When Alex Shvartsman announced that the fourth annual Unidentified Funny Objects anthology would focus on dark humor, I got excited. As my reviews of UFO2 and UFO3 will attest, I enjoyed the previous editions in the series, but nothing quite hits the spot like a well-executed dark comedy. Science fiction fans, however, are familiar with the risks of anticipation. That nagging dread that the big screen adaptation of your favorite novel will come out all wrong. And there is plenty of room for things to go wrong with dark comedy.
Dark humor can be tricky business because it often deals in sensitive or taboo subjects. Miss the mark and the reader’s response can be anger and condemnation. Succeed and the response may be the same (see my review of William Tenn’s “The Masculinist Revolt” for just such an example). Additionally, some dark humor treads so close to tragedy that many readers will fail to notice the difference.
One question central to assessing this anthology is that of what constitutes dark humor, a distinction that can be quite slippery, not unlike the never-ending debate about how to define science fiction. Editor Alex Shvartsman informs us in his introduction that he takes a broad interpretation of the genre, such that you are getting everything from potentially disturbing subjects that would make George Carlin proud, to lighter fare that I would personally exclude from the taxonomy. I am aware, though, that few writers can “…undermine a surface joke with more unhappiness than most mortals can bear,” as the master of dark humor, Kurt Vonnegut, explained of his own method. And to be truthful, dark humor is quite often legitimately much lighter and need not necessarily cause a disturbance in one’s soul. Never-the-less, on the promise of dark comedy, I would judge the anthology as having only mixed success. There aren’t many stories here that push people’s comfort zones, not many that risk poking a stick at today’s most sensitive hornet’s nests. And that is very much one of the functions of dark humor.
A far more important question (because it speaks more directly to what the editor set out to do) is that of the quality of the humor, dark or otherwise. Mr. Shvartsman makes it clear that his priority is on humor first, darkness being secondary, and in that regard the anthology is a resounding success. I’d even go so far as to say that this selection eclipses that of UFO2, which until now had been my favorite of these annuals. So the important thing to keep in mind is that this is, on the whole, a fine collection of funny stories.
In all, there are twenty-one original stories bookended by reprints from Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin. Ten stories are SF (broadly defined) and almost all of them are in the second half of the book. The rest of the stories are a mix of fantasy, urban fantasy, superheroes, adventure and horror. As always, the following brief descriptions are mostly spoiler free:
“We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” by Neil Gaiman – The tale of a man who is moderate in every way except for his inability to pass up a bargain. He catches his fiancé cheating on him with one of his co-workers and uncharacteristically considers hiring someone to kill the man. A reprint from early in Gaiman’s writing career done in British style humor.
“The Time-Traveling Ghost Machine of Professor Jaime Peligrosa” by Andrew Kaye – A professor of temporal dislocation studies at the School of Esoteric Studies meets with his peers to inform them that he has solved the time travel paradox that has until now kept him from using one of his time machines. All he needs now is to kill one of his students. Clever and funny.
“Please Approve the Dissertation Research of Angtor” by Caroline M. Yoachim – Done as a series of email exchanges between a student and the Dissertation Review Board concerning the student’s plans to research his theory that “Humans will destroy inhabited planets if Angtor screams death threats at them until they comply.”
“Match Game” by Esther Friesner – Urban fantasy in which a matchmaker with a hamster for an office assistant tries to find romantic pairings for a variety of undead creatures.
“The Transformation of Prince Humphrey” by Brent C. Smith – Flash fiction giving brief glimpses into the duplicitous thoughts of various members of the royal court as the prince makes a toast.
“In The End, You Get Clarity” by Laura Pearlman – Retelling of events that led a girl from the life of a normal seeming college student to the superheroine Leopard-Print Girl.
“Project Disaster” by Tim Pratt – A reporter interviews Disaster Man, the most feared supervillain on the planet. He claims he is an extortionist rather than a supervillain despite his choice of name, his mask, and his ability to explode with the force of multiple nuclear bombs.
“Hello Hotel” by Piers Anthony – An atheist whose flight has been cancelled meets an attractive Christian woman on an oddly elaborate conveyor belt system. She makes him an unexpected proposition.
“Bob’s No-Kill Monster Shelter” by Ian Creasey – Presented in online newsletter form. The shelter provides for monsters created by supervillains. “The monsters themselves are innocent: they didn’t ask to be created, and they can’t help their nature. That’s why we never kill a healthy monster.” Sections on the web site include FAQs on a recently escaped monster, volunteer opportunities and adoption services. Humor stems from the casual delivery of alarming information.
