Who Will Be the Next Douglas Adams? Hopefully, Nobody

Over at the Guardian, David Barnett is asking why, a dozen years since his passing, Douglas Adams (whose 61st birthday would be today)  is still considered the “king of comic science fiction.” He mentions some pretenders to the throne — including me, which I appreciate — but considers none of us quite up to the task, although he hopes Neil Gaiman might take a crack at it, on the basis of Good Omens, the comedic fantasy work he wrote with Terry Pratchett.

Barnett offers some reasons, but also makes an assertion that I’m not 100% on board with:

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.

I’ll go at this backwards. First off, it’s not difficult at all to fathom what Douglas Adams’ secret was. What Douglas Adams was doing was farce — a very specific, British version of it. Hitchhiker was right down the street from Monty Python, and both desperately beloved by nerds. My personal belief as to why this is has to do with the Python/Hitchhiker being very obviously comedy (i.e., even the most socially clueless nerds could see that it was broadly funny) and for being literate in a highly quotable way (i.e., easy to share and get a laugh from your friends with). It’s why so many of us dig Eddie Izzard today — he’s all that farce-y stuff and a bag of chips.

The reason more people aren’t doing the same is not because they don’t know what it is but because is because it is so amazingly hard to do. Any sort of comedy or humor is difficult to write, mind you; it just looks easy (or at the very least is supposed to look easy). But to do a very specific type of humor — in this case British farce — is even harder to do, especially if one is not already a practitioner of the form. Douglas Adams was: the man got credited for a Monty Python TV bit, one of only two non-Pythons to claim that honor (the other being Neil Innes), and outside of Python he wrote with Graham Chapman.

Unfortunately for most science fiction/fantasy authors who would later attempt Adam’s brand of comedy, they weren’t practiced British farcisists, and their attempts at the form would fall flat. In my opinion, only Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens comes even close to the form, and the two of them are British, so that certainly helps (but, obviously, is not sufficient in itself; it helps both gentlemen are otherwise very funny).

Add to this the problem that for years, it at least seemed that if you wanted to do humor in science fiction/fantasy, the type of humor you had to do was Hitchhikers-like, because it had sold millions and was the most obvious example of what humor in the genre was. If you have as the most prominent example of humor in the genre a variant of humor that is particularly hard to do, it’s not entirely surprising to discover that even many years on, there are very few valid pretenders to the throne. This one reason why I’m fond of saying that the success of Hitchhiker’s was an extinction-level event for any other sorts of humor in written science fiction, just like Star Wars was an extinction-level event for the type of science fiction that was being made in Hollywood before it: It was so clearly, obviously, blindingly popular that it just obliterated everything else in the field.

To be clear, this is not saying this is the fault of Douglas Adams, who did nothing wrong; quite the opposite, of course — he was delightfully and blazingly funny in a way few have been before or since. He earned his spot on that throne. He just happened to get there via a path that’s hard for anyone else to follow.

I am certainly not attempting British-style farce. I love the stuff, but writing-wise it’s not my natural humorous tradition. Nor am I particularly concerned about taking science fiction’s humor crown from Adams; that’s like trying to take the melodic pop crown from Lennon/McCartney. You can try, but they’re just going to call you “Beatlesque.”

What I would like to do instead is continue to expand the sorts of humor that work in science fiction. Because as much as I love Adams’ British farce — and I do — we’re long past the time where other sorts of humor should be commercially successful in science fiction, and for humor to come in through the genre’s front door, rather than being snuck through the side as it often is now. Instead of guessing who will be the next Douglas Adams, let’s get to work on the first whomevers, doing humor in science fiction and fantasy in their own way.

And in fact that’s the thing I am proudest of regarding Redshirts: It’s funny and it’s even absurd, and it’s unapologetically so — we didn’t have to pretend it was an action-y novel that just happened to be funny. We sold it as humor, and people bought it as humor, and generally speaking, they seem to like it as humor. It’s not the next Hitchhiker. It’s just Redshirts, and that’s enough. In a post-Hitchhiker world that was not insignificant. And I like to think King Douglas, long may he reign, would be just fine with that.

105 thoughts on “Who Will Be the Next Douglas Adams? Hopefully, Nobody

  1. For those folks on the other side of the drink, I’m aware that using “British” as a catchall may not be something you always approve of. But it’s easy shorthand for us over here. Sorry. Don’t send Spiny Norman after me for transgressing the unwritten law.

  2. People have always got to stop thinking of, “How can I be the next….” and instead, “How can I be the first ME.” Always trying to run after the masters will only leave you chewing on their dust.

  3. Robert Aspirin’s Phule’s Company series is wonderfully funny science fiction writing. It saddens me that it doesn’t get more attention. And now, of course, Aspirin is dead and can’t write anymore.

  4. Between Adams and the Pythons one thing rings clear. They were all frightfully smart. You can’t pull off this riff unless you’ve got the intellectual chops to match Cleese and I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to go there.

    That said the Zune & I have been traipsing through all of the Fits in their five clusters and I’m proud that the 15YO daughter is a Python/HHGTTG/Whovian. As I type she is in front of the TV knitting a Tom Baker scarf.

