Books About Building

Conflict and Challenge

The “conflict” we expect in a story can take many forms.  External, internal; protagonists against themselves, against other people, against nature, against society.  If you grew up on adventure stories, as I did, you may tend to focus on showy external struggles—wars and battles.  (Explosions!!)  Even more so if your formative reading included comic books:  the first question for a new issue was always, who is Spider-Man fighting this month?—even if there might be more long-term interest in the issue’s developments regarding Spidey’s love life or character development.

But in some stories, or parts of stories, the focus is on building or making something, rather than fighting something.  The underlying engine of such a story might better be called challenge than “conflict”—a struggle to achieve some definite end product, rather than to defeat an adversary.  It’s a sort of engineering story, rather than a crisis—although there may be crises along the way.

Bob the Builder

We Are Legion coverAlmost every possible kind of conflict can be found in Dennis Taylor’s “Bobiverse” science fiction novels:  We are Legion (We are Bob), For We Are Many, All These Worlds (2016-2017).  (Looking them up, I’m pleased to see a new sequel, Heaven’s River, is now out in audiobook form.)  The series touches on a whole range of SF tropes, from first contact to space war to ecological catastrophe.

Bob Johansson, software magnate, dies in the 21st century and wakes up a hundred years later as a sapient computer program, intended to be the guiding intelligence of an interstellar probe, like a computerized version of Jerome Corbell in Niven’s A World Out of Time.  Once under way, however, Bob strikes out on his own, becoming involved with rival probes from another country, the evacuation of a failing Earth, and (eventually) honest-to-goodness aliens.  His probe is equipped with 3-D printers and other gear that allows him to “clone” himself—build new ships run by copies of the Bob program.  Each Bob instance takes a new name and, once running independently, develops a slightly different personality.  Hence the book titles:  we eventually have a whole armada of Bob spaceships, single-handedly—if that’s the right description—planting new human colonies and conducting interstellar wars.

But you don’t bootstrap your way into an armada overnight.  A good bit of the story, especially in the early parts, requires Bob to balance multiple demands.  How much of his productive capacity should be directed to manufacturing new Bobs, and how much to hunting down dangerous opponents?  Or transporting human refugees to new worlds?  To make matters more interesting, some of the Bobs specialize in research, coming up with new scientific discoveries that need to be engineered and adapted for others’ use—as time, transport, and communications permit.

Part of the fascination involves how Bob gradually builds up a sort of interstellar network of cooperating AI ships.  (Of course they cooperate; they’re all Bob.  Sort of.)  How he does this, what difficulties and complications he runs into, is as intriguing as the more exotic or action-oriented sequences.  It’s very cool to see one lone intelligent probe gradually develop into an entire star-spanning civilization.

Building Ships and Planets

Rissa Kerguelen coverF.M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen books (1976)—published in various combinations—are the saga of a young woman who starts out as an enslaved orphan under a vicious tyranny on Earth, and ends by bringing back a space fleet to overthrow the tyranny.  She allies herself (both militarily and maritally) with the equally formidable Bran Tregare and the Hulzein family, who share that goal.

When I say “space fleet,” I’m not talking about thousands of massive ships.  This is a bunch of modest-sized spacecraft manned by an assemblage of quirky, anarchic individuals—more like a Star Wars rebel fleet than an Honor Harrington space navy.  Much of the middle section of the story is taken up with the long-term preparations needed for the eventual battles.  Rissa and Tregare redesign and refit their stolen spaceships for combat; pull together the aforesaid individualists into a functional fighting group; and gradually, cautiously, get to know and love each other, after a battleground marriage for political purposes.  That simultaneous slow build of machinery, financing, and relationships is as engrossing as Rissa’s initial escape from the “Total Welfare” system or the ultimate invasion of Earth.  Even the engineering problems, solved in the context of these budding relationships, hold my interest throughout.

Or take Heinlein’s juvenile novel Farmer in the Sky (1950).  Teenaged Bill Lermer emigrates with his family to Ganymede, which is being terraformed into a habitable site for Earthly settlers.  The big moon is completely barren, devoid of life.  The “terraforming” involves not just big technology, like the atmosphere plant and heat trap, but also the creation of soil suitable for farming, inch by inch.  Rock has to be ground into soil, then seeded with Terrestrial microbes, earthworms, and the like, before the first crop can be planted.  This process, which Bill sees at ground level—he’s a farmer-to-be, not a planner or engineer—is endlessly fascinating, though no doubt the details would differ if the book were written today, with seventy years’ more knowledge about the solar system.  It left me with an abiding sense of how complex the web of geological and biological factors really is, underlying something so seemingly simple as dirt farming.

