(UFO Publishing, October 2015)
Reviewed by C.D. Lewis
The fourth volume of Unidentified Funny Objects is dedicated to the presentation of dark humor. It contains twenty-two new short stories and two well-loved reprints from Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. Funded by a Kickstarter project, UFO 4 illustrates that hilarious fiction can be published without pre-approval from a major publisher–and it illustrates this for the fourth time. Repeat UFO authors like Tim Pratt provide new work and reliable laughs, while authors new to UFO offer stories contracted from the Kickstarter’s outset or submitted blind through the project’s assistant editors. Whatever vetting process is at work behind UFO is a winner: whereas most collections do well to present some 30% of contents you could recommend with a straight face to a friend, UFO offers a stunning percentage of winners–by my measure, not just most of the new stories but practically the whole lot. (And if you love Gaiman or Martin, their reprints are a shoe-in.)
Last year’s volume of Unidentified Funny Objects was a winner–but this is even better. Read it.
Andrew Kaye’s “The Time-Traveling Ghost Machine of Professor Jaime Pelligrosa” is a fantasy set in a modern university. Close-third narration depicts the eponymous Professor of Advanced Temporal Locomotion of his university’s School of Esoteric Studies proposing ghost time travel as a stratagem to prevent time paradox associated with moving a corporeal being capable of interfering with the timeline. Trouble is, it requires a fresh ghost. He isn’t entirely out of luck, though: Dr. Blackheart, Professor of Applied Necromantic Sciences, has ideas–and so has the robot Dr. X430, Professor of Expendable Humanities. The banter is even better than the outrageous premise. Characterizing Kaye’s tale as a workplace romance or an underdog triumph would risk spoilers … and we can’t have that. Since the narration follows the Professor, who doesn’t actually travel in time, Kaye provides important offscreen story action by suggestion rather than narrating it. But you don’t often get a ride like this in 3300 words. Read it.
Caroline M. Yoachim presents “Please Approve the Dissertation Research of Angtor” as a series of emails between Angtor and the Human Subjects Review Board at the University of Titan, from whom the insistent Angtor seeks expedited approval of its (seemingly doomed) thesis proposal. The Chair’s concerns over Angtor’s persistent requests expand in scope over the course of several emails; to say more would risk spoilers. Once the nature of Angtor’s research proposal is fully grasped by the University, the fun begins. Yoachim provides a clear story arc and some enjoyable reversals; the fact at least one of these is telegraphed in advance does nothing to diminish the story’s power to elicit chuckles. Anyone suspicious that funding or political influence or the like has more influence than merit at universities will especially enjoy the piece.
Esther Friesner’s “Match Game” is a third-person Urban Fantasy set in the office of a matchmaker to the inhuman population that thrives after “the shift”–vampires, weres, zombies, and even mutant talking hamsters. This isn’t the first time Friesner has told stories about or involving hamsters, and her fans are sure to get a giggle out of the hamster’s antics. The humor in “Match Game” lies largely in the story’s use of language: double-meanings, puns, and euphemisms from a world where werewolves may prefer dog beds all month long. For some perspective on Friesner and her wordplay, readers unfamiliar with her work may look to some of her book titles for a sense of her humor: Fangs for the Mammaries, Witch way to the Mall, and Strip Mauled. “Match Game” offers perils, reversals, and life-or-(un)death action fun–a fantasy romp peppered with chuckles.
“The Transformation of Prince Humphrey” by Brent C. Smith provides seven characters’ perspectives on four short paragraphs of action. If you thought seven totally different points of view too unwieldy for a 900-word story, pick this up to see how it’s done. Despite having but a single thimbleful of action to work with, Smith leverages seven viewpoints to manipulate the reader’s interpretation of the action to provide a rich tapestry of social conflicts and motives that sell the twist ending as a deserved victory. The real victory is Smith’s: it’s a glorious triumph of craft, and a blast to read. The time/benefit analysis on a 900-word piece of this quality is outstanding: you need to read it.
