Jul 15 2013 2:00pm

It’s 2 PM. Do You Know Where Your Towel Is?

Towel Preparedness

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!

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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

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

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

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 Stainless Steel Rat

The Stainless Steel Rat/Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison

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

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

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

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

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.

1. Procrastigator
Apart from Vonnegut, what you're missing is Fredric Brown's "Martians go home" , one of the funniest sci-fi stories I've read yet.
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
Just about anything by Ron Goulart. It's been too long since I've read any for me to name anything specific.

Keith Laumer's Retief books (at least those written prior to his stroke; the last couple are frankly just sad) as well as The Great Time Machine Hoax, and more in the realm of fantasy, the Lafayette O'Leary novels.
3. Jenz
I love the list, and I've read a lot of them. The thing that's getting me lately is trying to find NEW books like this. Dark dystopian despair is all the current rage. I'd just like some light escapism sometimes.

Vonnegut: I'm going with Breakfast of Champions, not because it's his best, but I remember it fondly (I should reread it now, and hope it's as good as I remember!).
Brian R
4. Mayhem
DemetriosX beat me to it - Laumer's work is brilliant, and Retief is a delight to read.
Tim Eagon
5. Tim_Eagon
Henry Kutner's Robots Have No Tails is a pretty funny collection of short stories about an alcoholic inventor and the strange things he builds when he's on a bender.
I can't say it introduced me to scifi because my family sat together to watch all the Star Trek iterations of the 80s and 90s while I was growing up, and I can't even say it was the first scifi novel because I think that was Ender's Game.

But Stainless Steel Rat was the first pulp scifi I ever read and I just loved it to death! Incredibly smart protagonist, ridiculously convoluted plans and counters, virtually no fighting, and the heroes of the galaxy are all ex-cons. I didn't notice the underlying commentary until much much later, and I'm shocked how few people my age or younger have read it.
I have to say though, you picked about the worst Stainless Steel Rat cover. The one I read is the yellow one at the top here:

But most all are better than the nameless ship that could belong to any series.
8. KaapstadMK
It's not quite sci-fi (more fantasy, but hey), but Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is one of the few series that has never let me down. By the time I've finished the first 100 pages, I feel as though I've just finished an ab workout.
Tuula Salonen
9. TuraSaltana
Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan, off the top of my head.

I would like to point out the somewhat forgotten Alan Dean Foster, who has written heaps of pleasurable, if light, books. So, so many - how does he DO it??

Stanislav Lem's Star Diaries is also very funny, another compilation - hard to decide which one is better, Cyberiad is brilliant as well. His novels tend to be rather serious, with the exception of Memoires Found in a Bathtub, and Peace on Earth, at least in parts.

I found Karel Capek's God Machine very funny, but I read it in Spanish... The War of the Newts is better known and a good read, but less humorous.

Italo Calvino has a reputation of being rather literary, but really many of his works are very funny, Cosmicomics being one which is also something like SciFi.
Chris Long
10. radynski
I hesitate to even read these, simply to avoid the disappointment. In the last 20 years, I keep finding recommendations that suggest another author is as good as Douglas Adams. Sadly, I've come to the conclusion that that is just not possible.

Adams was amazingly brilliant and in a class all his own.
11. Russell J. Handelman
I'd include Eric Frank Russell's THE SPACE WILLIES, wherein the protagonist turns the tide of an interstellar war in humanity's favor using nothing more than a piece of wood, a bit of wire, a nail and his imagination.
12. dwndrgn
Charles Stross' Laundry Files are quite humorous if not laugh-out-loud funny.
13. Judith Bandsma
Welcome to the Monkey House. Collection of Vonnegut stories but relevant even today...not to mention hilarious.
Rob Munnelly
14. RobMRobM
Scalzi - I'd focus on his short story "After the Coup" (available for free on this webste) and the related Human Division novel or the "Shadow War of the Night Dragons" parody story (also available here) even more than Redshirts.

Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle seems the funniest but perhaps I find Buddhist thought funny.

Bujold - the Vorkosigan works are very funny (in addition to being touching, tragic, thoughtful, etc.) Ivan, Aral and Cordelia in particular are all comedy gold.
Nick Hlavacek
15. Nick31
I was reading this and from the very beginning thinking that Callahans Crosstime Saloon had to be on the list. And so it is. I haven't read it in years and it still stands out in my mind for the truly awful (and by "awful" I mean "excellent") puns.
For some more recent books I would suggest Rats, Bats, and Vats by Eric Flint and Dave Freer. That and its sequel frequently laughing out loud. (Another of Flint's works, the Joe's World series, is even funnier but probably falls more in the fantasy genre. Ditto for many of Robert Asprin's books.)
16. Aidangunn
John Ringos' "Troy Rising " series has some great humor. Also pretty much anything by Larry Correia. Most of what I've read from him isn't really Sci-fi but it has some great comedy in it.
17. chris l
Let me add Bob Shaw's Who Goes Here, a hillarious and underrated title, and also Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero.

