Today’s Google Doodle celebrating the 61st birthday of Douglas Adams is testament to the undisputed king of comic science fiction: it makes you wonder why, 12 years after his death, no one has been able to supplant him from that throne.
Let’s face it, the genre is akin to a sweetshop for comedy writers; its anthills stretch as far as the eye can see, just waiting to be poked with the funny stick. Strange alien races? Silly laser guns? Spaceships? Super-computers? Square-jawed intergalactic heroes? Check, check and check again. Or, maybe not.
Those who thought SF is an easy target are those who have likely failed, become lost forever in the immense shadow cast by Adams. As that master of comedy Ted Bovis, the host of Maplin’s holiday camp in Hi-de-Hi!, never tired of telling his protege Spike, the first rule of comedy is reality. That’s where so many fall down when trying to write comedic SF, and where Douglas Adams excelled almost to the point of perfection, especially with his masterpiece The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its follow-ups.
You could say that it’s easy to laugh at the tropes of SF, but for a comedy writer that way lies the black hole of failure. Nasty humour might raise a few smiles from a mainstream audience, but how are you going to get readers to pick up your robot-emblazoned book in the first place? And while science fiction fans aren’t the po-faced bunch you might expect, they are notoriously and vociferously outspoken: a book that makes fun of the foundations of their favourite genre is going to crash and burn.
Where comedic science fiction has succeeded, it has done so by taking a slightly irreverent look at the standards of science fiction – successes include John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which takes a sideswipe at the Star Trek phenomenon, and Robert Sheckley‘s oeuvre. But as successful as these authors are, they are still mainly embraced within the science fiction genre on the grounds that while science fiction fans like a bit of a laugh now and again, they would prefer the comedy to come from one of their own.
Adams ultimately succeeded in mining a very rare yet rich seam of comedy that meant he was loved by both the science fiction community and the mainstream book audience who might not consider themselves science fiction readers. It’s hard to fathom what his secret was – if we could, then more people would be doing the same. Perhaps it was his ability to strip down the ingredients of a science fiction novel to the bare basics and rebuild them from the ground up, pointing out the inherent ridiculousness in a lot of what he had to play with, but without ever poking fun. His books passed the Bovis test with flying colours: reality was the basis of his comedy, found in ordinary people, such as Arthur Dent, dealing with being dropped into a science fiction adventure, and through an examination of those strange alien races who, Adams posited, would probably be people like us, with the same neuroses and senses of humour. Just with more heads.
So if Adams practically perfected comic SF that was neither full of knowing in-jokes for the cognoscenti, nor knockabout parody, then who else has come close? Certainly Terry Pratchett is worth speaking of in the same breath, having done for fantasy with his Discworld novels what Adams did for SF, and managed that all-important crossover between the genre’s fans and mainstream readers. But my money is on Neil Gaiman (who coauthored Good Omens with Pratchett); he may have never written an out-and-out comedy novel, but he has a huge non-genre audience and is feted by the SF/fantasy community as a living god, and there are enough flashes of Adams-type humour in Gaiman’s work to make you think he might just have a hope of stealing the crown.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.