NOTE: Sorry for missing the post last week! It has been a really crazy several weeks, and I’ve been absolutely swamped offline as a result. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this week’s post even if it is a little bit behind schedule!
There is no art more serious than humor. That’s a short, earnest, declarative sentence made all the more powerful by the fact that it is true. For as long as I can remember, I have been in awe of literary satirists from Lucian of Samosata, to Voltaire, Swift, Twain, Morrow, Holt, and Pratchett. Their ability to move me, to make me laugh, and then to make me think represents the pinnacle in authorial skill: the same words doing triple duty, affecting readers through the years.
Just about every satirist I can think of relied on elements of the fantastic, and even if they did not use them in every work, its preponderance begs the question: why? Why is literary satire bound so tightly with the fantastic? And how does satire actually work in fiction in general, and speculative fiction in particular?
Satire, Distance, and Cognitive Estrangement
As I started researching this post, I found that defining satire is about as difficult as defining science fiction (and don’t get me started on that one!). It can be defined by its characteristics, by its tone, by its focus, by the author’s intentions, by the audience’s response. Sound familiar?
I consider a work to be satire if it both makes me laugh and simultaneously focuses my attention on real-world philosophical, ethical, metaphysical, or moral concerns. And if nothing else, I think that definition should give some indication of why I think Sir Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld novels examine politics (in the City Watch cycle), personal ethics (in the Witch cycle), metaphysics (in the Death cycle), civics (in the Moist von Lipwig books and others), and cultural values (in all the rest), is the greatest satirist since Mark Twain.
In order to be effective, speculative fiction relies on cognitive estrangement to take us out of our quotidian existence and put us into a mental state fit to internalize the content/themes of the story. While all fiction does this to some degree, speculative fiction characteristically employs more obvious devices to achieve this effect (e.g. neologisms, anachronisms, impossible actions/beasts, secondary worlds, etc.). If speculative fiction is the literature of actualized metaphor, the metaphors work because they allow us to look at our world from outside, from some measure of cognitive distance.
Satire operates the same way. Satire – both in the Juvenalian and Horatian sense – is effective only when its audience is cognitively estranged, when they are with the narrator inside the story’s frame, looking out at the real world with gazes weighted with judgment. Every satire needs this level of cognitive estrangement, whether the satire features fantastical elements (e.g. Lucian of Samosata’s A True History, Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock“, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels), or retains its realism (e.g. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal“, or Heller’s Catch-22).
The (adult and broadly middle class) audience for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were estranged through both the vernacular voice used in the novel, along with the protagonist’s age and social class. The readers of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” were estranged by the sheer ridiculousness of his suggestion. And Heller’s readers were estranged by the portrayed lunacy of the war theater (itself arguably a secondary world).
But while satire can achieve cognitive estrangement without relying on the tools of speculative fiction, there is no genre that has done more to develop those tools. It should therefore come as no surprise that the two have a long and close relationship, or that so much of the best satire can be solidly placed in the aisles of science fiction and fantasy.
The Story Comes First: Serious Reading of Satire at Face Value
Satire is just like any other story: in order to be effective, it has to first work as a story in its own right. If there is no conflict, if there is no tension, if the characters fail to earn our engagement, it will ultimately fail to hold our attention. And if the satire fails to hold our attention, then it is ludicrous to suppose it will affect our judgment.
In this, satire is very different from comedy of the absurd (e.g. Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide series). Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Holt’s Flying Dutch, or James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah can all have their stories reduced to a plausible structure devoid of humor but still engaging.
Their basic plot structures and character functions could – conceivably – be played straight: read the plot description for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Hogfather on Wikipedia. Even summarized without the color and humor of the actual text, the stories themselves remain engaging.
I believe that satire’s ability to be read at face-value, devoid of any humor, is the foundation for the form’s strength. If at any level we look to fiction to find viable models for life, then a story’s ability to hold together under its own weight suggests that it communicates a workable worldview. Subconsciously, it establishes the credibility of the narrative, which I believe to be a necessary prerequisite for the satire’s message.
Whether satire features fantastical elements or not, the story has to be there for it to have any chance of working.
Incongruity, Humor, and the Fantastic
Psychologists and neurologists believe that humor arises out of the incongruous, out of a situation, event, or phrase which generates a cognitive dissonance between the audience’s expectations and the reality presented to them. Satire is humorous to the degree that it plays with reader expectations, and to the degree to which it introduces and maintains such incongruities.
