Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: Another Girl, Another Planet by Lou Antonelli

I don't really read science fiction novels much these days. With as many science fiction short stories as I read in order to assemble The Year's Best Military and Adventure SF series, when it comes time to wind down with a book, I find myself reaching for different genres. When I do read a science fiction novel, I tend to gravitate toward older works that I've meant to read but haven't gotten around to. All this to say, if a science fiction novel came out in the last three or four years, there's a stunningly good chance I haven't cracked its spine.

But I made an exception for Lou Antonelli's Another Girl, Another Planet. The premise was just too interesting. I couldn't resist.

With Another Girl, Another Planet, Lou Antonelli gives us the 20th Century we deserved rather then the 20th Century we got. It's an alternate history story in which Admiral Robert A. Heinlein (yes, that Robert A. Heinlein) convinces the United States and the U.S.S.R. to work together on a joint space program, rather than against one another in an escalating arms race. As a result, by 1985 (when our story is set) there is a thriving colony on the Moon and the frontier has moved to Mars.

The hero of the story is Dave Shuster, a low-level bureaucrat who is sent to the Mars colony to take over a vacant administration position. Once there, however, he discovers that the Martian governor has died while he was en route. Shuster is now interim leader of the colony.

The engine for Antonelli's plot is an Asmovian mystery involving a mysterious robot and android factory on Mars and a missing girl (an old flame of Shuster's) back in New York City. The mystery is well-done and kept me turning pages, and Shuster, who narrates the novel, is a likable protagonist with a great voice.

But the real joy of the novel is the world that Antonelli has created. For one thing, it's incredibly well thought out. More than that, it's just downright fun. In Another Girl, Another Planet, familiar faces from our timeline turn up in different settings throughout. Familiar technology such as fax machines exist alongside Moon-to-Mars rocketships. To say too much would be to ruin the fun of the novel, so I'll just mention two things that typify what I'm talking about. The first is when Dave Shuster finds a cassette of Buddy Holly's early material, from 1957 - 1961, before he and The Beatles became engaged in the U.S. vs. Britain Music Wars. Another is that we find out what happened to famed skyjacker D.B. Cooper in this timeline.

If I have a criticism to level against the novel it's that, from time to time, the forward movement of the plot is sidelined so that some aspect of the alternate timeline and/or retro-futuristic technology can be explained. But these diversions are so entertaining that it's hard to say that they should have been cut. I certainly would have missed them. Readers not as enamored with 20th Century history and pop culture might find themselves a little lost in all of the references, but I suspect that, for the most part, they will just sail on by, not causing a distraction.

Published by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's Wordfire Press, Another Girl, Another Planet is available now. Here's a link to it on Amazon. Or, if you prefer, you can buy a DRM-free version from

If there were more books like Lou Antonelli's Another Girl, Another Planet, I'd read a whole lot more modern science fiction novels. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Anatomy of a Paragraph: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block

Anyone who has talked to me about books and/or writing for more than ten minutes has probably heard me fawn over the crime writer Lawrence Block. I've read more books by Block than any other author. (It helps that his published novels run into three digits.) Though he's been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and won multiple awards in the field, I still think he's criminally (pun!) underrated. His sales, so far as I know, are quite good, but it's a crying shame that he doesn't regularly top the bestseller lists.

One of the things I like so much about Block's work is how deceptively simple it is. He is by no means a flashy writer. You don't pause in reading his work to marvel over his sentences. You don't set the book down to appreciate his intricate plots. As a writer, when you read his work, you think, "That doesn't look so hard; I could do that."

And then you try to and you realize just how difficult writing as "simply" as Lawrence Block really is.

Block reminds me of Count Basie's longtime guitar player Freddie Green. Green spent his entire career playing one-, two-, and three-note chords, in a swing quarter-note rhythm. Easy, right? Well, many is the jazz guitarist who has spent a lifetime trying to ape Green's style, only to fall short.

Or think of Sinatra. The dude makes singing those classic songs from the Great American Songbook look effortless. Yeah, well you just try sing that well and make it look so effortless.

That's what Lawrence Block's writing is like. He makes what is actually very hard look incredibly easy.

I was reminded of this fact when reading the sixth Matthew Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. In the second chapter of the book, Scudder is taking the reader on a tour of the summer of 1975, when the novel is set, as well as through the New York neighborhood in which he lives. Scudder tells of the bars that he frequents, and then he narrates the following paragraph, which is what I wanted to talk about, to illustrate Block's deceptively simple style:

On the same block there were two French restaurants, one next to the other. One of them, Mont-St.-Michel, was always three-quarters empty. I took women there for dinner a few times over the years, and stopped in alone once in a while for a drink at the bar. The establishment next door had a good reputation and did a better business, but I don't think I ever set foot inside it.

Nothing special right? Dude is just talking about a couple restaurants. Who cares? Why is this even in the book? Shouldn't a good editor have told Block to cut this so that we could get on with the story?

Let's take a closer look, sentence by sentence. Because I think this paragraph is secretly brilliant. It gives us so much information in such an economic way.

Sentence one: On the same block there were two French restaurants, one next to the other.

First the obvious. Block (through Scudder) is telling us that this particular block in NYC features two French restaurants. Okay, got it. But notice how he places them "one next to the other." This tips us off to the fact that we are going to be comparing these two establishments side-by-side. They're positioned so that we can't help but think of one except in terms of the other. Maybe not the most revealing sentence of all time, but it's laying the groundwork for what is to come.

