You stand where few have dared to tread. You are looking up and before you, in the distance, on the other side of the tunnel you are about to enter, you see the famed Pillars of Genre, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror.1 And just behind them, an empty space.
That empty space is what has brought you here. To answer an age-old question: you are about to do what few have ever dared to attempt. For as long as Genre has existed, many have wondered, asked, claimed, screamed about how Humor is an essential Pillar of Genre, how it doesn’t get its rightful place with the others. Does Genre have a Missing Pillar?
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this:
To do what few have dared to do, and fewer have dared confess to doing. You will undertake the perilous journey into the beating heart of story itself, and make your way to the fabled Pillars of Genre, where once and for all, you will find the answers to the questions haunting the very foundations of what we love. Is Humor a part of genre? What part? Is it a Pillar? Is it really ignored? Why? What makes it special to genre? These puzzles seem difficult, impossible even. As does the journey that lies ahead. How you proceed is up to you (occasionally). You will find there is no one path to the answers you seek. But there is one quest—the truth. Stay this course,2 and you shall be rewarded.
It is time to begin.
Make your way down the walkway to the massive iron door. As you do, think about how it is one of those fascinating ironies of literary analysis that so few essays on humour are funny, just as so few essays on horror are frightening1,3which illustrates why magicians don’t explain how the trick was done, or validation of the theory that the surest way to suck the fun out of something is to attempt to study it. It seems important to mention this, not because this essay promises to be any different, but because history has shown that front-loading the whataboutery is usually the most effective means of evading responsibility.
Slam the knocker against the huge iron door, protect your eardrums from the thundering crash as they seal shut behind you.
There is no turning back now4.
It turns out evasiveness is a wholly appropriate starting point for the quest to discover the position humour occupies within SFFH—one that is in many ways a simulacrum of the even more fundamental question of what humour itself is. Both lead to a seemingly infinite number of answers, all of which are correct depending on whom you ask. It is only when it’s too late that you realize the truth—your innocent and seemingly-innocuous query has led you well past the point of no return, into a dizzying Labyrinth of definitions, breakdowns, explanations, andclassifications, some of which seem scarcely discernible from science fiction themselves. This is further complicated by the fact it appears even science fiction writers cannot agree on what science fiction is, which is why each of them appears to have their own private definition. As you might have noticed already, it can get rather late for a nosy explorer rather quickly in these depths. Where once you were someone who vehemently denied having any connection to ailments like GTVH to your friends while quickly making an emergency appointment to get tested for it, now you find yourself saying things like Benign Violation5 with a straight face. Soon you find yourself completely lost, running ingrowing panic through long, narrow and serpentine passageways with incomprehensible names like The Phenomenological Function of Humor that are even more meandering and pointlessly extended for no good reason than this sentence. It’s not long before there’s no trace of who you once were, all that is left is a Being mercilessly using phrases like “script based semantics” and “ontic-epistemic” to describe jokes to dead-eyed groups of strangers and students, talking over their feeble moans as you expertly place yourself between them and the nearest exit. You are now completely lost to the Labyrinth.
You now find yourself faced with two choices.
You could Take this Slide back down to where you just came from and keep spending more and more time within the Labyrinth, until you eventually become the Labyrinth itself, and finish up as a writer of jargon-filled books that are somehow all about humour without being funny.
Or you could claw yourself back out of the labyrinth through sheer will and spite, towards sunlight, salvation and a better, happier way. Since you have some time to kill while you make your way back to us, you might as well spend it on making sure you don’t end up back in there. A good start would be figuring out a definition of humour that doesn’t make your brain cry and your eyes bleed6. One easy fix might be to simply draw from a rather different investigation and declare that humour, too, falls under the category of things best recognized via encounters in the wild., or to wit, if it makes you laugh, it’s funny, and if it’s funny, it’s humour, as the poet said.7
Working all this out must have taken longer than you realise, because you can now feel a sudden warmth on your face, and as you look up, you can see the light. You’re almost there!
In a few moments you’ll be free, out of that cursed chasm of things that everyone sort of knows already but has to hear about in extra detail they never asked for8.
Pull yourself up over the edge, catch your breath, dust yourself off9
And you find yourself standing before the grandest sight in all of genre.9 A series of cliff faces, encircling the Pillars that hold up all we hold dear as they keep imprisoned within their power vortex the terrifying Black Hole of Boredom.
