Pantheon, 2009, 269 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-37847-7
Science Fiction comedy is rare partly because it’s difficult to do well. For every Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a book that even Adams found hard to top), there are ten other guys who think that slapstick in zero-G is enough farce to go around. The best comic SF comes from setting the strengths of the genre against each other, most frequently by using ridiculous iconoclasm to undermine the more sublime tendencies of SF. Adams understood this (perfect example: the Babel Fish), and embraced the national British notion that underplaying something is quite a bit more enjoyable than being a buffoon mugging for laughs.
But it’s really unfair to compare anyone to Adams, except when it tells us something about when a story doesn’t work. As it happens, Michael Rubens’ The Sheriff of Yrnameer does work, but not without a soft reboot, some error-correction and a bit of indulgence.
It took me two attempts to really get into the story. A first read ended less than fifty pages in, stuck on a complete lack of interest. Something about a deadbeat adventurer, a debtor who wants to use his body as an incubator and a flurry of tedious detail. Stop. Shrug. Go back in the to-read pile. Blame the weather.
Things went much better the second time around. The Sheriff of Yrnameer follows the adventures of an engaging rogue named Cole, who is seriously, unarguably, dangerously in debt. A temporary reprieve from a very competent bounty-hunter creditor named Kenneth –who can’t wait to find a living body for his eggs and has an ovipositor ready to go past the first indebted eyeball– only buys him enough time to hijack a space freighter and have a few adventures before crash-landing on Yrnameer where he’ll get to help a small town threatened by criminals.
If nothing else, The Sheriff of Yrnameer is competent funny SF: The tone is ridiculous, Rubens plays with a few classic SF concepts (I was particularly fond of the sentient AI who’s too stupid to trip the sentience-destruction routines) and while the laughs are few, the book at least manages to earn a semi-permanent grin. The narration is charmingly elliptical, slyly undersells the jokes and rarely mugs for attention. There are a few good characters in the mix, and their interactions become increasingly more important at generating the punch-lines. Never mind why such a competent bounty-hunter as Kenneth would hang around a dead-end planet for weeks at a time: He gets one of the best lines of the book with “there’s no need to keep saying ‘Hello, Kenneth’ each time you enter a new room.” [P.223] If the story wraps up a bit bitterly for the hero, there’s always the chance of a sequel to make it up to him.
What the novel doesn’t master so well is sustained build-up. There are three broad acts to The Sheriff of Yrnameer and each one seems at best semi-linked to each other. While the first-third setup of Cole’s troubles tortuously leads to a midway sequence set on a training station where corporate drones have been turned into zombies, there’s a clear cut between those first two-third and the last act spent defending a small town from bandits. It explains why the novel’s sub-genres also keep switching on us: The SF-heavy first scenes eventually lead to horror parody and then to western comedy. This tendency to punch the reset button every ninety pages weakens the novel by making it a string of disconnected vignettes more than a sustained narrative.
It’s noteworthy that this is a science-fiction comedy novel published outside the usual genre publishers and, as far as I can tell from a casual trawl through blogs, didn’t get much attention from SF genre readers. There are a few explanations for this (Rubens hails from comedy TV writing, not genre fiction) but no real excuses. While it’s true that the SF elements in The Sheriff of Yrnameer play off generic devices and so have very little to contribute back to the SF genre discourse, it’s still a fairly entertaining take on elements that should be dear to SF readers. Still, even though a familiarity with dystopian space operas, egg-laying parasites, corporate zombies and far-west bandits certainly doesn’t hurt, Ruben’s first novel is also a book that should appeal to readers who aren’t necessarily steeped into genre conventions. No matter how you look at it, it’s a book that reaches its own expectations and delivers a good time along the way. Not every book can be a new Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; sometimes, it’s just fine to make references to it.