Building a Business

Not that you have to go to Ganymede to find a narrative about constructing something new.  I recently mentioned R.F. Delderfield’s “Swann saga.”  The hero (and the heroine) here are building up something apparently mundane:  a trucking business, using the newfangled horseless carriages, to connect the railroad network to the small towns and hamlets of Victorian England.  The characters tumble in and out of various conflicts, but the underlying thrust of the story is about the growth of a business.  We see its material factors—vehicles, storehouses, roadways, Adam Swann’s unique organizational planning gizmo—but, more importantly, the varied people whose talents and peculiarities contribute to the success of the whole operation.  Building a business enterprise can be as rewarding as building a spaceship—or a planet.

Working Girl, Tess at conference tableOccasionally this kind of constructive work also crops up in a modern corporate context.  My catalogue of movie favorites contains only two stories I can think of that convey some of the excitement—the romance (in both senses of the word)—of big business.  The Secret of My Success (1987), with Michael J. Fox and Helen Slater, is mostly a knockabout farce, but we do respond to the infectious enthusiasm of Fox’s character.  What makes him more engaging than the other “suits” is that he’s excited about the idea of serving customers and making a productive business grow.  Similarly, in Working Girl (1988), we’re mostly taken up in the plucky struggles of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill to break the glass ceiling of the secretarial pool; but we can also admire the artistry and accomplishment of the radio broadcasting merger deal she puts together.

Castaways and Escapes

Construction in the midst of a crisis can become an epic in itself.  In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide (1933), much of the story is taken up with the desperate challenges the protagonists must overcome as they race against time to build the spaceship that will enable them to escape Earth’s destruction.  (Pay no attention to the 1951 movie version, which is a catastrophe in its own right.)

When Worlds Collide coverThe oncoming disaster adds dramatic tension to an effort that would be heroic even if it were undertaken without that threat in view.  We see the thousand dedicated people of Cole Hendron’s “cantonment” working on the massive project; striving to obtain the necessary resources as civilization begins to crumble around them; making the scientific breakthrough they need to control atomic energy for their engines; defending the ship against attacks by mobs reverted to barbarism; and rejoicing in immense relief when they find they can construct a second ship that will allow all of them, not just a fraction, to escape Earth’s doom.  Even the momentary pauses to describe the design of the ship, or the careful preparations to take along the necessary plants, animals, and knowledge to recreate Earthly life on the new world, are engrossing in the context of the mighty achievement.  In fact, after all this build-up, the actual brief space-flight is almost an anticlimax.

The whole subgenre of castaway or “desert island” stories almost automatically incorporates themes of making and building, often by ingenious improvisation.  In an earlier post I mentioned Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), a childhood favorite of mine, and Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955).  Disney fans may recall the impressive treehouse of the Swiss Family Robinson movie (1960), faithfully re-created at Disney parks.  In more modern renditions such as Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Castaway Planet series, the main characters are similarly involved in carving out a place to live in an otherwise uninhabited locale.

Resources and Technology

Civilization VI screenshotThe interest of stories like these is akin to the way we enjoy playing certain kinds of games, those with a “resource management” feature.  I am, for example, perpetually fascinated with Sid Meier’s famous Civilization games.  In managing a selected civilization throughout its history, we can get into wars with other “civs,” whether they are run by the computer or (in some versions) by another human player.  But war is not essential to winning the game, as it is in chess.  Exploration, the founding of new cities, and scientific development are vital, and offer other ways to win.  While the danger of war with other cultures adds an important spice to the game, I find I’m more interested in discovering new places and developing a well-functioning culture.

Similar features can be found in other popular video games—Starcraft, Warcraft (but not World of Warcraft, which is a role-playing game), Settlers of Catan.  Even the venerable Monopoly fits this description to some extent.  To the extent to which these games are focused on winning, we do engage in a conflict; we seek a higher score than our competitors achieve.  But sometimes it’s a relief to play a game that doesn’t directly involve fighting.