As you take it all in, you’ll notice the floor below you feels soft. Not to overwhelm you right now, but do note you’re actually standing on the biggest feather you’ve ever seen.
Which leads us to next steps, which are always important in a quest. There is a Giant Door directly to Genre in front of you, but you cannot use it, because the Gatekeepers of Genre bar your way10 and you might as well just throw yourself into the Black Hole, less painful that way. If a trip to the Annals of Genre, where you can do things the old-fashioned way and research the history of humour in genre is something you fancy, Take the Teleporter.
If you’re in the mood for something much more bizarre and unconventional, you could try to find your way to the very top, to where the massive feather came from. The one way to view all of Genre, is of course while sitting atop the Big Word Nerd Bird11 up there. If that’s your jam, Step in the Pentacle to your right.
If you’re feeling particularly foolish adventurous, Jump Down That Big Hole Over There And See Where You End Up.
And if you’re the REALLY old school sort and want to do every bit of this step by step, well, there is a Rope Ladder there that will let you climb all the way to the Annals. You’re sure now? Ok, start climbing. That’s the way12 (literally), so keep going, you’ll get there sooner than you realise, you’re still fresh.
Yes, this soon. It’s genre, nobody has time to watch you keep climbing unless there’s some other plot value in the scene. Now focus, please, because you’ve climbed all the way up here, to where there’s a door marked Annals12. As you approach, it dilates.13 Step through.
The first thing you see, and probably should steer clear of, is a Teleporter.
The annals are not the sort of old-fashioned library they sound like, this is a state-of-the-art digital setup. Rows upon innumerable rows of memory crystals are stacked against the walls—or are they the walls themselves? Touch one, it’ll play in the centre of the room, find a corner to watch from.
You now realise that you appear to have levelled up14, because all of a sudden it’s like being Neo in the Matrix. You can see humour all over SFFH. Lines, scenes, even entire books, films—and more. You can see example after example, it shouldn’t even be possible to get through this many examples of humour in genre this quickly, but that’s what supertechnology15 does. If you ever wondered where humour was in genre, here’s your answer. Everywhere.
If your head’s reeling enough already, make your way out the door on the far side. It takes you to another room, only this one is empty except for a window, and a door on the far side. There’s also a really creepy looking old looking-glass of some sort. Yeah that’s it. Basic.
If the question of the societal and greater literary merit of funny genre books is occupying your thoughts, head to your left and Take the Teleporter. If you find the draw of the eerie looking-glass too hard to resist, you can walk over to the corner and Touch The Mirror. If neither of these fit your current vibe, whenever you’re tired of standing around here doing nothing, you can just do it the old-fashioned way and swing yourself onto the rope ladder on the right. Or don’t break stride at all, just keep walking all the way to the door at the far end. Go through.
On the other side of the door you find yourself in a small room with no other doors or windows. On one side, identical to the one in the adjoining room, is another Teleporter. THAT’s all it does?? What a waste of energy. Typical bureaucratic error16. On the other side of the room is a chair and in the chair is a robot in a silk gown and feathered hat.
“You seek the Oracle?” asks the robot. “No, don’t answer that, I’m an Oracle, I know already. Also there’s nothing else here. Ask your question.17”
So you ask away, about whether the question of the literary merit of funny genre fiction had ever been answered.
In response, the Oracle keels over, dead.
Well, there’s no time to panic about it, look around. You still have a quest to finish. There’ll be time for sentiment later. For now, focus on the table the Oracle was sitting at. You’ll see a smart tablet there. It doesn’t even ask you for a password. Look at what’s on the screen. As you do, it zooms in18 to this very moment on this very page, with you reading this very line. “Click here to get one stop lesson in both terrible economics and great writing of the highest literary and societal quality. Then click here to have a person with lots of degrees explain the same thing again. Well, go on, click. Don’t keep the supercomputer waiting.
If you’re reading this it hopefully means you did the right thing and clicked, and you’re now back, wiser and richer for the time spent with one of the great writers of this or any era in the English language. Say goodbye to the Oracle, who it appears will now be spending some time with Mort.
Now you get to make a choice again.
If you like the whole atoms reforming all over again feeling, take the teleporter back to the next room.
Or just walk through the door again.
