The Highest Form of Humor

Puns are of course the highest form of humor.  But why?

A Mixed Rep

I am deliberately flouting the usual claim, of course, that puns are the lowest form of humor.  (That judgment seems to have been traced back to several sources, including Samuel Johnson.)  The appropriate response to a really good pun is considered to be not a laugh, but a groan:  the better the pun, the louder the groan.

On the other hand, the use of the pun has weighty, even punderous, examples on its side.  The art of punning goes back into ancient times.  Shakespeare himself is estimated to have used over 3,000 puns in his plays.  Even Jesus, as is frequently noted, founded his church on a pun:  “We read in Matthew 16:18: ‘Thou art Peter (Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra), I will build my Church.’”

In Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, bluff Captain Jack Aubrey is frequently derided by more sophisticated characters for his delight in puns.  I recently ran across a mention in Treason’s Harbour, ch. 2 (p. 45):

. . . Meares, who was only a commander.  A brilliant play upon this name occurred to Jack, but he did not give it voice:  not long before this, on learning that an officer’s father was a Canon of Windsor he had flashed out a remark to the effect that no one could be more welcome aboard a ship that prided herself upon her artillery-practice than the son of a gun, only to find the officer receive it coldly, with no more than a pinched, obligatory smile.

Treason's Harbour coverPersonally, I thought the “Canon” joke both funny and clever; but then, I’m not the one being called a son of a gun.  The attraction to puns is characteristic of Jack Aubrey, though, given his innocent enjoyment of simple pleasures and general good humor (badly represented in the movie version).  I note that even Wikipedia cites an Aubrey pun as an example.

Chain Puns

Those with agile minds can have great fun ‘running a topic’ with rapid-fire pun volleys.  I recall staying up late one night on a high-school retreat with some buddies and Father Bill LaFratta, who outdid us all in puns on a subject like ‘cars’ (and may be responsible, or reprehensible, for my subsequent descent into pundom).  Our family has occasionally gotten into text message exchanges that build off one another, on topics like, for example, Dungeons & Dragons.

David:  Come to think of it, Marx could work as an orcish name . . . and orcs could serve well as the meanies of production.

Rick:  “Keep your head down . . . there’s an orcish Marxman over there, I just saw an arrow go by.”

David:  He was just advocating for an equitable distribution of health.

Rick:  Or death.

David:  And the archmage leading the orcish jacobins could be robes-pierre.

Rick:  And hoping the audience gets the point of his argument.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon coverScience fiction writer Spider Robinson is extraordinarily fond of (and good at) wordplay.  At Callahan’s Place, the fictional bar in his series of stories, Tuesday night is set aside for trading ever more appalling puns on a given topic.  I’m not even going to attempt to reproduce Robinson’s groan-worthy inventiveness; check the stories out for yourself!

Shaggy Dogs and Feghoots

Then there’s the story that ends, after an elaborate build-up, with a pun—a variant of the shaggy dog story.  Snoopy, at his typewriter, occasionally indulges in one of these, as in a recent Peanuts reprint (8/3/2020).  Ideally the pun-ch line will include multiple puns, so as to make a fitting topper for the build-up.  I fondly recall the quintuple pun about immortal porpoises, presented in different forms here, here, and (under the rubric of “dad jokes,” naturally) here.  As in that case, getting the punch line may require knowing some particular phrase or quotation, on which the conclusion of the story is a takeoff, and thus become dated; for example, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  (On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the original phrase in the porpoise pun:  the joke version makes clear enough what the original would have been—at least for comic, as opposed to legal, porpoises.)

The Compleat Feghoot, coverThere’s an entire category for short stories whose conclusion is a pun:  “Feghoots,” named for a series of science fiction stories by Reginald Bretnor, “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot.”  A favorite of mine that isn’t mentioned in the Feghoot article is “The Holes Around Mars,” by Jerome Bixby, who was also (incongruously) responsible for the chilling story “It’s a Good Life,” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode.  The “Mars” story, however, is just good fun all the way through, featuring a spaceship captain addicted to puns, and ending with—Well, I see the text of the story is available at Project Gutenberg, so I’ll let you find out for yourself (if you dare).

Tom Swifties

Tom Swift and his Diving Seacopter, coverTom Swift was the lesser-known science-fictional counterpart to the young detectives Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  All three series were ghost-written by various authors under the auspices of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  Given the provenance, the books were, let us say, not esteemed for their literary style.  In particular, the Tom Swift books were prone to using adverbs, especially adverbs ending in “-ly,” to decorate the supposed plainness of simply using “said” in dialogue.  There’s an example of such dialogue at the Wikipedia page.