Laura Pearlman’s “In the End, You Get Clarity” opens in a world in which powers are common, but you can’t call yourself a Superhero™ without documenting heroism to the satisfaction of the League of Superheroes and joining. At least, not without being made to write lines on a chalkboard. And who can resist a story that opens, “The first time Leopard-Print Girl killed someone, it was an accident.” I mean really. Pearlman mates a fun world of everyday-superpowers to the real-world lunacy of authority figures happy to do evil for expedience. Our protagonist, a woman more sinned against than sinning, is just trying to mind her own business. It’s kinda funny when some useless politician drops his businesslike expectation that a newly-minted superhero (even an accidental one) will naturally just “deal with” the town supervillain. The story’s real joy is the climactic moment when, in a good-man-pushed-too-far moment of clarity, it all blows up on the wrongdoers. And by that point, who isn’t a wrongdoer? The story’s dark turn presents just what the world seems to deserve. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Highly recommended.
Tim Pratt’s “Project Disaster” opens in the secret lair of Disaster Man, the anonymous extortionist whose income flows from governments responding to his regular threats to obliterate their major cities in the nuclear-force blasts he conjures at will about his body, which is as invulnerable to these blasts as to every other threat. The interview format limits on-screen action and the apparent stakes, and requires willingness to wait for the characters to reveal their backgrounds and motives through dialogue; engagement with the story depends greatly on interest in the concept. It’s a great concept though, and fun, but the backstory reveals seem to lower the story’s apparent velocity and may alienate readers who demand edge-of-their-seat excitement to turn a page. Those who do read it will be treated to a fun reversal and a fantasy/SF mashup twist. Nobody who’s read Pratt’s delicious shorts will want to risk missing one and, served on a platter as rich as UFO 4, it’d be silly to skip.
Piers Anthony’s “Hello Hotel” opens in an airport where the protagonist needs accommodations following a flight cancellation. Set in a world with the lighthearted feel of his On a Pale Horse and For Love of Evil, and sharing its close-third viewpoint on its protagonist, Anthony’s “Hello Hotel” matches an atheist with an evangelical Christian in a love-at-first-sight fantasy involving a contract with the Devil. As with the series that began with On a Pale Horse, the solution to the characters’ supernatural dilemma involves the application of logic to the fantastic rules binding the characters and their world. The perils to which the female lead is subjected are what one expects from a Piers Anthony story, and if his style is not to your taste neither will his take on a hero-rescues-the-fair-maiden story. But Piers Anthony’s fans will enjoy “Hello Hotel” for the flavor and wit he employs here as throughout his bestselling Incarnations of Immortality series.
Ian Creasey’s “Bob’s No-Kill Monster Shelter” is presented as an online newsletter (complete with Shop|Visit|Donate|Volunteer|Adopt links) that opens with the shelter’s latest yeti-conservation work but quickly proceeds into its hot news about an escaped creation of a mad-scientist supervillain. Care to join a monster posse? Must be willing to hear a safety talk; tranq guns issued to participants. The piece’s initial strength is the absurd premise of a conservation program for weird engineered monsters with unknown powers, cryptozoological carnivores, and soul-eating noncorporeal predators that require astral fencing. Momentum is carried not by plot, but by the piece’s humor–which depends largely on the newsletter’s nutty expectation its author expects and receives public support in the mission it describes.
But, wait! There’s more! What’s an online newsletter without advertising? And comments from readers with questions? The laughs don’t stop at the newsletter. The comments eventually include a first-person account of the keystone-cops-style recapture, spam posts marketing everything from supernatural sexual enhancement to trophy hunts, and more. The comedy in the setup easily keeps attention until the narration gets underway, and the hilarity of Internet pseudo-anonymity among the commenters maintains the giggles through the denouement. Creasey’s is a very funny piece well worth reading.
Oliver Buckram’s “Board Meeting Minutes” is a set of minutes from the League of Giant Monsters, and effectively narrates the proceedings during one meeting of its Board. You probably didn’t know what constituted a quorum at such meetings, or appreciate the dispute resolution techniques employed when disagreement arises regarding, say, whether Paris was successfully destroyed in a rampage (or was that just a scale model of the Eiffel Tower in a Southwestern tourist trap?). Readers will learn about the League’s membership and election process. No fan of giant monsters or their colorful names should miss this important data point in the examination of giant monster group dynamics. Buckram’s piece is a light, fun look at the self-governance of the world’s biggest natural threats.