If you want what’s definitely the steady19 option, take the rope ladder.
If you’re still here, it looks like you chose to climb. Your hamstrings, not mine.
As you climb you might reflect on a particular distinction between humour and horror in terms of reader expectation. The natural human tendency to want to laugh gives the humorist a natural advantage in terms of the generosity contract, which is the snappy way to describe the demonstrated willingness of the reader to work with you towards your mutual goal of their enjoyment vs how much harder earning a similar level of trust might be in other genres.20
Getting to this sentence means you’ve climbed like few have ever climbed and have reached the top of the cliff face. Congratulations! When you’re ready to proceed, take the door in the cliff-face in front of you.
You step through the door to find yourself in a wholly surreal scene. Below you is a smooth white landscape, covered with giant black markings. As you approach, you realise they are words, made of soot. You can hear crying and unhappy English people everywhere21.
And then it hits you where you are and the peril you’re in. Something has gone wrong, very wrong. Because this is not where you’re supposed to be, you’ve somehow ended up outside the very realms of genre, and humour too.
In fact, you are where humour comes to die.
You are standing in the opening pages of David Copperfield22, at a point when David has not yet been born.23 This however, does not prevent him from describing both his birth and the events preceding it in painstaking24 detail, up to the line “It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously25”. Of this Richard Armour has written that “This did not mean that the clock struck David, but it does set the tone for the rest of the book, where someone is always getting struck or crying; although people frequently cry without being struck”. If we allow the monster we thought we had left behind in the labyrinth to control us again for a moment and deconstruct the humour in this sentence, it’s quickly apparent that there is nothing remotely funny about Baby David or anyone else being struck, although there might be a few chuckles to be derived out of a bunch of usually-stoic British people crying at each other for no reason—and by extension, at the novel itself. But what really reeled us in was the wholly ridiculous image of a clock running around striking blows.
And if you were in the market for a story about a short-tempered rogue clock? Genre would be about the best place to start looking.
Flee the sooty words and sad British people (who were still happier than everyone else who encountered them at this time) and make your way all the way across the pagey landscape to a door like the first. Go through and you’ll find you’re now on the other side of the cliff face. On the ground in front of you is another Pentacle. Aha! Step out, stretch out, your essence will thank you for it.
Now, if you been enjoying this arcane mode of travel, here’s another chance. Step back into the Pentacle
Or if you’re a one step then the next sorta person, keep going and grab the rope ladder.
You get to climb some more, yaaay. Hope you’re happy.
While you do, think about how if you were to take the specific definition of science fiction as being a story from which you cannot remove the science and keep the plot/story with any fealty, and apply it to the other 3 branches of genre (including humour) they form 2 pairs. On the one hand you have the “what” branches, namely SF and F, genres where the very setting and milieu—basic plot elements, the “content” of the stories determines if they belong. On the other hand, you have the “tone” genres, horror and humour, where how the story is told informs the genre even more than what the story is about. The very same plot could be humor or horror, whereas the same level of interchangeability does not exist for the content branches, for reasons already stated.
These thoughts are compelling, but at this point you should probably draw your attention to the slimy feeling under your hand. Some kind of ooze. The whole ladder is coated in it, it’s been soaking into your skin all this while26. I’d hurry up and get off this ladder as soon as I could, but hey, it’s your skin.
If you haven’t fallen off the ladder in shock yet, the good news is you’re almost at the top. You made it! Finally! You can see the bird now, like a gargantuan feathered cloud, close enough to touch.
Here’s where you clamber onto the bird. Yaaay! But careful, watch your step, for instance, you probably want to avoid stepping in—that. I mean, what kind of weirdo chooses the back of a giant bird as the spot to put his Pentacle? OMG, yes, bird!!! Congratulations, you’re atop the Big Word Nerd Bird! Not so bad, is it? A lot like being atop a Roc.27 And from here, you can put things into perspective. Except with it comes the sudden, sinking realization that your task is much more enormous, difficult than you ever imagined, Genre stretches as far as the mind does, it’s much more complicated and messier than those four (5?) neat little letters make it sound. You set out to find the missing Humour Pillar, but from your feathered perch in the clouds, where you look down upon all of genre,28 you can now see the shadows of so many more, merging and twisting into the others. Humor. Romance. Mystery. YA. They stretch on and on, as far as the eye can see, it’s enough to make your head spin, which when sitting up in the sky, is usually a sign that it is now time to exit the giant bird.
