One of the glories of science fiction and fantasy is the way that writers can mash up different genres and sub-genres to provide new perspectives on old tropes. This has been happening for at least as far back as Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream mixes together Greek mythology (Theseus and Hippolyta), stories of English Faerie folk (Oberon and Titania), romantic comedy (the mismatched lovers), and lowbrow slapstick (the “rude mechanicals”) to obtain a play which throws a fresh light on all its elements. The play is also ridiculously funny, which is why it’s still a favorite with modern audiences.
I like funny. I love funny. Most of the stories I’ve written contain plenty of laughter, even when they deal with serious subjects. And mashing together different sub-genres is a perfect opportunity for jokes.
Let’s face it: plenty of SF tropes are balloons just waiting to be popped. If a book lives entirely in a single genre—swords & sorcery, say, or urban fantasy—then its preconceptions reinforce each other and hold off the clichés from collapsing. But as soon as you gather all the things that a genre takes for granted and you slam them into a different world-view, pretensions get skewered and the same-old-same-old does a pratfall. The result is often laughter.
Putting different genres together also lets you come up with brand new story-lines that readers haven’t seen before. I tried to do that in my newly published book, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, which mashes superheroes together with monsters like vampires and werewolves. In the list below, I’d like to offer a number of other sub-genre mash-ups that I remember fondly for making me laugh.
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
In this wonderful book, the solar system isn’t made up of inhospitable hunks of rock, but of all the exotic worlds that pulp fiction once imagined. The diverse planets and moons are bound together by the milk of whales from Venus, and black & white movies made on the moon. The style of the book mixes film documentary, alternate history, swashbuckling, hardboiled noir, Hollywood glamour, magic realism, and just plain weirdness. It’s like nothing else in the genre, and even the language is gorgeous—the opening monologue alone is worth the price of admission. (By the way, I “read” Radiance by listening to the audiobook, which I highly recommend. The reader, Heath Miller, worked closely with Valente to do a bang-up job of narrating.)
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next is a veteran of the Crimean War; she owns a pet dodo and works as a literary detective. This means that she investigates crimes against books … because in her world, thanks to the Prose Portal, it’s possible to enter works of fiction and affect their stories. In the course of the book, Thursday chases a supervillain into Jane Eyre and … I’d better not spoil it. But The Eyre Affair and its sequels are jaw-dropping combinations of mystery stories, thrillers, and fantasy that keep going in directions you’d never expect.
Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff
This is the first of three books, all of which are set behind the scenes of a TV show featuring a vampire detective. Counter to what you might expect, the star of the show isn’t a real vampire; however, one of the people backstage is a real wizard, another is the protégé of an elder vampire, and other supernatural connections slowly make themselves known. The result combines urban fantasy and mystery, with a lot of sly jokes about the television industry and even a charming love story that develops gradually over the course of the trilogy.
Jhereg by Steven Brust
The Vlad Taltos series has taken many twists and turns in its fifteen-book history, but it started with Jhereg. In that book, Vlad Taltos is a professional assassin in a swords & sorcery world … except, wait, there’s actually a (sort of) scientific explanation for how things got the way they are. And Taltos is more of a hard-bitten private eye than a run-of-the-mill hitman. A hard-bitten private eye who uses witchcraft. And whose cynical point of view keeps deflating all the people and tropes he runs into. It was a breath of fresh air when it came out in 1983, and the series has just continued to improve.
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
I could, of course, have filled this entire list with Pratchett books, and I was torn about which one to include. My favorite of the series is The Wee Free Men, which I’ve thrust into the hands of every 10-year-old I know. But when it comes to mash-ups, you can’t beat Monstrous Regiment: a feminist war-story with monsters. As her country fights a religious crusade, a girl dresses up as a boy to join the army and find her missing brother. Soon, she discovers that many of her fellow soldiers are also females dressed as males … although not necessarily human. As with most Discworld books, the jokes float atop a sea of deeper values—Pratchett’s outrage at the state of the world and his compassion for all those who live in it.