May 23, 2024


Science It Works

The Best Sci-Fi Comedy Is Existential

Tom Gerencer’s book Intergalactic Refrigerator Repairmen Seldom Carry Cash features 19 pieces of humorous science fiction. Gerencer selected the stories out of literally hundreds that he’s written over the past two decades.

“If you go to Walmart, and you go into the section with the big Tupperware bins that you can put clothes and stuff in, I would just write and write and write, and fill a notebook with short stories—or fragments of short stories—and then I would put them into the bin, and then I would fill another notebook and put that in the bin, and fill another notebook, and now I have five or six bins in the basement, and there are several bins that I lost at some point,” Gerencer says in Episode 473 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It is certainly an avalanche of words.”

With titles like “Trailer Trash Savior” and “Apocalyptic Nostrils of the Moon,” you might expect the stories to be light-hearted, but Gerencer’s work also contains a dark streak of existential angst, frequently dealing with questions such as: How can we be happy? Why does the universe exist? Can an ordinary person save the world?

“When I deal with horrifying things on paper, it just comes out funny, which is fine,” Gerencer says. “It lets me take a step back from my real life and be like, ‘Come on, relax. Like Bugs Bunny and somebody else before him said, ‘Don’t take it so seriously. You’re never going to get out of it alive.’”

Gerencer’s existential humor is strongly influenced by writers such as Robert Sheckley and Douglas Adams. “The [Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] trilogy is one of my favorite works of fiction in the world,” Gerencer says. “I went and found the radio drama and listened to that religiously, over and over again. I have an autographed copy sitting above my desk right now. I even went on a kind of pilgrimage to the UK and met Douglas Adams, and interviewed him, and talked to him about his work.”

Critics sometimes dismiss The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as merely a sequence of amusing episodes with no larger structure, but Gerencer says that to do so is to overlook the character arc that sees series protagonist Arthur Dent outgrow his bafflement at the pointlessness of the universe.

“Arthur finally learns that what he has to do—the inevitable conclusion, where he makes this big decision at the end—is to decide that he doesn’t have to know what’s going on,” Gerencer says. “He finally gets to a point where he realizes, ‘I’m just going to hang the sense of it all and enjoy myself.’ And when he does that he literally learns how to fly. It’s fantastic. It’s so freeing.”

Listen to the complete interview with Tom Gerencer in Episode 473 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Tom Gerencer on Mike Resnick:

“He used to call me ‘genius’ all the time. Any time he talked to me, instead of calling me ‘Tom’ he would just call me ‘genius.’ Which was very flattering, but it was also very daunting … It set up this unrealistic expectation in my head, and it set up a giant fear in me that I’m never going to be able to live up to what he thinks I am, because I’m not. And I told him, ‘I’m not a genius. I write so much, and 99 percent of what I write is absolute garbage, and then I go back and read through it, and I pull out these gems, and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is good.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, but 99 percent of writers out there don’t know the difference between garbage and good writing, and you do. I understand that you write a lot of garbage, but then you write this good stuff, and you’re able to go back and identify it as good stuff, and that, I believe, is what does make you a genius.’”

Tom Gerencer on his story “Electric Fettuccine Sample Case”:

“I was in this Thai restaurant, and I was talking to the owner, who was this great guy—he was from Thailand, and he was very funny. I asked him, ‘What’s the deal with this bitter melon? How do you cook it? What do you cook it with to make it not so bitter?’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, no. If not bitter, not good.’ And I said, ‘I don’t understand.’ And he said, ‘Because we eat from the yang.’ He had a big smile on his face, and I thought, ‘That is so cool. They eat from the yang.’ He said, ‘You Americans, everything has to be sweet or salty or spicy with you. It’s just like with your life, you can’t handle any upset. Everything has to be perfect or it’s not good.’ He said, ‘We don’t see things that way. We eat from the yang. You have to approach food and life where you also relish the bad things.’ And that really hit me.”

Tom Gerencer on character names:

“My last name is Gerencer, which is Hungarian for ‘smith.’ I was like, ‘As my alter ego, I’m just going to choose Hungarian names.’ But as I started looking at Hungarian surnames, I was like, ‘You can’t pronounce any of them.’ I can’t pronounce my own surname properly. When I went to Hungary to visit, they corrected me incessantly on my surname, and I could not get it right. So rather than do that, which nobody would be able to get a handle on, I thought, ‘Well, Poland is next door. Everybody knows what a Polish surname is. I’m just going to appropriate that, and every time I have to come up with a character, rather than trying to think hard about it, I’m just going to put some kind of Polish surname on this person.’”

Tom Gerencer on his stories “The Third Story” and “Pizza Hell”:

“I was like, ‘Those stories were so cool, and I just took it for granted that I still had them, but I lost them, and that’s so sad to me.’ They had never been published, but I really liked them. I finally found this 3.5-inch floppy disk, and I was like, ‘I wonder if they could be on there?’ I looked on Amazon and saw that I could buy a floppy disk drive, so I bought one. I actually had about eight floppy disks, and I went through each of them, and most of them didn’t even work. One of them worked, and I didn’t find anything, but I copied everything off onto a regular hard drive. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is a 30-year-old floppy disk and it works.’ I had done a file search and [the stories] didn’t pop up, and then I just started going through manually and scrolling through all the folders, and I found both of them. I was stunned.”

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