The Cosmic Perspective and Other Black Comedies
Click on image to enlarge.
by Brian Stableford
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: "Dying is easy," a great actor is reported to have said; "comedy is hard." The ten stories in this collection demonstrate that Brian Stableford has mastered the art of creating comedy in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Contents: "The Cosmic Perspective," "The Haunted Nursery," "The Phantom of Teirbrun" (an original fantasy novella), "Custer's Last Stand," "The Requiem Masque," "Meat on the Bone," "Murphy's Grail," "Brief Encounter in the Smoking Area," "Fans from Hell," and "The Annual Conference of the Prophets of Atlantis."
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press/Borgo Press, 2009 USA
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [285 KB]
Reading time: 179-251 min.
"Dying is easy," the great actor is reported to have said, demonstrating a remarkable flair for stating the obvious; "comedy is hard." Dying is essentially brief, while comedy is essentially sustained, so this is only to be expected.
"Brief" and "sustained" are, of course, relative terms. Some deaths take longer than others, and some kinds of humor generate laughs more rapidly than others. Anecdotal jokes, unlike the quick-fire kind, can afford to string things out and make their audiences wait a little while for the punch-line, but a price always has to be paid for that sort of leisurely approach. Works of humorous fiction that string things out in order to tease, withholding a single laugh-line like a carrot on a stick, not only run the risk of testing the hearer/reader's patience to destruction but also the danger of generating a climactic groan rather than a laugh. The term "shaggy dog story" was not coined as a compliment.
Sustained comedy requires an edge as well as a point, an ongoing flow as well as a terminal twist. It needs to be continually humorous, if not continuously. That is one of the reasons why comic fiction relies so heavy on irony--irony being a tone, which requires extension to be properly appreciable--and it is also one of the reasons why comic fiction tends to blackness. A punch-line can sometimes dazzle like a lightning-flash, but continual comedy requires more elaborate chiaroscuro effects, and continuous comedy works better in subtle shades of darkness.
Fortunately for the ironist, and especially the black ironist, fiction has--virtually by definition--a certain intrinsic unreliability. Fiction is all lies, although it has the virtue, which non-fiction has not, of consisting of honest lies rather than dishonest ones. It is, therefore, fairly easy to adapt the narrative voice of fiction so that it acquires an ironic tone--which is to say, so that its constituent words appear to be saying something other than their literal meaning. Fiction is well-adapted to bluffing, and the essence of comedy--the establishment of expectations that will, at some point, be humorously subverted--is a kind of bluff. Fiction is so well-adapted to bluffing, in fact, that even fiction that is not overtly comic often tends to take on an ironic gloss of its own accord--to the extent that it is sometimes hard to judge whether a story is funny, or, if it is, whether it is intended to be.
I tend to think of all my stories as comedies, partly because I was born without a capacity for sincere belief, and am thus incapable of seeing anything in a wholly serious light, and partly because I am sufficiently cynical to assume that almost all speech acts, and all acts of writing--without any exception--are saying something other than their literal meaning. The stories included here are, however, among the more obvious comedies in my repertoire. This is not to say that nobody dies in them--dying is, after all, far too easy to be omitted from any but the most trivially homespun narratives--but merely that, when characters do die, the reader is not being invited to feel sorry for them, even though they are not actors who are merely pretending, and who can therefore get up again afterwards and make mock-pretentious remarks about how easy it was, compared with getting a laugh.
The humor in the stories tends to the black, in the first place, simply because they are stories; although several of them do have punch-lines, the preparation for those climactic flashes tends to be elaborate and convoluted even in those that are less than a thousand words long, and thus the literary equivalent of a sixty-yard dash. I have to admit, though, that my own sense of humor does tend--excessively, some have been known to opine--to the black. Contrary to the opinion of the aforementioned some, this has little or nothing to do with my cynicism and certainly does not reflect any latent sadism that cannot find expression elsewhere in my placid and humdrum daily existence. It is, I think, a more purely aesthetic matter than that, and has more to do with a distaste for dazzle than a love of shadow per se. I have never been a fan of such coarse humorous subgenres as slapstick, innuendo and the comedy of embarrassment; I prefer wit, and cannot understand the point of view that assesses sarcasm as the lowest form of it. For that reason, I have never been able to find anything in the cosmic perspective--whether it aspires to extend the imagination into the macrocosm or any of its counterbalancing microcosms--but black irony.