  5. The main thing that gets over looked is that HHGTTG was hard to do. I mean, really really tough to make work on several levels. It’s a masterwork, no question, and no one saw the effort that went into the construction. I think it was Eric Idle who observed that Adams could start the day with a half a page, end it with a quarter page of output, and consider it a good day’s work.

  6. At the risk of colossal pedantry, “farcisist” is a good word but I suspect the proper term is “farceur”. Hey look, that even comes up without a little red line under it. Jolly good.

    Good points well made, though. I shall work on my British humour from my enclave in the Pacific Northwest in hopes of reaching the mere foothills of the Adamsian peaks.

  7. Along the same lines as Asprin, I don’t think Peter David’s sci-fi novels get enough credit, probably because most of them were licensed properties and he appears to have moved on to fantasy / humor for his original novels. Plus, he’s insanely prolific, it’s hard to nail one book down. But his Q and Imzadi themed Star Trek books in particular did a nice job at combining both.

  8. Since 1952 Ron Goulart has been producing a lot of screwball comedic writing. Going back further in time there’s Henry Kuttner writing as Lewis Padgett and his Galloway/Gallegher stories, see “Robots Have No Tails”.

  9. I’m disappointed that they completely missed Robert Rankin. He’s got a slightly different aesthetic than Adams, but he’s also been toiling in the British farce mines and producing some gems. I frequently recommend Adams fans read Rankin’s “The Brightonomicon”.

  10. Red Dwarf is an obvious contender for more recent British farce with science fiction icing. It’s a TV series, of course, but so was one incarnation of HHGTTG.

  11. Could Douglas Adams be the next Douglas Adams if he were still with us? It’s been a while since I read him, but I don’t recall the Dirk Gently books having the same sort of wackiness that Hitchhiker did. Do the goofy names, and hyper-intelligent shades of blue and bands that are too loud if you hear them from orbit still have the same impact for us. I can’t help but think that Douglas would be offering something delightful but rather different from Hitchhiker.

    Steve Martin doesn’t still wear a fake, head-piercing arrow and say “excuuuuuuse me”.

  12. One surprising source of sci-fi comedy is Warhammer 40K. Specifically the Command Ciaphas Cain: HERO OF THE IMPERIUM! Kind of a cross between Blackadder and Flashman with liberal sprinklings of other references thrown in.

    Plus they have my favorite reference out of anything where an Imperial Guardsman shouts out “Big red thing, five rounds rapid!”

    Another really good, and again surprisingly so, science fiction comedy is the novellisation of Red Dwarf. It turns the first 4 series into two really well written and funny science fiction books which aren’t like anything else out there. As scatological as the tv series but with a more cohesive science fiction element running through them.

  13. Amen, brother.

    My writing has been compared to that of Douglas Adams in several reviews, which is, I suppose, par for the course: if you write humourous science fiction, especially if it is sprinkled with ideas, it’s an easy shorthand for reviewers. While flattering (I am, after all, a fan, too), I always feel the need to point out the differences between us, since, to me, they are substantial and glaringly obvious. More to the point, there can only be one Douglas Adams; although he worked with long-standing comedy traditions, he made them uniquely his own. My standard response to the comparison is: “I don’t want to be recognized as second-rate Douglas Adams; I want to be recognized as first rate Ira Nayman.”

    As to the question of why nobody has “replaced” him (as if such a thing were possible), in addition to the difficulty of the task, I would think that the industry bears some responsibility. Most major science fiction publishers will not touch humourous science fiction with a ten foot lightsabre. On a panel I was once on, another panelist told the story of a writer who approached a publisher (which he left unnamed) with an idea for just such a book; he was bluntly told: “We already have The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – why would we need another book like that?” (Mister Scalzi has made almost exactly the same point recently – in fact, now that I think of it, that may be an urban legend in the community. Whatever. The story does speak to a reality many of us have experienced.)

    The sad thing is that there are a lot of us who are writing comic speculative fiction – the spoof is out there. But we either have to self-publish or get published by small presses without the resources to market to a large audience. Perhaps, in time, some of us will find our audience (if you’re interested, the Internet has made our work easy enough to find; the issue is making you aware of our existence). Still, Douglas Adams (As Mister Scalzi rightly points out, through no fault of his own) casts a huge shadow on the sub-genre.

  14. I fully agree with Mr Murphy who mentioned Robert Rankin, and while some of his books definitely veer towards Comedy SF, I hesitate to pin him down in that one spot, as his books cover a wide spectrum.

    I’m surprised that nobody mentioned Harry Harrison yet! The Stainless Steel Rat series, Bill the Intergalactic Hero… They’re brilliant pisstakes of the sort of rah-rah SF that was kicking it big at the time.

  15. Reblogged this on renashub and commented:
    Over at the Guardian, David Barnett is asking why, a dozen years since his passing, Douglas Adams (whose 61st birthday would be today) is still considered the “king of comic science fiction.” He mentions some pretenders to the throne — including me, which I appreciate — but considers none of us quite up to the task, although he hopes Neil Gaiman might take a crack at it, on the basis of Good Omens, the comedic fantasy work he wrote with Terry Pratchett.

