Unidentified Funny Objects
Edited by Alex Shvartsman
UFO Publishing, November 2012
“Timber!” by Scott Almes
Reviewed by Colleen Chen
In the foreword, the editor states that no collections of speculative fiction humor have been published in the last decade. After reading this anthology, I’m afraid I can see why. Humor is subjective enough that one person’s list of funny stories will rarely coincide with another’s, and since Shvartsman aimed to collect the “widest possible variety of genres and styles,” the only organizing factor behind them all seems to be that he personally found them funny. I couldn’t see anything in the selection that made stories benefit from being part of a greater whole, which is one of my criteria for a great anthology. On the contrary, I thought I might have appreciated several of these stories more if I’d found them alone or in a collection not specifically meant to be humor.
My opinion is that these stories work better read slowly, not all at once, and skipping around. That way, the ones that are truly good and (in my subjective opinion) funny don’t get lost. There are several very good stories, and many that are not bad at all, so for those alone the anthology would be a worthwhile lighthearted read.
The anthology starts out well with “Timber!” by Scott Almes, a zany story of a small-time crook who gets sentenced to death by a guillotine that turns out to be enchanted. The crook gets transported to the tower of grandmaster enchanter Pinion, who has mistaken him for a skilled con man and hires him to stop activists from preventing his lumberjacks from cutting down a forest of treants—living tree-creatures whose wood has valuable magical properties. Mostly through random chance, the crook stays one step ahead of the guillotine and manages to find romance on the way.
The narrator is a bumbling idiot, but completely charming. The language of the story is concise but skillfully written. This is, in my opinion, one of the funniest stories of the anthology, and one of the few that made me laugh out loud.
“The Alien Invasion As Seen in the Twitter Stream of @dweebless,” by Jake Kerr, is exactly what it says—a story conveyed through Twitter stream of aliens who are using all Earth’s social media to send warnings of their impending takeover. The humans don’t believe it, calling it spam, marketing, movie clips—until it’s too late.
This very short story is written in a clever format, conveying a full progression of story solely through tweets. For me, the humor fell a little flat—for instance, I don’t feel anything at all with regard to jokes about Canadians—but others who relate more to the plethora of one-liners might like it.
“Dreaming Harry,” by Stephanie Burgis, is one of those stories that I think would shine more in a different collection, because it’s well-written and improves upon further reads, but isn’t funny, although it has plenty of absurd moments. It’s the story of a mother who took a drug during pregnancy that now causes her son to manifest what he dreams at night into reality. So Elizabeth and her husband take turns dealing with Cthulthoid horrors hanging out in the corner of their bedroom, or whatever else their son Harry dreams of, stimulated by the books and movies he’s watched during the day.
Things get more intense when Dr. Margo, the provider of Harry’s health services, shows up for a surprise inspection, with a strange man in tow. She gives Harry a drug that will strengthen the results of his dreams. Her intentions are nefarious, to use these children to possibly create super-weapons out of dream-creatures—but Elizabeth gets creative in order to beat her.
This story has more depth than many of the others in the anthology. I like the fact that it doesn’t center around a punchline, but it still has a particularly satisfying ending.
“Fight Finale From the Near Future!” by James Beamon follows the biggest mission ever of Agent Brody Omen. With the help of a femme fatale and a mysterious stranger, the manly Brody battles an archvillain whose intention is to destroy not only the whole planet, but the whole planet in all alternate universes as well. The story is complete with product placements and interaction with the reader, who turns out to be the mysterious stranger who might just save the day.
This is a mildly amusing satire of both spy stories and live-action games. It’s not deep, but it’s not bad either.
In “Temporal Shimmies,” by Jennifer Pelland, Nadia is a physics professor who’s trying to master beginning belly-dance at the age of 45. Triggered by her jealousy of Joy March, an overly cute and perky substitute belly-dance teacher, Nadia decides to use the university’s particle accelerator to send her past self a message to take belly dance classes. But the consequences of changing the past create a chain reaction of problems, and as she tries to fix those problems with more time-travel tinkering, more problems ensue.
The slightly silly premise of this story works well. The writing is good and the story held my attention. I do wish I could encounter a time travel story sometime in which things actually go well if one changes the past, but I guess that would send the wrong moral message. Anyway, this one is worth a read as a lighthearted take on the theme of time travel’s nasty butterfly effect.