"The Cosmic Perspective" and "Custer's Last Stand" first appeared in 1985 as the two halves of a back-to-back chapbook, which was the twenty-first in a series issued by the bookseller Chris Drumm. "The Haunted Nursery" first appeared in A Horror Story a Day: 365 Scary Stories (Barnes & Noble, 1998) edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg. "The Requiem Masque" first appeared in Albedo One 3 (Winter 1993) and was subsequently reprinted, along with "The Annual Conference of the Prophets of Atlantis", which first appeared in the Reminiscon 40 Souvenir Programme in 1990, in a Necronomicon Press chapbook, Fables and Fantasies (1996)."Meat on the Bone" was written for a projected anthology at the request of its editor, Steve Savile, who spent several years sending enthusiastic email messages about the progress of the anthology, including two saying that the contract was in the post, although nothing ever materialized. "Murphy's Grail" first appeared in Redsine 4 (February 2001). "Brief Encounter in the Smoking Area" first appeared in The Interpreter's House 16 (February 2001). "Fans from Hell" first appeared in The Steel Caves December 2000. "The Phantom of Teirbrun" is original to this volume. THE COSMIC PERSPECTIVE
Henry McCanles was born with a seeming lack of interest in life. It was almost as if he had been stricken, during his sojourn in the womb, with awful doubts as to whether life after birth were possible, and had defensively decided not to pin his hopes upon such a seemingly-bizarre possibility. In infancy, he manifested no exaggerated need for care, protection, security or even love; the pattern of his entire childhood suggested that he was little concerned with the ephemeral pause between birth and death. There never seemed to be a time when his attentions were not directed primarily toward the infinite and the eternal.
At the time of Henry's conception, his father was already over fifty and his mother had just turned forty. At these ages, of course, they were habituated to a life without surprises, and the one that had predicted his arrival was not overwhelmingly welcome. To add to their troubles, Henry was a fortnight overdue, and there were complications. In view of these circumstances, and other coincident factors both social and psychological, it will easily be understood that Henry's oddness was not entirely his own fault, nor entirely his own achievement. It was encouraged in him by many things. The environment of his early life was in no way calculated to impart to him the zest for living that his intrinsic being so obviously lacked.
His parents, before his arrival, had been settling themselves into a peaceful, frozen existence in which they could wait out their lives in comfort and dignity, wasting themselves no further in futile pursuit of dreams they no longer had any hope of attaining. They did their best to continue in this modest ambition in spite of Henry's disruptive presence, and they sucked him into the pattern, albeit without encountering significant resistance. They attained easy command over his needs and desires, effortlessly stifled any demands and the passions that would have prevented the crystallization of their existence, and domesticated him without difficulty. They did not, however, hesitate to make him fully conscious of his status as an intruder and a problem. Henry soon came to conceive of himself not simply as an invader in his own home, but as an outsider in the grand universal design.
His way of life had a good deal in common with the everyday habits of ordinary people, but this was due to mimicry rather than identity. Biologically, Henry McCanles belonged to the same species as the rest of humankind, but in spirit his kinship was more reminiscent of those edible butterflies that drift comfortably through life cunningly disguised as their poisonous competitors, in order that they might escape the attention of predators. Over the years Henry adapted himself meekly and skillfully to the expectations of his parents; he was unobtrusive, never heard and rarely seen, always lost in the rapt contemplation of something outside himself. Such contemplation was always passive, never moving him to activity. Although his parents never grew to consider him a blessing, they accepted him into their scheme of things, and were content.