  16. Conie Willis has a good line in farce, though hers is from a different tradition. Also, don’t forget that Adams was script editor for Doctor Who – HHGG draws on that sensibility as well as Python.
    Remember that HHGG was radio first. A lot of they sensibility of it came from the Radio 4 intellectualism and comedy too. Stephen Fry can write in that vein. Michael Frayn too, though his science fiction comedy (eg The Tin Men) was earlier.

  17. Robert Rankin and Terry Pratchett don’t count? And what about some Christopher Moore (early ones, not the ponderous later ones).

  18. I’m so glad the Guardian mentioned Sheckley, whose work influenced Adams. A lot of comic SF in the U.S. seems to be descended from the Klass-Kornbluth-Sheckley Jewish schlemiel tradition. The beleaguered bureaucrats of early Tiptree, for example, seem to me to fit that mold.

  19. The HHGGTG was great, but it was finished. Douglas Adams was just getting started with Dirk Gently when he died – that was going to be a great series.

  20. Jessica:

    I love me some Christopher Moore.

    I think it may be easier to be funny in fantasy than in science fiction; the Hitchhiker shadow is less dark there.

  21. I come from a long line of readers. I started reading at 3.5 yrs old. My younger brother, however, never really seemed to get bitten by the reading bug–until the xmas I gave him an omnibus of HHGTG (which I, somehow, still haven’t read–shame on me!) when he was in his late teens. He’s still not the voracious reader the rest of us are, but that collection showed him that there is interesting stuff worth reading out there. My parents heaped praise upon me for finally finding something my brother actually enjoyed reading. I told them I couldn’t take credit for that. Douglas Adams did all the heavy lifting, I just pointed my brother in the right direction.

  22. The great thing about Adams is that he isn’t mean-spirited. That’s where Robert Rankin falls down, I think.

  23. I also don’t think that the farce of England/Britain/UK/British Isles/whatever is the only humor that should be in SF. Redshirts if a good example of other humor. So is The Android’s Dream, which never gets all the credit it deserves.

  24. Oh nuts. I keep forgetting that there is a serious and valid distinction between science fiction and the more science fictiony parts of fantasy. As the only child of the 60s who didn’t love the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, one of my favorite stories is of C.S. Lewis greeting the latest installment Tolkien brought to the Inklings with “More [badword]ing elves!”

  25. I would say that even Douglas Adams didn’t succeed in being the next Douglas Adams — Hitchhiker’s Guide / Restaurant were a peak that he never reached again. (Life, the Universe, and Everything, three decades after I first read it, remains the second biggest disappointment of my SF-reading life. The books after that improved in quality a bit, but were very very different.

    (I haven’t read the posthumous sequel by another writer, but I have not heard that it was stupendously wonderful.)

  26. There’s a further factor with HHGTTG, which is that it got hammered through several media, so that the corpus that people tend to be familiar with represents written words that were previously spoken as radio plays.

    A mighty direct consequence of this is that the three “original” volumes are *particularly* funny to hear read, because they were created to *sound funny*. I found Adams’ later sequels (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, Mostly Harmless) to be very much less enjoyable, and I’m pretty sure that this is because they didn’t get “pounded” through the radio play layer first.

    And I’m reasonably OK with there not being unlimited amounts getting mined out of this particular vein. It’s difficult, once it has gone through the several layers of rewriting that result, for there to be too much depth left.

    I might compare this, for fun, to Kopi Luwak coffee. I’d not be happy if everyone, after seeing they could get $150/lb for Kopi Luwak, tried selling similar, and, there not being enough civets to go around, started hawking the merits of “Husky Luwak,” a coffee bean that gets processed through the more capacious digestive tracts of Husky dogs. Ick! :-)

    It’s fine to have funny and sarcastic and ironic and satirical authors out there. Let’s have new stuff, not just retreads of Douglas Adams.

    I’m happy when I see SF authors creating new universes, as opposed to trying to mine every last nugget out of an old one. (I stopped reading would-be Dune (pr|s)equels some time ago. Those nuggets started being of pretty dreadful quality!)

    I’m fine with The Human Division extending the universe of OMW; I don’t think that one has been mined out yet. I’m glad that various Scalzi books don’t try to slavishly connect themselves to OMW.

  27. Android’s Dream was one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Redshirts was decent.

    I loved the BBC Radio version of HHG.

  28. And what about Tom Holt, though he is definitely fantasy? Sometimes formulaic, but very inventive. Just one example: the punishment for deceased villains such as Attila the Hun is to spend all etermity watching paint dry. Of course Holt is English too.

  29. graemehill@6:12pm Radio made Hitchhiker’s what it was. A 2-headed, 3-armed President of the Galaxy? Radio. Thousands of clones of Lintilla? Radio. Whales falling and crashing into a planet? Radio.

    We’re talking about things that couldn’t be easily done on television or in movies. Zaphod’s dead second head in the television miniseries is the perfect example. A throw-away joke in radio, but a utter mess on TV.

    We’re also talking about a serialized production schedule with many scripts being finished just in time for recording. It made adapting the story for print tricky; the narrative structure was really erratic. It made adapting the story to a standard 3-act format for a movie almost impossible.

    Adams was a product of a time and a place, and absolutely brilliant. But the next earth-shatteringly funny and accessible comedic specfic is going to be totally different and unexpected.