A “Tom Swiftie” is a pun in which a speech adverb of this sort is used to make a pun on the rest of the sentence.  By convention, the speaker is always “Tom.”  Hence:

“Close the refrigerator door,” said Tom coldly.

“The man is dead,” said Tom gravely.

But we can get more inventive than that.

“Let’s invite Greg and Gary!” said Tom gregariously.

“We’ve arrived at the camp,” said Tom attentively.

As a dedicated reader of the “Tom Swift, Jr.” series in the 1960s, I’ve always been fond of this variant.

Puns of Opportunity

But we may get the greatest satisfaction from hitting upon a pun unexpectedly.  When a never-before-heard pun evolves naturally out of a conversation, surprise adds to the fun of the sudden (in)congruity.

A writer can enjoy the same effect when they come up with an unplanned witticism.  The unexpectedness may not be evident to the reader, who may assume the author carefully set up the line, but the writer knows better.

Japanese painting of a carp

Utagawa Hiroshige, Suidō Bridge and Surugadai (1857)

I remember the delight with which I happened upon a clinching line for a scene in The World Around the Corner.  In their online game, the characters have come upon an underground pool inhabited by a talking fish, the Carp of Doom.  (I think I chose “carp” based on a hazy recollection that carp were renowned for wisdom in some Asiatic mythologies.)  The fish gives them directions for the next stage of their quest, which, naturally, starts out by taking a tunnel from the underground cavern.

“Clear directions for once.” Badon gave a cheer. “I like it. Onward, up the carpal tunnel!”

Dana wished very much that Badon were physically present. She’d like to throw something solid at him…

 

The Virtues of Puns

So, puns are fun.  Why am I motivated to call them a high form of humor?

I locate the root of humor in incongruity—things don’t fit together as we expect them to—with the proviso that when things do fit together in an unexpected way, more neatly than we would have supposed, that in itself is a kind of incongruity:  as a child might laugh with pleasure in discovering how puzzle pieces make a picture.  Puns fit this basic concept.  When words don’t work the way we anticipated, but make a new whole (the connection between the two meanings) in an entirely different way, we do tend to laugh with glee—unless we’ve been socially conditioned to regard the proper response as a groan, of course.

Puns are clever.  They reward inventiveness and agility of mind.  (In this respect, they share common ground with creative problem-solving and “thinking outside the box.”)  They’re also playful; they take words lightly and turn them topsy-turvy.  We might consider puns and other wordplay as the intellectual equivalent of kids playing on a jungle gym, turning and stretching and going upside-down.

There’s an interpersonal aspect as well.  In chain punning or following a subject, the participants play off each other.  As in other forms of witty banter, one person’s last remark is the jumping-off place for another person’s next remark.  Thus, there’s a certain form of cooperation involved, like that of a volley in tennis—and, just as in the tennis match, an opportunity for one-upmanship and “counting coup” as well.  I love hearing someone else make a good pun, but I can’t deny that I’m also immediately searching for a “Can you top this?” response.

Geniality

Charlie Chaplin's Little TrampThere’s a subtler factor too.  A great deal of humor involves a kind of overt or covert meanness.  Puncturing human dignity and pompousness is a classic formula for humor; but doing so tends to involve some degree of pain or humiliation.  When someone—especially a well-dressed man in a top hat—slips on a banana peel, we laugh at the incongruity but ignore the bruised hip and the embarrassment.  Sophie Kinsella’s romantic comedies are great fun; but they frequently involve her heroines in extraordinarily embarrassing situationsCharlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character combined humor with pathos.

I would not go so far as Michael Valentine Smith, of Stranger in a Strange Land, who finally comprehends the laughter of Earth people as a response to pain (ch. 29):  “I’ve found out why people laugh.  They laugh because it hurts . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”  Pain isn’t essential to laughter; maybe to rueful or ironic humor, but not all humor.  Still, Mike has his finger on this much truth:  humor often does play off pain.

Puns, though, are innocent of this painful aspect.  Only words are harmed or abused.  No people have to be embarrassed for a pun to succeed; it’s only language that gets twisted and skewed and made to do unnatural things.  Even when a pun responds to a “straight line,” it doesn’t normally reflect badly on the previous speaker.  The pun is recognizable as a flight of fancy based on a perfectly innocent phrase, not on the human being who uttered it.  And when people are volleying puns back and forth, each line serves as the straight line for the next flight.  It brings to mind the reference to a nonhuman species of habitual jokesters in David Brin’s The Uplift War (ch. 85):  “To a Tymbrimi, the best jokes were those that caught the joker, as well as everybody else.”

The Downsides

Still, a pun is not always entirely harmless.  The punster’s affectionate ‘abuse of words’ can lead to excess.

