In my class last week we got to talking about action, romance, and humor, and I brought with me to class one of the books I’m reading now, which I thought had a terrific example of how a science fiction author successfully used humor in an otherwise serious book. I’d like to share that with y’all as well.

I’ve blogged a bit about my anti-humor bias in SF and fantasy, but only in the context of spoofs and satires, which I still believe are more often cheap shots that insult fans. But what about the legitimate use of humor? Of course there are many and varied reasons why you’ll want to, or even need to, lighten things up. Humor is one of those tools you always need in your toolbox, and like any tool of the trade, it’s one to be used wisely and carefully.

Here’s an example of what I think is a terrific use of humor. It’s from the book The Space Willies by Eric Frank Russell.

A little background: This book is part of my coveted collection of Ace Science Fiction Doubles. The Ace Doubles were published between 1953 and 1988. Each of these slim little mass market paperbacks had two books, printed back-to-back with two “front” covers. When you finished one novel, you were about halfway through the book and suddenly the text was upside down. This was your signal to flip the book over and start from the back, which had now become the front . . . it’s complicated.

This is the cover from the 1958 edition. It was re-released in 1969 with different art.

Anyway, I used to check these out of the library as a kid and to me they were science fiction. About twelve years ago I started collecting them in earnest and though I do not yet have them all, I’m getting there. Ace Doubles showcased some of the greatest authors in the genre, by the way, including Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov . . . too many to name here, especially since this is a post about using humor in SF and fantasy.

The Space Willies was published (along with Six Worlds Yonder, a collection of short stories also by Eric Frank Russell) in 1958. According to the legal page:

The Space Willies is enlarged and revised from a story entitled Plus X, copyright, 1956, by Street & Smith Publications, Inc., for Astounding Science Fiction.

Why the title change? I have no idea. Why the silly title The Space Willies for a book that, the following scene aside, is not a comedy piece but a thrilling tale of interstellar derring-do that only the 1950s pulp magazines could produce? I don’t know.

The Space Willies tells the story of space pilot John Leeming, who is sent out on a dangerous scouting mission across enemy lines to survey the portion of the galaxy controlled by the Combine, Earth’s alien nemesis in an ongoing war. Leeming is given a state-of-the-art long-range scout ship, but the ship is only built for one. Leeming is on his own, the ship is unarmed—this from the era of the U2 spy plane and the Iron Curtain. You get the picture.

After a very long time out there in space all by his lonesome, we’re treated to this scene, in which Leeming is listening in on the aliens’ routine radio transmissions…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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