  30. You also forget his stint as Script editor on Doctor Who – he was the Steve Moffat/RTD for part of the Tom Baker run on the series and did in fact bring in at least one Python for a comedy cameo in City of Death (John Cleese in an art gallery ‘appreciating’ the TARDIS). His Who scripts were quite comedic in parts and one of them (Shada which was never run on TV due to strike action but has since been released on video, with scripts to fill in the missing unfilmed footage and little or no effects, and as an animation over the original soundtrack) became the basic premise behind Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

    I actually quite like Dirk Gently. It was different, a more sophisticated style of comedy which may not have hit quite the right spots with some, but I still found it funny. Am actually reading Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul at the moment, which I have in a hardback first edition signed copy bought for £3 more than 20 years ago in a second hand bookshop in Newcastle. Am enjoying it yet again.

    I do not think there can be another Douglas Adams because he was very much a child of his time. Whacky was in and he did it best. Others tried to follow him but I do not think anyone quite made it. You are right about the Beatles effect in this, it is like trying to write a fantasy story about elves and dwarves… people tried it for decades but all got labelled as ‘Tolkienesque’. More modern humour is more sophisticated. You may as well compare a 70′s sitcom (something like Terry and June, for example) to a more modern one (like Moffat’s Coupling) and see the change in subtlety and character depth in the more modern show. Times change and artists must change with them otherwise we would all still be writing long, drawn out, tomes of books like those from the 19th century which take entire chapters to describe a single character and have a small amount of actual plot somewhere mixed in with the dense prose… (warning, previous statement may have been fuelled by some very boring English Lit classes combined with over exposure to Thomas Hardy…)

    As for Hitchhikers being in many formats… yes, it was, and it was never the same twice. There are so many variant strains of the story out there – the radio play, the novels, the TV series and finally the film. Many did not like the film because it deviated from the book but then that was the point – you may as well say the book deviated a lot from the radio play which was, I believe, the first incarnation made public…

  31. Something else comic in SF: Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, most of Kurt Vonnegut, and Spider
    Robinson’s Callahan’s CrossTime Saloon. oh, and and another vote for Christopher Moore. Lighten up . . .

  32. If I wanted to stir the pot I’d point out that Douglas Adams wasn’t really the next Douglas Adams – somebody upthread points out that a lot of the stuff post HHG and Restaurant were pretty weak in comparison to the earlier stuff, and I think the problem is John Lloyds contribution to helping Adams finish stuff is often overlooked.

    I think it’s pretty clear that without John Lloyd Adams would have struggled to get the radio show finished in time, and there’s a lot of stuff from the radio show that people love that John Lloyd wrote to fill gaps in Adam’s narrative.

    That’s not to dismiss his genius just that he, like many people, needed an editor…

  33. Glad you mentioned Good Omens. Loved that book to death. Still have my hardback too (though someone’s borrowing it. Better check on that). But, yes, there’s only one Douglas Adams. His passing was much too early.

  34. The last words of Edmund Kean supposedly were “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

    Few twentieth-century writers were anywhere near as funny as P. G. Wodehouse; he had only one story, but it was side-splittingly funny every time he wrote it — and only an idiot would attempt to replicate it.

  35. I really, REALLY dislike the whole “next x” premise of human artistic interaction. Who says that about amazing famous politicians? I know it’s said about athletes but they’re usually able to be their own selves… in America people in the arts are compared like dogs at the Westminster Dog Show.

    Seriously. Who’s the next Hemingway, bitches? (If you say Palahniuk I will choke you in your sleep.) Or, better, who’s the next MFing Poe or Faulkner? Or Morrison? Or LeGuin? Or Ellison, Baldwin, Hurston, Twain, etc?

  36. “Any sort of comedy or humor is difficult to write, mind you; it just looks easy (or at the very least is supposed to look easy). But to do a very specific type of humor — in this case British farce — is even harder to do, especially if one is not already a practitioner of the form. Douglas Adams was…”

    And even he still found it very hard. Plenty of stories about him strugglingly mightily with writer’s block, to the extent that he frequently had to be forced by others to do any writing.

    Apropos of nothing – my favourite Adams line will always be “Ford, you’re turning into a penguin. Stop it.”

  37. Do we really need another “comic” science fiction writer?

    Science Fiction has deviated too far from it’s free-thinking origin by being corrupted by “comic” writing and so-called “progressive” ideology.

    What we need is more writers like Herbert, Heinlein, Asimov and Pournelle.

  38. What we need is more writers like Herbert, Heinlein, Asimov and Pournelle.

    Banks, Baxter, Stross, Hamilton, Asher, Reynolds, McLeod not enough for you? And that’s just the Brits who are writing good free thinking SF. Especially Al Reynolds. And I’d hardly accuse Hamilton of writing progressive ideology either.

  39. BTW – the irony of reading somebody complain about progressive ideology (whatever that is) corrupting SF and mentioning Asimov is not lost on me either :)

  40. Daveon,

    I’m not dismissive of having progressive ideology in the mix; I’m just dismissive of the majority of Science Fiction publishers who basically state that if you don’t toe the line on “progressive” ideology you won’t get published. It’s one reason Baen Books exists: to inject intellectual diversity into the Science Fiction world.

