Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: Mostly British Humour.
So I had some great stuff on horror fiction all ready to go, but, given current events, I figured everybody might want a reason to laugh, and what better source to tap than a few of those authors I’ve frequently name dropped in the “So if you like:” sections of previous columns?
So for some context, and to save repetition, if you’re a fan of British comedy – Monty Python, Red Dwarf, Fawlty Towers, etc – or if you liked any of the books where I’d referenced Pratchett and Adams in previous columns:
…then now is a great time to go straight to the source.
So if you like:
All of the above
Detective stories with the most insane of elements
Catherynne M. Valente’s very Douglas Adams-esque Space Opera
…and if you’ve seen the show inspired by the books, then…
You might like
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently is a detective who solves cases wherein all the relevant elements appear completely irrelevant…and all those elements are, for lack of a better word: bonkers.
Svlad Cjelli. Popularly known as Dirk, though, again, ‘popular’ was hardly right. Notorious, certainly; sought after, endlessly speculated about, those too were true. But popular? Only in the sense that a serious accident on the motorway might be popular — everyone slows down to have a good look, but no one will get too close to the flames. Infamous was more like it. Svlad Cjelli, infamously known as Dirk.
He was rounder than the average undergraduate and wore more hats. That is to say, there was just the one hat which he habitually wore, but he wore it with a passion that was rare in one so young. The hat was dark red and round, with a very flat brim, and it appeared to move as if balanced on gimbals, which ensured its perfect horizontality at all times, however its owner moved his head. As a hat it was a remarkable rather than entirely successful piece of personal decoration. It would make an elegant adornment, stylish, shapely and flattering, if the wearer were a small bedside lamp, but not otherwise.
People gravitated around him, drawn in by the stories he denied about himself, but what the source of these stories might be, if not his own denials, was never entirely clear.
The tales had to do with the psychic powers that he’d supposedly inherited from his mother’s side of the family who he claimed, had lived at the smarter end of Transylvania. That is to say, he didn’t make any such claim at all, and said it was the most absurd nonsense. He strenuously denied that there were bats of any kind at all in his family and threatened to sue anybody who put about such malicious fabrications, but he affected nevertheless to wear a large and flappy leather coat, and had one of those machines in his room which are supposed to help cure bad backs if you hang upside down from them. He would allow people to discover him hanging from this machine at all kinds of odd hours of the day, and more particularly of the night, expressly so that he could vigorously deny that it had any significance whatsoever.
By means of an ingenious series of strategically deployed denials of the most exciting and exotic things, he was able to create the myth that he was a psychic, mystic, telepathic, fey, clairvoyant, psychosassic vampire bat.
What did ‘psychosassic’ mean?
It was his own word and he vigorously denied that it meant anything at all.
While Douglas Adams is primarily known for his Hitchhiker’s Guide series, I think his Dirk Gently books are vastly underrated. I’m really not sure which is the better trick as a writer – thinking up the sheer insanity of disparate, science fiction, supernatural and whatever else you can think of elements that go into the plot, or the fact that all of this somehow makes complete sense at the end. If anything in the sample passage above appeals to you, then definitely read the books, and when you’re done with that, dig up the all too short lived BBC series (I may have mentioned it here) for yet more of this delightful insanity.
Or if you like:
All of the above, and:
Robert Asprin’s Myth books
Knowing space navies will have the same problems as current ones
A lighter version of Catch-22
You might like
Mechanical Failure, by Joe Zieja
Ex sergeant Rogers gets drafted back into the space navy after a scam he’s running on two pirate fleets goes horribly awry, and despite his best efforts to go unnoticed and continue his quasi-legal activities, he’s discovering things have been going very wrong in his time out of the service.
“I present to you your new quarters, Lieutenant Rogers.”
Rogers didn’t even have the cognitive capacity to yell at Tunger for his slip back into the Thelicosan accent. The spectacle beyond the doorway held every inch of his attention.