For one thing, as with other forms of wordplay, punning requires familiarity with the language.  Wikipedia, discussing the rhetorical use of puns, observes:  “A major difficulty in using puns in this manner is that the meaning of a pun can be interpreted very differently according to the audience’s background and can significantly subtract from a message.”  For the same reason, puns are likely to be untranslatable.  The connections between words, their similarities in sound or written form, will not be the same in another language.  This kind of problem occurs in translation generally, as noted by my critique buddy Blandcorp in a recent blog post.  It affects puns along with all forms of art that depend on the specific nuances of words.

It’s also possible for puns to be abused in social situations.  I learned early on, when I took up punning as an avocation, that simply responding to people’s remarks with a stream of puns wears out its welcome pretty quickly.  (In extreme cases, one might find one’s conversational partners inclined to take punitive measures.)

The reason is that a pun, by its nature, derails the conversation.  It diverts our attention from the meaning of a previous remark to its verbal form.  A momentary side trip of this sort may be entertaining, depending on the context.  But if I keep repeatedly making these side trips, I’m getting in the way of the conversation other people are trying to have.  I would be frustrating those who are trying to talk, because the puns interfere with making sense in the language.

It’s one thing, then, to pause with like-minded friends to engage in a pun war (or pun festival).  In ordinary conversation, though, puns are best used sparingly, like seasoning in a dinner dish.  (A pun out of season goeth before a fall, we might say, or even before a winter of discontent.)

In other words, we should pun with moderation, as in all things—even in the highest form of humor.

Human Extraterrestrials

Introduction

Even though science fiction is often focused on the future, its assumptions are tied to the present.

Aldrin descends from Apollo 11In some respects this is obvious.  A story about the near future can become dated by history itself.  Every SF story prior to 1969 that describes the first moon landing in detail (happy 51st anniversary, last week!) is obsolete.  And every story that predicted a smooth reach out into colonizing the solar system directly after that first landing, unfortunately, is also defunct.  Stories can also be rendered unbelievable by scientific advance:  all the delightful tales based on a habitable Venus or Mars are gone with the, er, vacuum.

But there’s also a subtler way.  Even though F&SF specialize in examining our assumptions about the universe, the assumptions that seem plausible shift over time.  Fashions change.  To take a heartening example:  SF stories from the late 1940s and the 1950s tended to take it for granted that there would shortly be a nuclear world war.  (Hence it’s spot-on characterization when the 1955 version of Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” accepts Marty’s recorded appearance in a hazmat suit as logical because of the “fallout from the atomic wars.”)  But for over seventy years, we’ve managed to avoid that particular catastrophe.

One assumption that’s always intrigued me is whether we are likely to meet people like ourselves—and I mean, exactly like ourselves—on another planet.  If we discovered an Earthlike planet of another sun, might we climb down the ladder from our spaceship to shake hands with a biologically human alien?

Not Really Alien

I’m talking about a “convergent evolution” hypothesis—the notion that the human species might have developed independently more than once.  And, incidentally, the standard biological definition of “species” as “interfertile” (a more precise definition can be found on Wikipedia) is what I’m using here; because, obviously, one of the potential uses of the assumption in a story is to make possible a romance between two characters from different worlds, and romance is not unrelated to sex and reproduction.

The Cometeers coverSo we want to set aside, to begin with, a class of stories in which people from different planets are all human because they have a common ancestry.  For example, in Jack Williamson’s classic space opera The Cometeers (1936), Bob Star finds his true love Kay Nymidee among the human subjects of the decidedly nonhuman masters of an immense assemblage of space-traveling planets, the “comet.”  But the reason there are human beings present is that a research ship from Earth was captured by the Cometeers long ago, and these are the descendants of the crew.

It’s not uncommon for the inheritance to work the other way around.  David Weber’s “Mutineers’ Moon” (1991) starts with the eye-opening assumption that our Moon is actually a long-inert giant spaceship—and reveals that the humanity of Earth is descended from the original crew members of that spaceship.  Thus, it’s perfectly plausible when hero Colin MacIntyre falls for a preserved member of the original crew; they’re from the same stock.  Similarly, in at least the original 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, the human survivors of the “rag-tag fugitive fleet” are human because Earth itself was one of their original colonies, which apparently fell out of touch.

The Era of Planetary Romance

In the early days of modern SF—say, from about 1912 through the 1930s—it was commonly assumed that the answer was yes:  human beings (with minor variations) might be found independently on other planets.  Arguably, this may have been because the early planetary romances—melodramas set on exotic worlds, heavy on adventure and love stories—were less interested in science than in plot devices.  But biology was less advanced in those days; recall that DNA was not identified as the basis of genetic inheritance until 1952.  It’s easy to forget how little we knew about things we take for granted today, even in relatively recent periods.

