What's funny? What isn't? And why do I never get a laugh when I tell that joke about the moose?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Robert Heinlein is Funny, Dammit! (Part 1)

These days, Robert Heinlein is probably best known as the author of Starship Troopers. It’s a science fiction novel that spawned a tremendously popular—and tremendously stupid movie—and an even stupider (though thankfully not as popular) sequel.

Those who know science fiction a little bit know him as a somewhat controversial figure—rather right-wing, possibly libertarian, with some funky ideas about citizenship and revolution.

Of course, that’s assuming that you can always equate a writer with his writing: I doubt that Ray Bradbury actually advocates setting fire to books, for example.

Those who have read his stuff know that Heinlein won four Hugo Awards (the science fiction equivalent of the Oscar); was arguably the first to create a Future History of humanity; invented the waterbed and the cell phone; and incidentally wrote some of the best science fiction (for both adults and kids) of the 20th century.

Okay, I’m a Heinlein fan. (Also, he looked surprisingly like my late uncle Herbert..)

I certainly don’t need to laud Mr. Heinlein’s accomplishments. I would like to point out that, in passing, he provided one of the single most important pieces of advice ever offered to a professional writer. When writing for pay, he has a character state, always leave a mistake for the editor to fix—if an editor doesn’t find something to change, he gets frustrated, the character says. “Besides, once he pees on it, he likes the flavor better, and he buys it.”

I wanted to bring up something ELSE he did in his writing, which has some little bearing on The Awkward Silence. In the course of his science fiction writing, Robert Heinlein took up the topic of: What is Funny? Not once, but a couple of times.

In his award winning novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein posits a highly sophisticated computer that, In his words, “wakes up” and becomes self aware.

The computer, nicknamed “Mike”, also begins to develop a sense of humor….printing out a check for several million billion dollars—to be drawn on the local government—to watch the results. The computer also analyzes the several hundred thousand riddles in its memory bank and creates his own:

Q: Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?

A: Because neither one can whistle.

Which, as Mike’s human friend Mannie admits, is no worse than your average riddle. Mike and Mannie decide to investigate the nature of humor—first establishing that there are several categories of jokes: those that aren’t funny at all; those that are funny once (generally involving a surprise of some sort); and those that are funny always.

Our humor researchers are unable to find a definition for “What is Funny?” that suits them, so they decide to research by example: Mannie will listen to jokes from Mike, and tell him what category HE thinks the joke belongs in. (The do draft a woman into the conversation to gain a second perspective.)

Their research doesn’t get very far, however, because Heinlein is actually telling a different story entirely: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is actually a rousing (and surprisingly accurate) retelling of the American Revolution in a science fiction setting.

Anyway, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is definitely worth a read (or a reread) just for Heinlein’s thoughts on the nature of humor. It’s a topic he turned to again in Stranger In a Strange Land, about which more another time.

In the meantime, remember: In space, no one can hear the Awkward Silence.


  1. Heinlein supposedly also gave perhaps the single most destructive (to third parties) piece of advice to a professional writer, when he told him "You'll never make money writing. If you want to make money, start a religion." The writer in question was one Lafayette Ronald Hubbard.

  2. Actually, _I_ read that it was a bet between LRH and editor Ben Bova.


  3. And the version I heard was that Harlan Ellison was at the party where the comment happened.

    I think there are about as many versions of that story floating around fandom as there are pieces of the True E-Meter ...

  4. I don't have a piece of the True E-Meter, but I do have, I'm a little ashamed to admit, a true E-Meter story. (That's a true story that involves an E-Meter, not a story that involved the True E-Meter.) Back in high school, a classmate who was starting to get into Scientology talked me into going to an event with him, where of course I took an E-Meter "test." (I was desperate for friendship at that time in my life, but that's really no excuse.) They got some personal revelation out of me, at which point I "felt something" (as I put it to them and myself at the time), which of course the sweat-meter picked up. I don't know whether I *really* thought "Hey, maybe there's something to this" (I was pretty naive for a supposedly rational budding scientist -- hell, I probably sort of believed in psychoanalysis then too), but I did leave my name and address. And I've been getting mail from them ever since! (It hasn't followed me through *all* my myriad address changes, because it went to my parents' house until after my father died. At which point I just filled out a forwarding order for all mail to that address with my last name, because it was easier than "officially" giving the USPS a death certificate, etc. So now, two or three address changes later, I still get mail for both my long-deceased parents at an address they never heard of, and even for my niece, who never actually lived at my parents address but I think *her* parents were having their (and thus her) mail forwarded there at some point.) My standing practice, and my standing instructions to my parents when they were alive, were to deposit any mail from Scientology in the trash (or now, paper recycling) without so much as tearing it up, notifying me about it, or even looking at it any more than is absolutely necessary to verify its source.

