(UFO Publishing, October 2020, 304 pp. pb)
“The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Department of Superhero Registration” by Chris Hepler
“Soul Trade” by Galen Westlake
“A.I., M.D.” by Kurt Pankau
“The Fellowship of the Mangled Scepter” by James Wesley Rogers
“When the ‘Martians’ Returned” by David Gerrold
“Welcome Home” by Simon R. Green
“The Unwelcome Matt” by J.J. Litke
“Get Me to the Firg<click><cough>-xulb On Time” by Laura Resnick
“Black Note, In His Transition to a Supreme State of Wokeness” by James Beamon
“The Other Ted” by Wendy Mass and Rob Dircks
“C.A.T. Squad” by Gini Koch
“Ambrose Starkisser Encounters That Which Is Locked” by Jordan Chase-Young
“Gommy” by Amy Lynwander
“Journey to Perfection” by Larry Hodges
“Fifteen Minutes” by Mike Morgan
“Zaznar the Great’s Fifty-Sixth Proposal to the Council for Urban Investment” by Jared Oliver Adams
“Terribly and Terrifyingly Normal” by Illimani Ferreira
“Couch Quest” by Eric D. Leavitt
“Pet Care for the Modern Mad Scientist” by Michael M. Jones
“The Punctuation Factory” by Beth Goder
“One Born Every Minute” by C. Flynt
“Shy and Retiring” by Esther Friesner
“The Dangers of Suburban Deer” by Jamie Lackey
“Body Double” by Jody Lynn Nye
Reviewed by C.D. Lewis
The eighth volume of Unidentified Funny Objects, dedicated to Mike Resnick, contains twenty-four new short stories. In keeping with the tradition of prior UFO anthologies, the editor demonstrates a successful vetting process: whereas most collections do well to present some 30% of the contents you could recommend with a straight face to a friend, UFO offers mostly winners—both from multiply-published wits and authors making their first professional sale. You know you need a laugh. Read it.
Chris Hepler’s “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Department of Superhero Registration” opens like a DMV comedy, complete with long lines, uncaring customer-facing government employees slowly carrying out the letter of the rule in a heartless bureaucracy, surprises from the road-test administrator, and typical government obnoxious fine print. Comparing the protagonist’s supposed powers to the plainly incredible displays of those also in line for service (e.g., a floating demigod whose hair moves in a divine wind that affects only her) sets up what the protagonist accepts as failure. The details are entertaining each step of the way, but the story’s conclusion about what makes a real superhero is both completely serious and emotionally moving. Entertaining, but ultimately no joke: definitely worth the read.
Told from over the shoulder of an arch-devil suffering investment losses, Galen Westlake’s “Soul Trade” depicts a market crash in Hell’s trade in (supposedly) damned souls. According to Jim Butcher, Mark Twain recommended that fiction blend two parts fact with each part fiction for verisimilitude—and Soul Trade complies, being grounded in the economics of the 2008 mortgage-backed securities crash and in an optimistic real-world prediction of global population stabilization (and hence arguably a future reduction in the desperation that leads mortals to sin and damnation). And the feeling of anger at losses caused by distant forces beyond one’s control that wipe out one’s life’s savings is grounded in reality, too. If you know anyone who’s family has been hammered by fraudsters or a market collapse, you’ll share a vicarious thrill when a bankrupted arch-devil tracks down his wrongdoer to exact his cruelest vengeance. Die in torment, worm.
Kurt Pankau’s “A.I., M.D.” is first-person SF about a robot who progresses from the discovery he can get humans to take better care of themselves by misleading them into fearing nonexistent medical conditions, to discovery humans can be made to do all kinds of silly things for its entertainment. It’s not immediately that the reader notices Pankau has delivered a hilarious romantic comedy about a robot who detests humans … making up excuses to see one. Definitely worth the read.
“The Fellowship of the Mangled Scepter” by James Wesley Rogers is a third-person fantasy whose comic strength is grounded in the surprise that flows from dashed expectations. The good guys aren’t, the ruined artifact isn’t, and the gullible dufus brute knows a lot more what’s going on than anyone expects. Thing of beauty.
David Gerrold’s “When the ‘Martians’ Returned” describes with Douglas-Adams-like sidebars and interruptions the circumstances surrounding the Xqrlt3n landing and the quality of Earth reporting on this event. The author responsible for creating Tribbles and Sleestaks delivers a giggle-worthy alien encounter, and a second chance at love here on Earth. Like Monty Python or Douglas Adams, Gerrold’s humor is grounded more in surprise and absurdity than in plot design. Fun.