A classic early case is that of Edgar Rice BurroughsBarsoom.  In A Princess of Mars (1912), Earthman John Carter is transported by obscure means to Mars, called by its inhabitants “Barsoom.”  Those inhabitants include the nonhuman “Green Martians,” but also people identical to humans in several colors, particularly the “Red Martians” among whom Carter finds his lady-love, Dejah Thoris.  As a Red Martian, Dejah is human enough for Carter to mate with, and they have a son, Carthoris, thus meeting the “interfertile” criterion.

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris in John Carter of Mars

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris

To be sure, the biology here is a little mysterious.  Dejah looks entirely human, and even, to borrow a Heinlein phrase, “adequately mammalian” (see, for example, Lynn Collins’ portrayal in the loosely adapted movie John Carter (2012)).  But Martians don’t bear their young as Earth-humans do; they lay eggs, which then develop for ten years before hatching.  It’s not easy to imagine the genetics that could produce viable offspring from an individual whose genes direct live birth and one whose genes result in egg-laying.  But that didn’t stop Burroughs.

E.E. Smith, whose initial SF writing goes back just about as far as that of Burroughs, was willing to accept this trope as well.  In The Skylark of Space (published 1928, but written between 1915 and 1921), our intrepid heroes travel to a planet inhabited by two nations of essentially human people—although the double wedding in the story does not involve any interplanetary romances, but is between two pairs of characters from Earth.  Smith’s later Lensman series (1948-1954), which features one of the most diverse arrays of intelligent creatures in SF, also allows for apparently interfertile humans from a variety of planets.  My impression is that this sort of duplication was also true of some of the nonhuman species in the Lensman unverse—there might be, say, Velantian-types native to planets other than Velantia.

This approach wasn’t universal in old-time SF.  The more scientifically-minded John W. Campbell’s extraterrestrial character Torlos in Islands of Space (1930) was generally humanoid in form, but quite different in makeup:  his iron bones, for instance.  It’s been argued that a roughly humanoid form has some advantages for an intelligent species, and hence that we might find vaguely humanoid aliens on different planets—though this is pure speculation.  But “humanoid” is a far cry from biologically human.

Darkover Landfall coverWe see some persistence of this tradition into the second half of the twentieth century.   Marion Zimmer Bradley’s iconic planet Darkover, for instance (first novel published 1958), is populated by the descendants of Terran humans from a colony ship and also by the elf-like indigenous Chieri, who, despite minor differences like six fingers and golden eyes, not to mention the ability to change sex at will, have interbred with the Terran immigrants.

An interesting variation can be seen in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (first story published in 1981).  When modern humans are sent on a one-way trip into the distant past, they are enslaved by the Tanu, aliens from another galaxy who have settled on Earth.  The story indicates that the Tanu were specifically searching for a place where the local gene pool was similar to theirs—which might also account for why they came all the way from another galaxy (also a somewhat antique trope) to get here.

It’s slightly odd that, even where basically identical human beings turn up on other planets, other animals never seem to be similarly duplicated.  On Burroughs’ Barsoom, one doesn’t ride horses, but thoats; is menaced not by tigers, but by banths; and keeps a calot, not a dog, as a pet.  In a planetary romance or science fantasy setting, one is less likely to see Terran-equivalent fauna than parallel creatures with exotic names and slight differences—whence the SF-writing gaffe “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp” (see TV Tropes and the Turkey City Lexicon).

At the Movies

The all-too-human trope is carried on into the present day in video media—movies and TV.  Again, this may be partly because the science is often subordinated to the plot; but the cost and difficulty of putting convincing nonhuman characters on-screen is surely another factor.  Filmmakers’ ability to depict exotic creatures, however, has changed immensely in the last forty years, to a point where almost any imaginable creature can be created if the budget is sufficient.  Thus, the original Star Trek series of the 1960s stuck largely to slightly disguised humanoid aliens, perhaps relying on the ‘universal humanoid’ hypothesis mentioned above, while later series were able to branch out a bit.  Similarly, the Star Wars movies could readily give us nonhuman characters like Jabba the Hutt, Chewbacca, and C3PO; they, too, grew in variety as the capabilities of CGI and other techniques expanded.

Jupiter Ascending movie posterStill, it may be harder for us to adjust to interactions among characters where we can see their nonhumanity, rather than just reading about it.  So we still tend to see extraterrestrial humans on-screen.  The Kree in Captain Marvel (2019), for example, are indistinguishable from humans—an actual plot point, since this makes it possible for Yon-Rogg to tell Carol that she’s an enhanced Kree rather than a kidnapped human.  The Kree do have blue blood, in the movie; it’s not clear what kind of biological difference (hemocyanin?) might result in that feature.  We also see a number of alien humans in Jupiter Ascending (2015), though I think of that tale as a deliberate throwback to pulpish science fantasy or planetary romance.

