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Wagner and Wodehouse, Together at Last : EXPECTING SOMEONE TALLER by Tom Holt (St Martin's Press: $15.95; 218 pp.)

June 12, 1988|Michael Moorcock | Best known in the United States as a fantast and satirist, Moorcock now mainly writes social fiction. "Mother London," his latest novel, will be published this month in England. and

Fantasy and comedy are cousins. Together they produced some of the happiest entertainments in a tradition going back at least to Mark Twain's "Connecticut Yankee," through Thorne Smith and John Collier, and became almost an independent genre during the great days of Unknown Worlds, fantasy fiction's equivalent of Black Mask.

Writers like Anthony Boucher ("The Compleat Werewolf"), L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (the "Harold Shea" stories), Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner and even L. Ron Hubbard (before his sense of the ridiculous gave way to a sense of holy pomposity) cheered up our war- and post-war years with a series of spoofs and satires on what had previously been the province of more portentously morbid writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker and H. P. Lovecraft. Unwitting and deeply embarrassed werewolves, vampires unable to stand the taste of blood, heroes who abhored violence, and hideous monsters who wanted only to open small grocery stores in Ohio were Unknown's stock in trade in the days before humor was banished from our shelves by the relentless Universal Ironies and Common Room Wit of J. R. R. Tolkien and his even more sober followers.

In those dark times, we needed Boucher or De Camp, but publishers, being the timid creatures they are, preferred to perpetuate a trend celebrating the depressive comforts of quasi-religion in the implacably second-rate prose of the Heinleins or Clarkes, mediocre prophets of an all-too-easily-imagined future. Their monstrous catalogues of reactionary conservatism, misogyny and high school philosophizing became, as with Ayn Rand a decade earlier, the pseudo-radical bibles of a generation that soon readily returned to a fold it had only pretended to leave.

In fantastic comedy, the gods very rarely have a sense of humor, and indeed the Wagnerian seriousness of magicians, demigods and the other supernaturals is what frequently provides a foil for writers whose skeptical heroes and heroines, like so many latter-day Alices, can't help perceive the fundamental ridiculousness of those who blithely hold the power of life and death over the universe.

This kind of humor is the ideal antidote to all pseudo-literary Tolkienoid pomposities and makes me optimistic for a more fun-filled, if not a better, world. Not only is the best humor back in print, but new authors like M. John Harrison, Terry Pratchett and now Tom Holt are expanding on the tradition, doing rather more for fantasy than Douglas Adams has done for sci-fi. Publishers with the voices of lions and the hearts of rabbits are at last convinced that not all of us require the consolations of religiosity in our light reading.

Intelligent, original and solidly entertaining, Holt is a very good comic fantast and "Expecting Someone Taller" is a superb debut, introducing us to perhaps the nicest of reluctant heroes, Malcolm Fisher.

All his life Malcolm has been conditioned to believe himself a failure, existing only to offer contrast to his altogether more favored sister. But when he accidentally runs over a Frost Giant, disguised as a badger, he finds himself the inheritor of the Tarnhelm, a magic cap, and also the actual Ring of the Nibelungs. The Tarnhelm lets him change shape at will. The Ring quite simply makes him Master of the World. Meanwhile, the surviving cast of "Gotterdammerung," all eager to acquire these items, are waiting in the wings.

For the first time in its history, the Ring has a really pleasant owner, with the result that simply by being his ordinary, decent self, Malcolm creates a Golden Age on Earth. However, he soon realizes he has a terrible responsibility to remain even-tempered at all times, because, if he doesn't, earthquakes are felt in California; typhoons threaten the Malay Archipelago; diplomatic relations break down between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the English cricket team looks to lose a crucial match. By and large, Malcolm controls himself and the age of peace and plenty continues.

This situation doesn't suit the more apocalyptic and romantic sensibilities of Wotan, Alberich, the Rhine Maidens and a variety of Volsungs, Valkyries, Trolls and Norns whose various vested interests seem likely to bring about positively the last Twilight of the Gods, this time written not by Wagner but by Gilbert and Sullivan.

All this is thoroughly and satisfactorily resolved in the best traditions of comedy. Holt's delightful, readable, cheerfully intelligent book offers first-class comic relief to fantasy fans and to readers who simply mourn the passing of S. J. Perelman, Gerald Kersh or (dare I say?) even P. G. Wodehouse.

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