When was the last time you actually, properly LOLed? Like the word “literally” in the hands of footballers, the phrase “laughed out loud” has become a debased metaphor for mild amusement. Lots of things make me smile. Few things make me actually laugh out loud. And virtually nothing will make me laugh out loud, in an airport, at six o’clock in the morning, on the Oilman flight going up to Aberdeen, where absolutely every other passenger on the flight is a man who clearly thinks I don’t belong there, and when one of them has just loudly expressed the opinion that “women should know their place”*.
“Mrs Darcy vs The Aliens”, however, made me laugh so loudly that everyone else in the terminal, even Neanderthal Man, stopped what they were doing for a moment to stare at me. This is not some sort of internet I-spat-coffee-over-my-keyboard exaggeration; it really, genuinely happened. This book is brilliantly, exuberantly funny, and at the risk of spoiling it utterly by giving you the heads-up on all the best bits, I shall now try and explain why.
Onto the plot. The story begins a couple of years after the close of “Pride and Prejudice”. While Elizabeth and Darcy make tentative plans for the conception of the future heir of Pemberley (the wearing of a wet shirt is given pleasing prominence), Mr Wickham pursues the lonely path of the misunderstood Alien Investigator. His wife Lydia is missing, presumed Probed, and dreadful things are happening to the ladies of negotiable virtue in Whitechapel. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s marriage to Mr Collins is on the rocks, Jane and Bingley are blithely fulfilling Mr Bennett’s darkest predictions for their financial future and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is acting even more strangely than usual…
Having read, and been thoroughly disappointed by, the inaugural book in the genre “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (hereafter “P&P&Z”), it was an absolute delight to read “Mrs Darcy vs The Aliens”. While “P&P&Z” just charmlessly gloms the conventions of the Zombie genre onto Austen’s original text, “Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens” picks up where the original book leaves off, adds an outrageous premise and creates something that’s fresh and funny, flowing effortlessly from the original story. The original characters are still precisely themelves, but because they’re in a totally new (and utterly ridiculous) situation, we see new and delightful aspects of their personalities.
Elizabeth is a delight – tough-minded, determined and clever, dealing with everything life and the aliens throw at her with aplomb. Mr Darcy is considerably less smouldering and masterful, and a lot more amnesiac and silly, than he is in the more traditional Austen sequels such as “Mr Darcy Takes A Wife”** (possibly because most Austen sequels are written by women with a crush on Colin Firth). But personally, I think it makes a marvellous change to see Mr Darcy being laughed at a little bit. Elizabeth got away with it, after all.
I was initially sceptical about the foregrounding of Wickham versus Darcy, just because Wickham is such an utter bastard in the original novel – but Pinnock’s re-imagining is so utterly god-damned charming that it’s impossible to resist. How could anyone not be won over by a misunderstood hero who nobly allows his reputation to be trampled in pursuit of the Alien Menace? By about, oh, page fifteen, maybe? – I had completely revised my original Wickham-is-irredeemable position and begun secretly hoping that the simmering sexual tension between him and Elizabeth might go somewhere. (It doesn’t, by the way. But hey, I can wait. A novel this good has got to have a sequel.)
The minor characters are treated in a similarly brilliant fashion. The Bingleys (as predicted by Mr Bennett at the end of P&P) are idioting their way into financial ruin; their descent into bankruptcy is outlined off-stage, in Jane’s correspondence with Lizzy. Charlotte Collins has been taking laudanum to distract herself from having to shag her husband on a regular basis (her conversation with Lizzy on this subject was one of the many moments that made me laugh like a hyena). Mr Collins, suckup arselicker that he is, is working on behalf of the aliens in the hope that they will shower him with largesse when they take over the earth. I can’t tell you exactly what Lydia or Lady Catherine de Bourgh are up to, but trust me, it’s perfect. Also: Lord Byron. He’s in it. And it’s glorious.
The book is crammed with hilarious cameos plucked from the British cultural landscape. I don’t know how accessible these are to anyone who didn’t spend their formative years endlessly repeating “Ooh! Ooh! Suits you, sir!”, or who doesn’t know the correct arm-movements for “Prince Charming”. But if you (like me) can remember the music of the eighties, and have seen all of the Bond movies, and still think Fox Mulder is hotter than hot even though he’s an utter loon, and know Andrew Davies’ P&P screenplay inside out, and watched the collapse of key North-of-England-based financial institutions with incredulous horror, and love steam-punk and Romantic poets, and think Glastonbury town is the funniest place on the planet, and spent entire days at university where nobody said anything that someone on “The Fast Show” hadn’t said first, then you need to be prepared to actually, properly cry with laughter.
(Even if you don’t have all these cultural milestones in place, don’t be put off – you’ll probably still love it, because it’s extremely well-written. But if you’re a late-born British Generation-X-er, it’ll be right in your comic sweet-spot.)
“Mrs Darcy” was originally written as an online episodic novel, and – like many episodic novels (I’m looking at you, Mr Thackeray) – there are times when the plot loses direction a little. But in general, the pacing is rapid and fluent enough to maintain a kind of joyous, free-wheeling momentum. All the essential elements of the steampunk genre are there. We’re taken to Whitechapel. We get a trip in a dirigible. We visit a British spa-town. We get velvet frock-coats and clunky gadgets that don’t quite work and scientists with silly hair. Unlike the infuriating smugness of P&P&Z – “Hey, look guys! Here’s our big set-piece zombie over-run!” – each episode is well-crafted and handled with huge aplomb.
Pinnock also finds a lovely and believable balance between the fantastic and the mundane. As well as worrying about the big stuff (aliens, missing family members, gruesome murders) the inhabitants of “Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens” also find time to worry about the little things (whether they’re getting gruel or porridge for supper, whether their frock is suitable for the occasion, the local conditions on Mars). Faced with the almost incomprehensible fact of invading aliens passing for human, Pinnock’s characters sigh, take a deep breath and soldier valiantly on, gamely making the best of a ridiculous situation, and never losing sight of the minutiae that collectively add up to the truly important things in life. In capturing this, Pinnock reminds me of no-one so much as Terry Pratchett – that wise chronicler of what it means to be human, even if you’re made of rock, Undead or spend every full moon raiding local chicken houses.
This book is one of those you desperately want to share with your friends so you can talk about it in the pub. It’s the kind of book that you want everyone to memorise little bits of, so you can trade snippets of dialogue between yourselves and laugh until you’re sick and / or until everyone around you demands that you stop it or leave. Plus, it has the very bestest tag-line ever; “The truth is out there, but has not yet been universally acknowledged.”
I never thought I would have occasion to use the phrase “The Regency Steam-Punk Monster Mash-Up Novel has finally come of age”, but wouldn’t life be boring if you never found yourself doing something unexpected? The Regency Steam-Punk Monster Mash-Up novel has finally come of age. “Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens” is brilliant.
All it needs now is a sequel.
“Mrs Darcy vs the Aliens” is available from Amazon as both a Kindle edition and a real live book. But why not do your bit to ensure a vibrant future for independent publishing and buy it directly from Salt’s website instead?
But whatever you do, don’t buy “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. It’s really not worth it.
* This is really true. I wish it wasn’t, but it was. I also wish I had challenged him on it with an incredibly well-argued piece of feminist polemic. But I didn’t. Sorry.
**I really have read quite a lot of Austen follow-ups, haven’t I? Damn. Would it be really insecure to state for the record that I have a Master’s degree in English Literature and my dissertation was on the works of Jane Austen? Because, um, I do. And it was.