How to Be Happy Wherever You Are: A Review of Kelly Robson’s High Times in the Low Parliament
High Times in the Low Parliament. Kelly Robson. Tordotcom Publishing, August 2022.
Stoner and slacker comedies are not my favorite kind of humor. I like them just fine, but they’re often similar in a way that makes a few representative of all. And yet I was definitely intrigued when I heard author Kelly Robson describe her novella High Times in the Low Parliament as a “lesbian stoner buddy comedy with fairies.” I mean, it’s not everyday you see that particular combination as a descriptor for a fantasy narrative. And the book indeed pulls off an interesting narrative balance where it weaves multiple threads together: that of high fantasy (in two very different senses of the word) and easygoing, slacker charm to make a world that is both intensely magical and utterly mundane, in much the same way contemporary stoner comedies fuse utter silliness with more ordinary, even serious aspects of modern life. Set in an alternate, early industrial version of England where fairies and humans live side-by-side, the story walks a tightrope as it balances between tackling real issues—inequality, political instability, destructive human behavior—and following the misadventures of our protagonist, Lana, in her quest to get high, get laid, and avoid any and all major responsibilities.
I think one of the difficulties with creating genuinely “good” stoner comedy lies with the characters. More often than not, these characters find themselves involved in ridiculous situations almost entirely by accident. In film, this can be set up in a lot of different ways, and with varying levels of realism and absurdity. Capturing it in a written text can present a special sort of challenge: How do you build a story around a main character who mostly stumbles into—and out of—their difficulties without any real agency? That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of stories where ordinary characters are thrust into the plot against their will. But how do you make your audience actually care about them? I think it may come down to striking the right balance between silliness and deeper human emotion.
Lana is a simple character in terms of her desires and motivations. She’s a little arrogant in her pursuit of pleasure free from responsibility, yet she is also deeply likable—a must for a stoner character you laugh with rather than at. Like the other archetypal stoners and slackers that have come before her, she’s pretty chill, and utterly directionless in her life. She’s all about simple joys, and can be wildly overconfident in her ability to obtain them. Her greatest strengths lie in her charm and, as one character puts it, her ability “to be happy wherever she is,” which is a much-needed skill, as it turns out. When a bit of flirting and badly-timed bravado lands her an unwanted-but-mandatory job as a scribe in the low parliament, Lana takes it in stride. Not long after she arrives at the fairy court where the parliament holds its sessions, she learns that things are a bit more dire than she anticipated. Turns out, if the politicians can’t come to a consensus on something—anything—to break the constant pattern of hung votes, the fairies will flood the court and kill everyone, from parliamentary politicians to kitchen servants.
To better deal with the stress and help everyone get along, Lana takes it upon herself to provide a little relief for her friends (and herself) in the form of a fantasy substitution for marijuana: a baker’s yeast with calming, psychotropic properties. Her constant use of the yeast and some psychoactive fairy mushrooms leaves her a bit disconnected from the drama around her, and yet she never stops caring about the important things—a vital distinction that makes her a stronger character than many of her stoner forebears who are just set up for laughs. The impending death of everyone at court may seem a bit high-stakes for this sort of comedy, but I think this is where Robson fuses the concepts of stoner humor and fantasy storytelling particularly well. Like any good fantasy, it has something to say about our own world. Perhaps the flooding is a bit on-the-nose as an allegory for climate change, yet the idea that humans are so hell-bent on selfish gains and non-cooperation that they would risk the lives of everyone around them is pretty realistic, regardless of the form that disaster might take.
The stoner archetype is a pretty familiar one by now. The Cheeches, Chongs, Dudes, and Spicolis of the genre all share a few traits: they’re chill, goofy, unambitious, and walk a fine line between lovable and obnoxious. They’re also all men. Lana is cut from the same cloth in terms of personality, but as a queer woman in this sort of story, she’s quite unique. In fact, every character in the book is female; there are no male or male-presenting characters to be found. This is interesting from a worldbuilding perspective, sure, but also from the genre angle. How many well-known stoner characters are women? Honestly, I would have been hard-pressed to name any until Broad City came along. There is something about this particular character type that doesn’t gel with traditional female gender roles and expectations.
There is a freedom and carelessness to these characters that seems to be endearing when it’s presented as something masculine, but troubling when recast as feminine. Maybe it’s the still-pervasive idea that “women can’t be funny” that keeps the stoner comedy so thoroughly associated with men and masculinity. Or perhaps it’s the too-real knowledge that being carefree is something a lot of women and gender nonconforming people can’t risk. Either way, Robson’s novella could be a formative text in this version of the stoner comedy sub-genre, one that is divorced from typical gendered expectations. By capturing the essence of the quintessential stoner type while infusing it with queer sensibility and centering the idea of joy as a tool for real change, Robson opens up new avenues for comedic fantasy that I’m excited to see expand in the future.
Amber Troska is a writer, copy editor, book blogger, and media critic from central Virginia. She is a regular reviewer for the Canadian feminist magazine Herizons and occasional contributor to the Tor.com blog. She has a BA in Fine Art that is utterly irrelevant to her life choices and considers buying books and reading them two completely different hobbies. You can find her on Twitter.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch; the author had previously reviewed for ARB. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Alex Skopic. ARB did not arrange a review copy.