Kage Baker was a funny lady. She was witty, she was a marvelous raconteuse, she could write wonderfully funny stories. Partly it was due to her skills as a writer, and because she saw the absurd comic potentialities in the world all around her. Partly it was because she had a sense of humour at all.
In persons who write genre stories like science fiction and fantasy, a sense of humour is rare indeed. There is a vocal percentage of the audience that loudly objects to humour in its space opera, first contact sagas , social science novels or fantasy stories. Consequently, the writers who continue to indulge are usually either very bad – i.e., juvenilia, bathroom humour, satires of classics – or they are very, very good. Sir Terry Pratchett is probably one of the best practitioners (and examples) now living.
Kage was pretty damned good at it, too.
She got a lot of fan letters, and her sense of humour was the single most remarked-upon attribute of her writing. Most of the folks who wrote liked it; only the sour ones, the over-grim and Puritanical – what she herself called “The Fanboys” – objected. They complained that her humour detracted from the story lines. She lampooned the type in several places, including the character of the little stupid guys, Homo umbralensis, in the Company novels. Kage felt that a variety of humans with no sense of humour could not possibly be the species to which she herself belonged …
The objections to her sense of humour were not just because she was female, either – although most of The Fanboys didn’t seem to realize her gender. They took her name Kage (pronounced “cage”) as the Japanese word “kage” (pronounced “Kah-gay”): which it wasn’t. But then, female science fiction writers are also disdained by this kind of reader; Kage washed her hands of them, and continued to write the way she wanted.
She always said, she never set out to be funny. But people are ridiculous, and life is chock-a-block with absurdity – them with eyes to see, she said, couldn’t help falling about with laughter. Like the wonderful macabre cartoonist Gahan Wilson (whom she loved), Kage averred solemnly that she wrote what she saw. She just saw lots of peculiar things.
When Kage first learned that dodos were actually giant, flightless doves, she laughed hysterically – it was absurd, that the poster child for “eaten into extinction” should be a monstrous pigeon. (She considered Howard Waldrop’s “The Ugly Chickens” the funniest story about evolution ever written. It just about is, too.) When she looked into precisely why pandas were sliding inexorably into extinction, she also could not stop laughing – – what can you expect of a species where the genders don’t live in the same area, won’t eat the same foods, have a fertile period of about 30 minutes a year and can’t understand one another’s courtship behaviour? Pandas are practically icons for DIY extinction. Kage was sad, angry, disbelieving: so how can you help but laugh? It’s a cosmic joke.
History is rich with black humour. The Romans tried hard to keep their subject people out of the Eternal City. They knew there was a limit to how many people could share all the neato fruits of civilization: like civic plumbing. Plumbing in lead pipes. Lead pipes which made the Romans sterile and left their kids mentally deficient. Luckily for the generations immediately after Rome fell to the encroaching barbarians, running water went extinct for a while and general intelligence had a chance to recover.
Academia is full of jokes. The first Neanderthal skeleton was put together wrong, and no one noticed the original owner had had bad arthritis; hence, the simian posture. That contretemps struck Kage as even funnier than Piltdown Man, who was at least conceived by some honestly larcenous villain out for fame and good English fossils.
Then there were the paleontologists Cope and Marsh, whose rivalry over American dinosaur bones was so fierce that they had their minions blow up and destroy bones they couldn’t ship home – just to keep them out of one another’s hands. They were so eager to display new specimens that Marsh, in thoughtless haste, originally attached the head of the first brontosaurus to the wrong end of its spinal cord; it was several years before anyone noticed the error. And then it was the wrong skull anyway.
Kage loved this sort of thing. She would also love the present story about a language on the edge of extinction – Ayapaneco, an ancient dialect in Mexico. The story is here:
It’s one of the rarest of dying languages, with only two native speakers left alive, both elderly men. Language experts are desperately trying to compile tapes and a dictionary from conversations with them, in order to preserve the tongue at all. This would work better if they could tape the two old gentlemen speaking Ayapaneco to one another: but the guys won’t. They don’t like one another, and refuse to exchange words. They say they have nothing in common.
This one would have had Kage in hysterics. “Good God, they’re linguistic pandas!” I can hear her cry. “There’s gotta be a story in this!”
Maybe there is. But you have to keep your sense of humour.