Btw, never in a million years would I consider A Canticle For Leibowitz funny in the sense that Dimension of Miracles (good choice) is funny.
David Gunter
18. spdavid
These two are marginally sci fi but The Rook by Daniel O'Malley and John Dies in the End/This Book is Full of Spiders were amazingly funny and great reads as well.The Rook was a real surprise,I didn't expecft humor and it was hoot!
David Gunter
19. spdavid
Opps Daivid Wong...John Dies in the End etc.
David Gunter
20. spdavid
For poops sake can't you guys ad edit to this thing?
Rob Munnelly
21. RobMRobM
@17 - oh come on, nuclear war and its aftermath is always funny... am I right???? (I had the same thought you did; thanks for pointing it out.)
David Allkins
22. Ghostword
While not science-fiction, David Langford's 'The Leaky Establishment' is a comedy about science. In an attempt to steal a filing cabinet from the nuclear reseach center where he works, Roy Tappen finds that he has taken home a nuclear warhead core as well. So he then has to find a way to get it past the new security system to get it back in the base.
Rob Munnelly
23. RobMRobM
Re Vonnegut - actually his funniest is "The Big Space F***" from one of the Dangerous Visions anthologies.

There also might be other funny stories there, as I recall. I'm thinking of a story called something like "At the Fitting Shop" where a customer in the far future was trying to buy a new male organ and was getting a sales pitch on all the popular models.
24. SKM
I never thought I'd see the day when someone who wasn't me mentioned "War With the Newts." My week is made!

And my favorite Vonnegut, oddly enough, is one of his most un-Vonnegutteral (it's a word, shut up) short stories: "Who Am I This Time?" from Welcome to the Monkey House. Of his science fiction, "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" from the same collection hits closest to my funny bone, though Cat's Cradle is probably better.
25. Freelancer
Look around, many sci-fi greats were closet comedians. Sadly, the most common resort of the best was to leave their most humorous work to serial shorts or novellas. Asimov, Van Vogt, Dick, all had some very hilarious lesser-known works. In fact, look long enough into those and you'll find that Adams paid tribute to some of their best one-liners in the HHG series.

SPDavid, since you are logged in with a username, you can indeed edit your own comments. I know for a fact that the edit link under your name works fine in IE, Chrome, and Firefox.

Edited to add Opera (using Opera to edit)
David Gunter
26. spdavid
Begs the question why isn't edit available for all?I used to post before I joined so I didn't have edit ability and didn't realize I do now.Not much of a perk,join the site and be able to edit your typos!
27. wingracer
If you could edit your posts without being signed in to your account, then so could everyone else. Would you want other people to be able to edit your posts?
28. peachy
I'm rather fond of Mike Resnick's The Outpost - sort of pulp-in-space, and frequently hilarious. The structure is very clever too...
29. littleuni
I think the Phule ( pronounced fool) series by Robert Asprin should at least be given an honarable mention here. In this series we have a millionaire playboy who joins the army and takes over the bigest bunch of misfits the galaxy has ever seen and turns them into the BEST unit the galaxy has ever seen. the whole series is a delightful romp makeing fun of all branches of the milatary yet keeping true to its plot and charratures. i think it is a must read for anyone looking for humor in Sci-Fi.
Thomas Stessl
30. tommythecat
The Road to Mars by Eric Idle (of Monty Python Fame)...was a fantastic book IMO.
31. a1ay
While not science-fiction, David Langford's 'The Leaky Establishment' is a comedy about science.

Langford is pretty good, but his best stuff is the short stories: "He Do The Time Police In Different Voices" has some great parodies in it.
David Levinson
32. DemetriosX
Esther Friesner, lots of Connie Willis (especially her short fiction), F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre.