    But it’s typical of so-called “progressives”, if you don’t have identical beliefs as them you’re viewed as “evil”. Just look at Obama and his zombies.

  41. I agree that there is a British sound of humor that weaves its way in many works from P.G. Wodehouse to Rowling’s Harry Potter. And Adams had that, but all of the humorists are their own ultimately, with their own voice, even if some of them have the British inflection. No one will ever do anything like the whale, which if that was all he had written, would have been enough to immortalize him in my mind. Adams’ deep popularity freaked out a lot of SF that feels anything that is not very serious, very hard SF means the death of SF altogether, and so tut-tut comic SF as a danger in making SF a joke. And booksellers grumped that other comic SF works didn’t sell as well as Adams and therefore obviously people didn’t want comic SF. Some things have made in-roads, Redshirts, Aussie Simon Haynes’ Hal Spacejock, Rob Grant (who also does Red Dwarf stuff,) various zombie novels, sneaky humorous SF YA stories, etc. And I suspect we’re in for a wave of them. But there is a taboo on it that isn’t there in fantasy or horror, and it is annoying. I think Adams would have very much liked Redshirts. I miss him as a talker about life and technology as well as his fiction.

  42. My favorite comic SF is Polish author Stanisław Lem’s The Cyberiad and The Star Diaries. Sometimes just zany and parodic, frequently hiding a barbed or world-weary observation, sometimes dark shading to pitch black. But The Cyberiad in particular has a density of breezy invention comparable to Adams’ (there’s even a device remarkably similar to the Infinite Improbability Drive, in an earlier-dated story, though I think it’s convergent evolution).

  43. …On TV, there’s Futurama, which, like Adams, has occasionally committed SF as interesting as the serious stuff in the service of making a joke. (In connection with my other comment, I’m pretty sure a couple of episodes were loosely inspired by Lem stories.)

  44. If there must be a King, then Connie Willis must be Queen. After “Even the Queen”, Bellwhether and ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’ nobody in SF is funnier. Even her most serious work, such as Doomsday Book or her Blitz novels are full of wonderful, laughing jokes. I love Adams, and his books were the perfect thing to read after a semester of graduate school, but even more I love Willis.

  45. I would love to know your impression of Eoin Colfer’s “And Another Thing…”. Wouldn’t he techinically be the next Douglas Adams as he wrote the 6th hitchhiker book? I haven’t read it yet but love his Artemis Fowl series.

  46. Daveon – yeah, I kind of wondered about that one regarding Asimov myself. Also, Heinlein – well, that kind of depended on what day you caught him on if he was a “free-thinking” or a “progressive”, didn’t it?

    Pournelle? He’s so busy pushing his Right Wing agenda he’s forgotten about the, you know, “free” part of “freethinking” – like every Right Winger anymore. Or maybe our trollboi means “freethinker” SF writers like, you know, Newt Gingrich….

  47. I thought “Venus on the Half shell” was a pretty funny sci fi parody. My understanding is Kilgore Trout really was the first of the genre.

  48. I think it may be easier to be funny in fantasy than in science fiction; the Hitchhiker shadow is less dark there.

    Think Terry Pratchett might beg to differ there — don’t know if you’re familiar with his Discworld books (or just never warmed to them) but they still get compared to Adams a lot, even though IMO Pratchett’s the better storyteller though, line for line, not as good a writer as Adams. If that makes any sense at all. Saying Pratchett and Adams are basically interchangeable “funny genre guys” makes as much sense to me as saying the same about P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh because they were both Englishmen born the late 19th century and arguably did their best work before the Second World War.

  49. Funny science fiction from the UK? Douglas Adams? Yes.
    Red Dwarf? No.

    On a similar note Frank Zappa asked if humor belonged in music. Well, with the Bonzo Dog Band? Yes. With the Mothers of Invention? Very often. With Frank? Mmmm, not so much (yes, my opinion and yes I know he was for all intents and purposes the Mothers but not as much as you might think).

    So likewise I’d have to say yes, humor belongs in science fiction. It’s just a matter of who’s doing it and if they’re doing it well. Douglas Adams did it well.

    Hopefully I stayed pretty much on-topic but I must say however much I may have strayed was…mostly harmless.

  50. I can’t go near a discussion of humor in (broadly construed) sf without mentioning Steven Brust’s THE PHOENIX GUARDS, which is totally unlike Adams and amazingly hilarious, to the point where it’s hard for me to have conversations with people who haven’t read it. So that’s done.

    I will also say that it’s easier for me to get through the day if I just pretend most of Heinlein’s more “free-thinking” ideas are really just underappreciated satire.

  51. Humour is sadly lacking in SF, especially the laugh-out-loud sort. But it’s not non-existent and I for one have long been baffled that Bradley Denton’s Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well and Living on Ganymede doesn’t get more love.

  52. Responding to myself (kind of embarrassing, but what the hell, here I go): When I said “humour” is sadly lacking in SF, I meant, specifically, “comedy”. Writers who almost manage to make me laugh while also doing other things include the likes of Samuel R. Delany and Kim Stanley Robinson, just off the top of my head.

    Right. I’m really off now.

  53. At my older brothers insistence I read the Hitchhiker series and then stared with Dirk. I was greatly disappointed to find he was dead and our relationship was over before it began. It was one of the hardest times in my childhood. Moore was a wonderful rebound author, but I put Adams on a pedestal and he has yet to be knocked off.