The executive officer’s quarters was nothing short of spectacular. A bed fit for a king, or at least a very successful pimp, was expertly made up with a shimmering red velvet comforter and a gaudy wrought-iron bed frame. A desk of expensive-looking wood with golden handles. A double-door wardrobe of stained oak, complete with a full-length mirror attached to the side with a silver frame. A computer terminal with not one, not two, but three screens displaying various systems on the ship and a daily calendar. A bookshelf with actual, no-kidding books. And, for some reason, a pet cat.
That would have all been great had it not all been floating around in zero gravity.
“What,” Rogers said, unable to fathom what he was seeing in front of him, “in all of the circles of hell is going on here?”
“Ah,” Tunger said. “I forgot to mention that part, sir.”
“That my room’s gravity generator was broken? That’s a pretty big piece of information you forgot, Tunger. It could have saved us the trip up here. I’m not moving in here until it’s fixed. Get maintenance on the line and—”
“Oh, it’s not broken, sir. It’s been disabled.”
“Why the hell has my room’s gravity generator been disabled?”
“It was Klein’s idea, sir, as a suicide deterrent. His last few executive officers hung themselves, you see.”
“Can’t hang yourself in zero-g, sir.”
Zieja is the odd man out on this list, being nowhere near as famous as the other two, and an American, yet his absurdist sense of humor fits right in here. He successfully walks a very tight line keeping a consistent tone between becoming too serious or outright ridiculous. It’s this tone and pacing that gets him on this list, by being mostly grounded in reality, with just a touch of the completely absurd as characters have to adapt to the crazy situations around them. He also has a good sense of timing as situations set up early in the book turn out to be humorous later on. The underlying mystery of exactly what is going wrong in the fleet successfully serves to keep the reader engaged, while the strange situations caused by this prove to be very entertaining. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to read some funny science fiction. One word of warning though – Mechanical Failure is the first book of a trilogy, and while the mystery is solved at the end of the book, a whole new host of complications come up in the last few pages, creating a cliffhanger that (presumably) gets addressed in the next book, Communication Failure.
Or if you like:
All of the above, with a fantasy twist
Pratchett’s co-authoring of Good Omens
Long running fantasy series
You might like
The Colour Of Magic, by Sir Terry Pratchett
Minor wizard Rincewind gets a job escorting an extremely rich and clueless tourist around the Discworld – which sits on the back of four elephants standing on a turtle…
“You don’t understand at all,” said the wizard wearily. “I’m so scared of you my spine has turned to jelly, it’s just that I’m suffering from an overdose of terror right now. I mean, when I’ve got over that then I’ll have time to be decently frightened of you.”
The Weasel pointed towards the burning city. “You’ve been through that?” he asked.
The wizard rubbed a red, raw hand across his eyes. “I was there when it started. See him? Back there?” He pointed back down the road to where his traveling companion was still approaching, having adopted a method of riding that involved falling out of the saddle every few seconds.
“Well?” said Weasel.
“He started it,” said Rincewind simply. Bravd and Weasel looked at the figure, now hopping across the road with one foot in a stirrup.
“Fire-raiser, is he?” said Bravd at last.
“No,” said Rincewind. “Not precisely. Let’s just say that if complete and utter chaos was lightning, then he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour and shouting “All gods are bastards.” Got any food?”
There’s nothing to be said about Sir Terry Pratchett that hasn’t been said already. Beloved by millions, member of the Order of the British Empire, collaborator with Neil Gamian, prolific author and damn funny guy. Pratchett has an excellent sense of the absurd and when to use it, making his books funny without devolving into the completely ridiculous.
The Colour (or Color, depending on your flavor of English) of Magic is the first of his Discworld novels and is a good introduction to the series, which is mostly standalone stories with recurring characters. You can mostly read them out of order, but you’ll get the character cameos and references better if it’s all read in publication order. There’s plenty of material to cover there and I fully expect to continue referencing his books in future columns.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and tune in for my next column where the theme will be…well, still probably something on the lighter side…