Simon R. Green’s “Welcome Home” is a third-person first-contact tale set in the present day. “Welcome Home” depicts a lonely divorced alien enthusiast conducting his ritual search for something to give his life meaning (not to be found in his dead-end job) on the night he’s joined by another alien enthusiast. In keeping with its title, it’s got a slow comfortable feel and though it does not really surprise the reader as much as the protagonist it’s a pleasant conclusion and makes one feel good to read. Not a belly laugh, but a good smile.
J.J. Litke’s “The Unwelcome Mat” is a comic urban fantasy narrated by a spiritual medium who specializes in exorcising dark spirits from household goods. “The Unwelcome Mat” follows in the tradition of magic-item-help-desk stories by providing outrageous circumstances without comment as though normal, including crazy customer expectations, complaints that reveal more about the customer than the customer likely intended, and an entertaining juxtaposition of supernatural weirdness and on-the-clock customer interactions in a world in which rent is always coming due. Litke’s comic attack seems to come in all directions: fashion, pop spiritualism, door-to-door salesmen, loony customers—and it’s all good. A comic triumph.
Laura Resnick’s “Get Me to the Firg<click><cough>-xulb On Time” presents SF narrated by an interstellar government’s agent on a diplomatic mission beset by familiar large-organization SNAFUs that one would really have hoped someone would have solved before discovering FTL. Diplomats mangle local pronunciation and miscalculate alien religious calendars while their diligent underlings perform what’s possible to salvage their hopefully meritorious mission objective from leaders graduated from, apparently, the Keystone Kops school of management. Constant laughs. Highly recommended.
James Beamon’s “Black Note, In His Transition To A Supreme State Of Wokeness” follows the superhero Black Note in his internal dialogue with a voice in his head, which claims to be the long-dead ragtime great Scott Joplin. Beamon makes full use of the opportunities created by hearing a voice in one’s head to explore why the voice is there (is it a delusion, and if so which of the speakers is the delusion?), how other supers might react to the news Black Note is hearing voices they don’t, and how Black Note should react to that. The voice drags the protagonist into discussion of the superhero gang and its peculiar tendency to focus on bank robbers instead of industrial pollution or the institutionalized perpetuation of poverty while Beamon makes fun of the superhero genre. “Black Note” doesn’t require readers to take a particular position on racial issues; to enjoy the humor, it’s enough just to know they exist to appreciate the effect the questions have on the protagonist and the voice in his head. You might not go for all the gags, but there’s a laugh in there for all tastes.
Wendy Mass & Rob Dircks’ SF rom-com “The Other Ted” opens with a form-letter invasion notice, which (due to the receipt date and the sender’s choice of Earth-name) the President of the United States mistakes for harassing mail from her disgruntled ex. Hijinks ensue. Private email server trigger warning. Recommended.
Narrated by the human pilot of an unruly band of unaging self-employed feline cyborg ninjas, Gini Koch’s “C.A.T. Squad” details an effort to repair the band’s ship while nudging the crew’s human to find a mate already. Cat people will love it. Cybertronic Autonomous Thief units may disdain it as kitty litter, but that’s C.A.T.s for you.
Jordan Chase-Young’s third-person SF “Ambrose Starkisser Encounters That Which Is Locked” stars a superthief cracking an impregnable vault to reach an interdimensional portal in search of a parallel universe in which the love of his life hasn’t outgrown him. The comedy of the thousand-word piece derives from three elements: the escalating absurdity of the actor’s efforts to access the vault, the anticipation fueled with the delayed conclusion, and a got-what-you-asked-for climactic twist. Fun.
Amy Lynwander’s comic fantasy “Gommy” depicts a low-level criminal’s life after a magical disaster leaves him with an indestructible killing machine committed to living as his overprotective mother. If you thought a parent too involved in a child’s professional life was terrible in a non-magical world, get a load of this. Great use of a foundational myth; pun warning. Read it.
Larry Hodges’ “Journey to Perfection” is near-future SF about a superrich egotist whose experience with his self-driving car doesn’t go the way he hopes. Anyone who’s had trouble with voice recognition, or who loves puns, must read this. Too fun.