    Jerry, the only problem with the Ben Bova story is that Bova was born in 1932 and didn't become an SF editor until sometime in the '60s at least. (He succeeded Campbell as editor of Analog in '72, which was not only well after the birth of Scientology but well after my above encounter with it!) Dianetics, the precursor of Scientology, came out in 1950. Now if you said it was a bet between LRH and *Campbell*, I might believe it. Similarly, Jon, Ellison was born in '34, and hadn't even entered (let alone been been kicked out of) Ohio State yet in 1950. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

    But enough about Scientology, and about my warped personal life. This thread is supposed to be about Heinlein, no? Or about "the nature of humor." And I assure you, there's nothing funny about the above story.
    And not a whole lot funny about Scientology, for that matter. In both cases, not unless you mean "funny peculiar."

  5. OK, Hubbard's Wikipedia page gives some history, or at least rumor, on the origins of Dianetics and Scientology. No mention of Heinlein (and certainly none of Bova), but Campbell was definitely a strong supporter. (As was A.E. van Vogt, but he didn't have the kind of money that Campbell did.) All the people cited say that Hubbard said from the start that he was "starting a religion to make money." Those people include Ellison, but it doesn't say that he actually heard Hubbard say it. While I suppose Ellison might have heard Hubbard at a convention he attended as a teenager, that's not exactly the same as being in some elite group who were "present at the creation." (Wouldn't be completely surprising for Dear Old Harlie to stretch or bend the truth, though to be fair, nothing on the Wiki page says that he claims anything of the sort.)

  6. To return (sort of) to the subject, Jerry, you've inspired me to go re-read "Harsh Mistress." (Which means I'll have to *find* a copy, which is fine because I probably approve of at least some of the charities RAH's royalties presumably go to now.) The "Loonie" revolutionaries of course *cite* the American Revolution and its philosophical underpinnings out the wazoo (though IIRC their interpretation of the underpinnings is rather different from, say, mine -- I'm not sure I'd call even Jefferson a "rational anarchist," let alone Locke or Montesquieu), but I don't recall noticing that the *events* of their revolution were particularly parallel to ours (as opposed to just resembling colonist revolts in general).

    There I go again, not being funny or even trying to. Sorry. Shall I write a limerick to make up for it?

    An author named Robert A. Heinlein
    Philosophically walked quite a fine line.
    But "In a Strange Land,"
    He "grokked" more than he'd planned,
    Which thoroughly messed up the timeline.

    (No, I don't know what it means either.)

    A Martian named Valentine Smith...

    Never mind.

  7. "Stuart LaJoie" is Lafayette. That's the only author's parallel I remember, though Heinlein had the Lunar revolutionaries deliberately use a Declaration of Independence as propaganda.

    Heinlein's Moon actually resembles penal Australia more than it does colonial America.

  8. And, if you want Heinlein jokes:

    Q: What do you get when you cross Robert A. Heinlein with peanut butter?

    A: Peanut butter with your mother and sisters ...

  9. First of all, it WAS Campbell, of course. I just got my editors confused.

    Second: Parallels between American Revolution and Lunar Revolution (without digging out my copy) include:

    * Declaration being finished on the 2nd of July, but dated the 4th anyway;

    * The fellow who casts a deciding vote and drops dead within hours;

    * The whole setup of a profitable, agrarian society being whipsawed by absentee rulers (taxation without representation);

    and so on.

    The book's been reissued as a trade paperback--I don't know who gets the royalties now that Mrs. Heinlein is no longer with us.

    Third: Please be careful about criticizing the You Know Whos. They may be listening.


  10. Oh, yeah, one more thing. The use of Wikipedia as a primary source for ANYTHING does not meet with favor in the eyes of Fearless Leader.

    Any history that I can personally change with a couple of keystrokes is suspect.


  11. What, you don't like the idea of being Joe Stalin? It's just changed from (air)brushstrokes to keystrokes, is all.

    But that would be a helluva SF premise. (Probably been done multiple times. Most of them by Phil Dick, come to think of it.) A universe where changing the records *actually* changes history.

    Still, Wikipedia does get monitored and edited (albeit largely by the same "volunteers" who write it in the first place). So the likelihood of something bogus being on some random article just at the random time I look it up is actually pretty low. Admittedly higher for "controversial" subjects like LRH.

  12. And if we're talking of brushes with history and Lafayette Ron, I believe that a person at least tangentially involved with Risley, a guy that we knew as Homer, was one of the first people who went public on the internet with the "deep" teachings of the old Clambaker. He may have been the person who brought the story of Xenu to the public.

  13. "Brushes with history"? Is that like "Actually used by Marie Antoinette on her hair, just before they beheaded her"?

    I've always thought someone should create a cartoon with the caption "A brush with Death."