Thursday, May 24, 2007

Distant Cousin by Al Past (C)

Distant CousinAvailable at

Distant Cousin opens with the protagonist deciding to save the Earth from an impending catastrophe. Seemingly on a whim, she takes a small craft to Earth’s surface, despite the associated risks and dangers: once she lands, she won’t be able to get back to her ship, and she violates her noninterference directive. Danger also presents itself right away in the form of the military, sending teams to the area to investigate the crash.

Though the writing is strong and the plot starts right away, the protagonist’s motivation for her journey to Earth is weak, disrupting the suspension of disbelief. The lack of clear and undeniable motivating force is really a fatal flaw: unless we know why a character does what he does, our interest is reduced, if not entirely eliminated. Darcy seems to make a major decision with major risks attached to it without a bit of deliberation. Such action cannot possibly evoke reader sympathy.

Another unbelievable moment comes when Darcy claims that she burned the escape pod. While it may seem like a minor thing, when you really think about it, this bit goes to undermine the credibility of the story: if the pod survived re-entry, how could Darcy have burned it--with what? What could burn a ship that survived the several thousand degree heat of reentry? Frankly, I am not sure why it is necessary that she destroy the capsule in the first place, except as a plot convenience. Why can’t the military have found it? And as long as we’re talking about the military, I also had a problem with the capture and escape sequence. Why go through it at all? The sequence really accomplishes very little in terms of plot: nothing happens to Darcy or to the Colonel who captured her as a result of their meeting, and her escape is a bit too easy. In fact, placing the capture so close to the beginning actually causes problems as far as story tension is concerned. The beginning sets up the following questions: Will Darcy be able to save the Earth somehow? Will she convince the right people? Will she evade the military out to capture her? Her capture, when it comes, resolves a major story question (She will not evade the military) but in a way that is inconsequential because none of the characters involved are affected in any way by the capture—how does the colonel change? Darcy? In other words, she continues as she had before, unchanged by the experience. So why write it into the story? Worse, now the threat of the military and another capture is even less believable. I mean, what if, as a result of her capture, she decided that Earth is a worthless place? How would she deal with her anger and reconcile it with her desire to save it? But suppose that we want to keep the sequence as it is. Another possibility: Since she needs to convince the right people, what better opportunity is there than to convince the military scientists that will presumably come to examine her? Maybe they take her to Area 51 and there she develops a relationship with one of the scientists? There are a number of possibilities to work with as a result of the capture, but they are all ignored.

This book exemplifies the major flaw in many pod titles that makes them unpublishable in the mainstream in the first place—either flawed or little or no plot architecture. I have touched on this topic before, writing about plot editing in another review. Plot architecture is complex: everything in a story must have a reason for being where it is in that story. All elements must fit logically, reinforcing one another. If the author does not pay attention to the very smallest details, the story will begin to unravel. I think the reason for these architectural flaws is that the authors do not spend enough time conceptualizing and structuring their stories. A Distant Cousin is obviously a story with a strong love story component. Much of her story involves people on the college campus. Why not just open with her wandering around the campus, staying at the library and reading serious volumes? Track this story line as she develops friends and impresses the professors with her knowledge, gently hinting at her otherworldly origins. Let the revelation of who she is and her mission unfurl slowly, then, once she is firmly involved with the people she comes to know, we can introduce the Military and the danger it poses. Now her capture is a looming danger that hangs over her quest to save earth while her college friends help her. But of course, the problem remains—why can’t she go to the military in the first place? Why not go to Washington DC? I mean she wants the important people to do something, right?


Al said...

I'd like to address the readers of the above review, if I may. I'm the author of the book. The reviewer's main objection seems to be that I did not write the book he would have written (if he had had the idea). To that I plead guilty. He's the only reader to say this element should have been that way and that element should have been this way. Most everybody else has loved it (except one lit prof who prefers Proust). But let us note that these other people have actually read the whole book, and Podler has not. How can I tell? Well, for one thing, note paragraph three above, where he gripes at length that the heroine should not have burned her space pod and how would that have been possible anyway, etc., etc.. In the third and final section of Distant Cousin, the heroine retrieves her (unburned) pod and uses it in the climax of the story! If the reviewer had bothered to read that part he would have known this. Ironically, at the end of his review, we find he says this: "If the author does not pay attention to the very smallest details, the story will begin to unravel." Exactly! This also applies to reviewers and their reviewsl! Unfortunately, his hasty and incomplete reading has caused him to miss the whole point of a tale other readers have found delightful. Caveat lector! For a second opinion, see

PODler said...

But Sir, on page 24, it is written in your book:

" He leaned forward again. “Tell me: where is that escape pod?”
“I did tell you, sir. I burned it. It was no use any more, and it would have just
attracted attention.”
“DAMMIT!” He slammed his palms on the desk. Darcy jumped along with..."

I am not sure whether we are referring to the same version of the book, but in the document you sent, it is clearly stated on pager 24 that the escape pod was burned.

Al said...

The heroine says it was burned, yes, that is correct. But she fibbed! On p. 327 et seq. it says this: "At least the escape pod was functioning well enough, thank heavens. Worrying about that had been a terrible source of stress. It hadn’t been all that easy to find again, but the stars had been with her, not only for hiding it in the first place, but doing so in such a way that she could reactivate it later. There were very few bodies of water near the McDonald Observatory, but this one, upstream from a stout stone dam, was big enough and deep enough that the escape pod had been able to rest on the bottom, deep under the green water, completely out of sight, for over a year. Some day maybe she could leave word for her fellow Thomans who designed it—they did well, much better than they knew. Bless them!
She had retrieved it at dusk and worked feverishly to clean it and check it over as darkness fell."

PODler said...

Well, the bottom line is that there is nothing else in the first 24 pages that leads one to believe that the pod survived. How can the reader possibly tell whether the protagonist is serious or not?

Al said...

Of course there isn't anything to suggest the pod survived. It's a false lead, a technique probably older than Homer. You were supposed to be taken in by it! As for the protagonist being serious, in addition to the omniscient narrator there's the fact that she's fighting for her very survival. That would tend to make one serious, surely.
Please understand: I don't mean to pick nits. Tastes differ and if you don't like a story then you don't like it. But if one is to publish one's opinion to the world it would seem a good idea to be fully informed, no?

Al said...

Let me just add this, please. Distant Cousin is meant to be a fun read, not War and Peace or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe. It goes down smoothly at the beach, in an airport, or at home. If anyone is tempted but disinclined by the review above, then I hope you will go ahead and try it. If you don't like it, contact me. I'll buy it back!

Emily Veinglory: said...

IMHO bad reviews don't put me off a work, I'll make up my own mind. But *extended* quibbling from the author does.