A Match Made in Space, fictional coverI keep wanting to cite the fictional novel written by George McFly as shown in the closing scenes of Back to the Future, “A Match Made in Space,” since the cover seems to suggest an interplanetary romance (and one thinks of George as a nerdy romantic); but it isn’t actually clear whether that’s the case.  All we have to go on is the title and the cover, and that could just as easily depict a match between two humans, fostered by an alien matchmaker (or vice versa).

The Modern Era

We don’t see nearly as many extraterrestrial humans in modern SF, and for good reason.

The more we understand about genetics, the less likely it seems that another human species, so closely similar as to be interfertile, could evolve independently.  What we know about evolution suggests that there are just too many random chances along the way—cases where the prevailing mutations might have turned out differently.  Even if we assume that humanoid form is probable, why not have six fingers, or hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin?  While I’m not well enough educated in biology to venture any actual probabilities, I think our growing sense of the complexity of the human body and its workings, over the last seventy years or so, has simply made it seem vanishingly unlikely that an independently evolved intelligence would come out that close to the human genotype.

For example, the scientifically-minded Arthur C. Clarke depicted a galaxy in which each intelligent species, including humans, was unique:  The City and the Stars (1956, developed from an earlier story published in 1948).  In one of the unused story fragments he wrote while working on 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), his hero, well along on his journey into mystery, thinks:

He did not hesitate to call them people, though by the standards of Earth they would have seemed incredibly alien.  But already, his standards were not those of Earth; he had seen too much, and realized by now that only a few times in the whole history of the Universe could the fall of the genetic dice have produced a duplicate of Man.  The suspicion was rapidly growing in his mind—or had something put it there?—that he had been sent to this place because these creatures were as close an approximation as could readily be found to Homo sapiens, both in appearance and in culture.  (Clarke, The Lost Worlds of 2001, ch. 39, p. 220)

Contemporary SF writers who are really adept at building interesting and coherent aliens—David Brin and Becky Chambers, to name two of the best—give us a wide range of wildly exotic creatures from other planets, but not humans.

The Uplift War, coverIf we are still fond of the idea of interplanetary romance, we might find a possible work-around in the shapeshifter.  The Tymbrimi female Athaclena in Brin’s The Uplift War (1987) uses her species’ unusual abilities to adjust her appearance closer to that of a human female—but of course she has an entirely different genetic heritage, as that ability itself demonstrates.  The result wouldn’t meet our criterion of interfertility, no matter how close the similarity in physical structure.  To adjust one’s genes in the same way would be another order of change altogether.

Starman movie posterThe 1984 movie Starman, in a way, plays off this idea.  The alien in this case is apparently an entity made of pure energy, without a physical structure of its own.  Using hair from the female lead’s deceased husband, it creates a new body with a human genetic structure.  The two do, eventually, prove to be interfertile.  If we’re willing to accept the notion of an energy being in the first place, this approach is actually more plausible than, say, mating with the oviparous Dejah Thoris.

If one were writing a SF story today, it would be rash to assume that Earthborn characters could run across independently evolved humans elsewhere.  The idea may not be entirely inconceivable.  But it’s out of fashion for good reasons.  Attractive as the notion of interplanetary romance may be, at this point we’d best confine it to the kind of case noted above, where some common ancestry—no matter how far-fetched—can account for the common humanity.

Happily Ever After

Six weeks ago I complained about the lack of happily-ever-after romances in the Star Wars series.  It occurred to me that it would be useful to take a look at what exactly makes for a “happy ever after” ending (“HEA” in genre romance code).  What do we really mean by that, anyway?

The Thrill of the Chase

All the world loves a lover.”  We enjoy seeing stories about people falling in love, whether it’s with someone they’ve just met or by discovering someone who was always “right before my eyes.”  (Unless, of course, we’re too cynical to give any credence to so vulgar and sentimental an idea; in which case it’s the trope we love to hate.)  I’d call it the courtship phase of a relationship, if that term weren’t so archaic.  But “courtship” does express in a useful way the stage I’m referring to, when the lovers-to-be are maneuvering around each other, trying to figure each other out, and (almost invariably, in fiction) overcoming initial obstacles to their mutual attraction.

Couple silhouetted against sunset

“Forever Mine” by welshdragon at DeviantArt

It’s not hard to see why this is.  The courtship phase includes a lot of fun stuff.  We get to see the thrill of discovery, the novelty, the tentative reaching-out and missing connections, the achievement of initially establishing a base of trust and affection.  There’s uncertainty and thus suspense in those first contacts.  The process reminds me of the “handshaking” by which communications systems establish a protocol for exchange of information (anybody remember that windy ‘modem connecting’ sound on a dial-up connection?).