I mentioned scientific development in connection with Civilization.  Researching how to make new sorts of units and improvements is crucial to that game.  (By contrast, in Monopoly all we need to build houses and hotels is money, and monopolies.)  Stories about building frequently involve playing out the consequences of a new technology, if only because new tech opens new opportunities and hence new fields for development.

The Ring Of Charon coverOld-time space operas sometimes touched on this factor, but tended to short-cut the extensive work of implementing a new technology in favor of getting directly to the action.  E.E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne (1965), last of the Skylark tetralogy, alludes briefly in chapter 8 to the impact on Earthly industry of the fantastic scientific advances in the previous volumes.  But those changes hardly have an impact on the story.  We see a slightly more gradual and plausible development in a couple of books from Roger MacBride Allen, The Ring of Charon (1990) and The Shattered Sphere (1994), where a newly discovered artificial gravity technique gets put to use in progressively more advanced ways.  Even the Delderfield Swann series mentioned above is based on the new opportunities created in the 19th Century by railroads and the internal-combustion engine.

Blessed are the Peaceful Makers

The peculiar enjoyment of stories about building comes, I think, partly from the sense we share with the characters of accomplishing something.  The action of the story is constructive rather than destructive.

Granted, we’re perfectly willing to applaud destruction too, in a good cause.  (Take that, Death Star!)  And stories of violent conflict are perfectly suited to give us edge-of-the-seat thrills that are harder to come by in narratives of making.  Still, we don’t always want an adrenaline rush all the time.  It can be quietly satisfying when we don’t have to focus on winning a war, or on the danger of losing something dear to us and the desperation of defending it.

Witness house raising sceneThe satisfaction of successful making came up in a post last Christmas about the appeal of concreteness, whether in baking cookies or in building ships (as in the denouement of Pretty Woman).  Both construction and destruction are sometimes necessary:  “A time to build up, a time to break down.”  But building responds to a different facet of our humanity than destroying.  A good story may speak to one or the other, or to both.



In America, we have a presidential and congressional election coming up in November.  I want to take a moment out to incite every American to vote.

Every now and then, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of first principles.  In a democratic polity—a “republic” in the sense used in American law and political theory—the people of the polity govern themselves.  (Please note that these terms are “small d” democracy and “small r” republic.)  The way we do this, in a representative government, is to elect representatives.  Since those representatives make most decisions as to law and government, voting in elections is the primary way in which we govern ourselves.  It’s kind of a big deal.

The Crucial Hero(es)

In America, voter turnouts, even in presidential elections, tend to be relatively low.  Why would people skip their key chance to take charge of their government?  I suspect much of this failure to take part in governing ourselves stems from a combination of things:  inertia (it takes some little trouble to register and vote), plus a pervasive sense that my one vote doesn’t affect the outcome.  Why make the effort if it doesn’t matter?

The logical flaw in this understandable attitude is that things can matter in the aggregate, even if any one item is not the sole decisive element that changes the outcome.

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum deliver the virus in Independence Day (the movie)The stories that inspire us, and help form our attitudes, tend to undermine this recognition and subliminally support our reluctance to participate.  A story is more dramatic if everything comes down to the actions of one, or a few, people.  If James Bond doesn’t pull off this next stunt, the World Will Come To An End.  Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, alone, deliver the computer virus that takes down the mother ship in Independence Day, which conveniently disables all the rest; the entire tension of the plot is funneled through that one bottleneck, as it were.  A few superheroes save the universe—well, half of it—in the Avengers movies.  In Netflix’s just-released Enola Holmes movie (mild spoiler), the heroine’s actions save the one person who casts the deciding vote on a British reform act.  We love this trope.

The desire to make everything come down to a few people’s desperate actions can even warp the adaptation of a story.  A number of small, but annoying, changes in the plot of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies seem to stem from a tendency to have every crucial point depend on the actions of the nine members of the Fellowship.  For example, in the books, the Ents meet and decide the time has come to attack Isengard.  In the movies, the Ents decide not to act—until Pippin and Merry maneuver Treebeard to where he can see Saruman’s wanton destruction of the forests (on the absurd assumption that the Shepherd of the Trees didn’t know about that already).

