Sometimes life swats you around and you don’t have time to update your blog. ‘Nuff said about my problems, which are nothing compared to Bob Howard’s issues in Stross’s The Fuller Memorandum.
Bob Howard is your garden-variety drab IT professional—until he stumbles upon the truth: there really are Lovecraftian monsters out there in other dimensions. They usually break into our world through computational algorithms or when misguided minions call them through via arcane sacrifices and ceremonies. The only thing protecting the ordinary British citizen from the gibbering brain-eating monsters that linger in the shadows is a secret organization called “The Laundry” (sort of an MI-6 that’s got the computer support of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, but the lumbering protocols of the Internal Revenue Service.)
I’ve already covered the two previous books in this series, The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue. Once again, as the front cover states: it’s Bob Howard versus Evil—and Evil cheats.
In this third book, computational demonologist Bob Howard will “run afoul of Russian agents, ancient demons, and the apostles of a hideous faith who have plans to raise a very unpleasant entity known as the Eater of Souls.” He’ll investigate the mysterious (and missing) Fuller Memorandum and it’s connection to his boss—learning plenty of things he probably didn’t want to know.
What worked: Stross’s world is delightfully drawn with dry humor and irony. I liked the characters and the story (as well as the historical puzzle/story within a story).
What didn’t work: I wasn’t so enamored with the “frame.” An author uses a frame to give the story context, as well as make the beginning and ending of a novel connect. In this case, it wasn’t a frame story, but starting and ending monologues. These monologues didn’t seem necessary and they complicated the novel instead of clarifying it. But this frame consisted of about four pages, so it was a small nit that I ignored in favor of the contained story.
And I’d rather talk about Charlie Stross’s successful use of humor…
Writing Humorous [fill-in-your-genre] Can be Tricky
Can “humor” be analyzed? You bet it can. Take a look at books like The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus, and you’ll see that comics have to analyze their jokes/stories. You’ll find that being funny is hard work. Sure, it helps if you’ve got natural talent, but you have to go the distance (meaning you have to do the work, just as in any other discipline or genre).
You’ll also find that humor doesn’t get much respect as a genre. That’s why an author snapped, “No, I write satire,” when I struck up a conversation with, “So I hear you write humor…” Usually humorous novels are sold as satire, humorous mystery, humorous women’s fiction, etc., and even humorous SF and Fantasy. Yes, it does exist.
The biggest problem with writing humor is that it’s so subjective. We can say that fiction is always subjective; novels have to engage many readers of all types, with different experiences and backgrounds—but readers are even more picky when it comes to humor. And, in speculative fiction (which has a significant amount of readers who want dark SF, dark fantasy, and supernatural horror), humor is even harder to sell.
That might be why there’s only one Terry Pratchett, for instance, who’s successful at publishing knee-slapping fantasy. Probably every SF/F line has at least one moderately funny author, but only one (it’s easy to imagine an SF/F editor reading your knee-slapper and saying, “But we’ve already got so-and-so…”).
So it’s much safer to inject humor into what would otherwise be darn fine SF/F novel (yes, now I’m back to The Fuller Memorandum).
How Stross Injects Humor
Consider “humor” as “the ability to perceive what is comical, ridiculous, or ludicrous in a situation or character, and to express it in a way that makes others see or feel the same way.” A humorous author of fiction must also have the ability to invent comical, ridiculous, or ludicrous situations or characters. And if you’ve met Charlie Stross (I had the fortune of being on a panel with him at COSine), you’d know he has great wit and facility with the English language.
But Stross doesn’t try to make the character Bob Howard overtly funny, nor does he attempt to float his novel on wit alone—first, he has a great plot structured like a spy mystery and second, two likeable, devoted characters willing to risk their lives and souls for each other. Then, he makes humorous situations and juxtapositions, applying only a light touch to his prose (with just the right word choice). He uses grinding government service jobs to prevent demonic incursions, uses special-ops soldiers against zombified graveyards, etc.
And if you don’t “get” the joke—meaning you might not see humor in these situations—you’ll still get a whopping good spy thriller out of The Fuller Memorandum. And, if you want to study humor in SF/F, you’ll get a great example of its use.