Sentence two: One of them, Mont-St.-Michel, was always three-quarters empty.

Now we're getting to the good stuff. We get the name of one restaurant, but not the other. Mont-St.-Michel is important in a way that Other-French-Restaurant isn't. It's in the second clause that we learn how. It is always three-quarters empty. Not a quarter empty. Not half empty. And certainly not a quarter full. The line is "always three-quarters empty." So Mont-St. Michel is a perpetual loser. They don't attract a crowd. They're a little rundown in the heels. It's not the sort of place you would take a date to impress her. Only . . .

Sentence three: I took women there for dinner a few times over the years, and stopped in alone once in a while for a drink at the bar.

. . . Matt Scudder does. In this sentence we tip to what Block is doing. He's using Mont-St.-Michel as a way to reveal Scudder's character. Notice Scudder doesn't take "dates" there. He doesn't take "girlfriends" or "partners" there. He takes "women" there. This is the most casual term Block could have used, the most distant way of describing these relationships. Because Matt Scudder (at this point in his life) isn't the sort of man who has romantic relationships. It also tells us what kinds of evenings out these were: he took the women to a nearly empty French restaurant. Now, perhaps Mont-St.-Michel is one of NYC's "best kept secrets." Only we know damn well it's not. Block doesn't mention the food. He doesn't mention the decor. He doesn't mention the atmosphere except to say that it's "three-quarters empty." Scudder may like the women he's taking out to dinner, but he's not out to impress them.

We also learn that he stops in from time to time to have a drink at the bar, alone. Now, if you've read the first chapter and a half that leads up to this paragraph (to say nothing of the five books in the series that come before), you'll know that Scudder is an alcoholic. But even separated out from context, we get a hint of that. Who but someone with a drinking problem is going to stop in at a deserted French restaurant to drink at the bar by himself?

Sentence four: The establishment next door had a good reputation and did a better business, but I don't think I ever set foot inside it.

Block could have stopped at sentence three and this would still be a paragraph worth talking about. But he doesn't, and it's this fourth sentence that elevates this passage from good to great. Scudder starts the paragraph setting up two French restaurants. He then gives us information on one but not other. He uses this first restaurant as a way to reveal Scudder's character. Now, in the fourth and final sentence, he addresses the second. And it is in this fourth sentence that our impression of Matt Scudder is cemented. He never gives a name to the second restaurant. It is "the establishment next door." He tells us that it "had a good reputation," implying that the first establishment does not, and that it "did a better business," implying that the food is better, the atmosphere is more lively, the service more genteel. And yet . . . he never "set foot inside it." Notice the total disdain in his tone. He doesn't just not eat there. Not "setting a foot inside" an establishment strongly implies a code of conduct on the part of the person whose foot isn't being set inside. Scudder won't go there, won't take dates there, purposely. It's not that Mont-St.-Michel is more conveniently located or that he likes it better. Scudder frequents it not in spite of but because it's rundown. He's attracted to the gutter. He refuses to go to the nicer restaurant that is right next door, because that is not who he is.

All of this from what seems like a throwaway paragraph about a couple of restaurants. One paragraph, four sentences, not even ostensibly about the protagonist of the book and yet the reader comes away from it knowing who Matt Scudder is down to the core.

Block's work is full of stuff like this. Simple, straight-forward prose that doesn't draw attention to itself but that conveys an incredible amount of information and emotion.

Block makes it look easy, but writing that simply takes a lot of hard work.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"The Dead Thing" in Disturbed Digest

My short story "The Dead Thing" appears in the June 2017 issue of Disturbed Digest. You can pick yourself up a copy here.

"The Dead Thing" was originally written for the Hank Davis-edited anthology Things from Outer Space. It started the way perhaps half of my short stories start: with a title. Shortly after coming up with the title, the first few words popped into my head. They are: "We found the dead thing . . ." From there, I just kept writing (with one major interruption, more on that in a second) until the story ended, not really knowing what was going to happen or how things were going to turn out. That's not particularly common for me. Usually, I have an idea of how a story is going to end, and I often outline the whole thing. But not always, and not this time.

The danger of flying by the seat of your pants that way is that too often you get lost or paint yourself into a corner and the story never gets finished. For a while, I thought that would be the case with "The Dead Thing." I hit a roadblock about halfway through and put it aside, hoping that I might find my way to the ending, but assuming that I wouldn't, that the story would remain incomplete.

Then, I sat down one day, opened up "The Dead Thing" file on the trusty ol' laptop and . . . kept writing. It took a few days, but I made it to the end of the story, and was really quite pleased with how it turned out. I sent it off to Hank, hopeful that he'd accept it.

However, Hank wasn't able to use the story. It was a good story, he assured me, and he'd like to put it in the anthology, but the ending was too similar to that of another story that he'd already purchased for the book. The two stories were really quite different, and the endings weren't identical, but they were close enough that they would feel odd sitting next to each other in a table of contents. Such are the breaks!

But I really liked "The Dead Thing" and didn't want to relegate it to the trunk. I'm glad to see that it found a home in Disturbed Digest's Fifth Anniversary Double Issue.

Incidentally, when Hank said he wasn't able to use "The Dead Thing" for Things from Outer Space, I assumed I'd missed my chance to be included in the anthology. The deadline was looming and I didn't have anything appropriate to send in and no ideas for a new story.  Then my story "As It Lays" popped into my head, fully formed, one morning. I sent it off to Hank and he said he'd be glad to use it in Things from Outer Space.

[Paul Harvey voice]: And now you know . . . the rest of the story!