Pippin lights the beaconIn the books, Denethor sensibly sends a messenger from Minas Tirith to Rohan to call for help.  But the movies leave it to Gandalf and Pippin to fire up a beacon that transmits the call to Rohan.  (The fact that the lighting of the beacons is one of the most terrific scenes in the whole series doesn’t entirely mitigate the plot diversion.)  When the Corsair ships sailing up the Great River to Minas Tirith turn out to contain relief for the city rather than further invaders, the movie makes this just Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, along with the faceless army of the Dead—rather than a whole array of human reinforcements from South Gondor, as in the books.

Aggregates and Bottlenecks

But when we return to the mundane world, we have to put aside this tempting way of telling a story.  We don’t often see this pattern of world-saving heroic acts.  We find instead that crucial changes depend on the combined actions of innumerable people, all doing the right (or wrong) things.

Milo Manara honors heroic women

Milo Manara honors heroic women

The present moment can provide us a heightened appreciation of these unnoticed individual actions.  The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic saw an outpouring of support rightly directed to the unsung heroes—doctors and nurses and medical technicians, grocery store clerks, people who make toilet paper—unsung because they are too many to spotlight individually.  (Although individual acts of appreciation are still a just way to honor those continuing acts of undemonstrative service.)  Indeed, everyone has to act in concert if the pandemic is to be contained.

Peter Jackson’s Gandalf gets the underlying point right in one of the Hobbit movies:

I have found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps [sic] the darkness at bay.  Simple acts of kindness and love.  (The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey (2012), at about 1:42)

We must all be heroes now.

Of course, going in and making some marks on a piece of paper doesn’t feel much like heroism—even less so than wearing a facemask.  Perhaps it feels a little more dramatic when we’re braving the chance of coronavirus infection to cast our ballots.  And if that way of viewing our action as a daring deed spurs us to act, by all means indulge!

But in this kind of case, the only way to achieve anything is by small actions, each of which contributes to a whole.  The entire set makes a difference; but there can’t be an entire set unless there are individual acts.  In voting, as in picking up one’s trash, or in the innumerable actions that make up a free market, we must carry out the individual actions to produce the aggregate effect.

Turning the Tide in Real Life

If we need further encouragement, we can look to the additional fact that even one vote, or a few, can sometimes make the crucial difference.

Virginia Board of Elections draws lots to decide tied electionRight here in Virginia, we had an election in 2017 that resulted in a literal tie:  an equal number of votes for each candidate.  A purely random action had to be used to break the tie.  “Each candidate’s name was placed in a film canister; those were then placed into a bowl and one name was drawn.”  (NPR, 1/4/2018)

Even a few votes, even one, can make the critical difference, as recounted here and here—notably including “the year 2000 U.S. presidential election, decided by a few hundred votes in the state of Florida”  (Jared Diamond, Collapse:  How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), “Further Readings” for ch. 16, p. 556)  Over and above my contribution to the whole, I cannot know in advance whether my vote might not be, in fact, the deciding factor in a hotly contested election.

Moreover, even if the outcome of an election might be clear without my vote, adding to the total is not pointless.  In today’s atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, the clearer and more decisive the result, the less opportunity there will be to cast doubt on the results.  Every vote added to the total reduces the number of people who will be convinced that the results are false, and thus directly supports the rule of law.

This concern also bears on the notion of voting for a third-party candidate.  In the upcoming election, many people may be sufficiently dissatisfied with both major parties to be motivated to cast their ballots for a third-party contender.  It might feel virtuous to spurn both parties and “vote one’s conscience” in favor of a candidate who cannot win.  But in practice, that action will only serve to make the results less clear, at a time when clarity is vitally needed.


Voting is much trickier—even perhaps a heroic act, as noted above—in these pandemic times.  Nevertheless, there are avenues available by which all of us can safely exercise the franchise.

Drop box for ballotsFor my own locality in Virginia, here’s a guide to voting early, voting by mail, and voting on Election Day.  The local paper has a Web site on How to Vote, by state; I haven’t researched that reference in detail, but it may be useful.  Here are three articles on drop boxes for ballots.

I urge every eligible voter to take part in this crucial action of self-government.  Unless you’re actually in the hospital in a coma (or the like), there’s no excuse not to participate.

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.


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


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.