Pratchett’s Discworld novels – which focus on wizards, dwarves, vampires, police, etc. – rely on a set of expectations developed from genre conventions. Reading within the genre and growing up in Western culture, we have certain expectations as to both the behavior of such characters and the values they hold. Pratchett’s humor derives from the incongruity of his characters’ simultaneous adherence to expected behavioral patterns, and to sensibilities and values recognizable from our real contemporary society.
We smile when Pratchett shows us the highly aristocratic, upper-crust Lady Sybil Ramkin…and portrays her as a down-to-earth volunteer devoted to saving much-maligned gastrically-challenged swamp dragons. Vampires with the blood-drinking equivalent of AA are so poignantly true-to-life that we cannot help but laugh. The humor is disarming, and that is the function that it serves within the broader text: it establishes a cognitive environment in which Pratchett’s themes can be explored through his characters. But it is not, perhaps paradoxically, his humor that makes his books into such effective satire.
Pratchett’s humor is broadly Juvenalian in nature, and it is very different from the more Horatian humor of James Morrow’s Godhead trilogy. The incongruity from which Morrow’s humor derives is more focused, and more central to the themes he wishes to explore. One cannot separate the incongruity of Morrow’s fantastical events (e.g. the comatose body of God) from the quotidian social reactions to those events (e.g. putting God on trial for crimes against humanity).
Divorced from the themes his characters wrestle with, Pratchett’s humor rarely extends beyond genre parody. To be clear, this is not a complaint: genre parody is important, and Pratchett executes on it so well as to be in a class all his own, but his satire happens in parallel to his humor, not as a result of it.
Character as the Source of Satire, Built on Story and Incongruity
Stories are effective when their characters have agency, when they must make difficult choices according to the values that they hold. When their held values are in mutual opposition (Tolstoy’s famous case of “two rights” pitted against each other), their story gains in drama and amplitude.
Satire itself derives from the application of incongruous values by characters who either hold to them or come to do so. Whether we’re talking about Voltaire’s Candide and Pangloss, Twain’s Huck Finn and Jim, Pratchett’s Captain Vimes and Death, or Morrow’s Martin Candle and Anthony Van Horne, it is the characters’ values applied in (fictional) practice that makes their stories satire. This is only possible because of an alignment between the incongruity employed by the story’s humor and its themes. This is the primary difference between satirists like Pratchett, Morrow, and Holt and humorists like Douglas Adams, Philip Reeve, or (to a lesser extent) A. Lee Martinez).
When a work of fiction uses humor but does not align the incongruity at its root with the broader themes of the story, then it fails to produce satire. It may still produce an excellent, entertaining, and even meaningful story. But it becomes a different kind of story, one that is plainly not satirical.
Douglas Adams, for example, can rightly be considered an absurdist. His novels, though hilarious and entertaining, lack the exploration of moral, ethical, or metaphysical themes common to true satire. His incongruous moments (e.g. the pot of flowers thinking “Not again” moments before its destruction) are used in an absurdist fashion, to highlight the impossibility of finding true meaning.
Philip Reeve’s Larklight trilogy uses humor to increase the accessibility of its characters and thus strengthen reader engagement with the overall story. But however well executed and enjoyable, the incongruity of setting and tone is independent and broadly unrelated to the books’ character-oriented themes.
A. Lee Martinez uses humor in a fashion more closely approaching the satirical, however his incongruities tend to fall short of unified alignment with his stories’ central themes. They are incidental or tonal in nature, used more to establish the character’s initial situation or the story’s narrative voice than to establish the particular themes explored by those characters.
I do not mean these comments as criticisms of these authors or their work, as their stories are all excellent, enjoyable, and often quite funny. Superficially, they resemble satire in that they rely on incongruity to produce humorous effects. But that is where the resemblance ends: lacking an alignment of incongruity, character, and theme, a work of fiction simply does not become satirical.
The Challenge Inherent in Satire
As I mentioned at the very start of this essay, I consider satire to be the single highest form of literary art. A true satirist must be an excellent storyteller, a consummate artist, and a deep thinker all at the same time.
To execute on the satirical imperative demands of the artist control over every aspect of their storytelling: the humor must be tightly controlled and painstakingly aligned with the themes of the story, the characters must be believably drawn even when divorced from the incongruities underlying the humor, and the events of the story must somehow hinge upon the values that are themselves inherent in the incongruity.
If that seems like the literary equivalent of juggling chainsaws while singing a pitch-perfect cantata and accompanying themselves on one foot when painting an oil-paint masterpiece with the other, well there’s a damn good reason for that. I am in awe of those writers who manage to pull off that trick, and I wish there were more of them.
NOTE: This is a pretty long essay (even for me) and I’ve touched on a lot of authors and titles here. I know some of you like when I provide a single list of referenced authors and works, so I hope this one helps!