Science fiction can be pretty grim.
Between the dystopian epics, cyberpunk sagas, and military adventures that dominate the genre these days, there aren’t a lot of laughs to be had.
Sure, these stories often have a witty character to crack wise about the protagonists’ predicaments, and some writers can maintain a smirk while tackling even the darkest themes. But these devices only serve to set off the gloom in sharper relief.
This isn’t a criticism. Dystopias make great settings. Mortal peril keeps readers turning the page. Dread is a perfectly reasonable reaction to our society’s rapid technological development and painfully slow moral evolution.
Still, I wish I could find sci-fi with more levity, more playfulness. I wish someone had topped The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. To be sure, there are some writers out there trying. The Unidentified Funny Objects collections contain a lot of solid silliness. And yours truly is doing his part. Earlier this week, I published Splunking on Kepler 42, a romantic comedy set in space. That followed last year’s attempt at humor: The Berserker Scenario, about a robot that finds its way into the world long before it’s ready.
But at least in my fledgling study of sci-fi literature, humor seems to account for only a small fraction of what’s out there.
I attribute that relative absence to three factors:
Humor is hard
For a story to be funny, every sentence has to elicit a smile or a giggle. Even lines setting up some larger joke have to have something comical about them, some quirky turn of phrase or unique observation.
Humor is personal
We’ve all had the experience of retelling a joke that we found hilarious only to have it met with a blank stare. Humor comes in so many different flavors, all of which appeal to different people. The Three Stooges never made me laugh, and I don’t get what’s supposed to be funny about Benny Hill. Yet I have a close friend who loves them both. And I have another friend who can’t stand the cringe humor that’s so popular today, most notably from shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, two of my all-time favorite shows.
The broad, enduring appeal of Hitchhiker’s Guide is probably the most amazing thing about Douglas Adams’ work. How did a British guy working in the late 1970s create a story that made a 23-year-old Chicagoan shoot coffee out of his nose three decades later? It’s nothing short of a miracle.
Writing sci-fi is difficult enough on its own without attempting humor
Good sci-fi is tough to craft, even without the added challenge of trying to be funny. Jamming in jokes and gags is incredibly difficult when you’re already trying to build a universe, explore complex scientific concepts, grapple with ethical dilemmas, render likeable, realistic characters, all while tempting readers along with an irresistible plot.
With these obstacles in mind, is it any wonder that there are no recent funny, sci-fi magnum opuses like Hitchhiker’s Guide? Then again, I’m relatively new to sci-fi, so maybe I’m missing something.