But a name going way back that must be remembered is Reginald Bretnor. Bretnor not only gave us the Papa Schimmelhorn stories, but also the Ferdinand Feghoot shaggy dog tales. Feghoots were a staple of the genre from the mid-50s until Bretnor's death in the early 90s.
33. Action Kate
A Canticle for Liebowitz was funny in the same way acute appendicitis is funny. Sorry, that was one of the most depressing, crushing, soul-deadening stories I've ever had the misfortune of slogging through. Canticle makes me want to go watch a Mr. Rogers marathon just so I can find the will to get out of bed again.
34. Mary C.
I found Kornbluth and Pohl's The Space Merchants sardonically funny. The POTUS has to beg to be allowed to appear at a Congressional hearing(a Congress of the Senator from Nabisco, the Congressman from Standard Oil, etc.) and has to take taxi cabs to get around like any other poor slob. And, the main character gets sent to slave in a third-world factory where they "grow" the popular mystery meat and then escapes through a secret room under Chicken Little, the giant mystery meat itself. Funny stuff.
35. Jeff R.
I'd make room for both of Minister Faust's first two novels on a list such as this (Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad and From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain) . Along with Cryptonomicon (Which is certainly Stephenson's funniest outing).
alastair chadwin
36. a-j
For the full Hitchhiker experience, you really have to listen to the original radio version. That is it's best and original format. For prose, Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is good fun.
Another call out for Stanislaw Lem's The Star Diaries. I prefer The Cyberiad but I came to that first. Terry Pratchett's second novel, The Dark Side of the Sun can stand up to a fair bit of his Discworld series and a final recommendation to Kim Newman's short story, Famous Monsters. A charming and witty merging of Hollywood history and HG Wells.
37. Peter J Nelson
Larry Niven's "Rainbow Mars" is a great tall-tale and a fun poke-in-the-eye for any other time-traveling stories out there. What do you do when your ruler wants an extinct animal for his exotic zoo? Why, just pop back in time and retrieve them! What could possibly go wrong?
David Kilman
38. DaveAK
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is actually my favorite Adams book.

Funniest Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle or Slapstick (even though Slapstick is usually not well regarded)

Canticle for Leibowitz funny? Huh?

A few omissions so far not mentioned by anyone:

Various short stories by William Tenn (wrote some of the funniest SF shorts ever - try The Liberation of Earth, Party of the Two Parts,
Venus and the Seven Sexes)

This Other Eden by Ben Elton (British, but no, do not expect Adams)

This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow (funny, but also very dark)
39. toddywatts
Joe Haldeman's Accidental Time Machine had some fun moments.
40. oxdude
A. Lee Martinez's Emperor Mollusk vs. The SInister Brain is hilarious. (So are the rest of his stories.) Piers Anthony's Xanth novels are good if you like pun-ishment. Robert Asprin's Myth- novels are wonderfully funny.
Brian Peterson
41. brianpdonovan
Mark Clifton's When They Come from Space. When I read the reference to a half-planet admiral, rear side, I couldn't stop laughing.
42. bejeweledcat
Wow, two authors who helped form how I see the world on the same list. Robinson cemented a fasination with words and language as well as my views of acceptance, family and friendship. Adams gifted to me the ability to find humor in the most bizzarre and amazing places, though that gift has gotten me into hot water a few times.

@36 That is how I discovered "Hitchhiker's Guide" followed shortly thereafter by seeing the original BBC series. To this day I carry a towel in my car - just in case!

Gini Koch's Alien series is at the tip top of my funny sci fi list. I picked up book two of the series, Alien Tango,at the library. By chapter three, I was at the bookstore purchasing every book that was published and pre ordering the next one up. Any thing by Ms Koch is at the top of my recomended list.

I have also gotten a huge kick out of out of Kevin J Anderson's Unnatural Acts. I am on book one now, Death Warmed Over, though it is probably considered more fantasy than sci fi.
43. CHip137
@11: IMO, "The Space Willies" took a fun idea and dragged it out.
If we're allowing shorts, I'd pick "And Then There Were None";
since the topic was originally books, I'd point to Russell's novel Wasp: in theory a dead-serious story about one man sabotaging an entire enemy planet, but with no dragging and all of Russell's typical digs at any sort of authority. (.)

And since some people are pointing at fantasy, how about one of the ancestors: Pratt and de Camp's Harold Shea stories. (They come in several forms; The Incompleat Enchanter was the first book published, containing the first two stories.) Pratt and de Camp did humorous fantasies separately, showing their differing skills and weaknesses; the joint efforts pull together the strengths and avoid the pitfalls.

@41: Yes! Most of Clifton's work used a club (although the 4 ESP shorts have good flashes); WTCfS used a stiletto, brilliantly.
44. Simuloid
Headcrash, by Bruce Bethke is a hilarious cyberpunk story. It is a funny in an unselfconscious way, unlike many parodies. Imagine if the main character from Office Space decided to do a Net-Running gig, but that all that cyberware isn't as fun or cool as it is in all the "serious" (dark, gritty) cyberpunk stories. The ending will surprise you, too (which may or may not be a good thing). Some reviewers on Amazon clearly didn't like it as much as me (and whoever decided to give it the Philip K. Dick Award).
46. Raja Setlur
Among short stories - The Endochronic properties of resublimated Thiotimoline - Asimov

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