  54. “The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” started as a radio play – the story was first designed to be heard, rather than read or seen. It was put out on BBC radio long before it was ever published in book form (and indeed, I think the TV series adaptation where a number of the radio players got to show off their television acting chops pre-dated the books as well). Adams was writing the original series at the same time he was doing script editing on “Dr Who” (Tom Baker era, back at the point of the “Key To Time” sequence), so he was largely satirising a field he was working professionally in. Plus, as Mr Scalzi mentions, he was writing in a genre which was popular and known at the time (the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s were pretty much the golden years of BBC Science Fiction programming).

    “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” as a radio series is pretty much a direct descendent of the string of absurdist radio humour which got its start in the UK with series like “Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh”, “Round the Horne”, “The Goon Show” (and its direct antecedent, “Crazy People”) which largely gave work to entertainers who’d got their start in armed forces entertainment programs. These shows built the BBC system which went on to give start-up work to the next generation Cambridge “Footlights” crew who came up with “I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again”, did work on “The Frost Report” and later came up with absurdist television such as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, “The Goodies”, and “The Two Ronnies”. As such, when “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” appeared on radio, it fit very comfortably into an existing “intelligent radio comedy” niche in people’s heads, and as science fiction it slotted in very nicely in between the “childrens” science fiction of “Dr Who” and the more “grown-up” efforts of things like “Blake’s 7″.

    Adams’ comedy didn’t appear out of nowhere, and it didn’t disappear into nowhere either. I’d argue fairly strongly that at least one inheritor of Adams’ mantle was actually Terry Pratchett, whose works started out rather clearly satirising and pastiching the whole range of Extruded Fantasy Product, and built from that into a complex and multi-layered world which is still largely reflecting our own world back to us through the lens of Extruded Fantasy Product.

    Also, I think to a degree, Douglas Adams allowed people writing science fiction to back off a little from absolute po-faced seriousness, by showing that yes, it is possible to have the gosh-wow factor alongside the giggles. So you get the odd bits of sly grin poking out in a lot of more modern science fiction (for example, there’s any number of things in Charlie Stross’s books which make me laugh out loud – or groan at the pun) where the author is able to pretty much nudge the reader in the ribs, and remind them life isn’t all deadly serious all the time.

  55. Steven Brust also wrote Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill, which I think was rather funny. Parke Godwin’s Waiting for the Galactic Bus, and the sequel, The Snake Oil Wars, are amusing and thoughtful commentary, and of course, the great Spider Robinson and all his Callahan books, get my vote as the best of the ‘funny’ (and beautiful) SF that isn’t HHGG.

  56. scorp mentioned Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and Pournelle in decrying comedy SF. This amuses me to no end because Asimov and Heinlein wrote some genuinely funny stuff*, and Pournelle wasn’t usually funny but had the good sense to pair with Niven, who could be hysterically funny when he wanted**. Sadly, I haven’t read enough Herbert (and what I’ve read is pretty dark) to be able to judge his comedic sensibilities.

    David Gerrold can write funny SF (“The Trouble With Tribbles,” anyone?). And John M. Ford, RIP, wrote the single funniest Star Trek story ever committed to ANY medium.

    * Asimov’s humor is frequently pretty arch, but when he allowed himself to be balls-out funny (“I’m in Marsport Without Hilda,” “Playboy and the Slime God”) he could certainly do it. And Heinlein has quite a few witty lines inside funny scenes, and I’d certainly put The Star Beast right up with other comedic SF.

    ** Inferno is quite funny in spots, although astringently so. Of course, there’s Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” but he’s written other funny stuff from time to time, too.

  57. I couldn’t get into the Eoin (Owen?) Colfer sequel. But I read Adams’ books when I was at a different time in my life. Maybe I wouldn’t have loved them as much if I happened across them now.

  58. @Scalzi – “For those folks on the other side of the drink, I’m aware that using “British” as a catchall may not be something you always approve of. But it’s easy shorthand for us over here. Sorry.”

    No, you’re OK. It’s when you start callling us all English that hackles rise, especially in Wales and Scotland.

    I have a vivid memory of buying “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” while out on a day trip with a friend at the age of about 12 and thoroughly embarrassing her on the way back by snorting hysterically through the first few pages. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to read any of the original trilogy for something like 15 years; my original copies fell to pieces and I knew them too well, and now I’m scared that I won’t find them funny any more. (I was also scarred by the later books and Dirk Gently, all of which I found too dark.)

  59. For me, the best British humour has an undertone of restrained, self-deprecating, irony that is often as dry as a desert. It’s when utterly surreal things happen – like the Earth being demolished to make way for a hyperspatial bypass – with a completely straight face and the whole thing being a bit underplayed. There is then a spectrum from here, through farcicial, to slapstick.

  60. Is it sad that I’m actually rather over HHGTTG? I mean, yes, brilliant work, and the first time you read it you think my God, this is fantastic, what a fascinating way of writing and how funny! …but seriously, there’s a lot of other work out there now that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and Adams’ very distinctive narrative voice gets a little wearying after a while, I find. Some variety is nice, and just because Adams’ style was funny, doesn’t mean it’s the only way to be funny. I’d rather read something new and brilliantly hilarious than yet another book that makes me go, ah yes, it’s like HHGTTG, only not as good.

