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The Flying Sorcerers

a novel by Larry Niven and David Gerrold

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One of Science Fictions Greatest Comedies

  • Mar 17, 2011

I love science fiction humor - when it's done well, and Flying Sorcerers is one of the best. 

SF comedy as a sub-genre hardly exists at all.  Most such fare used to be reserved for the fanzines and semi-prozines (the print versions).  A perfect example is A. Bertram Chandler's Naval Engagement which first appeared in the pages of the Australian Science Fiction Review (and later anthologized in a Harrison & Aldiss Best of the Year.  It's exactly the kind of corny, pun-based, inside joke type of thing that fans get off on and that we don't see nearly enough of any more.

Good SF comedy strikes that fine balance you find with some of the better adult-oriented cartoon fare like The Flintstones or The Simpsons (or Bugs Bunny for that matter):  the scenes, the dialogue and the story all play on multiple levels; things that kids will laugh at while the adults are groaning and vice versa;  the in-jokes will really get a rise out of those who are 'in', but missing that extra level of information won't detract from the story for those who aren't.

The good ones are also the stories that get their references right.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the authors who have produced really fine SF comedy:  Harry Harrison with Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers and Bill, The Galactic Hero; Eric Frank Russell (just about everything he ever wrote but Allamagoosa is the oft-cited prime example); Barry Malzberg writing as K. M. O'Donnell (Dwellers in the Deep, Gather in the Hall of the Planets); Kornbluth (Hogben, Proud Robot and many others), Ted Sturgeon (girl had guts, others), Farmer with his sweeping homage/parodies (The Other Log of Phineas Fogg).  Hey - I didn't say who's hand we'd be counting the fingers of/

(Someone really needs to bring out an SF humor anthology.)

Add to that small grouping of specialists Larry Niven and David Gerrold and stick this novel towards or at the top of the heap.

That either of these two gentlemen has a sense of humor should not be surprising:  Niven did after all write the seminal critique of Superman in his "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" essay and Gerrold, for better or worse, is the person responsible for foisting tribbles on us.  (If you've ever read his Chtorr series, you'll also know that he has a fine eye for irony.)

The Flying Sorcerers is a pretty straight-forward tale: a deep space explorer gets marooned on a world inhabited by a less advanced humanoid species and must seek the help of the natives to retrieve his spaceship.

There only a few problems though.  The natives are rather unsophisticated technologically speaking and, they believe in magic.  Which actually seems to work for them, after a fashion.

Those are just the first two surface levels of this story.  Buried inside is a whole heck of a lot of punnish fun poked at contemporary SF authors and critics (Niven himself, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Sam Moskowitz, Harlan Ellison and others), a critique of NASA and the Apollo program and a very clever discourse on the comparison of two belief systems - magic and science.

The novel reaches its cleverest moments at those times when the authors provide completely plausible and seemingly rational explanations for the workings of the magic-based belief system of the natives.

The two don't do too badly in the character department either (Niven is always very good with aliens) with their narrator Lant, a humble bone-monger and speaker for the village that the magicians inhabit, Shoogar, the native medicine man and the visiting astronaut 'As A Color, Purple'.)

The story was originally published in Galaxy magazine under the title The Misspelled Magishuns.  The title was designed to clue the faithful into the fact that oddly bent Tuckerizations would be appearing in the story.

The main character - 'As a color, Purple' - none other than Isaac Asimov (as a mauve) - is not the easiest name to guess (others are pretty straight-forward). 

As one would expect, 'Purple' has complete faith in science.  Niven and Gerrold spend almost the entire novel torturing this character with that trait.  Listening to him trying to explain to Shoogar, the local magician, why magic doesn't work is side-splitting.  Perhaps this novel should be used as a primer to help those about to argue with creationists understand what they're up against.

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June 11, 2011
Thanks for reminding me of The Flying Sorcerers. I'll have to find it on my shelves for a quick re-read. Your review also reminds me of all the classic funny SF I have read over the years, one of the funniest being They Walked Like Men by Clifford Simak.
April 24, 2011
HA, I vaguely remember that from a long, long time ago. I don't recall much about the story I just remember it being as funny as hell. Bubble heads sniffing hydrogen, or was it oxygen. I know they were electrolyzing water. How many high school graduates can explain that today?
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The Flying Sorcerers
is a humorous 1971 science fiction novel by David Gerrold and Larry Niven.  

Plot summary

The plot concerns the efforts of an astronaut and geologist/anthropologist, known to the natives as "Purple", to escape from a primitive world on which he is stranded and return to his people. The events are seen from the perspective of Lant, one of the natives, who becomes, in the course of the novel, Speaker (chieftain) of his people.

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