I was talking to another writer once about how hard it is to get editors interested in works that combine science fiction and humour. He told me that an editor had once told him that: “Since The Hitchihiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was published, there really isn’t any point to writing humorous science fiction.”
I wish I had been drinking at the time I heard this. My spit take would have rivalled Niagara Falls.
To my way of thinking, this is like saying, “Since Star Wars was released, there really isn’t any point to making films about wars in space.” It seems silly, since new artists can bring new perceptions to genres that had seemed spent, yet this is the industry reality that people who write comic science fiction have to contend with.
But, I get ahead of myself. To begin, I should make it clear that I am not talking about works where humor is used as comic relief for what are primarily science fiction adventure stories (as it often was in Star Trek or Dr. Who). This is obviously acceptable and widespread in the genre. I am talking about works where humor and science fiction are equal partners in the unfolding of the narrative (think: Men in Black or, yes, Hitchhiker). These are actually quite rare. Don’t believe me? Everything in life (well, everything important in life), can be explained by a Venn Diagram. Here is one that illustrates my point:
Okay, now that we’ve defined our subject, let’s get back to the main argument: I have heard that humour generally, and comic science fiction specifically, is a hard sell because people’s senses of humour are different. What makes some people laugh uproariously will leave other people unmoved, or, worse, offended. Fair point. However, this principle does not apply just to humour. Many Star Wars fans detest Star Trek (and vice versa). Many who like both cannot abide 2001: A Space Odyssey. Science fiction fans are diverse and enjoy a wide variety of flavours of the genre; I see no reason why humour cannot be one of them.
If anything, the massive success of Hitchhiker should have proven that there is an audience for comic science fiction. Any other work with such a large and devoted following would have had a slew of imitators. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of a cultural industries model. (I could use the example of mediocre vampire stories in the wake of the success of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books and movies, but you’re probably already way ahead of me there.) And, there have been books that smacked of Adams’ influence – Mitis Green’s The Ardly Effect comes to mind. The fact that none of them have achieved the success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy does not mean that comic science fiction is a literary dead end.
To my way of thinking, there were two factors that led to the success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The first, most obvious one is that Douglas Adams was a hellaciously good writer at the top of his game when the radio series began. The other, less recognized factor was that, although there were certainly precedents for it, Hitchhiker was a highly original work in its time. Some writers may be able to approximate Adams’ voice, but they will never be able to equal his success because, by trying to be like him, they ensure that they will never match his originality.
In short, the next big comic science fiction phenomenon will not be the next Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As publishing consolidates into every larger entities, the industry as a whole has become more conservative, and, while every publisher wants new takes on old themes, they don’t really want works that break serious new ground. Too much originality entails risk, and mature, conservative industries are highly risk-averse. Most major publishers would prefer not to risk offending readers, which means avoiding all but the blandest comic science fiction. Again, I find this argument bogus: any work of art can be offensive to somebody. I, for instance, am in an almost constant state of high dudgeon over rah rah, gung ho military science fiction. (I guess I’m not a big enough demographic for publishers of it to care if it offends me or not.)
I’m not going to argue that every book of humorous science fiction will be a gem; there are bound to be some lousy ones. Just as there are lousy books of straight science fiction. (Sturgeon’s Law is in full force.) In the end, though, the whole “humorous science fiction cannot work” thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since major publishers stay away from it, those who write it have to get it published by smaller presses. But the smaller presses don’t have the promotional resources of the major presses, so those books don’t reach a major audience. This reinforces the belief that such books aren’t worth publishing.
It seems a shame. Laughter is a marvellous human trait that makes us feel good (by releasing endorphins in the brain, natural painkillers that only the most obdurate anti-drug zealots could possibly object to…). Science fiction readers deserve to have a little fun injected into their literary diet.
Ira Nayman has two collections of Alternate Reality News Service (ARNS) stories in print; a third is available in ebook format from Smashwords. All of the material in all three books is available on his Web site, Les Pages aux Folles (http://www.lespagesauxfolles.ca), as well as new material every week. He has written a separate series of short stories featuring Antonio Van der Whall, object psychologist (four have been sold; several others are awaiting decision), as well as a novel and two novellas featuring the Transdimensional Authority. He writes a lot.