This book is worth getting just for the essay "Planet Without Laughter" - the best, most even-handed, and funniest
account of mysticism that I have ever come across. Smullyan invites you to imagine a world where most people have never had the experience of finding something funny. They've all heard about it as a theoretical concept, and they know that "finding something funny" is often followed by "laughter". And then there's the mysterious concept of "humor".
What do all these things mean? Opinions are divided. A few lucky individuals do have a sense of humor. They laugh spontaneously, usually for no apparent reason. Most people, however, just go to a place every Sunday where a "comedian" stands up and tells "jokes". Everyone knows when to laugh, and tries to do so to the best of their ability. But it's an unsatisfying experience, and to be honest feels rather meaningless.
Some people think that they can acquire a "sense of humor" by dint of hard practice. They keep reading collections of jokes, hoping that one day they will "get them", and they listen to recordings of people laughing who have a real sense of humor. They hope that if they can just learn to laugh in the right way, they'll have a sense of humor too. Unfortunately, this doesn't tend to work very well.
Other people are skeptical about the whole concept. They cross-examine the rare individuals who claim to have a sense of humor. What does humor look like? they ask. Well, it doesn't look like anything. What color is it? It doesn't have a color. They ask more questions like these. If it has no obvious properties, then how could you recognize it? Oh, say the humorists, trust us. If you ever find something funny yourself, you'll just know! And don't keep focusing on such advanced kinds of humor - "black humor" and "gallows humor" and whatnot. You're much more likely to get a laugh out of seeing someone slip on a banana peel and fall flat on his ass. The official comedians don't always like these pronouncements.
If you can't be bothered to buy it, I see "Planet" is available online here
. Check it out! I don't guarantee a mystical experience, but it may well make you laugh a couple of times...
I do wonder whether Terry Pratchett and/or Neil Gaiman had read "Planet Without Laughter" when they wrote
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
. In particular, check out "Epilogue in Heaven" from the Smullyan.
Another possible connection, which I'm astonished not to have thought of years ago. Smullyan is Marvin Minsky's cousin, and they're known to be close. Minsky was good friends with Robert Heinlein, and it's widely believed that he contributed many ideas to Heinlein's books.
Well... Mike, the computer in
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
, is terribly interested in the nature of humour. In fact, humour research is what he really wants to do - he just helps run the Lunar Revolution as a favour to his human friends, so they'll discuss jokes with him in return.
I can't help wondering if this idea started with Smullyan, and then ended up in Heinlein's book after having gone through Minsky...