Slapstick in space – Mark Roman’s “The Ultimate Inferior Beings”

Description by the author / blurb:

When jixX is appointed spaceship captain for a dangerous space mission he doesn’t regard it as a promotion. More like a computer error, given he’s a landscape architect. The error theory gains in strength when he meets the crew: a carpenter, a gynaecologist and a scientist trying to prove the existence of God. To add to jixX’s woes, there’s a stowaway on board, one of his crew is a saboteur and the ship’s computer thinks it’s a comedian. And then they meet aliens. Not technologically advanced aliens – their civilization is based on the invention of the brick – but jixX has a bad feeling about them anyway. Among them are a religious bunch who believe in The Ultimate Inferior Beings – a species that are really, really bad at everything. According to an ancient prophecy this species will, perhaps inadvertently or absent-mindedly or through some tragic mishap, bring about the end of the Universe. One alien becomes convinced that the humans are these incompetent beings. He realizes he must be the Chosen One, and that it is his Duty to wipe them out before they can trigger total annihilation. So it comes down to jixX to save Humankind …

Review

The field of sci-fi is so immeasurably broad it would be hard to find classic sci-fi scenes that evoke universal recognition in readers. As such, in writing sci-fi comedy, the Mark Roman doesn’t parody persons or topics derived from the sci-fi universe, but he’s rather playing with archetypical themes that keep reappearing in that genre. I think, with that, he has taken the right choice. 

So what we find are spaceships, strange technology, an alien race, a captain and his crew including the deranged scientist etc. – the universal stock sci-fi builds on. The author has taken this stock and has gone about to twine it into a comedy tale.

About humour one cannot argue, but humour only works for you if it appeals to you. I didn’t find much to incite laughter in „Spaceballs“. And I’ve read „The Ultimate Inferior Beings“(TUIB) without laughing so much as once. Now, the humour between the two might not be comparable, but what I mean to say is: there are other people who are rolling on the floor when watching Spaceballs and by checking other reviews for TUIB, I saw there are many people who passed an equally brilliant time reading it.

Well, so it’s my turn to tell why I didn’t think it funny.
Humour, to catch on to me, needs to be crisp and sparkling. It should not make a sweep along the circle of it – it shouldn’t tell me the whole of the joke. Rather, it should be an indication – an indication itching on my mind. Humour doesn’t need to show its funniness to be itching enough to prod me into laughter. But it’s for me to complete the circle, to catch up with the hint, to realise the joke behind the words. Thus, I’m not fond of slapstick. What I love is the slight irritation you get from reading between the lines, irritating your vocal chords into a breakout of hilarity.

Of this kind of humour TUIB doesn’t offer much.

There are some examples, though, that might have lead in that direction, had it been the author’s own sense of humour to follow them.
For instance, what I liked most about the captain jixX was the sense of duty he displayed albeit his irrational election to the starship command. At one point he’s planning on spending the mission relaxing and watching DVDs. But when it comes to testing the transportation mechanism on the alien planet, he valiantly steps forth to offer himself up to it – and, later on, also to what is demanded of him in the competition with the aliens. He’s both resigned and brave – living in an irrational universe, he tries to hold on to some sense of rationality.
Really amusing is his first encounter with the stowaway, a lady called sylX. He’s gone to meet all of his crew members and suddenly is faced by one more crew member than there should be. He is, evidently, quite puzzled by the situation. Still he goes ahead telling the crew his important communication, „but occasionally also glancing at the stowaway“.
A similar dynamic carries the scene in which jixX discovers what twaX, the carpenter turned crew member, has done to the mahogany dining table on board. First, jixX is numb and silent, then he carefully voices a doubt, finally, he leaves, „gently closing the door“ on the noisy madness behind.

And this is my second cherished point. Sometimes the author manages to catch such scenes of embarrassment admirably. The characters find themselves an impossible situation, and it’s funny to see their own awareness of it, it’s funny to see how they try to manage it nevertheless.
In his first official meeting with a specimen of the alien race, jixX is short for words to say. An uncomfortable silence devolves and it is actually the alien who’s going about to break it with reiterated attempts – in talking about the weather.
In shortly describing this tiny episode, I feel like I’ve almost given away one of the biggest jokes of the novel, something that made me actually smile.

To be able to capture the humoristic instead of the unpleasant sense of embarrassment is a rare quality. Undoubtedly Mark Roman owns that quality. Alongside with this he also demonstrates his awareness to the fine shades of social interplay.
The relation between jixX and the stowaway develops naturally, though it is hardly described. When the spaceship computer LEP suggests to jixX he could stand a chance with the stowaway, jixX brushes the idea off and says „she’s after my job“. Later on she twice pecks his cheek, disappears, appears again – there’s not much happening, but the reader knows all along what will happen. In their last talk recorded in the novel, the author plays with their embarrassment: „They lapsed into silence, not making eye contact“ etc. The author knows the reader knows what will happen, and he draws on that. Thus, what jixX finally proposes to her seems the most natural thing in the world.