As the bird veers closer to the pillars, you notice something almost hidden in the shadows, at the very top of the Romance Pillar. A window. The smell of flowers, chocolate and happiness waft out towards you. The Rare Room of Romance. And you’re close enough to get in. With some luck and a whole lot of effort.
If you’re interested in a little side quest on how romance (and by extension other pillars) might fit into all this and if they actually even stay here all the time or not, now’s the time to jump.
It turns out that Romance in fact is not quite the perfect bedfellow into the SFFH mould that it seems at first sight, or indeed that horror is, in part because romance comes with its own specific demands and requirements that, unlike horror’s, don’t always quite match the colour of SFFH’s curtains. For instance, Romance stories often come with an expectation of a Happily-Ever-After, which is certainly not always true for SFFH. There is of course much more depth to this, and if a magic carpet ride towards a greater understanding of the HEA rule and its corollaries—and the overlap zone between Romance and SFFH is your thing, you’re in luck because we have such a carpet available. Walk over to that open window, no that other one, and hop onto the magic carpet here.
Or just take the door at the end of the room and you’ll find yourself in a stone corridor, so long you can’t see to the end. There don’t seem to be any doors or windows, but there is a glimmer in the distance. Make your way towards it.
As you walk down the corridor, you notice how it bends away just before the end. And when you get there, you realise that the glimmer is coming from a wall sized antique Mirror. You’re now standing in front of the mirror. How you’re not sure. You may have seen another like it somewhere. Not sure of this either. Squinting in the glare, you see an opening to your right where the corridor continues. As you glance in the mirror while turning to leave you see something, something that can’t be true, there’s no possible, logical way this could be happening! Except that it is. And as the blood drains from your face and you feel the cold chill of pure terror, your reflection29 steps completely out of the mirror. And starts towards you. It’s following you30…
You’re going faster. Faster. And so are the footsteps. Gaining on you. Louder. Louder. Closer. You want to glance around but you’re too scared. You keep running. Then, suddenly, you see it! A large, ornate door, covered in symbols. As you approach, the door smiles at you. Then it dilates as you rush in, reforming just in time to stand between you and your evil31 reflection, which is now screaming in bloodcurdling fashion, hurling itself at the door, trying to get at you.
“Give that door an award”, you want to say, except that someone already has. Lots of awards. Every kind of award. The whole room is filled with them. Nebulas. Hugo Awards. The Locus. More Awards. If you were wondering about how wrong it was that funny stories didn’t win genre awards, well, turns they’ve won plenty. Maybe they don’t get discussed quite the same way, or win with the same frequency, and maybe more published funny fiction would help tick all the boxes32, but rest assured, genre has shown humour plenty of respect on the awards ballots, even if one can always use a bit more of a good thing. Even if the Great Terry Pratchett Problem33 will probably remain forever,
As you emerge onto the walkway back out into real life, you take one last glimpse at the magiscienorrific room. As you do, the symbols on the door knot into words, a fitting goodbye from the Archmage of Merriment himself.
“Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s not serious.”
And finally, we’ve come full circle, because we started this quest to answer a question and now we find it was actually a quest that’s led us to question our question. No wonder so few people get all the way here, talk about a tongue-twister.
But seeing that you have, here’s what we’re left to think about—if funny genre’s always been around and been published all this much and won all these awards, why do so many of us think there isn’t? Is it just a question of quantity, or have we, the supporters of humorous genre, been making the exact mistake we are trying to correct, and not seeing enough genre? Are all of us? What is it about funny genre that makes us all miss it?
And as lost in thought, you slowly amble down the Walkway To Normality, held up as always by the Pillars of SFF & H, yet still perfectly balanced, the truth suddenly hits you.
Humour truly is a tone, it’s an enchantment, something applies to others—and itself. An invisibility enchantment. The Fourth Pillar of Genre has never been missing. Sometimes a typo in a title is an invisible pillar.
Like Humour, genre’s invisible pillar. It’s the pillar, you don’t always notice it because the h is silent34. But it’s there all right, it just has the power to not be noticed till it really wants to be.
Humour seems to like it that way.
And it doesn’t get more genre than that.
