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Monday, November 18, 2013

ON THE NATURE OF HUMOR and SPECULATIVE FICTION: A SERIES of UNSATISFACTORY EXPLANATIONS and COMPLAINTS by HUGH A.D. SPENCER

Artist: Richard Bartop
I LOVE IT WHEN WE GET FUNNY STUFF AT ON SPEC. Over the years, we've featured some very funny writers, one of whom is fellow writer and friend, Hugh A.D. Spencer. We first published Hugh's story Why I Hunt Flying Saucers in 1991 and later included it in On Spec's First Five Years anthology because it was that good. His more recent story (and one of my personal favorites), Sticky Wonder Tales, will appear in On Spec's upcoming 25th Year anthology through Tyche books. But first, a Guest Post by Hugh, on the slaps and tickles it takes to write humorous speculative fiction. 

ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES associated with writing about humor is that it's just not terribly amusing to read about why certain things are (or are not) funny. Writing about humor and science fiction (fantasy too, but I really don't care about that genre very much) is even more challenging because at least 30% of all people who write or read science fiction suffer from serious cognitive and emotional deficiencies that render them incapable of understanding or appreciating humor. (Don't ask me where I get these statistics, you'll just have to trust me.) These are the sorts of people who think that laughter is some kind of secret language employed by those who were the cool kids in high school and who have actually had sex. (The SF people are mistaken in this belief. The cool kids at high school are also humor-handicapped and only laugh when they're inflicting pain on a smart unpopular kid, who ironically, is likely to be an SF person). Have I offended you yet? If I have, you're part of the 30% group and nobody worries about what you think, anyway. 

Pie in the Face.  Pie in the Face on Mars...  When I was young and embarked on the hopeless task of trying to convince people that SF was important, respectable, and above all cool literature, I used to say things like, “Science fiction is a way of looking at the real world from alternative perspectives, that helps us explore the limits of the possible, and even is a means of contemplating the nature of the universe and our place in it.” SF, of course, is none of these things. 

SF is where people go to escape the uncertain, the unsettling, and other stuff that makes us feel uncomfortable. (Fantasy even more so. People who read that crap are complete wimps.) That's why back in the 1980s and 1990s, they were able to sell all those unnecessary Rama, Foundation, and Dune books. I admit it, I was doing this, too. I was only going back to the later works because I was looking for the same buzz that I got from the original trilogies. But it was all in vain; it wasn't the same imaginative Blue Meth. (Nowadays, when I feel the need to revert to my childhood state and suckle at the literary breast of emotional reassurance, I read Winnie the Pooh or Wind in the Willows. The Alice books, on the other hand, are just too darned weird and scary.) 

Sigh. Bring back that pure Asimovian Blue Meth. 

Most SF works because it's able to engage your interest, but doesn't make you think too much and doesn't get you too upset or angry. The problem with humor is that it is fundamentally subversive and has to make you at least a little bit uncomfortable. 

Humor that's too safe, too mild, is like reruns of The Brady Bunch or The Red Skelton Show or all those kid sitcoms on the Family Channel. Sure, your mom will let you watch them but they just aren't very funny. Humor at its best, is like that T-Rex in Jurassic Park. It's unpredictable, impossible to contain, and really dangerous (to take the metaphor even further, humor should also have giant razor-sharp teeth, really small useless claws, and scientists shouldn't be able to figure out how it manages to reproduce.) Humor demands – as both a writer and a reader – that you surrender a great deal of control. Once you start turning things upside down, distorting your own perceptions, challenging your assumptions …well, you can never be sure where you're going to end up and what will still be standing when you get there. If you're unsure of yourself and what you're really looking for in your art and literature is reassurance, then humor may not be the way to go. 

Into the Mothership…  Why I Hunt Flying Saucers was my second story published in On Spec Magazine, way back in 1991. It is possibly my most popular story in that it was anthologized, nominated for an Aurora Award, and adapted for radio. Richard Bartop's illustration for the story (a Grey Alien slipping on a rubber glove as it prepares to administer a rectal probe) was incredibly funny and On Spec later used it as part of their marketing with the caption ‘Examine Us.’ 

I sometimes wonder why that one story had so much impact. Partly, I think it was because I was writing about something that really bugged me: all those alien abduction and ‘missing time’ stories that were coming into fashion as we were waiting for The X-Files to start up. If you read the story, my view is that the ETs' motives really suck. 

I have noticed that when I'm really annoyed I tend to get funnier. Or grumpier. I'm never completely sure how it's going to go. 

I think another reason Why I Hunt Flying Saucers had some legs was that it was a surprise attack. On Spec was still a relatively new venue back then and they had (and still have) a unique voice. It took over a year to sell that story. The usual (i.e. American) markets weren't touching it, and they gave me a very clear reason why: stories about flying saucers just aren't done by serious SF writers. I was very grateful that On Spec decided to publish a humor issue because doing things that just aren't done is usually what makes something funny. 

Which Way, Passworthy? (Check out the movie Things to Come if you're bored enough to wonder who this Passworthy person is.) Why I Hunt Flying Saucers was also the source of my favorite rejection letter. I pitched it as an episode of that second version of The Outer Limits they were making in the 1990s. The story editor said some very nice things about the script that it was smart, witty, and well-structured. He then said that they couldn't produce the script because it was very funny and “The Outer Limits is admittedly, a humorless affair." Such candor! I loved that letter. 

Not everything I write is meant to be funny. Some of it is just plain angry. But I do take the surrender of control quite seriously. Often when I start a story, I'm not sure if it will be a comedy or a tragedy it's only as the shape of things start to emerge on the page that I discover if I'll be laughing or crying at the end.   

Hugh's Bio: Hugh A.D. Spencer completed graduate studies at the University of Toronto and McMaster University where he conducted anthropological studies into the origins of religious movements in science fiction fandom. Worried that this field of inquiry might lead to actual paying work, Hugh decided to write some science fiction as a delaying tactic. Inexplicably twice nominated for Canada's Aurora Award, Hugh’s science fiction has been published in On Spec, Tesseracts 8, 11, and 6, Interzone, Descant and New Writings in the Fantastic. Many of his short stories have been dramatized by Shoestring Radio Theatre for the Satellite Network of National Public Radio.  His story John, Paul, Xavier, Ironside & George (but not Vincent) is scheduled for release in the new Ominous Realities anthology. Hugh is still confused why this body of work has not resulted in a Nobel Prize for Science Fiction. His latest project is training his dogs to type and copyedit. 

Coming in April 2014, from Brain Lag Publications: Extreme Dentistry by Hugh A.D. Spencer: Middle-aged, middle-income and lapsed Mormon, Arthur Percy felt his life lurch from a difficult normality onto the rails of a carnival ride heading somewhere too much like The Twilight Zone for his liking. Perhaps it is more the “Anti-Twilight Zone” that Arthur enters – where vampires, shape shifters, and ghouls are not gorgeous or glamorous but genetic parasites from a hideous communal intelligence known as the Hive. Who will save the human race? Arthur finds out as he joins a group of middle-aged, middle-income suburbanites (many of them Mormon dentists) who call themselves “the Project”.

(Thanks, Hugh. I'm sure you've made everybody's morning much brighter! I can't wait to read your novel.)

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