In “The Day They Repossessed My Zombies,” by K.G. Jewell, the narrator’s zombies have been repossessed and he needs them for a job. When he encounters a protest of the Undead Abolitionists, a group that wants to see the end of zombie slave labor, he realizes that if he converts to the “free zombie” cause, he could still get zombie labor for the price of a little brain and a Teletubbies DVD, but he wouldn’t have to pay to lease them. When he tries to buy out the zombies so he can free them, though, he discovers that the Pixie Syndicate has been playing dirty, and they’ve commandeered his zombies. He takes the Undead Abolitionists on a march for a face-off with the pixies.
This is another gem of the collection, unique, politically correct, and actually quite funny.
“Moon Landing” by Lavie Tidhar offers ten short-short alternate possibilities of what happened during Neil and Buzz’ moon landing . They range from Neil and Buzz tossing a coin and having Buzz end up going first, to finding aliens on the moon, to discovering the moon is made of cheese. They felt somewhat random to me, with no obvious progression from the first to the last, and the humor is mild, a punchline for each vignette. But if you like moon-related jokes, you’ll love reading this.
This is another piece that I think would be set off better in a non-humor speculative fiction collection, or read alone.
In “The Last Dragon Slayer” by Chuck Rothman, Hal discovers that the cobbler’s shop he works in used to be a guild of dragon-slayers. Unfortunately, he only finds out because the king has ordered him to kill a dragon, on pain of death. Hal ends up alive inside the dragon’s belly, where with the help of an enchanted toad and a mysterious object called a “computer,” he attempts to save not only himself but several others trapped inside the dragon.
This story feels a bit thin and moves rather quickly, but I suspect it would be a huge hit with a middle-grade age group, which would appreciate the action, the modern elements within a fantastical setting, the absurdity, and the slapstick action.
In “The Venus of Willendorf,” by Deborah Walker, a young woman named Jane has turned into an incarnation of Venus—not the incarnation she’d intended, but a much earlier one. So we have a large stone statue that’s making men go crazy wherever she goes. She’s followed by a parade of men as she shops for clothes at the Gap. The final message of the story, which doesn’t really resolve, is that things could always be worse.
Some excellent visuals, flawless rhythm to the writing, and an interesting premise, but I’m not sure about the execution. I just was not aware of any purpose to the story beyond its shock value or the mild amusement factor. I suppose it works well as a fable, with the moral—be careful what you wish for.
“Love Thy Neighbors,” by Ken Liu, presents a story in live-show format to explain the exploits of Kasper Filip, Founder and Executive Director of WikiGenes. Filip is behind the modification of genes of several endangered species, brought about in order to save them. Thus, giant pandas mate more and are less picky about what they eat; mutant manatees attack speedboats; penguins have moved down south and terrorize kids in suburban neighborhoods. And now, Kasper Filip is about to introduce the next phase in his personal philosophy of world transformation.
This seems a little bit more horror than comedy. It’s well-written, and the live-show format is interesting. None of the characters are likable—including the animals—but maybe that’s an intentional effect of the story, with its rather frightening theme about loving your neighbors.
“The Alchemist’s Children,” by Nathaniel Lee, is a modern, coming-of-age story about an alchemist’s family. Jen’s brother Newt has gone crazy in his dorm room, forcing Jen to journey to find her alchemist father, who left her and her brother when she was a toddler. She has to get past her father’s beasts of protection, including a werewolf and a dragon, and she does so not using magic or physical prowess, but with that greatest of modern weapons: the brain.
This is another story that feels appropriate for a younger audience. It’s a cute tale of getting to know an estranged parent, and of science versus magic. I found it definitely worth a few smiles and with some depth to boot.
In “The Fifty-One Suitors of Princess Jamatpie,” by Leah Cypess, Princess Jamatpie has a problem. She’s sixteen and of marriageable age, and she has too many suitors. All her female relatives give her advice on how they chose their husbands, but whatever Jamatpie does, she still can’t choose, partially because her suitors are a bunch of losers and she can’t distinguish them from each other. She finally comes up with a creative and unique solution to her dilemma.
Another cute story, this one a fairy tale with a modernized feminist twist. It’s told well, effectively satirizes some elements of fairy tales, and is an enjoyable read.
“If You Act Now,” by Sergey Lukyanenko, is translated from Russian. Aliens are passing by for a quick visit, and representatives from the world’s most important countries gather to meet them. After asking for help for the world’s problems, the aliens offer items for sale, starting a bidding war among the countries for incredible spaceships, a food synthesizer, a device that can rejuvenate the human body by 100 years, among other wondrous items. It turns out that none of the items are exactly as imagined.
This is a clever story, making fun of late-night infomercials and consumer crazes, and the “ineffable feeling of satisfaction” we get after indulging in retail therapy. Although I don’t equate “clever” with “funny,” as I don’t really find it funny when aliens cheat humans and get away with it, the story is very well done and might also make an interesting contribution to a discussion of Russian versus American humor.