Anaea Lay’s “Armed for You” is a fantasy whose narrator habitually dates fans of Dr. Who, and gets into trouble when he deviates from his type. It’s the extent of that deviation that leads to the story’s horror element, but the characters’ reactions suggest a world in which perils like cannibalistic dates is common. The story presents a hyperbole of real-world domestic violence, inflated to make victims’ denials and hopeful expectations all the more absurd. The fact the victim is male subverts the stereotyped abusive relationship, which some may find comic; more importantly, though, it may also prevent readers from immediately dumping onto the protagonist any pre-convictions about abused women. Since the narrator appears largely unconcerned with his situation, the reader can’t rely on his account to interpret what the story really says about those who permanently scar or disable their romantic partners, because he’s too busy blithely going about his everyday life. Perspective must come, if at all, from the characters the narrator ignores or readers’ own experience. The narrator’s acceptance of his situation, and tolerance of his relationship and its risks, suggest we might follow him into feeling happy he has a relationship, or pleased that he copes so well with the strange universe he inhabits. The narrator’s outlook gives Lay’s piece a lighthearted feel, and its absurdity makes it comic, but it’s hard to escape (if one thinks about the secondary characters’ reactions, and especially if the reader knows people in abusive relationships) the conclusion the protagonist has actively prevented anyone from saving him from a horrible fate (that he doesn’t regard as all that bad, considering). For an anthology that aimed to be funny and dark, Lay’s piece hits the bullseye.
Karen Haber’s “The Unfortunate Problem of Grandmother’s Head” is a futuristic dark SF comedy about getting stuck in the company of awful relatives. The title character is a nasty old thing whose augmentations have given her–or, more precisely, have given her nigh-immortal head–the power to drive generations of descendants to pine for euthanasia. The narrator is herself old enough to need mem-provements to recall the disasters visited upon her by the great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother who goes by the name Grandmother. Despite her maturity and mental resources, the narrator helplessly suffers scolding and verbal abuse that threatens to wreck her love-life and her self-employment as Grandmother grinds like an unstoppable juggernaut across all those she meets. Things worsen as the narrator gets stuck with another relative in her tiny apartment. Anyone who’s had to suffer the social effects of ill-mannered relatives will immediately appreciate the humor Haber employs. Of course, Gentle Reader is surely far too civilized to laugh at something that might seem to endorse the mistreatment of the elderly. But you know, it wouldn’t hurt to read it to find out. You know. For research. And I'm sure that’s not a laugh. I’ll back you that you just had to sneeze.
The title of Eric Kaplan’s “My Mother Loves Her Robot More Than Me and I Feel Bad” is an SF drama narrated by a neurotic son who suffers setbacks in his relationships with his mother, girlfriend, and brother before he throws in the towel to find answers with an unexpected lost-soul ally. The narrator breaks the fourth wall early on, telling readers his admission to unlikeable traits has built their sympathy with him, only to assure them he’s really awful. The story’s greatest strength is its ever-building adversity in the narrator’s absurd circumstances. He doesn’t pretend his responses to the world are good ones; he just describes them. He may be unreasonable, but it’s not hard to see why he wouldn’t tolerate what the world throws at him. And you can’t really criticize his decision to flee. You might run, too. Maybe that’s the horror of it: most people running don’t actually leave town to do it. For example, the brother who disdains the narrator’s conduct doesn’t actually seem to be looking after their mother, either. Much of the story’s darkness arises from how similar the absurdities of the take reflect life: the nutty places we seek advice when we’re desperate, the ways we avoid confronting problems, and the misery of our defeat when, unprepared, we do confront them. The more I think about “Mother Loves her Robot” the more I recall Kurt Vonnegut explaining at Duke University the difference between good stories like Cinderella (high and low points, culminating in ecstatic victory) and great stories like Hamlet (can’t tell what’s good and bad as it’s happening much of the story, but the characters feel and suffer believably). It might not be uplifting, but it may be more like life than one cares to admit.