Mark Roman shows an easy skill in slightly touching on the unspoken underpinnings of conversation, the words implied, the relations presupposed, and the saving of ‘face’. JixX, though he rather seems to shun that out, is well aware of the madness that is going on, but still tries to save his ‘face’ and also to save the ‘face’ of those around him. Just an instance: when the spaceship computer is convincing itself that a crew member has fallen in love with it, jixX humours it, instead of contradicting it, though he certainly isn’t too sympathetic with LEP’s odd spells. Then there is the behavioural chemist on board, the mad scientist working on his proof of God’s existence. JixX’s whole behaviour towards him is characterised by his efforts to safeguard what self-esteem the persons in his environment hold on to or still hold on to. „It is hard work,“ asserts the scientist in regard to his fantastical proof. „I can well imagine,“ replies JixX understandingly – and wonders what his crew member’s ruminations might drive him to. JixX shows this keen sense of embarrassment most often, and tries to alleviate it as good as he can – but so also do the other characters in the novel, to a greater or lesser extent. There is humour in the madness of life and in taking it graciously and trying to keep up with the appearances – the author sees that and works on that. I just wish he had done so more often.

Because the greater part of the humour, as I perceived it, was of the obvious, the clamorous kind.

I was tempted to skip over the better part of the passages featuring Jeremy, the particular alien mentioned in the blurb. He tries to convince everyone else that the humans are the ‘Dogs’ – the ultimate inferior beings – and that he is the Chosen One. His self-assertive reasoning is widely described and though it might have been amusing to point at it as an ‘underpinning’, the constant, open reference to it makes the joke quickly grow stale. I’m the Chosen One, Jeremy says. You’re not, the others say. You see, he says, that’s the proof. It’s written the Chosen One won’t be accepted for what he is etc. etc.
The ‘mad scientist’ draws the same logical loops in his proof of God and his faulty conclusions are brought forth in detail. For me, this is hardly more than the equivalent of slapstick. Some people also laugh the second time the drunkard on TV comedy walks into a lamppost. In much the same manner one could laugh again and again at each new tripping of Jeremy or the behaviour chemist over the basic rules of logic. But I just sat there reading, mute and impatient, and flipped to the next page.

And obviously it is strange how the aliens are splattering themselves all over the place every time there’s a stop in their system of transportation – but must it really be told three times, and three times told what a disgusting slimy picture it was? As I’ve written above, I found jixX reaction when invited to take a ride much more comical.
It seems to me that the obvious humour of the slapstick-kind is always exaggerated humour. It shouts out wildly: „Hey, look here! This is funny!“ You either look and like it or you’ve grown deaf by all the shouting.
You shield your ears and turn to listen to the story behind the story, the people behind the jerking hand puppets of the up-front ballyhoo.

Mark Roman’s working out of the characters is rather a good point of the novel.
Though, here again, the descriptions suffer from their exaggerations – which, as I said, don’t make things funnier to me, but indeed less funny. Instead of my sense of humour becoming irritated by odd twists of personality, instead of my then seeing the joke behind them, the characters often come across as jokes in themselves. It’s funny when the carpenter twaX, lusting for work, twitches and sweats above the mahogany dining table – it has outgrown funniness when he runs madly off with an axe in search of a forest.
The characters suffer from the obviousness of the humour. They would have been stronger wouldn’t they have been forced to shout out their funniness at all instants. In consequence they tend not to be funny any more – but just bizarre. Characters turn to jokes.

But novels run on characters. I think the author has distorted his characters because of his sense of humour I do not share (but, indeed, so many others do). Nevertheless he has managed to get across decent individual portraits. It won’t come as a surprise that jixX and sylX appear best drawn out to me. They often figure as poles of saneness and act less aberrantly. I quickly got attached to both of them. When sylX, at one point, doesn’t want to continue with the crew, I was surprised that I was actually upset. And despite my misgivings about the book, I read it through, I wanted to see how it all turned out, I wanted to know how jixX would deal with what was to come.

But I toiled through the glossary – to the story, a long glossary is appended. Reading through it was more confusing than anything else. I honestly do not know what can be salvaged, on the humorous side of things, from entries such as these: “FORWARD ENGINE ROOM. Vast, noisy, oily, dirty, smelly sort of place where most of a spaceship’s engines are kept.” The terms explained get more complicated, but it’s always the same bland style of fun. It was an utter bore.
Much the same is to be said about the four appendices. In the first three, further aspects about the history of the alien race are explored. Indeed this could have added to the depth of a serious sci-fi or fantasy epic, where the evolution of whole empires is recounted, but it’s grossly misplaced in comedy sci-fi, in a tale where an ‘alien race’ is just the stereotypical alien race to set the comedy going. Perhaps the whole joke simply was the disproportion and misplacedness of it all. But then it was, again, a grossly exaggerated joke – and a costly one. Because the glossary and appendix together make up more than a fifth of the entire book!
The three appendices mentioned didn’t give me a single occasion to smile. They just recount episodes with characters only brushed in contours. Now take away from the novel what made me appreciate it – the nagging underpinnings in the social interplay of sympathetically troubled characters – and what you get is these three appendices. In short, I made haste to get over with them.
The fourth appendix is the spelling out of the proof of God the behavioural chemist has come up with – in other words, we just see the drunkard bang his head against the lamppost a final time. And I remained mute and annoyed.

In truth, until reaching the glossary, I was still wavering whether I shouldn’t consider a 3 star rating for the novel. The glossary and appendices settled the question.

I would have liked the author to tell the story with another humour, the one I found indications for, indications that kept me finishing the book. With that concurred the generally likeable people sketches – as far as they exemplify what jixX behaviour is the pure example of, as outlined above. But the author has embarked on another train of humour and the jokes have driven away from me with the noisy hoots and hisses of the steam engine. Humour was deafened out. Others – call me deaf and laugh.

Again, you cannot argue about what fun should be like.

Rating: 2 of 5 stars

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