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Great Science-Fiction
& Fantasy Works

science-fiction & fantasy literature:
a critical list with discussions

Light-Hearted Science-Fiction & Fantasy Books

"The study of genetics on the Disc had failed at an early stage, when wizards tried the experimental crossing of such well known subjects as fruit flies and sweet peas. Unfortunately they didn't grasp the fundamentals, and the resultant offspring--a sort of green bean thing that buzzed--led a short sad life before being eaten by a passing spider."

Terry Pratchett

The Light Touch in Science Fiction and Fantasy

(Returning visitors will notice that the title of this page has changed--the category "humor" seemed too limiting for what I wanted to catalogue: I think the designation "light-hearted" captures the idea better. In essence, these are books you turn to when at the end of a dismal day you want to just prop your feet up and put it all behind you.)

Science fiction long was grim stuff. While the occasional book might have the occasional light character or scene, by and large it was all deadly serious business, right from Shelley's Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus on through the early pulps. With the usual disclaimers about generalities, one may say that it was not until the 1940s that "light-hearted" science fiction began to emerge (with, for example, L. Sprague DeCamp's Incomplete Enchanter) and not until the '50s that it began to blossom, with the Gallagher books by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym of the husband-and-wife team of Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore) and Frederic Brown's Martians Go Home as samples.

Fantasy, born as a branch of "real" literature, had a streak of light-heartedness right from the get-go (as, for example, Lord Dunsany's work shows); by the time "fantasy" ceased being a kind of literature and became instead a publishing category, the by-then established acceptability of the light touch in the science-fiction category carried over; nowadays, both fields have many writers who can employ that light touch deftly.

In assembling this category from the main listings, I found that there seemed two reasonably distinct classes of tale belonging here. One class is overtly comedic books--ones in which the author has set out to make us laugh. The other class is less easily labelled, and is why I changed the label of this page to "light-hearted": the tale is told with a light touch, perhaps with some humor, but is not expressly designed to make us laugh (I say that with no implied derogation--making us laugh is a task both worthy and, when done right, toilsome). An example of the first class is any Terry Pratchett "Discworld" book; of the second, The Circus of Dr. Lao.

Those familiar with that second will realize at once that, as I use the terms, "light-hearted" is very far from synonomous with "frivolous": a good many books with a touch or more than a touch of wit (often sarcastic) deal with issues that are large and serious--it is only that this or that author has managed to come at those issues with a grin that makes the books "light-hearted".

This text is meant only as a short introduction to the list, but there are two further points that do need to be made. One is that there are several authors who regularly write books that overall are neither comedic nor warm-hearted, but in which can be found clear threads of humor; such humor is often--but by no means invariably--dry or even acid (a fine example of such authors is Jack Vance, and another is Flann O'Brien ). On occasion, such authors write books that are wholly comic, and those of course are included below; but I have tried with the entry notes to indicate those authors' wider tendencies as well. (Or, turning the thought round, there are authors who write seemingly comic tales in which grim and serious passages abound--at some mix ratios, it's hard to sort the one kind from the other.)

I have, as I usually do, tried to be expansive rather than limiting. I included most of Cabell, all of Lafferty--who can find a Lafferty tale not brimming over with humor, however dire its deeper meaning?-- Warren Norwood 's peculiar little collection, all of Flann O'Brien (even the rather horrific Third Policeman), and so on.

The last point, a crucial one, is that as I suggested just above, "light-hearted" books of enduring quality very often do more than make us smile or laugh: they can also introduce, under cover of the humor, ideas every bit as serious and important as those carried by their more sober kin. When we finish a Discworld novel, we may not be conscious of having been treated to much besides a lot of laughing, but we have nevertheless also undergone one or more small but significant attitude adjustments; and such will be the case with a reading of many of the works listed here.

(I wouldn't say that the following list--even limiting choices to works on the main list--is an accurate or complete list of the light-hearted works: I may have omitted a few that belong or included a few that don't. In part, the problem is what I mentioned above: mixes of humor and seriousness--what does one say of, for example, Blaylock's Land of Dreams?)

To repeat, the bottom line here was that these be books you can turn to when at the end of a dismal day you want to just prop your feet up and put it all behind you.

Some Notable Light-Hearted Books

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