'Meowls, barks, whines and oinks. There was even a hiss mixed in, all racing closer towards him. He could not see the animals through the glass doors yet, but something told the scientist it would only be a matter of time'
When we were little, my brother and I were fascinated by Monty Python. We loved the quirkiness, the lack of punchlines, the nonsense and absurdity that burst out from our television screen, a tired on-its-last-legs thing that would summon up a peculiarly red John Cleese brandishing a dead parrot. We memorized sketches and recited them to each other, snorting with laughter at any mention of sex or anatomy or again, dead parrots. Yet, there was a quasi-intellect to every sketch, a sort of backhanded commentary on issues people found hard to face when put in news reels and tabloids. Dead parrots were symbols of salesmanship, crookedness and bare faced lying, illustrating the ridiculous lengths people will go to get ‘one over’ on someone else. Or, they were simply dead parrots. The jury is out.
Mike Aaron’s ‘Cuteness Overlord’ reminded me greatly of a Monty Python movie, perhaps a little closer to a reality of sorts in terms of a linear plot that doesn’t veer off into cannibalism, naughty boys and Camelot....actually scratch that last one, there is a Camelot. Geneticist Carl Shan has a genius level IQ but he is low on his social skills, particularly when it comes to tact. Having just being dumped by his money-seeking girlfriend Sara, his only friend is the dim-witted Bob. After his plans for genetic animal experimentation are turned down by his employers, Shan effectively has a tantrum, builds a time machine and travels to the year 2117, where he expects to me hailed as the true genius he is and awaits the welcoming parade. His predictions fall flat when Carl arrives in a post-apocalyptic, deserted Barnley, his hometown. He is quickly met by what can only be described as ‘kawaii’ baby animals with bloody fangs and teeth, ready to shred Carl like tiny furry spiralizers. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Carl bumps into a band of gunned-up soldiers commanded by Captain ‘Stingray’ Vanessa, a fiery woman with a painful right-hook and a love for bad jokes. By her side, we have the soft-hearted technomancer Paul, the blonde and hunky Larry and the grieving Stephen, who loses his fiancé because of Carl's interference. Other secondary characters come and go through the story, but this is the motley crew crazy enough to help Carl, a narcissist who only cares about fame and recognition. Opting to fake amnesia over revealing his time-travelling antics, Carl slowly learns what happened to the world. The mysterious Duke of Blightown created the Cuteness Overlord, an animal who telepathically controls all other animals, turning them into ‘Droves’. These Droves roam the land ready to kill any human they find. Humans meanwhile have learnt to ‘shield’, which means blanking out their minds so the telepathic Droves can’t sense their presence. If you get too close to the Drove, they hypnotize you with their cuteness and you succumb to their claws.
Carl is absolutely outraged that someone beat him to genetic experimentation and aims to stop The Duke of Blightown just to prove he can. Between him and his end-goal are thousands of bloody-thirsty baby animals, a super-camp cowboy general, a badass Camelot-like fortress, an underground village and his own ridiculously big ego. Reading this book, it was truly touch-and-go on who would kill Carl Shan first: the animals or his companions.
In his introduction, Mike Aaron states that the book is filled with ‘half-right trivia and completely wrong science’ (p.2), which is a wise warning to any reader that ‘Cuteness Overlord’ should not to be taken too seriously in the way of hard facts, but rather the possible impossibles of the writer’s imagination. This book is somewhere between Douglas Adams, a Monty Python script and a love-child of Quentin Tarantino and Lucy Daniels of the Animal Ark books. Part dystopian horror, part laugh-out loud comedy, Mike Aaron certainly created a very authentic and beautifully bizarre book that no animal-rights activist should ever, ever read.
I enjoyed the narrative voice of the book, which was told in third person but only through the viewpoint of Carl Shan, a narration style known as ‘third person limited’. The language was very easy and entertaining with the story’s dark blunt humour. I was impressed by Aaron’s ability to create humour without over-doing it. Some writers will push a joke too far or over-empathise a point so that it no longer triggers a smile from the reader. Aaron’s humour rested primarily in his characters. Carl Shan isn’t a likable character, he is a nasty piece of work who goes on a journey of self-discovery and learning, but it is his blatant ego that makes him entertaining. Readers will smile wryly as Carl is baffled by social etiquette and the feelings of others, while skilfully building advanced machinery out of dairy products. For the most part, we are on the side of the secondary characters who long to shut Carl up. However, Carl does change for the better by the end and learns to be a half-way decent human being.
The plot progresses smoothly with enough ample ‘breathing space’ for readers to catch up on the bizarre events of the book, something I’ve seen authors trip up over in the past. There seems to be a need to get into the ‘thick of’ the book, the world-building, without pausing for some downtime. This often confuses and frustrates the reader, as they are being barred from perceiving the book’s plot accurately. Aaron does a very good job of balancing his action vs. talking points. However, I do feel the plot lingered too long in ‘Pamelot’, a Camelot castle run by Grimm and Grana Tinkermane. While it was an interesting and entertaining subplot, which actively helped the plot, I felt it could have been shortened a little. Aaron invented many different social groups that had reacted differently to the downfall of humanity to doe-eyed baby animals, which I enjoyed as it analysed how people cope with loss and weirdly, sudden freedom with the downfall of any social rules. I wanted to know more about ‘The Coven’, a group of wild witch-like woman who tortured and butchered innocents and who we only get second-hand glimpses of. While they were not essential to the plot and therefore didn’t need to be explored in more depth, I would have been intrigued to learn more.
Going back briefly to characters, despite drifting a little too close to stereotypes initially, Aaron does develop each character into a believable person. Backstories and battle-scars are drip fed through the plot, beginning around about the same time that Carl starts thinking about others. This technique was a mature move on Aaron’s part and fitted nicely with his narrative choice: we don’t learn more about Vanessa or Paul or Larry until Carl does. We aren’t given extra side-glances or hints, we aren’t put above Carl in our perceptions, but kept with him and go on the journey with him, often finding out quite late about a character’s dark past.
However, despite my admiration for this wonderfully creative book, there were a few technical and writerly mishaps I felt could have been avoided. Aaron in his introduction informs the readers why all the place-names are spelled wrong, which is a fun quirk that adds to the humour of the story. Yet there were quite a few spelling mistakes in the book, particularly towards the beginning. Aaron also tends to create a character feature or expression and stick with it to the bitter end, long after the effect has worn off. An example would be Carl’s boots or Vanessa’s forehead or the hydra metaphor in Carl’s head when he is shielding or using his mind to confuse the animals. While these were perfectly fine features to mention initially, I felt they grew repetitive over the course of the book and it frustrated me to see this brilliant writer rely on repeated expressions. Neither of these errors damaged my reading of the book and I enjoyed it immensely regardless.