Friday, January 7, 2011

The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe

The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists
by Gideon Defoe
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004
131 pages

At one point I described this book to fishy as "Like Monty Python, but less subtle." Take from that what you will. It perhaps goes without saying that it's also not as good as Monty Python, but there: I said it anyways.

They would have hugged right there and then, but were interrupted by a further crash as first another cannonball and then a pirate screamed in through the window. The two men stood stock-still.

"Don't make any sudden movements," whispered FitzRoy to his companion. "Remember -- he's more scared of us than we are of him."

"That's bears, you idiot," hissed Darwin out of the side of his mouth. "I don't think it applies to pirates."

That's right: the scientists of whom the title speaks are none other than Captain FitzRoy (who apparently had some interest in meteorology; I actually learned something from this book) and Charles Darwin. Put on to the Beagle by a tricksy fellow pirate who assures them the little ship is carrying all the gold from the Bank of England, our intrepid, and incredibly stupid, pirate crew sinks the famous ship. Feeling somewhat badly about it, they invite the crew aboard and set sail for England, taking Darwin, FitzRoy, and the first Man-panzee in the world, Mister Bobo. This is because Darwin's brother Erasmus has been kidnapped by the villainous Bishop of Oxford, and dire consequences are hinted at if Darwin presents Mister Bobo to society. The pirates, who were in need of an adventure anyways, decide to help.

It's madcap, certainly, and at the beginning I was worried it would be so incredibly gimmicky and maybe even too silly for me, which is saying something. I had no feeling for any of the characters, the plot seemed hazy at best, and the humour felt like it would wear thin with neither plot nor characters to work with. But the thing is, Defoe seems to know the line. He doesn't overstay his welcome. This little book is exactly the right length, and a plot does surface; and what do you know, I actually developed enough of an idea of who the characters were to take an interest in them. I became particularly fond of the pirate with a scarf, who never has a name but is the Pirate Captain's second in command. Actually, the Pirate Captain grew on me too, despite myself.

I had come into reading this with some idea that it might be Pratchett-like, being British satire, and I'm pretty sure something I read somewhere lead me in that direction. I think that's where any feelings of letdown come from. I don't think there's a lot to say about society at large or really any deep themes running through it, despite the vague promise that there might be something about science versus religion. Or if there is, I wasn't induced to read closely enough to pick them out. I did learn a few things -- the footnotes, rather than being hilarious asides, are actually largely factual, adding historical context and even explaining jokes. Which... well, it seemed a little incongruous, really, and in many cases completely pointless. Though did you know that the reason our fingers go pruny in water is that the oily, waterproof layer on our skin washes off, leading water to enter our epidermis through osmosis, thus making it larger and therefore wrinkly? I think I did know that at one point, but now I know it again.

The point being, I don't think it's the book's fault that I didn't get quite what I wanted or expected. Once in my hands, it never really pretended to be anything other than what it was: a very silly adventure story with maybe enough information to tweak an interest in actually finding out more about the real Darwin. Perhaps I will finally pick up The Voyage of the Beagle.

If some clever troupe of actors with a bent for Pythonesque humour got hold of these stories, I would watch them. As a book, Pirates! with Scientists is entertaining but probably ultimately forgettable; ultra-light. I would read another Pirates! adventure, or even this one again, if it was easily handy, but to be honest I don't see myself bothering with interlibrary loan again. Not quite enough substance or hilarity to make it worth the work for our technician, but there is enough there that I don't regret reading it. Other adventures the pirates undertake include joining Ahab and going after a certain white whale, hanging out with communists, and meeting Napoleon.

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