“No Silver Lining” by Zach Shepard is narrated by a werewolf member of Team Forest-Creatures, competing against other mystical creatures for the gold medal in the Fairyland Games. His coach has made him compete in the hurdles, and he’s beaten by the yeti.
I would have preferred this story told in chronological order, instead of from the perspective of a werewolf who’s already been beaten by the yeti. That would have made it more exciting to read a blow-by-blow account of the competition. As it is, the story seems to center around its punchline, and the rest is cleverness without a payout.
“Go Karts of the Gods” by Michael Kurland is a story in the format of an advertisement to join ODISY, a group for Outer Directed Inner Seeking Yearningness that will help you begin to understand the aliens among us and other mysteries on Earth, such as why Go Karts is spelled with a K. That’s about as much of a summary as I can give this story, which is written in a style meant to confuse the reader of the advertisement, which doesn’t help the reader of the story at all. It’s cleverly put together and reads kind of fun, but I can’t say I got anything from it except an appreciation of the author’s facility with language.
“My Kingdom for a Horse,” by Stephen D. Rogers, is about a used horse dealer trying to sell a horse to a king. It is very short and pretty much just creates a metaphor between a horse sale and a used car sale. It might be funnier if I saw it as a movie clip…then again, maybe not.
“Cake from Mars,” by Marko Kloos, takes place on a future Earth in which the Leviticans run the planet and have outlawed anything fun. Moses’ father, who lives in a church nursing home, demands a whore in a birthday cake for his 150th birthday, even though both whores and sugar are illegal. Moses takes his father’s credit stick and goes to Mars to try to smuggle in both.
This is a pleasant, enjoyable read, with an interesting future world and some likable characters. I think I wanted something more to happen in this story, although I have no idea what.
“An Unchanted Sword,” by Jeff Stehman tells the tale of Mathos, a traveling swordsman seeking his first adventure. He enters a town in which you have no status if your weapons aren’t enchanted. Everybody laughs at him, but when trolls attack, Mathos gets the last laugh.
This is a very short piece that depends on its punchline, but it is cute and makes me like Mathos. If he had further adventures, I would want to read them.
“The Real Thing,” by Don Sakers, takes place at a bar far away from Earth. Jane is approached by a drunk, angry, cockroach-like alien who’s spoiling for a fight with an Earthling, angry at his race having given Earth stardrive and then humans expanding instead of perishing. Jane uses queen-juice, a synthetic spray that puts any insect into a mode of subservience, and then explains to him just how Earth avoided the path all the other “slave” races took.
This story centers around a gimmick. Despite the gimmick not really working for me, the story manages to create an interesting and believable future world in a short period of time and is mildly entertaining.
“2001 Revisited Via 1969,” by Bruce Golden is a brief conversation between Hal and Dave of 2001 fame, with the small difference that Hal is high. I read 2001 about 25 years ago so I found the references a little foggy. I believe a niche group who gets the references would enjoy this story, but I don’t fall in that group.
“First Date,” by Jamie Lackey, begins when Leanne’s brother Harry has turned into a werewolf and is about to kill her. She’s saved by Monster Hunter Josh bearing his crossbow and garlic, and they’re instantly attracted. She offers to make him dinner, but their first date gets complicated when Harry wants to come along and his attraction to Josh’s fae neighbor makes the apartment building disappear. It still turns out to be a pretty good date.
The presentation of this urban fantasy story felt somewhat thin and abrupt to me, although it might be appreciated more by a younger audience, or one that would find amusing a bunch of characters ogling each other amidst life-threatening situations. I didn’t feel that the story had enough of a serious tone to make the deadpan humor effective, and I just couldn’t get into it.
“One-hand Tantra,” by Ferrett Steinmetz, stars Loefwyn, a masturbatician. His sex magic skills allow him to plant ideas in people’s heads, so long as he’s thinking of the ideas in combination with visualizing that person at the moment of climax. He’s been hired by Baron Gustavo to implant the idea that the baron is worthy of gaining the inheritance of Griselda the One-eyed, an extremely ugly socialite. Loefwyn finds, though, that his odd sympathy with Griselda prevents him from doing what he’s been paid for when he masturbates to Griselda. Gustavo gets more and more impatient and threatens violence and death to those Loefwyn loves.
This is an odd story. It held my interest and was told as tastefully as a masturbation story could be told, but I just didn’t like the characters very much. The whole concept of masturbation magic is kind of interesting, though, and most anyone who appreciates masturbation jokes, or finds the visual of someone masturbating while thinking about strange things amusing, will find something to like about this story.