1 Horror is indeed a part of genre and those who disagree are empirically incorrect. This essay however wishes to disassociate itself from the growing call to rename those pushing against horror’s inclusion the “control group”.
2 Tread carefully, though. Discourse on genre has broken many people already.
3 Editor’s Note: We feel obligated to mention that an early draft of this essay was accidentally leaked online by the author and this magazine was besieged with amused emails from copy editors and proof readers rejecting these claims
4 You could close the webpage, but that would be seriously weak.
5 A combination of words that it has now been confirmed, was invented by someone who was unfamiliar with several other words, like “oxymoron” and “Dude, Why??”
6 Thereby establishing that things are already working the wrong way around, although ideally do try not to make your brain bleed at all if you can avoid it.
7 No poet actually said this.
8 Academia, like magic, has rules that are both inscrutable and inviolable. Unless you’re good at maths, in which case you might be able to understand the magic.
9 This suggestion was reviewed and retracted as ridiculous. Being dusty is usually a default state for protagonists in genre.
10 Usually with all sorts of pointless knowledge tests that aren’t even that hard, just annoying and REALLY time-consuming.
11 No, we are not currently accepting feedback on the name of our bird. When you get a giantass bird with feathers bigger than whales that can hover above all of genre and look cool while doing it you can name it what you like.
12 This is what is called Foreshadowing Hint Door.
13 Like a pupil, but with way less interest in homework.
14 It’s the definition, it was like finding a artifact passcode. The actual code is “Dungeons Swipe Back”, FYI.
15 One of the things. It also blows up planets and stuff, but we’re trying to focus on the positives during this presentation.
16 Or choice—over the years, bureaucrats have made some doozies.
17 Don’t point out he should know that too, been tried, didn’t go well, trust your tour guide.
18 For the technically minded, it does so by using the well-known super-duper advanced polarity quantum atom computer thingamaguffiny.
19 A rope ladder was just called steady, this really happened.
20 You might also reflect that this is a lot of time to reflect on something so basic, but it’s a really long climb, time is one thing you have plenty of. You’ll also notice “choices” did not appear on the list of things you currently have plenty of. See, you should have taken the mirror. Happy reflecting. See you at the top.
21 Much like after every major international football/soccer tournament since 1966.
22 The book, not the illusionist, although people often seem to leave looking happy after spending some time with the latter, which rarely seems to be the case with those who do the same with the book. The claims that the two are in fact the same David Copperfield at different times in a long and artificially extended life have been examined in a separate in-depth essay that this publication uncharitably refused to carry even after being offered it for free.
23 Thereby establishing himself as one of the most powerful wizards in all of genre before ever being born, which is very impressive you must admit.
24 With a rather heavy emphasis on the “pain” bit. Critics now believe this was done in order to emotionally prepare the reader for the rest of the book, where there is even less staking to look forward to.
25 Thus concluding the first example of livetweeting ever recorded, as we can surmise from how the sentences get dramatically longer from this point as the 240 character limit ceased to apply. Or perhaps now having an actual larynx had something to do with it. If it was livetweeting, it was long before Twitter was invented, but as we have seen from his birth having only just occurred, this sort of circumstance did not deter David and considering his career thus far, should be classified as impressive rather than improbable.
26 This explains a lot of the musings that have happened on this ladder
27 Other than the fact that’s it’s soft. A Roc’s feathers are made of stone, seriously, you think the name is an accident? Trust us, our bird is way better. And not extinct, which is what really matters when the point is to hover. Fossils suck at hovering. Follow the science.
28 Literally, we mean. If you look down on genre figuratively you suck and we will now attempt to charge you rental money for using our bird.
29 Either that or it is your inner editor coming to kill their darling. This means you. This is good news because darling is a compliment and compliments matter. It is also bad news because it means they do however, also want to kill you. You should probably start running now.
30 Ok, seriously, START RUNNING RIGHT NOW.
31 It might just be over-friendly, but considering where we are and all, evil seems a safer bet. In every way.
32 This is a hint, get cracking.
33 The one concerning his historical unfortunate lack of Hugo nominations, not the one about our current unfortunate lack of Terry Pratchetts, although that one is felt even more strongly.
34 Although it could be argued that if it’s the invisible pillar then it should be spelled as “ ” instead of “humor”.
© 2021 Shiv Ramdas