  61. Megpie: Books (at least the first one) preceded the TV Series, I bought the first book as a student, and one of my first tasks when I started working for the BBC after graduating was recording the film transfer of the guide animations ready for the final video editing.

  62. I can’t believe that nobody has mentioned Keith Laumer in this discussion. Although he’s much better known for his Bolo series and even the Worlds of the Emperium. His satirical Retief series runs to Nineteen titles starting with Envoy to New Worlds in 1963 to the posthumous Retief! in 2002. And then there are his four Lafayette O’Leary books. Let’s not forget Robert Lynn Asprin – his name has already come up but I would recommend his Myth Adventures series.

  63. Scalzi “like trying to take the melodic pop crown from Lennon/McCartney” – oddly, Neil Innes, who you mention in relation to Python, also sort of did this in a comedic but successful fashion with his parodic songs for and in The Rutles; actually, that was a sort of conflation of Python and Beatles as Eric Idle drove the TV show and films and George Harrison appeared at least once.

    I like the Adams HHGTTG on the radio and TV and books too; I wasn’t so keen on the Dirk Gently books, where it seemed like he was struggling for effect. Although it didn’t get universally great reviews, I did like the Dirk Gently TV series with Steve Mangan as a selfish and disorganised hero; unfortunately it has been cancelled after oly four outings.

  64. I think you are spot on that it is very hard. Look at Adam’s own work. The story really sort of falls apart in the last two books as he tries to make the earlier works logical. He does not seem to realize that the absurdity of the story is part of its charm & we couldn’t care less that parts of it conflict with other parts.

    Add to that the fact that he only wrote a tiny number of stories. H2G2 and the Dirk Digley stories and you can see that it was very hard for him.

    The other problem is that broad farce is easier to do. Spaceballs is funny in its own way but it is a parody with pratfalls and not of the quality of H2G2.

  65. While Jasper Fforde isn’t identical to Douglas Adams by any metric, I think that he does manage to do a “Douglas Adams if he’d been seriously into classic literature” impression. Some of his early stuff, “The Eyre Affair” in particular but also “The Big Over Easy”, remind me of that “making it look easy” British dry humor that Adams was rightly famous for.

  66. Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head originated as a pure radio joke, to take advantage of the fact that the Beeb had begun broadcasting in stereo. The two heads’ voices came out of separate speakers. When the time came to do the TV series, the prosthetic second head cost more than the actor’s salary and looked incredibly phony — and was received by critics as deliberately over-the-top tackiness.

  67. Personally, Douglas Adams is third on my “funny SF” list – first is Robert Sheckley during his prime; and second is Futurama. Neither is particularly British, though.

  68. My twelve-year-old son would want to remind you of the sciencey-fantasy kids’ series by Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. I have grown fond of it having read it aloud a few times.

  69. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Toby Frost, whose ‘Space Captain Smith’ books are very funny and very, very British. Adam’s gift was that he was a surrealist, which is more a product of writing comedy for radio than anything else.

  70. I hope this isn’t too off-Topic, but Megpie71 above mentioned Douglas Adams in the context of the BBC radio environment that would have influenced him as a youngster, with reference to 1950s and 60s variously surreal comedy shows like “Round the Horne”, “The Goon Show” (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan), “Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh” and “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again” (John Cleese and all the members of the later The Goodies).

    Anyone wishing to explore all those ancient programmes could find examples of them this week on BBC Radio4 Extra, which I think is available worldwide. It’s a kind of re-broadcast version of part of the archives of BBC’s main speech radio station, Radio 4, which is where H2G2 first appeared. It’s a bit of a mix and can include radio thrillers from the 40s, dramas from the 90s, comedies like The Goons from the 50s, more recent adaptations like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and up-to-the-minute repeats of last week’s contemporary political satirical stuff like The Now Show or Jeremy Hardy Speaks To The Nation. And more.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4extra/programmes/schedules/this_week gives a comprehensive overview of the week’s schedule. Once a programme has been broadcast on the digital station, you usually have 7 days to listen to it via the website.

  71. I’m glad people mentioned Colfer! Though I agree that nobody can replace Douglas Adams on a Douglas Adams-specfic throne, the Eoin Colfer Throne is pretty adjacent. I wasn’t a huge fan of his Hitchhiker book, but it was recognizable in that vein, which is no mean accomplishment.

  72. Coming at this late, but i think the writer who gets closest to DA aesthetic, though not generally Sci-fi is Nick Harkaway.
    His Gone Away world is definitely Sci-Fi, but his latest, Angelmaker is much more in line with the Dirk Gently novels.

  73. Jasper Fforde gets my vote as the “next” Douglas Adams. And in a good way as really, he’s the “first” Jasper Fforde. The Thursday Next books are satire, and farce, and even more fun if you’re a fan of literature. The idea of street hoodlums trading cards of Great Authors and biker gangs having fights over impressionism vs cubism had me in such hysterics my wife was worried.

    His Nursery Crime books are just as absurd.

