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:

The unknown lifeform manning the vessels had loud, somewhat bellicose voices, but spoke a language with sound-forms curiously akin to Terran speech. To Leeming’s ears it came as a stream of cross-talk that his mind instinctively framed in Terran words. It went like this:

First voice: “Mayor Snorkum will lay the cake.

Second voice: “What for the cake be laid by Snorkum?”

First voice: “He will starch his mustache.”

Second voice: “That is night-gab. How can he starch a tepid mouse?”

They spent the next ten minutes in what sounded like an acrimonious argument about what one repeatedly called a tepid mouse, while the other insisted that it was a torpid moose. Leeming found that trying to follow the point and counterpoint of this debate put quite a strain upon the cerebellum. He suffered it until something snapped.

Tuning his transmitter to the same frequency, he bawled, “Mouse or moose, make up your goddam minds!”

This produced a moment of dumbfounded silence before the first voice grated, “Gnof, can you lap a pie-chain?”

“No, he can’t,” shouted Leeming, giving the unfortunate Gnof no chance to brag of his ability as a pie-chain lapper.

There came another pause, then Gnof resentfully told all and sundry, I shall lambast my mother.”

“Dirty dog!” said Leeming. “Shame on you!”

The other voice now informed, mysteriously, “Mine is a fat one.”

“I can imagine,” Leeming agreed.

Okay, pretty goofy stuff.

But why is this scene here? What does it do to move the story of scout pilot John Leeming forward? What does it tell us about Leeming himself?

I think, three things:

1. Leeming was chosen for this mission because of his skill as a pilot, and he’s there to spy, not to serve as a cultural liaison. He’s a soldier, fighting a war, and comes in with a package of xenophobic prejudices intact. Here we see Leeming’s total lack of respect for the aliens’ culture. That is shown to us, not told to us. We get that Leeming has no respect for the aliens because we see him treating the aliens disrespectfully.

2. He’s been out in space all alone for a very long time and he’s starting to get “punchy.” He’s loosing it a little. He’s hearing nonsense words in a (very) foreign language and finding humor where there is none. This shows us (again, rather than telling us) that Leeming is kinda starting to lose it a little. This isn’t some kind of full-on cabin fever psychotic break, but our man is starting to fray around the edges.

3. Leeming suffers from an over-abundance of careless bravado. Turns out he may not be the right man for the job after all. Not only is he lacking in cultural tolerance, but he’s also willing, on a whim and to satisfy some kind of immature need to tease the enemy, to break radio silence in order to goof on these voices on the radio. This was not a good idea, was specifically something he was told not to do, but he’s doing it anyway. So we see Leeming’s biggest shortcoming: He makes snap decisions that are not always right. He is not, at least at this point in the story, a particularly sophisticated guy.

That might have been enough, but what the author goes on to do is really quite clever.

As the story progresses, Leeming ends up crash landing on an alien planet (not much of a spoiler if you look at the cover art again) and is taken captive by the enemy. Now sitting in a jail cell, we get this scene, about forty pages later:

If only he’d been able to talk the local language, or any Combine language, he might have been able to convince even the linguistic Klavith that black was white. Sheer impudence can pay dividends. Maybe he could have landed his ship, persuaded them with smooth words, unlimited self-assurance and just the right touch of arrogance, to repair and reline his propulsors and cheer him on his way, never suspecting that they had been talked into providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

It was a beautiful dream but an idle one. Lack of ability to communicate in any Combine tongue had balled up such a scheme from the start.

Now we see Leeming suffering the consequences of his dismissive behavior of forty pages past. All of a sudden, that alien language isn’t funny, and the joke’s on him.

So there it is, an example of humor used in an otherwise serious story to move a character forward. Got it?


—Philip Athans



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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