The roots of English language comedic writing can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer put together an extremely odd collection of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, had them tell each other stories to pass the time, and English literary comedy was born. The trail between the Medieval England and present day leads through Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and other great satirists and humorists down through the years.
When this comic sensibility met up with Science Fiction in the twentieth century, the possibilities seemed endless. First of all there was the tendency among science fiction aficionados to take themselves and their genre far too seriously, creating endless opportunities for satire. However, the potential for absurdity reached new heights with Star Trek and the obsessive fan syndrome it spawned. Of course, when adults are prepared to dress up as their favourite species from a fictionalized television show and attend conventions with others so inclined, you don’t have to look far to invent absurd situations. In fact, one of the great difficulties in creating comic science fiction is absurdity is so thick on the ground in the first place that writers have to be careful not to go over the top and ruin their premise.
Even the best of the contemporary comic writers in the genre, the late Douglas Adams, fell into that trap with Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by going back to that well even when it was tapped out. Setting something in outer space in the future does not automatically make it funny — if a joke doesn’t work, it doesn’t work no matter where you have it being told and who or what’s telling it. Of course, humour is a highly personal thing, and what one of us finds funny another might find stupid. However, there’s more to writing a funny book than turning it into a series of jokes, or stringing together a series of comedy sketches loosely tied together by the fact the same characters appear in all of them.
Unfortunately the new novel by Michael Rubens, The Sheriff Of Yernameer published by Random House Canada and released August 4/09, falls into that latter category. For while the novel has a loose over all framework, the characters stumble through a series of unrelated situations while traveling across space to their final destination. This structure isn’t surprising when you consider Ruben’s previous experience was either producing or writing for television, including sketch comedy shows like the Daily Show With Jon Stewart. However, what works for a television sketch comedy show, for all its intelligence and humour, isn’t going to necessarily work in a novel.
The story revolves around the misadventures of Cole, a failed smuggler and second rate crook. Not only does he owe money to a particularly nasty bounty hunter named Kenneth, his girl friend has just dumped him for his sidekick, and his space ship has just been turned to dust for his failure to pay his docking fees. In order to get away from it all, specifically Kenneth who has offered to lay his eggs in Cole’s brain in lieu of payment, he steals a fellow, far more successful, crook’s ship and in the process inherits its current mission: transporting a colony of freeze dried orphans to Yernameer, the last unbranded planet in known space.
Everything, from the bullet about to kill you to the crook who fired it at you, is sponsored by somebody. Some items — like the guns that shoot the bullets — even come with little messages telling you how proud they are to be sponsoring this event and how wonderful a job their product is going to do in killing you. Hence, the attraction of the last unbranded planet to those who wish a return to simpler times, or who are on the run from the law or other types. However, Cole and his clients are in for a rude surprise when they arrive on Yernameer, as its not just happy settlers who have come to this final outpost on the edge of the frontier. It turns out the universe’s nastiest gang of inter-species outlaws have crash landed here and are about to start making life miserable for those living in the one town on the planet.
When Cole does a Dorothy and lands his spaceship on a band of the outlaws delivering an ultimatum to the townsfolk, it’s decided he’s the one to protect the settlement from the bad guys and he’s made sheriff. Which, in spite of his best intentions otherwise, he somehow manages to do. Even Kenneth showing up looking to do some nesting doesn’t change matters, and Cole stumbles through to the end a winner and a loser all at once. While Cole’s character is likable enough, in a he’s-really-pathetic sort of way, everything about him and his adventures has a strong air of deja-vu written all over it. Even though some of the scenarios might be original, there’s the constant feeling of, I’ve-read-this-before permeating the whole book.
As a result the humour quickly becomes tired as the jokes sound all too familiar. From the space station full of middle management types on a training course who have turned into cannibals because of an implant to the world’s stupidest computer named Peter, nothing about the book is really that funny. It’s unfortunate because the potential is there for a very funny book about branding, logos, and sponsorship, but Rubens opted for easy jokes instead of exploring the topic with any depth.
While there’s nothing wrong with The Sheriff Of Yrnameer, there’s also nothing about it that is of particular interest to hold your attention. While the comparisons to the work of the late Douglas Adams are inevitable, they’re not going to be favourable as this book lacks the freshness that made his initial works so captivating. There’s a galaxy of humour out there waiting to be discovered, but unfortunately this book goes places where far too many have gone before and the scenery has become boring.