Monday, October 18, 2010

Top 5 Insults of SF

There's nothing like a good insult - unless it's being directed at you personally, that is.

Science fiction and fantasy are full of characters who make fun of others and are poked-at themselves. There's Q from the Star Trek franchise, who wastes no opportunity to make snide comments at the expense of Picard, Riker or Worf. And the tables are occasionally turned when we get to see how ridiculous Q himself can be made to look. The Trek universe, through Deep Space Nine, has also given us Elim Garak, a tailor and former Cardassian spymaster, who while being treated for injuries boasts of having wounded a gang of Klingons for life with his insults. And the Dragonlance roleplaying tie-in books presented an entire race, the Kender, who have a magically-enhanced natural ability to taunt pretty much any person or creature to the point where they're driven into a mindless rage.

Say what you will about how nice it is of Babylon 5's Minbari to find amusement in misunderstandings of language rather than the possibility of personal danger or embarrassment, the rest of the universe usually gets a kick out of a good insult.

It's important to note that when I'm referring to insults, I'm not talking about SF-nal racial slurs here, like "mudblood" in the Harry Potter books, or when Cat offhandedly refers to the human crew of the Red Dwarf as "monkeys", or the Colonial use of "toaster" as an epithet for Cylons.

The true wit is in potshots directed specifically at individuals for real, overblown, or imagined flaws in their personalities, personal appearance, or actions. Sometimes it's an artfully drawn-out description or comparison taking at least a sentence to fire-off. Sometimes it's not that creative at all. Frequently good insults are dirty. And often just a single word will do to really, really get to someone.

And so this week's list is dedicated to:

The Top 5 Insults of SF

5) "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" Monty Python's The Holy Grail
Forget swords and armor or catapult-launched livestock and manure, the most powerful weapon the French soldiers mustered against King Arthur and his companions was their never-ending torrent of taunts. There are lots of really funny, merciless lines of beratement in this movie that never fail to get me howling, but this is probably the one that most readily springs to my mind. It's purely idiotic in its own right, but it's leveled with such ferocity and petty cruelty and it's just so creative that you can't help but love it. And let's not forget that it's part of the volley that succeeds in making Arthur cringe and driving him off.

4) "You stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!" Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back
Princess Leia's tongue-lashing of Han (right before her tongue duel with Luke) is perhaps one of the best-known insults in SF. What makes it really funny, as everyone knows, is that the space pirate takes more offence at being called "scruffy-looking" than a "nerf herder" or "half-witted" (which might be taken as a sign of being half-witted. I'm just sayin'.)

3) "smeghead" Red Dwarf
Short and to the point, this is Lister's favourite jibe at his snooty, idiotic roommate Rimmer (before and after Rimmer's death). What's great about this one, is that the writers no doubt concocted it to use in place of "asshole" and other similar real-life invectives that probably wouldn't be allowed by the TV censors (not entirely sure about the censors in the UK where the show was produced, but most Canadian and American censors would have an issue with it), and yet in doing so they used a real-life, disgusting bodily substance, and ended up getting away with it on air in a bunch of countries.

2) "You nameless licker of scentless piss!" The Man-Kzin Wars 3
Over the years as Larry Niven and his gaggle of co-writers have given us installments in the seemingly never-ending conflicts between humanity and the race of seven-foot, bipedal, intelligent, and highly belligerent tigers that terrorize the immediate neighbourhood of Known Space, they've done a good job of exploring the details of the Kzin culture. Part of this involves their language and especially their insults. The taunts they use at each other very much reflect their feline nature and behaviour. In this case, being nameless refers to low social status, as kzinti are only given names as rewards for outstanding work/war service or if they are noble-born (otherwise they're referred to by nick-names as kits and by their job titles as adults). The rest of the insult refers to an individual who engages in piss licking for no reason apart from enjoyment, since being scentless it would convey no information that a cat would normally pick up from it. In one nasty little barb, this phrase tells the reader a lot about the Kzin. As an insult among Kzinti though, it's very successful at driving the recipient into a rage, provoking him into a "scream and leap" - an attack resulting in a fatal claw-to-claw fight which is the common method for male Kzin to settle serious disputes. I can't recall which particular story from The Man-Kzin Wars 3 this insult comes from or which author wrote it, but it's a zinger that's one of my favourites for being gross, vicious, creative, kinda funny, and a piece of dialogue that provokes explosive action.

1) "petaQ!" (or p'tahk, pahtak, p'tach, patak, or however you choose to spell it) the Star Trek franchises
I haven't been able to pin down exactly what this nasty little bit of Klingon means, but like the previous Kzin insult, it's bad enough to usually force a fast and brutal response. PetaQ makes it to the number one spot for being short, effective, and probably the best-known insult in SF.

What insults from SF books, TV shows or movies stick out best in your mind?