Thursday, September 29, 2011

Aliens aliens aliens... and Mrs Darcy

There are some books that I know I am going to love reading. There are other books I pretty much know that I won't. And then there are the third and possibly most delightful kind, the unknown unknowns, the ones that come at you from left field and - BAMM - you are smitten! Such a book is one Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens  by one Mr Jonathan Pinnock, just published by Proxima Books, an imprint of Salt Publishing. I thought "mashups", I thought "aliens", I thought, "oh my goodness, no!".

I was wrong.

I giggled. I chortled. I couldn't stop reading. Not only is this an utterly wonderful story and oddly fitting with Jane Austen's characters (Lady Catherine‎ de Bourgh, an alien? Of course, silly me for not knowing that). I can't help but feel that Jane would be quite pleased.

I am delighted to have the, sorry, author here today. Let me tell you a little about Mr Pinnock. He studied Maths at Cambridge University (a fact that endears him to me already, without the aliens). Then, as his bio says, "he drifted into the world of software and has remained there ever since. He has written one book on software development and co-authored a further dozen, most of which are now almost entirely obsolete. In the last few years he has turned to writing fiction and poetry and has won a number of prizes and has had work read on BBC Radio 4. Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens is his first full-length novel."

I already knew I enjoyed Jon's short stories, having (anonymously) highly commended his story, Advice re Elephants, when I judged last year's Sean O'Faolain short story competition and was part of the judging team who shortlisted his story rZr and Napoleon for the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize. It's clear from these that he has a rather wicked sense of humour and a sly wit. So, I have asked him a few tricky questions, on your behalf:

Tania: Welcome, Jon. I recently met a very interesting biologist, Rachel Rodman, who also writes, and she has come up with a whole theory about literary mash-ups, of which I believe your book is one. Her article is published in LabLit. She calls you and your kind (!) "literary geneticists" and, using Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as her example, says: 
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in this sense a genetically modified organism, derived from the ancestral Pride and Prejudice by the introduction of new (genetic) material taken from the unrelated "monster" genre. A small-scale comparison of the two texts supports this idea: all Grahame-Smith's modifications have parallels with genomic modifications performed (or harnessed) by laboratory scientists. Here, I examine six classes (Insertions, Duplications, Insertions with Duplication, Replacements, Over-expression, and Gain-of Function Mutations) of these modifications, and draw parallels with biological examples.
Her thesis is lengthy and erudite! So we will skip to her final thoughts:
These six sections consider only a few of the classes of Grahame-Smith's modifications. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is also marked by DNA inversions (in the form of transposed words and phrases), silent mutations (in the form of synonym replacements), and missense mutations (in the form of deliberately misspelled words), and so on. The molecular techniques used by Grahame-Smith have also been applied to other works, enabling the production of a range of genetically modified texts: Android Karenina, The Meowmorphosis, Jane Slayre, and others. These modified texts possess new phenotypes. Some are merely new twists of humor, curious for their own sake, like a mammal engineered to possess fluorescent skin. Others, more utilitarian, render the text appealing to new audiences, like a plant engineered for cold-resistance, enabling it to grow at new latitudes. The success of these variants – some commercial, some aesthetic – sets the stage for a new generation of literary geneticists, whose experiments will force the field in new directions. This new dynamic, converting the writing desk to a laboratory and the classic text to a model organism, may in addition pose its own ethical questions. We exist in a new era, exciting and disturbing, in which neither text nor genome is immutable, and in which humans, armed with new technologies, can force their evolution. [My emphasis]
Any reactions to this?

Jon:  Right, here goes...*deep breath* Firstly, a confession: I've never actually read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This was partly because I was miffed about its unexpected appearance at a time when I was struggling to find a way into my own book and also because I didn't want to be accidentally influenced by it. I did feel obliged to refer to it in my book, because it would have felt odd not to acknowledge its presence, and it did provide an opportunity for going off at an interesting tangent with Jane Austen herself featuring as a disenchanted writer of cheap zombie novels. And I swear I never knew there were ninjas in P&P&Z until I read that article, although one of Jane Austen's supposed novels that I refer to also has ninjas in it!

However, having read the article, I am actually quite tempted to buy the book now because it makes it sound like an avant garde literary exercise worthy of Georges Perec or Tom Phillips. I like to think that what I'm doing is slightly different, because what I've written is an entirely logical sequel to the original book, rather than a mash-up of it. I originally described it as the bastard offspring following a drunken one-night stand between Pride and Prejudice and the X Files, which I guess in genetic terms means that it's less the result of gene splicing than the outcome of some dubious experimental breeding programme.

T: Dubious experimental breeding, love it! Entirely logical sequel? Ha! Okay, we'll keep this short: I couldn't stop laughing when I read the book, did you have that problem while you were writing it?

J: You're far too kind! Well, I know you're not supposed to laugh at your own jokes, but I did let out the occasional guffaw, usually when something completely unplanned emerged. Or at one of Lord Byron's double entendres. I have a weakness for those, I'm afraid.

T: And: I know you wrote it Dickens-like (or soap-operatically) in instalments, do you think your process/the end product would have been different if you'd attempted to do it all in one go, whatever that might mean?

J: Good question. It's a bit hypothetical, because I can't really think of any other way to write. I didn't have any sort of plan at all when I started writing the serialisation - although a plot of sorts did present itself once I'd got a chapter or two in. The thought of having a pin board with colour-coded timelines on it - well, it's just too weird to contemplate. Some of my favourite bits of Mrs Darcy... came about because I found myself at midnight on the day before the next episode was due to go live with nothing to publish. However, as a way of working it can be more than a little stressful.

T: Well, stress keeps us going, doesn't it? I say, Whatever works!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Jon. To whet your appetite, here's a pic I took of the book in the horror section of Waterstone's in Cork... Find out more, including how to buy it, excerpts and other crazy stuff, at Mrs Darcy And the Aliens and more about Jon and his other writings at


Martha said...

Wow. That's only one step away from Pinnock vectors; they should be marketable,they'd go viral.

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