonebender, and feature the heavy use of puns and Irish-based wordplay. But really the charm of the books is summed up in the bar’s credo: “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased—thus do we refute entropy.”
Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad
A Kerouac-influenced thriller about a talk show host, Jack Barron, who invites his viewers to “bug” him with their problems, skewers the relationships between politics, business, and media. In the not-too-distant future, people of means can turn to The Foundation for Human Immortality for treatments that are supposed to prolong life. However, an African-American man calls in to Jack’s show to claim that he was refused treatment. Jack begins investigating, and with the help of his ex-wife begins to uncover a conspiracy involving the head of the FHI and several members of Congress. The book, originally serialized by Michael Moorcock in New Worlds magazine, caused controversy because of its language and lack of respect for politicians, and was banned by W.H. Smith, one of Britain’s leading booksellers.
On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch
Disch’s work is a dark satire of a near-future America in which the country has been divided into a Midwestern nation run by “undergoders”—a repressive government that, while remaining technically secular, strongly encourage the moral values of the Christian right wing, and the east coast, which is more permissive, liberal, and openly artistic. A new fad called “flying”—a sort of astral projection that occurs while singing, has swept through the more adventurous members of the east coast, much to the Midwesterners’ horror. The novel follows a straight bildungsroman format, following a young singer named Daniel Weinreb through first love, tragedy, and prison time, while lampooning the struggle between liberal and conservative factions in America, between rich and poor, between people who love to fly and people who fear it.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
So after all the dark dystopia, here’s a hopeful book about the apocalypse. In the centuries after a nuclear war, humanity turned on its scientists, blaming them for the catastrophe. Bookleggers and memorizers went underground to try to preserve humanity’s store of knowledge, and the book begins with a Catholic monk of the Order of Leibowitz, hiding and illuminating whatever works they can find, to keep them safe until mankind is ready again. The humor here is a gentle irony—the founder of this Catholic order is Jewish, yet the monks all stick to the medieval style liturgical life including the Latin. We as modern readers notice when the monks get things wrong—they’re trying to preserve a civilization they have no experience of. And as I said, this is a book about hope—the hope that humanity can actually save itself through knowledge. Which isn’t exactly funny, but it is comedy in the old dramatic sense that we get a happy ending.
OK, so I’m stopping here, and I can hear you all now, screaming “Where’s Vonnegut???” But rather than try to pick one to add to the list, I’d like to hear from you—which Vonnegut is your favorite, and why? What warped, twisted, and hilarious books have we left out? Give us suggestions—we want to read them!
Leah Schnelbach once went on a date with a guy just cause he had a ferret named Fenchurch. You can read her occasional sputters of thought here.