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Bad Chemicals & Babel Fish: My Favourite Humorous Science Fiction Books

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

This may be a controversial choice to top a list of humorous science fiction books, but I have to give it pride of place. While it’s not technically a science fiction story, one of the main characters is a science fiction writer, and the book relies on the tropes of science fiction to propel itself.

If you haven’t read it, the story is about Dwayne Hoover, a car salesman slowly losing in his mind because of “bad chemicals” in his brain. At a key moment, this Midwesterner is introduced to the work of the aging and unsuccessful science fiction writer Kilgore Trout; in particular, Hoover reads Now It Can Be Told, a novel that hypothesizes every human on the planet is a robot, except for the reader – Hoover, of course – who has free will. “Hijinks” ensue.

I can still vividly remember reading this book when I was fourteen years old – I annoyed the hell out of my friends, as I read from frequently it at lunchtimes. (When wasn’t laughing hysterically.) I joked about how my Zesty Cheese Doritos were nothing but “bad chemicals” for my brain. This book – I’m not sure it can be technically called a novel because it’s so meta and post-modern – blew my brain wide open! Vonnegut outlines the plot of the whole thing in the first chapter. He fills the book with ruminations on free will, suicide, social and economic cruelty, many of which are savagely funny. There are actual doodles that are part of the book. I mean, at one point Vonnegut sketches a simple line drawing of an anus.

Here it is, along with his explanation:

quote from the humorous science fiction book, Breakfast of Champions with an immature drawing of an anus

I never had a chance.

A template for my own recurring characters

Breakfast of Champions employs characters from many of his other books, and certainly, the concept of a Kilgore Trout character had a huge influence on me. I mean, Alpha Max does not exist without Kilgore Trout living in my brain as a template for two dozen years. (The main character in my book, Dr. Maximilian Tundra, is a recurring character, too, appearing in three of my previous novels: Marvellous Hairy, The Fridgularity and The Fatness.)

In addition to laugh-out-loud moments, there’s pathos and Vonnegut’s signature love of humanity. There are moments of absolute beauty too. In one chapter, Kilgore Trout comes upon this graffito on a bathroom wall:

What is
the purpose
of life?

Trout plundered his pockets for a pen or pencil. He had an answer to the question. But he had nothing to write with, not even a burnt match. So he left the question unanswered, but here is what he would have written, if he had found anything to write with:

To be
the eyes
and ears
and conscience
of the Creator of the Universe,
you fool.

I was a fool! It’s so obvious to Trout – and Vonnegut by proxy – but it was a thought that had never occurred to the 14-year-old me. (I was barely framing the inciting question.)

I read this before any other Vonnegut book. Before anything else on this list. So, yeah, technically it’s not science fiction, but it’s about the writing of science fiction.

This book is the bad chemical that started it all – at least it did for me.

Here’s the rest of the list:

15 Fabulous and Humorous Science Fiction Books

  1. Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
  2. The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy, by Douglas Adams
  3. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
  4. Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, by Christopher Moore
  5. The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison
  6. Perseus Spur, by Julian May
  7. Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfař
  8. Headcrash, by Bruce Bethke
  9. Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, by Spider Robinson
  10. Jennifer Government, by Max Barry
  11. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  12. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
  13. Dimension of Miracles, by Robert Sheckley
  14. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
  15. Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk

My greatest hope is that Alpha Max would someday be included on your version of this list!

You can get the Kindle version on Amazon right now.