[February 7, 1962] Funny Business (March 1962 Fantastic)


by Victoria Silverwolf

Dying is easy; comedy is hard.

These famous last words, ascribed to many a noted actor on his deathbed, are probably apocryphal.  Even if nobody ever really uttered them before taking his last breath, they do suggest the difficulty of provoking amusement in one’s audience.  This is at least as true of speculative fiction as of the stage.

A quick glance at the Hugo winners, for example, reveals that only one humorous piece has won the prize.  Eric Frank Russell’s 1955 Astounding short story Allamagoosa, a comic tale of bureaucratic foul-ups, stands alone among more serious works. 

This is not to say that there are not many talented writers as dedicated to Thalia as to Melpomene.  From the wit of Fritz Leiber to the satire of Robert Sheckley, from the whimsical musings of R. A. Lafferty to the tomfoolery of Ron Goulart, readers in search of smiles and belly laughs have many choices.  In less adept hands, unfortunately, humorous science fiction can degrade into childish slapstick and sophomoric puns.

The March issue of Fantastic is dominated by comedy, so let’s take a look at it with a light heart.

Lloyd Birmingham’s silly cover art seems to have been the inspiration for the lead novelette.  The introductory blurb for Robotum Delenda Est! by Jack Sharkey proudly announces that we are about to enjoy a farce, so I was expecting something closer to the Three Stooges than Oscar Wilde.

Written with tongue firmly in cheek, the opening sections of the story take the form of a report on an unusual incident.  A robot suddenly appears on Earth, seemingly from nowhere.  As it makes its way eastward across the United States, from Arizona to Washington, D.C., stopping now and then to steal electricity from power lines and guzzle gasoline from service stations, all attempts to communicate with it or stop it end in failure.  Its motivation remains a mystery until the end of the story, after much chaos ensues.

I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from this story.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the author maintains a mock serious tone throughout, which highlights the absurd aspects of the plot.  The revelation of the robot’s intention was clever and surprising.  Three stars.

These robotic hijinks are followed by another humorous tale.  I was unsure whether to review the first half of Joyleg, a short novel by Ward Moore and Avram Davidson which is scheduled to conclude next issue.  After some thought, I decided to go ahead.  I’m glad I did, because the pleasure of reading it doesn’t come from its fairly simple plot, which would have left me in suspense for a month, but from its wry tone and spritely style.

During a routine meeting of the Congressional Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, a pair of representatives of opposite political parties, both from the state of Tennessee, discover that a man with the unlikely name of Isachar Z. Joyleg has been receiving a monthly pension of eleven dollars for some time.  The Democratic representative, a man, is outraged that he is being paid such a paltry sum.  The Republican representative, a woman, demands proof that he has served during wartime or was disabled in the line of duty, lest the government’s money be wasted. 

(In case any of my readers who do not happen to reside in the Volunteer State, as I do, think it unlikely that a member of Congress from Tennessee would be either a Republican or female, allow me to point out a couple of facts.  The First and Second Congressional Districts, located in the northeastern part of the state, have been firmly Republican since the 1880’s, unlike the rest of the state, which can be thought of as part of the Solid South.  As far as the possibility of a woman holding that position goes, the current representative from the First District is Louise G. Reece, who took that position upon the death of her husband, the previous officeholder.  The fictional Congresswoman in the story is said to be a widow, and the reader is apparently supposed to assume that her background is similar.)

Further research reveals that Joyleg has been receiving these payments at least as far back as the Civil War, beyond which there are no records.  The Republican sees this as a clear case of fraud, while the Democrat imagines the possibility of a veteran of the War Between the States more than a century old, barely surviving on a tiny pension.  Since the microscopic community in which he resides is on the border between their two districts, each one claiming that it belongs to the other, they both decide to pay a visit to investigate the situation.

The rest of this half of the novel is taken up with the difficult journey to Joyleg’s extraordinarily remote home, via train, automobile, mule, and foot.  Much of the story’s comedy comes from the culture shock between the politicians from Washington and the country folks in the deepest part of the backwoods.  Fortunately, the local inhabitants never become stereotypical hillbillies, and the authors seem to have a certain amount of respect for their traditional, no-nonsense ways.

Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from the collaborators’ evident delight in words for their own sake.  In addition to the unusual name of the title character, we have such things as railroad cars with designations like Monomotapa and Gondwanaland.  When we finally meet Joyleg, he speaks in archaic language.  Unlike much dialect in fiction, which is often tedious to read, Joyleg’s speeches are always lively and colorful.

I look forward to the second half, and I’d be willing to bet a reasonable amount of money – eleven dollars, perhaps? – that the two bickering representatives will wind up in each other’s arms.  Four stars.

Editor Cele Goldsmith offers us another first story in this issue, with Decision by Robert H. Rohrer, Jr.  This brief story begins with a politician making a speech which is interrupted by a shout from the crowd.  We quickly shift point of view to a group of characters in charge of departments like Audio and Visual who seem to be controlling the politician’s actions, and who face a crisis.  You’ll probably figure out who what’s going on, but the story’s idea is an interesting one.  Three stars.

This issue’s Fantasy Classic is The Darkness on Fifth Avenue by Murray Leinster, reprinted from the November 30, 1929 issue of Argosy.  It’s a crime story with a mad scientist who has invented a gizmo which creates total darkness, allowing criminals to terrorize New York City without being seen.  There’s plenty of action, but I found it tedious.  The story is also full of stereotypes.  We have the heroic cop, the wisecracking girl reporter, the heavily accented German scientist, and, most embarrassingly, the cowardly Negro elevator operator.  It may be of historical interest as a part of the early career of a major figure in science fiction, but it’s not enjoyable to read.  One star.

I was greatly enjoying this issue until I got to the last story, and I’m not trying to be funny.