Laughter is the only universal language. As a sci-fi author and stand-up comedian, nothing gets me turning through pages faster than a good belly-laugh born of sharp wit, a clever turn-of-phrase, and flawless delivery. When I was asked to write this post, I thought it would be a breeze to come up with five titles that fit the bill.
And it would have been, if I’d settled for the obvious choices. But ninety percent of the funny SFF books on my shelves are by the two names that dominate the segment; Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. We all know how wonderful The Hitchhiker’s Guide and Discworld are, so they’ve been left off the list for the same reason the University of Wisconsin system is left off lists of Top Ten Party Schools. It’s just not fair to everyone else.
So, in an order representing date of publication only, here’s my top five sci-fi humor books you have to go read right now.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Okay, let’s get this out of the way, Kurt Vonnegut was a lunatic. A beautiful basket-case that somehow wrote an immensely dark, nonlinear time-travel comedy about the fire-bombing of Dresden. That shouldn’t be possible, but Slaughter House Five became a cultural touchstone and helped to propel the whole category of sci-fi humor for decades, despite the fact Vonnegut usually tried to avoid being pigeon-holed with the label of sci-fi writer. Without Vonnegut, would we even have Prachett and Adams?
Yeah, so I’m cheating a little. But Douglas Adams’ often overlooked detective duology makes the list because it’s been unfairly overshadowed by his much more popular work in the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, well, multiverse actually. The Dirk Gently series is in some ways an even better set of books, owning to strong characters, more coherent plots, and a deeper exploration of the social issues it was meant to satirize. If Hitchhiker’s was Adams at his most irreverent and slap-stick, Dirk Gently was Adams at his most brooding and contemplative.
Opinions on this one have been mixed, but for myself, Charles Yu’s time-hoping philosophical romp helped to rekindle an appetite for sci-fi humor among the publishing industry that had been lying dormant years. In its meta, self-reflective way, the novel manages to straddle a very fine line between hilarity and sentimental melancholy. It’s quite an achievement.
Redshirts, John Scalzi
I used to get a little annoyed when people called Scalzi a humor writer. Don’t get me wrong, John is an immensely talented author. His books such as the Old Man’s War series are some of the most entertaining, fast-paced sci-fi being written today. However, despite containing humorous elements and funny dialogue, they weren’t pure comedies like Hitchhikers, or satirical pieces like the Discworld.
That all changed with Redshirts. It is a hilarious, thorough, insightful, lovingly crafted satire that surpasses the classic Galaxy Quest as the best send up of Star Trek ever written in any medium. It deserved every inch of its Hugo Award. Now it’s headed for the small screen, where I expect it to become an even bigger hit.
“Wait!” you’re saying. “Futurama isn’t a book.” No, it isn’t, and this isn’t your list. Besides, #2 was technically two books. So hush. Since its introduction in 1999, Futurama consistently, hilariously, and most important, intelligently skewered sci-fi, fantasy, pop culture, politics, nothing was beyond its reach. What other show has delivered a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle gag to a prime time audience.
And that’s what made Futurama so different from anything that has appeared before or since. It trusted its audience to be intelligent and well-informed instead of always playing to the lowest common denominator (not that the writers were always above it, recall the “sewage seeking missile” cheekily labeled I.C.B.M.). Futurama made it clear that there was a large and loyal market for smart humor. It proved so popular among its legion of fans that it took three separate cancellations before it finally stayed dead.
Guardians of the Galaxy
“But that’s six things!” Seriously? You’re complaining about getting extra stuff? Besides, I’m no good at math. Anyway, the genre-bending, surprise box-office smash of 2014, GotG broke almost every mold for what a blockbuster movie looked like.
Superheroes, check. Space opera, check. Comedy, check. Hell, let’s even call it a musical while we’re at it, considering all the Awesome Mix Volume #1 sales it racked up. Guardians was the first sci-fi film since the Hitchhiker’s Guide adaptation to bring such a high level of humor and silliness, and audiences richly rewarded it for the opportunity to laugh alongside its shootouts and space battles, driving it to over $700 million worldwide.
That wraps up my list of sci-fi books, (and a T.V. show and a movie) that go out of their way to tickle your funny bone. Be sure to add your own in the comments!
Patrick S. Tomlinson is an author and stand-up comedian working out of Milwaukee, WI. His debut novel, THE ARK, which is not intentionally funny, drops in November from Angry Robot Books. Patrick also organizes and hosts a nerdy stand up showcase known as Cthulhu’s Comedy Collective, which has recently started touring conventions in the Midwest. You can follow him on twitter @stealthygeek, on Facebook, and follow his blog.