“Board Meeting Minutes” by Oliver Buckram – Minutes from the Annual Board Meeting of the League of Giant Monsters. Violent clashes between members meets Robert’s Rules of Order.
“Armed For You” by Anaea Lay – A man wakes to find his girlfriend has eaten his arms. Friends tell him that he should leave her because she doesn’t treat him right, but he is reluctant to break off the relationship. Dark humor about abuse, not a zombie story.
“The Unfortunate Problem of Grandmother’s Head” by Karen Haber – Hundreds of years in the future, family members meet for an annual lottery to see who gets stuck with hosting great, great, great… grandmother’s head (alive and unfortunately talking) for the coming year.
“My Mother Loves Her Robot More Than Me and I Feel Bad” by Eric Kaplan – A son with self-esteem issues rarely visits his mother who has dementia and no longer recognizes him. One day he visits and finds that a robot has been hired to provide her company. Funny, dark, all the things one hopes for in dark humor. One of the best stories in the anthology.
“The Worm That Turned” by Jody Lynn Nye – Fourth installment (one has appeared in each UFO annual so far) in the casefiles of Dena Malone, pregnant homicide detective with a worm-like alien implanted in her peritoneum. This time she must solve the case of an abducted alien that was supposed to have been implanted in a human diplomat.
“Department of Death Predictions, Final Notice” by Tina Gower – Flash fiction in the form of a letter from a future government agency that predicts your imminent death. It includes instructions about what you should and should not do about your situation, delivered with all the uselessness, compassion and fine print one would expect from a government bureaucracy.
“Champions of Breakfast” by Zach Shephard – A man working for a company that sells breakfast foods, is too timid to confront his boss who takes credit for his innovations. He accidentally falls through a portal into Breakfast Land, a place of sausage trees and walking toast.
“Keeping Ahead” by Mike Resnick – an adventure from the Chronicles of the Right Reverend Honorable Doctor Lucifer Jones (preacher, explorer, con man), a long running series Resnick has been writing for decades. While trying to reach Australia, Jones finds himself among headhunters of Borneo. Hilarious H. Rider Haggard parody.
“So You’ve Metamorphosed Into a Giant Insect. Now What?” by James Aquilone – Flash fiction written as a set of instructions on what to do after you have changed into a giant insect, à la Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. Pretty funny stuff.
“Confessions of an Interplanetary Art Fraud” by Michael J. Martinez – A young boy is abducted by aliens and raised as part of an alien litter. He grows up, has an unsuccessful encounter with an alien prostitute before meeting a humanoid of reasonably similar anatomy who complements his childish artwork. Filled with fun quirky and comic details.
“Texts from My Mother About the Alien Invasion” by Tina Connolly – A mother texts back and forth with her daughter about a suitable substitute for an ingredient for banana bread, all the while dropping casual references to the aliens who have landed on the local golf course and trapped the city under a dome. The daughter is appropriately freaked out while the mother is more concerned with banana bread and hosting a bridge game. Laugh out loud funny.
“Support Your Local Alien” by Gini Koch – Humans dock their ship at a spaceport that needs a new sheriff. A mashup of SF, steampunk, fantasy, romance and western. Related to Koch’s Kitty Kat/Alien series.
“Conversation Topics to Avoid on a First Date with Yourself” by Jonathan Ems – A man signs up for an alternate-reality dating service that matches you with one of your alternate selves. Starts well with a funny premise and gets wackier from there.
“The Monkey Treatment” by George R. R. Martin – Readers may be familiar with this classic from the 80s. A fat man who loves to eat also pines for female companionship, occasionally attempting and failing at a variety of diets. Then one day he sees a fat friend who has miraculously slimmed down via the mysterious Monkey Treatment. This story won the Locus award and was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula. Highly recommended if you haven’t already read it.
As mentioned above, I do feel that the overall quality of the stories appearing in Unidentified Funny Objects 4 make this the best UFO anthology yet. Does UFO4 deliver on a humorous level? Absolutely. And there are some very fine examples of dark comedy to be found in the collection, but expectations regarding consistency of the dark humor content should be tempered. Unidentified Funny Objects 4 is scheduled for release from UFO Publishing tomorrow, October 15th.