Henry grew up lean and gaunt, with a pale complexion and an expression of considerable gravity. If he ever sought any kind of amusement or intellectual involvement he did so within himself. It might almost be said that Henry lived his life after birth as a kind of phantom. As he grew older and diversified his associations with the world beyond the walls of home, moving slowly through the education system, he acquired new perspectives on the size, nature and complexity of the known universe. He acquired these perspectives entirely second hand, of course, but he nevertheless became rather fascinated by life and existence in general. His fascination was that of the pure scholar, a non-participant observer. He studied human behavior with the same calm remoteness that he brought to the study of mathematics and the heavens. The study of insect life, the properties of logarithms and the way in which people interacted with one another were all alike to him; there was no sense of personal involvement.
He was thirteen years old when he discovered the stars. The stars had shone in the sky all through his life, and he had observed their presence, but there was still a single climactic moment when, for the first time, he saw something in the stars--something meaningful. He looked up one night and, for the first time in his life, experienced a kind of revelation.
Perhaps it was just a moment of carelessness when, because he was alone, his barriers were down. Perhaps it is fated that no man, however slight his engagement with existence, is allowed to tread the course from birth to death without at least one moment of revelation. Either way, thirteen-year-old Henry was struck by a lightning-flash of vision. He looked up, and the stars caught his attention. Then they held it. For some quite unfathomable reason he felt an emotional echo, a sensation, a thrill.
The stars, it seemed then to his immature and rather peculiar mind, lived in the same borderlands of existence as himself. They shared his ability to render themselves unobtrusive. They began to disappear at the slightest hint of atmospheric haziness, and even those strong enough to shine through such hazes were always politely hesitant in their self-assertion.
Henry began to watch and study the stars. It was his first and only hobby. Venus and the moon, he perceived at once, belonged to a different category of being. They shone too confidently. He disowned them. Soon, increasing knowledge of the population of the heavens enabled him to excommunicate Mars, Jupiter and the other planets from the core of his concern. It was the stars that interested him, the stars alone that were like him.
He began to cultivate their acquaintance, using--for want of anything better--the methods that had been shown to him at school. He made a few polite inquiries and sought out books to read. It was the inadequacy of what he learned by these means that showed him the fallibility of programmed education. He realized that what he was being taught at school, and the statutory resources that were being made available to him for learning, were of no real relevance to his needs. What he did contrive to discover, however--which was crucial to his requirements--was how to go about constructing a telescope. This he had to do, in order to extend his acquaintance with the stars in the only meaningful way: by extending his perceptions until he was, in a metaphorical sense, among them and intimate with them.
Henry persuaded his parents to part with sufficient money to allow him to purchase, over a relatively short period of time, a large concave mirror, a small plane mirror, and a system of lenses that allowed him to focus on the image in the plane mirror cast by the image in the concave mirror by a tiny sector of sky. He built the frame of the telescope himself, out of odd pieces of wood stolen--"salvaged" might perhaps be a more generous descriptive term--from a local building site.
The instrument was of very limited power, and was really best suited for lunar observation, but Henry's delight--if such a word is not too strong--was to direct the instrument at the Milky Way and thus reveal to his wondering eye the myriad stars that usually hid themselves from human sight.
If Henry had chosen to write his autobiography when he eventually became famous, he would probably have represented the phase that took him from adolescence through higher education and humble employment to incipient middle age as a succession of relationships with astronomical instruments. He progressed from one telescope to another, each time coming a little closer to the infinite by virtue of ever-increasing magnification.
By studying astronomy at university he learned about the variety of stars, and about the evolutionary linkages between the spectral types. He was initiated into the wonders of radio astronomy and x-ray astronomy. He came to understand the mysteries of the galactic red shifts, mastered the arcane mathematics of relativity, involved himself in estimating the ultimate fate of the expanding universe and lost himself in a maze of speculation regarding cosmogenesis, neutron stars, quasars, gamma-ray bursters, black holes, and dark matter. All of that was meat and drink to his increasingly hungry and thirsty mind, not only providing nourishment but exquisite taste sensations.