In “The Worm that Turned,” Jody Lynn Nye presents an SF police story involving alien symbiotes that will feel familiar to fans of Trek’s Jadzia Dax, and face similar host-matching perils as Trills on Trek. Unlike the Trills on Trek, Nye’s aliens don’t just appear to give unnatural and otherwise inexplicable experience to the humans whom they inhabit–they actually act with independent agency, lie to one another, and create trouble. And since they’re inside a human host, they don’t leave fingerprints…. The protagonist lives in a dark world in which she’s duped by her employer, taken advantage of in agreements, doubted by fools in authority, and arrives too late to save victims. As one might expect from the author of the latest Myth Adventures books, the story closes on a pun. If you’d like an SF police procedural about a cop who solves crimes with her head rather than her sixguns, you’ll enjoy Nye’s “The Worm that Turned.”
Short but hilarious, Tina Gower’s “Department of Death Predictions, Final Notice” is a form-letter sent by a government actuarial office in a dismal future where citizens are required to register for death predictions on penalty of a daily fine–and in which you can’t get insurance against death by “Angry badger infestation.” Is there no justice? I ask you. The letter’s warnings and advice perfectly suit a bureaucratic-nightmare government á la Brazil, though the letter pretends a humanity the government officers in Brazil would never bother to feign–which only makes the letter funnier. Details would spoil, but they make the piece. Recommended.
“Champions of Breakfast” is Zach Shepard’s zany workplace romance gone bad in the offices of GoodFoods, a healthy-breakfast-food manufacturer. Transported to a Breakfast fantasy-land, the protagonist is quickly embroiled in a battle between partisans: the forces of healthy breakfast resist the forces of sugary confections, starting with hard-to-spot waffleganger infiltrators who threaten their camp. And whatever happens in one world affects the other. You can’t help but love the steaks. Ah, sorry. Stakes. Poor Toast hasn’t a chance, of course. And with wafflegangers about, it’s hard to tell who’s on which side…. Shephard’s “Champions of Breakfast” has a funny concept, easy-to-loathe antagonists, and a delightful character arc. A fun, light read.
As promised in the UFO 4 Kickstarter, “Keeping Ahead” by Mike Resnick is the first Lucifer Jones story in quite some time, and it leads readers to a distant island. Jones’ laconic narration of his (mis)adventures underplays octopus- and shark-attacks, which makes one wonder what it takes to excite him. Jones’ ignorance of nautical terminology is a refreshing change from adventurers who keep their oceangoing vocabulary in ship-shape, and his inability to distinguish native fruits from wasp nests when hungry invites readers unfamiliar with the character to wonder what, if anything, the Right Reverend Honorable Doctor Lucifer Jones may actually possess as a survival skill. When Jones finally meets a local, Resnick plays Jones’ obliviousness for laughs. An outsider, Jones notices for readers all the peculiarities of local society that locals take for granted. For example, everything needed for survival in the village is disdained as “women’s work” by men who do nothing to support their community. Resnick fills “Keeping Ahead” with plays on words, and longtime fans may notice his reference to the entertainer Bubbles La Tour, whose name Resnick has published in such lofty publications as Nature. A steady stream of absurdities and enjoyable banter make Resnick’s story a pleasure throughout. If you’ve never read a Lucifer Jones story, this is a great place to start.
“So You’ve Metamorphosed Into a Giant Insect. Now What?” is James Aquilone’s 10-point guide to getting along after transforming inexplicably into a bug. Aquilone tempers tough love with encouraging slogans. (“Believe in yourself, insect.”) No newly-transformed insect should have to do without Aquilone's hard-won tactical insights. (“Do not scuttle in a straight line! If necessary, run back toward your pursuers. This will freak them the f--- out.”) The pamphlet’s important social value to the newly-transformed overrides certain slips, which are surely the simple result of the author employing his ginormous superesophageal ganglion to perform tasks that once were easily handled by the specialized structures of a human brain. I mean, what bug cares if “tarsi” is actually the plural Latin of foot, and “tarsus” the singular? Or could be bothered with the distinction between something that’s implied and something that’s inferred? Aquilone’s important notice to those pursued by the entomophobe masses with their vicious shoes and rolled newspapers is too valuable to suppress or delay over mere quibbles. It must be disseminated as widely as insect transformation is known in the world, and without delay. The non-transformed may find it helpful to build rapport with their chitinous kin by understanding the perspective of their (formerly) loved ones. (That is, before they became all gross). For the good of the community, please pick up a copy of Aquilone’s thoughtful and timely guide.