“Of Mat and Math,” by Anatoly Belilovsky, centers around Arquimedes Ibarruri, a mathematician mistaken for a terrorist when he glimpses a Unified Theory of Everything while going through security screening in Moscow’s airport. The story goes back in time to explain pieces of what made Arquimedes who he is today—his life as a child and his mathematician au pair, his failure to defend his dissertation, his parents’ divorce. Throughout, it intersperses explanations of Russian slang—mat—with use of the words at seemingly random but watershed periods of his life. The mat used also shows connections between seemingly random events and people—a unified theory of everything overlaid over this story.
This is the smartest story in the anthology, intricate and deep, subtle and amusing. It is more literary than most of the stories here, and is one of the few that made me feel as if I actually got something from reading it besides a snicker or chuckle or two. I really would have liked to find more such stories in this anthology, but it does seem to be one of a kind.
In “All I Want for Christmas” by Siobhan Gallagher, Abby encounters Santa by the Christmas tree. We first think she’s just another kid who’s been exposed to too much violence when she requests a katana like the one she saw in Kill Bill, but we soon discover that she needs to kill some zombies or she can’t play outside.
This is a short, one-gimmick story, and I’m afraid I’m in the least likely demographic (a mother with young children) to enjoy the humor of this story because I was aghast at the premise—that no, kids aren’t watching too much violence on screen; they need it to learn how to fight and kill zombies. Sorry…I just couldn’t suspend my maternal urges enough to enjoy this.
In “The Velveteen Golem,” by David Sklar, the village of Plodnik decides it needs a champion to defend it from persecution by tsarist Russia and Cossacks. The villagers commission a golem from Moishe the tailor, who makes them one out of velveteen. The golem looks sort of like a rabbit and is animate. The golem turns out to be quite useful, stealing beets and carrots from faraway farms and causing them to quarrel with each other and leave Plodnik alone. Then the golem begins to question his own existence, leading to a fateful and fatal birthday party.
This is an amusing, cleverly written story, with the feel of a lovely old tale being shared. I really liked the golem. The only flaw of the story was that I didn’t really understand the punchline, which had me kind of scratching my head and feeling faintly disappointed at the end.
In “The Working Stiff,” by Matt Mikalatos, Isaac Van Helsing is a vampire who hunts vampire hunters, and who is mistaken for a vampire hunter. Because he needs the money, he agrees to kill the vampire that’s been trapped in a barn. He takes along Richard, his lackey who he’s promised to make a vampire. But the vampire they encounter in the barn turns out to actually be a zombie bear—a “zombear.” The resulting battle is quite funny.
This is one of the better stories here, with fantastic characters and dialogue. Isaac Van Helsing definitely deserves more adventures.
In “Worm’s Eye View” by Jody Lynn Nye, Detective Sergeant Dena Malone gets roped into a witness protection issue in which the witness she’s protecting is a meter-long, sentient alien worm creature named K’t’ank that has to live in a human’s body. His former host was murdered, and Dena agrees to become the new one in order to find the murderer. As she goes about her investigation, she soon discovers the pros and cons of having another being privy to all her senses and able to talk to her or anyone else through a bracelet that is his link to the world.
This is a skillfully written and entertaining story, but it was a bit too visceral for my taste. Frankly, the whole concept of having a huge tapeworm voluntarily implanted really makes me nauseous. But if you can get over that, this is a lighthearted, unique story with layers and depth, intelligent dialogue, and a little bit of everything: mystery, suspense, feel-good family stuff, and funny moments.
“The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty,” by Charity Tahmaseb is a cute, short re-writing of the Sleeping Beauty tale, in which the princess is a tomboy who just wants a baseball bat and some adventure. She accepts her spindle birthday present out of pity for her cousins, whose aunt will be angry if she doesn’t at least touch it. But after Prince Charming wakes her from her 100-year-slumber, she has something different in mind for her happily ever after.
This is a well-written modernized version of the fairy tale. It’s really short, so there’s not much to it, but it leaves a pleasant aftertaste and I would definitely have liked to read more of the princess’ adventures.
“El and Al vs. Himmler’s Horrendous Horde from Hell,” by Mike Resnick, is the single novella of the anthology. It’s a fantastical rewriting of history after the US enters World War II. Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler’s supernatural dark powers are pitted against the mathematical magic of America’s premier sorcerer, Albert Einstein.
Himmler calls forth thirteen ten-foot-tall golden-haired warriors from Hell, and Einstein brings only one to combat them—the warrior princess Eleanor Roosevelt, or “Big El.” The resulting battle is quite silly, but entertaining as well.
This is a unique and clever tale, visual and with lots of great one-liners. A good ending to the anthology.
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