In graduating from orthodox photography employing optical telescopes to the more complex methods of indirect observation associated with radio astronomy Henry saw himself passing over an important threshold in life, far more important than puberty or the attainment of the age of majority. The surrender of the visual affirmation of his affinity and the removal of his relationship with the stars into a theoretical realm of mathematical purity was a kind of transcendence. Straightforward sensory contact with the objects of his obsession thus became a formality, a matter of occasional convenience. The essence of his love affair became abstract and spiritual, untainted by the vulgarity of mere appearances--which is, according to some commentators, the way all love affairs ought to be. The transition represented a triumph of mind over flesh, intellect over lust.
Henry cultivated the cosmic perspective. To him, the world of human affairs could be meaningful only within the context of the vast and marvelous universe. William Blake had written long before about seeing worlds in grains of sand, heaven in wild flowers, infinity in the palm of one's hand, and eternity in every hour. Henry could see all of these things; in fact, he could not see in any other way. The infinite and the eternal were, to him, far more real than the trivial and brief appearances of mundane existence. The time-scale and the space-scale of the expanding universe were the real yardsticks by which consequence was to be measured, in his view, and the human divisions of seconds and centimeters were mere absurdities.
Radio telescopes provided Henry with the means to gaze, metaphorically speaking, into the farthest reaches of space, and--if the implications of the red-shifts of the most distant quasars were to be believed--across time to the very beginning of the universe. In such remote conceptual realms, Henry lived his real life--but he continued, in the meantime, with some meager fraction of his being, to play the game of mundane existence. He ate and slept, breathed and excreted. Sometimes he wrote papers for publication in journals that hardly anyone read, and occasionally he taught classes in astronomy to students who did not understand what he said and did not care. These things were expected of him. He was expected to earn his living; there were rituals to which he was forced to adhere, in order that he might be allowed to remain in the university milieu that provided him with the means of both physical and mental nutrition. He preserved the life that mattered to him by casual and efficient management of the life that did not.
Such feelings as Henry McCanles had, as he moved about the Earthly world of instruments, observatories and college classrooms, were usually limited to a vague sense of anonymity, but he was occasionally subject to fits of mild depression. He never attempted to fight such attacks of melancholia, nor ever thought of them as anything out of the ordinary, but was content to drift listlessly through them. He was a committed man, but not a blissful one, and would not have known what to say had anyone ever asked him whether he was happy--which, in fact, no one ever did. He tended to wear his customary indifference without embarrassment or apology.
The people who worked alongside him--indeed, all those whose lives touched the periphery of his in any way at all--could sometimes be disarmed by the pathos that he radiated when he descended further into depression than was usual, but they did not even trouble to offer him advice. He was not a difficult man to get along with, being always courteous, cool and unassuming. He was a good listener, because he did listen, even though the information he obtained by this means made no impact upon him. Although he was not aware of the fact, other people occasionally contrived to become quietly fond of him via the occasional exercise of pity and kindness, although they rarely gave voice to their fondness and never attempted to demonstrate it in action. Others regretted his loneliness, even if he did not, but they let him be, because that seemed to be the right thing to do. No one in the world had anything against him, except for a few petty professional jealousies that arose because he was so meticulous in his work that he never made mistakes himself, and sometimes exposed the mistakes of others.
