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Book Review: Hoka! Hoka! Hoka!

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HOKA! HOKA! HOKA!
by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson

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Premise: Alexander Jones serves as the Interbeing League's ambassador to the Hokas, a race of aliens that look like teddy bears and have highly overactive imaginations. Whatever role strikes their fancy—cowboys, pirates, Sherlock Holmes, the French Foreign Legion—they play up to eleven. Wacky hijinks ensue!!

Wow, buying this book from the sci-fi paperback section at Half-Price Books about a year ago was the best $2 I ever spent. A book I judged by its awesome cover—a teddy bear driving a spaceship—and was not disappointed. It’s not a novel so much as a collection of short stories, interspersed with brief interludes (letters, orders, etc.). Most of the stories were previously published in magazines, but a few are original.

I gotta say, aside from anything written by Chesterton (who no one can beat), this is the funniest book I’ve ever read. I usually avoid humor fiction, not because I don’t like to laugh, but because I find the sense of humor is often cynical and flippant. Whereas here’s a book that’s hilarious and absurd and even when it’s not making you laugh out loud, just plain fun. There’s even a dash of satire, if you like that. And best of all, it’s not above goofiness (using poisoned tiddlywinks in battle, or keeping a pirate flag in every British galleon “just in case,” or the line “Bit of a brute, that Sergeant LeBrute.”). Favorite stories: probably The Sheriff of Canyon Gulch, In Hoka Signo Vinces, and Yo Ho Yoka!

The Hokas themselves are definitely the best thing this collection has going for it. They’re adorable, sweet, slightly emotionally unstable, but also ridiculously brave and have a really high alcohol tolerance. All of the roles the Hokas take on are from human history or fiction, which creates some interesting themes. Humans feel shock, and perhaps horror, when they see what they don’t take seriously (or no longer take seriously) absolutely and fully adopted without a grain of irony. That’s what great about the Hokas—they may be vaguely aware of the distinction between fantasy and reality, but it hardly matters, because they have no concept of detachment. They live with the incongruity, and love it. As a somewhat compulsive daydreamer who also takes life very seriously, it’s something I relate to and like to see in fiction. Reminds me of a quote from The Napoleon of Notting Hill (a Chesterton novel): “If we have taken the child’s games, and given them the seriousness of a Crusade … we have turned the nursery into a temple.”

There’s other great points, too: Alexander Jones has the potential to be a bland protagonist, but the author works a few twists and turns into his character that make him more than just the ‘straight man.’ My favorite character, featured in Yo Ho Hoka!, is Olaf, a Hoka Viking in search of the great city Constantinople. But … Constantinople doesn’t exist on the planet Hoka … yet. Olaf brings a strange melancholy into the Hoka gleefulness, with his search for an unreachable city. And this is the one place where the author takes the Hokas with as much gravity as they take themselves— “The Hoka Viking turned slowly to regard the human. In the sunset, above the droop of his long blond mustaches, his face seemed to hold a certain Varangian indomitability.”

But with all that, Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! isn’t perfect. The weakest thing is probably the writing itself, which is sometimes clunky. The female humans aren’t great either; Alexander’s wife, Tanni, is okay, but with the other two the author succumbs to the “sexy girl throwing herself on the protagonist” trap (blech). The story Joy in Mudville is sort of bland compared to the others, but maybe that’s just because I don’t like baseball. The interludes can probably be skipped without much loss to the story, although you would miss the gentle satire of colonialism, which is mostly embedded in those segments.

As a whole, though, any book that makes me laugh as often as this can’t go wrong too often. It’s up there with my sci-fi favorites. Great stuff.

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