    I really appreciate books that do humor and serious stuff. Lois McMaster Bujold is very good at this. Even in A Civil Campaign and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance her two most funny books, there are many thought-provoking ideas. Memory and Mirror Dance, IMO her darkest books, are levened by humor. I much appreciate that juxtoposition in a book.

  74. Another humorous SF book I particularly enjoyed is Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez.

  75. Nobody mentions Harry Harrison (Bill The Galactic Hero, The Stainless Steel Rat). He may not be LOL funny, but certainly *chuckle* funny.

  76. One of my favorite recent mergers of comedy and science fiction is the Community episode “Remedial Chaos Theory”. It’s extremely funny, makes good use of science fiction concepts, and is as far from Pythonesque farce as possible.

  77. Am I just old, or just weird, or am I really the only person who reads the phrase “humorous SF” and immediately thinks of R.A. Lafferty?

    True, some of his writing was more perplexing than funny, but the funny stuff is extremely funny. (I’ve heard his perplexing stuff is a lot more understandable if you’re an expert in medieval Catholic mysticism.)

    I’m in the middle of writing a story that seemed to call for a Laffertyesque narrative voice. For the record, if comedy is hard, trying to write Laffertyesque comedy is goddam frakkin’ hard, at least if one is trying to rise to the level of homage and not just pastiche.

  78. From the American side, I think A Lee Martinez does a wonderful line in comedic sci fi (especially the Automatic Detective which deserves much more love than it seems to get).

    From the British side Terry Pratchett has actually done some genuinely funny science fiction and the novelisations of Red Dwarf surpassed the original TV show (I had the misfortune of reading the novels first and then sitting down to watch the show which only occasionally lived up to the books).

    From the historical British humour side…you don’t get to Monty Python, Doctor Who or Douglas Adams without first passing through Spike Milligan’s Goon show. There’s some seriously unfortunate 50′s style British racism in there but there’s also the absurdist humour that would later feed into the flying circus

  79. Another typo: “The reason more people aren’t doing the same is not because they don’t know what it is but because is because it is so amazingly hard to do.”
    (sorry; still grading papers — the good news is that the semester only has 7 more weeks and then I’ll be off duty and only editing my own stuff)

  80. Seconding the recommendation for Harkaway’s _The Gone-Away World_.

    Also, Bujold writes a lot of slapstick (characteristically USian, maybe?). Undressed Armsman Roic and the bug butter and the in-laws would be a classic movie scene.

  81. I think of Douglas Adams as a type specimen or holotype, different enough to be a new species of the genus (genre?). (Maybe I shouldn’t have attempted this tortuous analogy.) Basically, his writing, especially the HHGTTG series is the equivalent of an Elvis or a Beatles or a Rolling Stones. Those who try to do something similar afterwards will inevitably get compared, usually unfavourably. The ones that fare better, get to be their own new type specimen.

  82. The king is dead. Long live the king.

    But as for comic sci-fi, allow me to recommend some short stories: Robert A. Heinlein’s “And He Built a Crooked House”, Roger Zelazny’s “The Great Slow Kings” and Connie Willis’s “Even the Queen”. All science fiction, each its own kind of science fiction, and all very funny.

  83. Neal Stephenson is funny. Some of the humor probably only works as in-jokes (e.g. Cryptonomicon so perfectly captures parts of late-90s Silicon Valley life and individuals many of us knew), and like most writers, some of it just doesn’t work at all, and his writing skills have progressed over his career (though I’m not sure how he ever got The Baroque Cycle past an editor.)

  84. As a side note, not only was Adam’s influenced by and a friend of the Pythons, he also once nearly killed them all. It’s a story involving his capacity for daydreaming, his van with the Pythons in the back of it and a turning just off the M25…

  85. I think I’m just bookmarking this thread so I can mine it later for funny sf to read. Bujold I worship. Pratchett I adore. Lafferty I think I’ve read (and I want my clone to smoke what he’s been smoking). But some of these authors are new to me and my binge on comedy-of-manners books cannot last forever…
    Side notes: 1. Walter Jon Williams’ Drake Maijstral series had some seriously funny moments. 2. Robert Aspirin’s Myth series is in comic form at MythAdventures! the comic. 3. I don’t even like Adam’s books. By the second book, I asked myself why I was torturing myself needlessly and quit.

  86. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet, so I’m wondering if it’s just me: Adams’ humor always had a cynical streak, and it slipped into outright misanthropy more and more often as the H2G2 books wore on…and by me, too many of the writers trying to get close to Adams’ style have gone over the top with those attributes. Rob Grant’s novelizations – with and without Doug Naylor – of their Red Dwarf TV storylines have a much darker and nastier tone than anything that hit the screen, and Grant’s solo novels have an outright sneer to them. Same with the SF novels Ben Elton’s put out (pretty successfully) over the years – the humor is incredibly dark and the laughs elicited (or not) are generally mean.

    (And these are the guys with the most similar backgrounds to Adams – surreal and satirical radio and TV comedy, Grant/Naylor with Spitting Image and Elton with The Young Ones and Blackadder. )

  87. Another vote for sure for Spider Robinson. I still can’t fathom why his stuff hasn’t gotten more mainstream sci-fi acceptance, though I doubt Spider minds. Grumby by Andy Kessler was pretty good as well.

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