There is nothing surprising in the fact that so many people liked Henry, in spite of the fact that he seemed unable to like them. Despite all that cynics say, it is quite usual for people who can do it to feel fond of other people. A surprisingly high proportion of the human race actually yearn--at least some of the time--to feel fond of other people, and only become embittered if they feel that the opportunity is being unfairly denied them. Some few of the remainder succeed in finding targets for their wayward affections routinely, but become disillusioned by the effects that fondness tends to have, and gradually lose the incentive. Henry McCanles was one of the rare people who not only provided useful raw material for the sympathies of others by remaining available, but was also so totally unaffected by such sympathies that the risk of their getting out of hand, or being perverted into something more powerful, was remote. However, as every gambler knows, unlikely events do sometimes happen, and it happened that among the many fond feelings that Henry attracted to himself were the particular fond feelings of Stella Joyce, which did indeed become gradually exaggerated into something more like obsession than mere camaraderie.
Henry was then working at one of the better universities in the American South, where he enjoyed convenient access to one of the world's largest radio telescopes, good computation facilities and an excellent library. Everything he required was at his disposal, including abundant assistance in many of the more tedious aspects of evidential collation. Stella Joyce was one of his post-graduate students. He never noticed her at all during working hours, where she was simply an instrument to be used according to the rules of the game. Had there been no opportunity for the two of them to meet outside working hours, there would have been little possibility of his ever becoming aware of her existence as an independent human being. Some such opportunities did arise, however. Henry, like other mortals, had to eat, and he took his meals in the most convenient refectory, along with several hundred students and those members of staff whose own domestic situations made such measures necessary. This rendered him available for anyone wishing to cultivate his acquaintance outside the professional context.
Stella began to follow the simple strategy of waiting for him to collect his meal and sit down to eat it, and then going to sit beside him. Stella's interest in astronomy was actually fairly slight, although she was sufficiently intelligent and capable in her studies to have qualified for postgraduate study. She had been encouraged into the field by unfortunate and misguided pressure applied by her mother, who was a devoted follower of horoscopes and thought that a bright future must await any girl with an intimate knowledge of the stars and their ways. As with so many simple believers, Stella's mother could not comprehend the difference between astronomy and astrology, but Stella was nevertheless content with her ill-chosen vocation. Knowledge of any sort was of little importance to her; she depended far more on her emotions to determine the quality of her life. It was her emotions--which were no more directed by reason than her choice of career--that guided her to Henry McCanles. She fell in love with him, honestly and sincerely, and as deeply as she could.
Such fancies are not uncommon, but they often remain dormant when they receive no encouragement and generally fizzle out eventually even if they do. In all probability, other female students had toyed with the idea of seducing Professor McCanles, but few such whims had ever generated more than tokenistic exploratory action; Stella was the only one who persisted, even after realizing that the mission seemed virtually impossible. Had she been willing to sidetrack her infatuation, to sublimate it into part of the fantasy component of her private imaginative existence, the course of history might have been subtly altered--but she did not.
Perhaps, like her mother, Stella Joyce had some latent but unassailable faith in the notion that the future is predetermined, and considered that Henry and she were indeed star-crossed. It was more likely, though, that other causal factors were more significant in determining her persistence. She was twenty-three, and her infatuation with Henry was by no means the first time she had been "in love". It was, however, the first time that such love had not rebounded on her with unexpected promptitude in an ugly and painful manner. She was a virgin who had suffered considerable social deprivation in her childhood by virtue of chronic myopia. Forced to wear spectacles from the age of five, she had never liked them, and had often removed them once she was out of her mother's protective sight, with the inevitable result that her interaction with the world around her had been dogged by the difficulty of an inability to perceive much of it. This difficulty had only been overcome, in the usual manner, a few months before she fell in love with Henry.
Henry, of course, remained unaware of the infatuation. It did not seem to him to be significant that Stella materialized at his elbow with startling regularity while he primed his organism with fuel. Her attempts at flirtation--the shy fluttering of unpracticed sexual wings--passed him by. He was always polite and pleasant, never, even by the slightest word or gesture, either reciprocating or explicitly rejecting her tentative emotional advances. She therefore persisted, not only in attempting to build a more intimate relationship, but also in believing that she was succeeding.