And this process is both tricky and essential.  The relationship can’t move forward until the common foundation is established.  I’ve quoted Lois McMaster Bujold before:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not “Do these two people get together?” but rather “Can I trust you?”  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.  (Response to a reader question on Goodreads (10/30/2017).)

And the relationship does have to move forward.  Courtship is only a prelude.  It inherently looks forward to something else:  a life together.  (Even to “forever,” but that’s another subject.)  We feel something is missing in a case like that of Romeo and Juliet, where circumstances cheat the lovers of that opportunity.

Falling in love is fun to watch.  But if that’s all a character is interested in, we get the self-centered thrill addict who keeps wanting to have the same experience over and over again—as if they wanted to relive high school graduation repeatedly, Groundhog Day-style.  We can’t fall in love indefinitely; eventually we have to land somewhere.  Whether the story ends with a wedding or just a commitment, there has to be a conclusion.

Yet the conclusion itself is only the kickoff for the real relationship—the HEA.  “Each happy ending’s a brand new beginning.”

What It Isn’t

“Happily ever after” doesn’t mean the initial thrill of falling in love lasts forever.  That simply isn’t possible; human emotions can’t remain at that fever pitch.  At some point, the “dizzy dancing way you feel” is going to ebb.  If we expect to feel the same way always, as I’ve just noted, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and unnecessary disillusion.  On the other hand, that thrill can always reappear from time to time.  Wise couples will take steps to encourage and renew that early glamour throughout their marriage.

Couple dancing, from Dancing in the Minefields music videoNor does HEA mean freedom from all troubles.  We can put this aside momentarily to celebrate a wedding, visualizing only a life of unimpeded bliss; but real lives invariably encounter problems and difficulties.  We may even want to remind ourselves of this on the occasion of union itself.  When I ran across Emily Hearn’s wedding video online, I was struck by the fact that the first piece of music set to the video was Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields”:  “And it was harder than we dreamed / But I believe that’s what the promise is for.”

Even the vision of a couple facing adversity staunchly side by side isn’t always going to be valid.  We’re told that even healthy couples have their arguments and disagreements.  Indeed, a couple that never disagrees may be harboring unresolved issues under the surface.

It seems to me that all these flaws or troubles can still be accommodated in the “happily ever after” archetype.  Couples can recover from adversity; it can make them stronger.  Even crises in a lifelong love affair can be healed or overcome.  It’s the overall trend or direction, and the overall tenor of the romance, that leads us to call it “happy.”  Of course, when we wish someone happiness forever, we hope that their troubles will be relatively few and their recoveries maximally joyous.  But a life together need not be perfect to be “happy.”

What It Is

If the ever-after need not be perpetual bliss to count as HEA, what is it made up of?  I am hardly so wise as to prescribe sure-fire ingredients for a happy marriage.  But if we think about what we’d expect to see in a story that depicted a happy couple, we can point to a few things.

Carly Simon singing The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of at Martha's Vineyard

Carly Simon sings “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”

If it’s going to compete with the initial falling in love, being in love has to gain in depth and resonance what it loses in surface intensity and thrill.  It’s “the slow and steady fire.”

What can a couple that’s been together a while do that lovers who’ve just met can’t?  Consider the cumulative pleasures and joys of two people who know each other well and have learned how to please and help each other.  If they continue faithful to each other and to their union, their mutual trust will grow and deepen.  And the more they trust each other, the more each can express their individual strengths (and admit their individual weaknesses).

Since loving someone doesn’t consist only in having a feeling about them, but in enacting love for them, we can learn to love someone better through experience and attentive learning.  I may start by giving you a gift I would like—but eventually I learn how to give you the gift you would like.  Meanwhile, the sharing of memories and experiences, families, running jokes, can enrich and strengthen the bond.

All these things are compatible with the imperfections and difficulties noted above.  They make up what we’d expect to see, down the road, in a story that goes beyond the courtship—a happy-ever-after.

How We Tell the Story

Because the HEA lacks the surface glitter of the falling-in-love story, we see far fewer stories depicting it.  But for purposes of example and illumination, it’s very useful to see depictions of ongoing marriages.

Such mature romances can crop up in odd places.  For example, in a series that goes on beyond the resolution of initial relationships, or perhaps longer than the author expected, we may see the original lovers ‘age out’ of the focus, but still have the chance to watch them practice the art of love.