Mike Morgan’s alien-abduction comedy “Fifteen Minutes” plays with parenthood and alien invasion tropes while strumming a chord of they-have-no-idea-who-they’re-dealing-with that recalls Niven and the Man-Kzin Wars. “Fifteen Minutes” gets enormous comic power from games played with perspective: a milquetoast father of two worried about a demanding ex-wife looks on the world very differently in the face of attack by alien spacecraft, and the global threat posed by the event juxtaposes hilariously with abductees narrowly provincial concerns seemingly limited to English locales within an hour and a half by car on A49. “Fifteen Minutes” doesn’t depend solely on giggles to keep readers; it’s a proper short story with adversaries and a climactic decision that shows what the protagonist is made of, and it’s the kind of stuff we love in heroes, even if as the curtain opens they seem to be henpecked milquetoast dads of two. Highly recommended.
“Zaznar The Great’s Fifty-Sixth Proposal to the Council for Urban Investment” by Jared Oliver Adams depicts an aquatic alien’s all-too-human efforts to improve his situation. An outsider’s view of human pastimes, a dig at government, a laugh at self-help positive-thinking techniques—Adams mines a lot of areas in this sudden-fiction short. If you like funny-because-it’s-sad comments on the real world, Zaznar’s tale is a lot in a little space.
“Terribly and Terrifyingly Normal” is Illimani Ferreira’s time travel comedy. The agent traveling the future to stop the next Hitler isn’t the only one interested in the protagonist’s effect on the timeline. Agents from the same secret government agency are even killing one another. And then there are the evil minions the protagonist isn’t even looking to gather (yet). Very funny.
Eric D. Leavitt delivers in “Couch Quest” comic SF about a thimble-sized survivor of a prankster alien’s drive-by shrink-ray attack, who courageously girds himself to search a couch for a lost ring. The stakes provide much of the humor, and they keep changing as the protagonist learns more about the incident that shrank him (and about the close-up appearance of common household critters living in and under his couch). Lighthearted fun.
Narrated by the tolerant wife of a mad scientist who works from home, Michael M. Jones’ SF “Pet Care for the Modern Mad Scientist” provides a long-overdue look into the domestic life and personal relationships of the well-adjusted mad scientist. Unfortunately Dr. Daphne’s solution to the housecat’s companionship threatens domestic bliss and, perhaps, the time continuum. Or at least the cat-food budget. Camille sensibly resolves the cat-replicating problem without having to apologize again to a government agency: a good time is had by all.
“The Punctuation Factory” is Beth Goder’s grammatical fantasy about a mismanaged punctuation factory’s department head on her last day of work. Errors in the factory are mirrored in grammatical errors, and character flaws in overpunctuated dialogue. Grammar nerds, rejoice! This one’s for you.
C. Flynt’s “One Born Every Minute” is an urban fantasy narrated by a professional whose name plate appears to match whatever the current client can be sold. This short involves repeated visits by a broke new grad being hazed on her first job into believing she needs a lot of things she doesn’t. The hazing gags, the narrator’s sympathy, and the entertaining conclusion all support the giggles.
Inverting the premise of Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom For Sale, Esther Friesner’s “Shy and Retiring” depicts a fantasy hero’s quest to the real world to pull his world’s Dark Lord back from retirement in Florida in order to provide his life meaning at home where the magic works. Friesner’s short is rich with gags grounded in wide-ranging topics including fish-out-of-water confusion on the part of fantasy characters unable to make sense of commonplace modern objects and language, politics, relationships, and awful Floridian fads that just won’t die. “Shy and Retiring” invites us to cheer for the villain that got away. At least this world is rid of one manatee mailbox.
Jamie Lackey’s “The Dangers of Suburban Deer” wins the best-second-sentence contest by revealing a hilarious scheme to solve gardeners’ perennial problem of plant predation by invading herbivores. Why doesn’t everyone plant beans in a pentagram to channel dire energies against those who eat them? What could possibly go wrong? In 500 words we learn just how bad the deer are.
In “Body Double” Jody Lynn Nye depicts an alien visiting the set of an SF show that uses clones for the main character’s stunt double while a criminal investigation is underway. As one might expect from a Nye work, each page offers laughs. The detective that’s a geek fan of the show, the alien that can’t tell what’s real and what’s part of the show, the scheme to use clones to perpetrate a heist, real-world silly fight-scene antics suitable only for television—the gags just keep coming. Read and giggle.
C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.