Michael J. Martinez’ “Confessions of an Interplanetary Fraud” is a comic space opera about a human whose post-abduction life leaves him a weirdo outsider struggling to make it in a galaxy where his nestmates poke fun at his lifelong soft white larval form. Stereotype inversions and ironic reversals provide comic relief, and you probably had no idea how hard it can be on an Ill’illanthan to suffer Twinkie addiction. And, yeah: stuff on Earth has very different value and utility in the rest of the galaxy. The story takes a while to get to the interplanetary fraud, but there’s chuckles all along the way. I particularly enjoyed the lampshade provided for the star that miraculously had the exact same local name as assigned to it on Earth by English-speakers, and whose planet had breathable air. What are the odds? The fourth-wall-breaking comic twist conclusion makes a fine capstone to a fun space fantasy.
Tina Connolly’s “Texts from my Mother About the Alien Invasion” takes the form of an SMS exchange between a golf-course-community retiree and her daughter who lives far enough away not to have noticed the landing on the tenth green. Connolly leverages stereotypes about parents who talk past their adult children as though on a different wavelength, self-absorbed homebodies more interested in neighbors’ lawns’ grooming than their neighbors’ welfare, and those so into their hobbies they stand oblivious to things obvious to others (that a normal person might expect would interrupt bridge night). The result is a casual-feeling exchange delightfully at odds with its dire backdrop, filled with laughs. The mother’s ho-hum take on the alien invasion is as funny as her take on golf, bridge, the neighbor’s shrubs, and her problems shopping at the grocery store. Read it.
Gini Koch’s space fantasy “Support Your Local Alien” entertainingly preserves “Miss” and “Missus” in the age of warp travel, and features safety gear that sounds more suited to steampunk than to spaceflight. In the best tradition of Star Trek, the captain personally enters a steam-filled Engineering whilst an investigation is still underway into the cause of the ship’s drive failure. The voyagers’ backstory–and the solution to the story climax–derives from dealings and relations with aliens that occurred offscreen before the curtain rose on the story, which is somewhat frustrating as a new reader but may be perfectly satisfying to those familiar with the characters and their universe from Koch’s Alien/Katherine “Kitty” Kat series. Entertaining elements help keep attention while the story unfolds, but the effect of warp on morning sickness might have been funnier connected tightly to story action rather than appearing in exposition. Eventually the story takes the definite feel of a space western, complete with settlers surrounded by strange natives and a town with a vacancy behind its Sheriff’s badge. It’s fun to see a prisoner-led mutiny on a space station confronted with traditional ranching skills. Koch’s fans from her “Alien” series will want to see “Kitty” Kat’s space minotaur wrangling in action.
Jonathan Ems’ “Conversation Topics to Avoid on a First Date With Yourself” is a first-person alternate-reality fantasy that recounts a date made through a dating service app designed to set you up with alternate-universe versions of yourself. Nathan shows up at his favorite sushi restaurant to find Natalie in his seat, already eating, and it’s off to the races. Of course, the alternate-reality version of himself who’s a woman has a slightly different take on things. And so has the other Nathan, and the other Natalie, who crash the date. Ems’ piece lampoons the inner thoughts one has while dating, as well as stalker exes, dating services–and even dating itself. Very funny. The fact Ems is willing to title his forthcoming novel Vampire Lesbians from Dimension X tells readers something about the humor he angles to achieve even before picking it up. Pick up a copy of Ems’ “Conversation Topics to Avoid on a First Date With Yourself”–you know, just in case.
C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.
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