Shards of Honor coverExhibit A is Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  The first two books in the main sequence, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, deal with Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, whose son, Miles, is the principal character in most of the stories.  So we see Cordelia and Aral fall in love—but then we see them continue through a whole series of other tales as both parents and political prime movers on Miles’ homeworld of Barrayar.  We get to see them working together in common causes, both personal and cosmic.  We see their continuing affection and evident harmony.  Each is so distinctive a personality that we never think of either Aral or Cordelia as merely an extension of the other; rather, they provide an ongoing example of the kind of relationship we wanted to see in their initial stories—and to which Miles aspires for himself, having that example always before him.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern give us another example.  In the first book (as published, not chronologically), Dragonflight, we see the rocky road of the strong-willed main characters, Lessa and F’lar, to love.  Both of them are so stubborn and willful that it’s hard to picture them in a peaceful marriage.  And indeed, on Pern, nothing is ever entirely peaceful for long.  But as more couples come and go through the long series of sequels, F’lar and Lessa remain onstage a good bit of the time.  Neither is ever tamed, though they both mellow a bit.  The scrappy young Lessa becomes a little steadier and more mature as she gets older and has a child, but she still retains the original fire.

I frequently refer to the classic Lensman series, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the final novel, Children of the Lens, shows us the lovers whose activities dominated the three middle books, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall, as middle-aged parents a generation later.  The story is so action-oriented that we don’t get to see much of the family in peace, but what we do see gives us the satisfaction of knowing that Kim and Cris have lived a happy life together (and will continue to do so).  And since the surclimax (if I may invent a word for a secondary climax occurring after the main one) involves Clarissa’s use of the power of their mutual love to retrieve Kim from an otherwise unsolvable trap, it’s clear that the romantic connection consummated at the wedding in the previous volume (twenty years earlier) has not lost its fire.

Second Spring coverAndrew Greeley wrote a whole series of novels in which the romance is generally about falling in love.  But in his O’Malley family saga, in which the titles all refer to seasons (of life), he continues the story of one such couple from the post-WWII era right through their “Golden Years.”  The young lovers of A Midwinter’s Tale have to grapple with some pretty serious psychological issues themselves, as well as family drama, over the course of years.  But the “crazy O’Malleys” emerge stronger from their troubles as they go on, giving us a picture of people who are always becoming more themselves as they adjust to changing circumstances.

God is an Englishman coverThere is a subgenre of family sagas—the kinds of long-running, multicharacter stories that always make me think of TV mini-series—and some of these also give us extended looks at maturing romances.  In some such stories, the conflicts arise from the dysfunctionality of the family itself; Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna novels are a case in point.  But in others, we can see a couple holding strong.  I recently reread R.F. Delderfield’s God Is An Englishman, the first book of his “Swann saga.”  His central couple, Adam and Henrietta, grow in significant ways over the course of the story.  Their love waxes and wanes, but after it wanes, it always comes back.  I’d count that as a HEA.

The novella I’m just finishing up, Time Signature, takes place in the Deerbourne Inn common setting created by the Wild Rose Press.  This gave me the chance to show how a secondary couple who were engaged in Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace was getting along, a little later.  While their appearance is brief, I enjoyed the opportunity to represent a growing post-courtship romance, even in its early years.

Real Life

For purposes of inspiration and example, of course it’s even more helpful to be acquainted with real-life successful relationships.  My parents, for instance, lived long and happy lives, and despite religious and political differences, they always remained in harmony.  Though they argued about many subjects, they never, so far as I know, quarreled.  While their lives could not be said to be untroubled (after all, I was one of their children), I’d say they qualified as a happy-ever-after.  I’m privileged to know a number of other couples whose romances have flourished over many years, on whom I’d be glad to bestow the accolade of HEA.

The accumulation of such real and fictional examples gives us the wherewithal to refute those who scoff at the happily-ever-after ending.  None of the characters of our favorite romances will have perfect later lives unmarred by any suffering or any down times in their love affairs.  But if we’re willing to accept that solid happiness can be consistent with life’s inevitable troubles, we can look forward with hope to a satisfactory ending for those couples who approach their lives with both realism and love.

Preferred Atrocities

One might suppose that people would write stories in which a society followed their preferred points of view.  We would see socialists writing about the peaceful harmony of the commune, libertarians about collections of sturdy self-reliant individuals, feminists about places where women were ascendant, or at least equal.

Handmaid's Tale coverBut The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t written by a man.

More often than not, authors seem to write about the opposite of what they appear to prefer.  Their heroes and heroines struggle against epic oppression by regimes of exactly the type the author finds most atrocious.

Evidently, we love stories about the things we hate.

Dystopias Made to Order

Just as our views about good and bad character influence the kinds of people we see as heroes, our views about good and bad societies influence the systems we create—in the negative.

