We live in an absurd universe. And once you throw in stuff like time travel, fiction can get even sillier than real life. But how can you write speculative fiction that lives up to our ridiculous world, without being dumb?
Some of the greatest science fiction/fantasy writers are extremely silly – Douglas Adams is the gold standard, but there are a number of others. And when you look around and realize that not too long ago, we were choosing between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, two undeniably silly people, to be a heartbeat away from the American presidency, it’s hard not to feel as though silliness is the new realism.
Like you just know that if you ever actually got eternal youth, it would consist of being stuck in a time loop where you’re going to the bathroom over and over again. Or if aliens showed up, they’d only be interested in the music of Miley Cyrus and the performance art of Andrew Dice Clay. We live in a cruel cosmos.
And yet. Only a tiny minority of published speculative fiction is actually silly, and when you read interviews with editors, you frequently see them saying things like, “I’d like to see more humor, but it’s seldom done well.” Assume that outright silliness is just a subset of “humor” as a category, and you start to get a sense that science fiction and fantasy are facing an existential crisis of silliness. It is the crisis of infinite sensibleness. As rare as everybody says the Sense of Wonder is, a sense of the utterly ludicrous is even rarer.
One wonders how this could be true, when the leading lights of the global economy sound more like they wandered out of a Stanislaw Lem novel every day. You could plunk Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner down at the World Futurological Congress, and he would feel right at home.
So how do you write silly science fiction without sliding over the edge into nonsense or worse? It’s a definite challenge. For one
thing, humor is a distancing technique, which can have the effect of putting people outside of the story. Science fiction, meanwhile, already has a higher barrier of entry, for a lot of people, than “realistic” fiction, which doesn’t require you to buy into a world that’s not entirely our everyday “consensual reality.” (I put “consensual reality” in quotes, because to this day, nobody has ever asked for my consent.)
So too much distancing, and your story risks feeling as though the reader is viewing it through a telescope. And you have to hang on to some suspension of disbelief, or it’s no longer fun on some level.
And it’s also true that humor is subjective, like sexiness and terror, and you’re not going to be able to make everybody laugh. There are always going to be people who think they’re cleverer than you are, and some of them will be right.
But here are a few tips, based on my own feeble attempts to be silly:
* Keep a consistent tone, and ideally make it a tone of self-assured control over the material. A lot of attempts at zany weirdness can fall into the trap of sounding as if you’re trying too hard to be zany. The aura of desperation is lethal to the silly fabulist. (I’ve fallen into this hole many times, and have only managed to lurch out of it by using post-modern literary sentence fragments, in list format, as a kind of ragged step-ladder. Like so: “1. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s enamel bone-saw fetish. 2. Mandible jazz. 3. Zen able-ism. 4. I’m so sorry for all of this.