Sunday, August 25, 2013

Having a Laugh (in Time and Space)

I shy away from top 10 lists normally. I'll indulge myself with a few as I did with my blog post on what I felt were the best TV westerns. And on my Take a Look/Have a Listen blog, when I listed what I considered the top five covers of Beatle songs. But generally I shy away from stating the best of anything when it comes to creativity cause it can be such a subjective thing. I can tell you that two + two equals four is an indisputable fact, but I can't tell you that "Ra One" is the greatest movie ever made in history, hands down, bar none. That's my little hangup and I have to respect those poor, deluded souls who rate it lower on the scale than I.

So knowing that "the best" is subjective and remembering the fact that in my DVD collection you'll find both "Citizen Kane" and "Sharktopus," I try not to least not too harshly. Rather than a "best of", I'd simply like to share some titles of novels and names of writers that I feel do an excellent job of mixing humor, and science fiction and fantasy.

Of course #1 would have to be Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. I know I said I wouldn't judge, but come on, this is a no-brainer. It is a classic fish-out-of-water (Arthur Dent) tale with a touch of social commentary and intergalactic travelogue to it. The writing was fantastical, yet light with just the right amount of sardonic edge that pointed out one consistency throughout the universe: Bureaucracy runs rampant no matter the galaxy you find yourself in. The books inspired a radio show, a television show and a movie. Two other, non-Hitchhiker's novels of note are Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and it's sequel, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. Adams also wrote, along with zoologist Mark Carwardine, the nonfiction book Last Chance to See (1990). Written with his typical sharp humor, it none the less highlights animals considered endangered species, hence the urgency of the title. In 2009, Stephen Fry joined Mark Carwardine in a BBC documentary to track down the animals featured in Last Chance to See to gauge their status. It was a bittersweet series. But of course, Adams will forever be best known for his Hitchikers and 34 years after its first publication, it remains a classic. You can be assured that at some convention, somewhere, someone is holding a towel and wearing a "Don't Panic" T-shirt.

Along with Adams, Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series helped me realize the possibilities of sprinkling science fiction with humor. I bought my first SSR collection, a three novel anthology, from the Science Fiction Book Club decades ago and it remains prized in my book collection. Jim Bolivar diGriz is The Stainless Steel Rat (he also goes by the alias "Slippery Jim"), interplanetary conman and thief extraordinaire. Slippery Jim debuted in a short story, "The Stainless Steel Rat," appearing in Astounding magazine in 1957. The story was expanded upon and featured as the plot of the first novel, also titled The Stainless Steel Rat published in 1961. Eleven novels followed including The Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982), The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987) and The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010).
Throughout those novels the Rat uses his talents not only for larceny, both petty and otherwise, but very frequently martial arts to save the various worlds he finds himself on. He tangles with invading aliens, ruthless dictators and the authorities who, when they're not trying to incarcerate him, are trying to blackmail him into working for them. Along the way, he finds a wife, and has twin sons who are chips off the old block. An interesting thing to note about Harrison was his dedication to establishing as the official language of Earth, Esperanto, a language developed in the late 1870s and on by Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof. Harrison, much like the good doctor who invented it, believed that Esperanto could bring the people of the world together under a common language. The language is used liberally in the Stainless Steel Rat books.

Terry Pratchett's writing can probably be considered more fantasy than science fiction but he's high on many people's list when it comes to sprinkling his writing with humor. To be honest, I've never read much in the Discworld series. I have read Going Postal and found it a really fun read. Going Postal tells the tale of a Moist Von Lipwig who, in an attempt to avoid a threatened execution, agrees to turn around a rundown post office and to prove its worth by winning a contest to deliver a message before the semaphore tower or "clacks" of Reacher Gilt does. Gilt is willing to do anything to win and Moist must fight his own questionable nature to see his task through. It's a fun read and was turned into an enjoyable TV adaptation in 2010.

Another favorite in the fantasy genre is Piers Anthony's Xanth series of which, I think, there are 8,421. This was another author I met through the Science Fiction Book Club (somewhere I still have my tote from the club) and every time I bought a new book in the series it was like discovering a golden nugget. The series is imaginative and not just funny but punny (puns are used liberally in the titles, the names of the characters and places and in the plots), inventing an entire world for the reader to dig right into. Unfortunately, a time came when life got a hold of me and shook me into submission, so I fell behind and lost track of the series. If free time ever visits again, I would love to start from the beginning and work my way through.

I'm not sure how you'd classify Christopher Moore's work except to say it's often a mix of genres. His Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ''s Childhood Pal is an invented history of Jesus Christ (though one would be hard pressed to figure out what in the Bible isn't made up about Christ). It's obviously humor, but with a little bit of philosophy baked in. I'm sure it made some of the more fundamental heads spin. Moore's novel Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings is a novel about a marine biologist studying humpback whales and their songs and discovering something extraterrestrial in the mix.

And then there was The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror. It's sort of an answer to those Maeve Binchy, Thomas Kinkaid, Christmas-swollen-with-pageantry-and-meaning novels that fly wildly off the shelves at the holidays. One could also argue that it's his answer to the zombie craze. That'st he genius of Moore. He's mashed two divergent crazes into one tasty morsel. He should win an award just for that. It involves a reanimated store-Santa, a truly stupid angel, and the town of Pine Cove under siege by the dead as they rise from the grave and converge upon the town's Christmas party in search of...well yeah, of course, brains. The novel won the 2005 Quill award for Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Horror.

There are many more novels out there that have fun with the genres of science fiction and fantasy. These are some of my favorites.

 Goes back to what I've stated before: Don't over think it. It's supposed to be fun.

What are some of the fun science fiction and fantasy books that would make your list?

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