Thus, in 1985 Margaret Atwood writes about a near future in which a theocratic revolution in the United States takes the oppression of women to unprecedented levels—the worst cast for a feminist.  A robust agnostic like Robert A. Heinlein depicts a revolt against another type of theocracy in the 1940 novella If This Goes On— (though putting it that way vastly oversimplifies the relationship between Heinlein and his stories).  Anti-collectivist libertarian Ayn Rand gives us a society in which even first-person pronouns have been eliminated with the novella Anthem (1938)—and the America of Atlas Shrugged (1957), while not yet so extreme, is tending in that direction.

The Mercenary coverIn the second section of Jerry Pournelle’s The Mercenary (1988), John Christian Falkenberg’s mercenary army is hired to help maintain order on the planet Hadley, where Earth’s “Bureau of Relocation” has dumped job lots of involuntary “colonists” with few skills and no will to work.  The result is a classic welfare-state nightmare.  In the climactic sequence, the bad apples have all concentrated themselves in a self-appointed constitutional convention in a stadium, seizing power and essentially enslaving the technicians who keep the colony running.  When this self-serving mob initiates violent resistance against the nominal government, Falkenberg orders his troops to secure the stadium.  The mob attacks after refusing to heed warnings—and the troops systematically slaughter all the armed attackers who will not surrender.

The way Pournelle tells the story, the reader is wholly sympathetic to the “mercenaries” and feels righteous satisfaction when the tables are finally turned on the antagonists.  The cumulative misdeeds of the mob are what give us the sense that the last-resort violent countermeasures are justified.

There may even be examples of preferential atrocities in the young adult dystopias that currently spread across the landscape.  The common element in The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and perhaps The Maze Runner is that likable teenagers are cruelly oppressed by sinister adults.  Societies in which young adults are subjected to the arbitrary and exacting rule of hostile grown-ups might be considered to constitute the anti-ideal for teenagers—the characteristic dystopia.

The Appeal of the Atrocious

If we ask why so many writers depict worlds entirely at odds with their own (or their audience’s) preferences, one simple answer is that utopias are notoriously boring.  A story requires conflict.  And, once we’ve defined what makes our heroes virtuous, the obvious opponent is their opposite—depicted in as extreme a way as possible.

But I think there are also other factors at work.

We could perhaps write a story about defending a utopia against attack, rather than attacking a dystopia.  But it’s easier to depict something that’s obviously noxious than to show how a really well-working society would go.  Destroying is easy; building is hard.  If the bad guys are sufficiently bad, we may never have to wonder about, say, exactly what kind of reformed society the Rebel Alliance would put into place after defeating Darth Vader’s Empire.  (To its credit, the Hunger Games series does provide some hints at the end about the pitfalls of establishing a better successor regime—although, again, more by showing how the revolution could go wrong than by showing it going right.)

OrcsMore important, it’s easier to engage our emotions by showing how bad the bad guys are.  Personally, I am even more moved by awe at the acts of heroism and virtue; but rousing our outrage against evils may be more visceral.  In a dystopic story, the despicable practices or institutions of the society justify our hatred of the antagonists.

It’s hard to overstate the adrenaline rush of righteous anger.  It’s seductive.  When a storyteller takes the despised behavior of the oppressive society to an extreme, they allow us to imagine, and desire, the equally extreme response.  Shoot ’em all down!  Blow up the Death Star!  No quarter!

From Story to Fact

This is one of the places where the stories we tell extend their reach out into the real world.  If we get too attached to that defiant rush, we may be more susceptible to the possibility of finding it in reality.  The prospect of being forced to ultimate measures is appalling—but there’s also a certain thrill.  What if the apocalypse is finally here?  We can finally abandon restraint and pull out all the stops!

Of course, there genuinely are times “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary” to take extreme measures.  There are always two ways of going wrong.  We may be too rash and rush to extremes; but we may also be too complacent.  Either way may involve, in part, a failure of imagination.  It’s one kind of failure not to recognize the anti-ideal when it genuinely begins to happen.  But the other kind is to pounce on every sign that our favorite stories—the ones with the atrocities we despise—are coming true.  It’s when we prematurely think we see this in real life that the stories in the back of our heads become dangerous.

Image of old piano with rose petals

Image by SeaReeds from Pixabay

Extreme measures need to be kept to a true last resort, because civilization is more fragile than it seemsWe cannot lightly throw away the rule of law.  If we do, the result is likely to be worse than the original problem.  We need to keep that essential idea firmly in view, even in difficult circumstances—including those where the rule of law itself is being violated and needs to be reasserted and reawakened.

There is no substitute for thinking things through, with care and determination.  The adrenaline rush so familiar from our favorite stories can’t be allowed to keep us from drawing the right lines, at the right times, in the right places.  If we are too complacent, or too belligerent, we may simply be lending ourselves to making someone else’s preferred atrocity come true—and earning their equally extreme resistance.  That isn’t the kind of resolution we need.