I think we have a problem in fantasy and science fiction when it comes to books that make us laugh. In film, a movie like The Guardians of the Galaxy comes along and not only do we embrace it, but we largely (Yes, I’m looking at you, Drax. No, not literally) laud the humor and the outlandish space opera elements and implausible science. But when it comes to SFF fiction, we tend to do two things:
Diminish the value of the work because it’s simply entertaining.
Diminish the value of the work because it’s not Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
This summer I’m publishing three books that have various levels of “ballsy chicanery,” outright slapstick, and sardonic plots. They are, respectively, Dark Run by Mike Brooks, which is a heist novel/space opera; Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja, which is a humorous military SF novel and the funniest SF novel I’ve read since Redshirts; and The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez, which hits Joss Whedon levels of clever snark and feels. Two debut novels, and an award-winning pro. Now I’m not talking about critical reception, because I’m not about to get into the merits of the reception on a particular review of one of my books as that’s just crass and unprofessional. I’m talking about how we value humor in this post-Pratchett industry—that knee-jerk reaction that feels specific to the use and value of humor in the field. So I thought I’d talk about ten of my personal favorite SFF works that made me crack up.
BIG OBVIOUS EXEMPTIONS: No Pratchett, because that’s both too easy, and too hard to just pick one. (Admission: I’m more Team Tiffany Aching.) No Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because Douglas Adams’ genius here, and in the first Dirk Gently, are required reading. Also out is Good Omens by Gaiman and Pratchett because we all agree it’s brilliant. And so, in no order of best:
Redshirts by John Scalzi
The Hugo Award-winning novel is both a critique of science fiction and particularly science fiction television of the past—okay, it’s a Star Trek pastiche on the surface, but unlike Galaxy Quest, which I think mostly pandered, Redshirts is clever and heartfelt and plays out the ramifications of what it sets up.
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
A fantasy novel about a princess captured by a dragon who doesn’t need rescuing from the stupid, sexist, lazy knights and princes as she’s doing just fine. And these dragons aren’t so bad; our heroine elects to become one dragon’s princess and soon helps her on the road to defeating wizards and gets embroiled in the trials to choose the next King of Dragons. Brilliant, and the first in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, which are a must-read.
Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy by Matt Ruff
Vonnegut-level wit here in this near-future SF novel about an eco-terrorist piloting the waters and sewers of NYC in his submarine the Yabba-Dabba-Do, a 181-year-old Civil War veteran, a mutant great white shark, and best of all, a holographic Ayn Rand trapped in a hurricane lamp. Satire doesn’t get finer. (Did I mention Ayn Rand trapped in a lamp? So good!)
Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones
Oh, I love Diana Wynne Jones! I told a little story about her, from my days as a bookseller. Everything you love about Pratchett, Gaiman, Rowling, and Jane Austen. Why this one versus so many others: Well, a certain character herein reminds me of certain publishing executive I know, and I have never thought of that individual any other way. Also it’s set in the world that Jones sends up in her hilarious The Tough Guide to Fairyland.
Soulless by Gail Carriger
Carriger’s humor is so precise and cutting that I think you just may bleed out from laughter and not realize until you’ve dropped. Far more than steampunk adventure-romance, this is smart fantasy about a woman with no soul whose lack is a key feature against supernatural forces which turn out to have little sway over her.
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
A novel told from the point of view of an aging heart-worn supervillain that is part Watchmen and part The Incredibles. Our narrator is a mad scientist/Lex Luthor supervillain who’s only gone bad because of that goddamn perfect hero who does everything perfectly. The feels, my friends, are deep. I LOVE this book with the same passion I have for M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and Martinez’s aforementioned The Last Adventure of Constance Verity. If you love comics, or the Marvelverse films, go pick this up.
Dork Tower by John Kovalic
Everyone who’s played D&D or Pathfinder, or heck, any pen & pencil game, please raise your hand, I’ll wait…. Dork Tower follows a set (a party?) of friends, glorious geeks all, as they delve into all manner of geek culture and fandom, and possible unrequited love. Dork Tower is heartfelt and sweet and better than The Big Bang Theory. I came across the strips in Dragon Magazine, and now Kovalic posts them online, and sells individual collections here. Kovalic’s art is also recognizable if you’ve ever played Munchkin (you must!) or Apples to Apples.
Schlock Mercenary by Howard Tayler
Staying on the comic theme, Schlock Mercenary is in the same groove as Redshirts and Mechanical Failure, playing with tropes we love from military science fiction, Star Trek, and science fiction in general as you follow a team of mercenaries and their ridiculously fun adventures across the galaxy. Tayler doesn’t just play with tropes and deconstruct them; he plays with and deconstructs these tropes because he loves them and that joy is self-evident. You can find the strips online here.
Jhereg by Steven Brust
Where to begin on my love for the Vlad Taltos books? Maybe by saying that I recently listened to Jhereg on audio after reading it years ago and The Suck Fairy™ is not anywhere near this gem. It concerns a lowly human working the angles of crime and assassination on the planet of Dragaera, in an empire where humans are definitely second class. Vlad embraces this by taking on the seldom used, and often disdained, powers of witchcraft and that gives him an edge. The first few books are set up in the manner of detective novels and Jhereg is a set of short and long cons that are as riveting as Brust’s dialogue is hilarious.
Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis
Many of Willis’ novels and stories exude charm and wit, but none more so than one of the few books I reread almost annually: Willis’ collection of eight holiday stories. “Adaptation” is my favorite, and in this we follow a divorced book clerk in London who is hampered by the greed and avarice of the season and the superficialities of his ex-wife. All the while, two important sub-plots are surrounding our hapless book-loving everyman: He tries to juggle his work schedule to see his daughter before she is swept away for the holidays and so he can enjoy some tender time with her—and the three spirits of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are personified, and become temp holiday help at the bookshop. I may be a sap, but nothing beats having The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come as an overwhelmed bookseller on Christmas Eve! I know, I’ve been there! This collection is Damon Runyon come back to life, and is a lovely showcase of the range of this treasured author.
Ha-ha Bonus: The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris
Okay, I published this on my first list at Saga, but this international bestselling novel, in which Harris’ Loki proclaims up front, “Well, this isn’t the Authorized Version,” is a re-telling of the Norse myths from Loki’s point of view. It’s bawdy and cynical, and a gem from start to end.