Monday, July 11, 2005

Fantasy and Humour

Yesterday I finished reading Lawrence Watts-Evans' The Misenchanted Sword, which in some small ways reminded me of Terry Pratchett (the whole idea of a sword that's more of a burden than a blessing because of the way it's been enchanted is something on which I could easily see Terry Pratchett doing an extended riff)... Now I'm reading Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature (edited by Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James and Andrew Butler), and I'm in the middle of Andrew Butler's very erudite discussion of humour in Pratchett's books. This ties in with two of the talks I went to yesterday at the Faringdon Arts Festival: Stephen Briggs was talking about Terry Pratchett's Discworld, and Jasper Fforde was talking about writing humorous alternate reality novels. Both Pratchett and Fforde take familiar objects and ideas, and make them absurd: Fforde's Thursday Next (the protagonist of four novels published so far) possesses a re-engineered Dodo as a pet, works in an alternative world where it is possible to kidnap characters out of books (or indeed walk into books), and where the chief form of long distance transport is a Zeppelin. Pratchett has an orang-utan for a librarian at the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, an animated skeleton (Death) who rides a white horse called Binky, and a young woman who is morphically (rather than genetically) Death's grand-daughter.

The use of comedy in fantasy has quite a long pedigree: going back less than half a century, Tom Sharpe's Wilt novels began appearing in the 1970s, Tom Holt began publishing in the 1980s, and Douglas Adams, whose books were often a mixture of fantasy and SF, also began publishing in the 1980s. It's interesting that, of the comedy-fantasy writers whose work I've read, all of them start to lose their way after a while. Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment is (for me) very unfunny - and the joke that all the soldiers are really women in disguise gets very tired very quickly. On the other hand, Going Postal completely restored my faith in Pratchett as it's genuinely very funny indeed. Similarly, Fforde's Something Rotten is not nearly as funny or sharp as The Eyre Affair, the original Thursday Next novel. I'm hoping that The Big Over Easy will be a recovery of Fforde's original laugh-out-loud humour.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not criticising these authors. It must be very hard to sustain witty writing for novel after novel after novel, whether you've written 4 or 34. But it is a disappointment when one's expectations of a laugh-out-loud funny book aren't met and the book isn't really that funny after all. I think that if the writing tends towards satiricism (as Pratchett's, in particular, do), it's quite hard not to submerge the humour in the message. So I have every admiration for Pratchett, Fforde, et. al. but I do worry that they may not know when to stop...

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