Author: Michael Rubens

2009, Pantheon

Best ebook deal: Barnes & Noble

Filed under: Sci-Fi, Humor

Rubens’s biggest credit in his “About the Author” note is as a writer and producer on The Daily Show. So the conceit is clear: this will be a funny TV guy writing a funny sci-fi novel.

There are two ways this can go. The author can use the wide boundaries of the genre as an excuse to take wild risks with the plot and characters, and so short-circuit the usual novelistic learning curve. Or he could be a funny person who thinks that writing a novel is easy, and doesn’t put nearly enough work into it. Unfortunately, Yrnameer is the latter, and Rubens turns in an uninspired, shapeless mishmash.

The premise is derivative to the least—it reads like a compilation of sci-fi’s greatest hits. The plot is barely there. The characters are two-dimensional. And, possibly worst of all, it’s just not that funny. There’s evidence of a humorous mind at work, but there’s a big difference between being funny on TV or in person, and being funny in a novel.

Rubens’s humor is ill-suited for the novel form, and it seems that he is, too.

The first thing I noticed about Yrnameer is the staggering amount of borrowing it does from other books and movies. I’m a casual sci-fi fan at best, but I had no trouble sourcing most of the major elements.

The hero, Cole, is a much less charming version of Han Solo from Star Wars: he’s the put-upon, unwilling helper of a noble cause. The universe is hypercommercialized to the point that corporations have naming rights over even planets—this is little more than a curiosity, it has no bearing on the story other than the fact that “Yrnameer” is short for “Your Name Here,” meaning the titular planet hasn’t yet been named after a company.

Then there’s a host of smaller details that are no less derivative. Guns are called Firesticks (in Army of Darkness, a shotgun, famously, is called a “boomstick”). Space stations rotate to simulate gravity (from 2001: A Space Odyssey). There’s a town in need of a sheriff (that one’s actually from westerns—almost all of them). Everyone says “farg” instead of “fuck,” an echo of Battlestar Galactica’s fictional cussword “frak” (this is an odd one, since Rubens doesn’t have to get around the FCC). And pretty much everything else, especially Rubens’s funny sci-fi style, is cribbed from Douglas Adams. For instance:

Later on, a tumbleweeg, looking for all intents and purposes like a large ball of dried twigs, was carried by the wind past the scribbles. Huh, thought the tumbleweeg, whose name was Reg, that looks like a pretty viable solution to the Riemann hypothesis. I really should mention this to someone, thought Reg, and then the wind blew him away and he forgot about it, as he had a tendency to do.

That’s actually one of Rubens’s better paragraphs, and it still pales in comparison to the real Adams, not least because tumbleweegs, Reg, and the Riemann hypothesis all have absolutely nothing to do with the story.

I don’t mean to say that all this borrowing is intentional, and any one, or even three, of these examples would be forgivable. But the ratio of derivation to originality is so high that it points to a severe lack of imagination, which is the bread and butter of the funny sci-fi novel.

Another big problem is that there’s not enough plot. Cole’s mission for the novel’s first two-thirds is far too easy (take this package to the planet Yrnameer) made even easier by the fact that Cole’s ship has a “bendbox,” which will warp them straight to their destination. To stretch out the story, Rubens has to force complications—bendbox malfunctions, mostly, followed by episodic adventures at this or that ship or station.

Additionally, Cole is a hapless, helpless hero, forever getting into trouble and then being saved not by his own doing, but by a jammed gun or the equivalent. It gets tiresome very, very quickly.

At one point Cole himself even says, “’Why can’t any of this just be easy?’” Well, because if anything was ever easy, the novel would be over.

Rubens’s writing doesn’t help, either. He often lets his narrator explain nuances that he can’t be bothered to put into his characters’ dialogue or actions. Such as, “‘Sorry,’ she said, her tone intimating she wasn’t.” That’s an amateurish cop-out that deflates any sense there might be that these are real people communicating in a real way.

Once Cole and his skeptical clients reach Yrnameer, as the title tells us they will, they find it in need of a sheriff to save it from bandits. Cole instantly, arbitrarily grows a motivation for why he wants to do it. This second plot is actually much better than the first, relatively speaking, and features Cole actually doing something.

But it can’t save the novel from Rubens’s flaws as a novelist. Even a silly, funny, sci-fi novel takes a lot of work, and evidently that was a whole lot more than Rubens was willing to put in.

Similar books: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, by Douglas Adams; the MythAdventures series, by Robert Asprin (for a slightly younger audience); and The Road to Mars, by Eric Idle