What if our first contact from another planet was a human? What if the first real alien to visit Earth from another solar system was a woman on a mission to find the distantly related cousins of her own people? What if she brought with her a warning of an impending disaster of apocalyptic proportions? And what if nobody believed her?
Al Past’s novel Distant Cousin is a most unusual science fiction story with a most unusual heroine. Ana Darcy has jeopardized her mission and cut herself off from her own people to bring a desperate warning to Earth authorities. Astronomers at a Texas observatory don’t believe her, but the US military is willing to interrogate her—under custody of course. Her astonishing escape from Army detainment is our first hint that she may be more than she first appears and capable of more than we imagine. While the military scrambles to locate and recapture the woman they call “Gidget from Outer Space,” Darcy realizes that her journey to Earth has placed her in the path of the oncoming destruction and she will suffer Earth’s fate if the calamity is not avoided.
Befriended by ordinary people as varied as the family of a Texas dude ranch foreman, a mild-mannered reporter, and an Olympic contender from Barbados, Darcy conceives a daring plan to evade government capture while hiding in plain sight, and to deliver her warning in a manner which cannot possibly be ignored. Afterward, she might just fall in love … if she can trust her own feelings … and if she can trust her boyfriend with the truth about her origins. This is a science fiction novel which might better be described as a love story with scientific speculation. The premise of humans on another world is startling, and the author reels out details about Darcy’s homeworld so sparingly that our curiosity is cleverly aroused. It is only when unexpected arrivals provoke a sudden crisis of diplomacy that we learn exactly what Darcy gave up in accepting her mission to Earth—and what she might be running from.
It was cold and dark in the bottom of the canyon, but the crisp, dry air was wonderfully exhilarating. Overhead, the sky was lightening on one side...that had to be east. She recalled the image of her map: west Texas, U.S.A., a canyon below the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, or so she hoped.
She climbed carefully upwards, towards the lightening sky. Rocks and pebbles clattered lightly under her feet. In the gathering light she could make out all kinds of odd plants, some with formidable thorns. Out of curiosity, she touched a cactus and got pricked by a sharp spine.
She had wondered what the air might smell like. It was bracing: crisp and light and clean. There were subtle notes of some cool, spicy fragrance probably from a plant, but she had no idea which one or ones. Eventually she reached the top of the canyon to discover a hard, smooth surface along the crest, extending out of sight around curves both above and below her. A highway, she realized. And there! There was the observatory: two silver domes on two peaks a good ways off, glinting softly in the first light. That’s what I want! she thought. Sucking her prickled finger in the dawn stillness, she began walking up the road toward the observatory.
After rounding two or three curves it had grown light enough to see to the horizon. The view was stupendous. Hills and mountains receded into the distance, in a silence that could almost be heard. The curvature of the earth was visible, impossibly far away. A contrail marked the sky high overhead, like a silver scratch. Had she made one herself earlier? She had no idea.
She had landed in the edge of a range of rugged desert mountains, in one of many canyons that opened out to a giant plain in front of her. In the distance on the far side of the plain were more, but lower, hills and mountains. She could now see that the canyon she had clambered out of was full of huge boulders at the bottom. There were small trees here and there, and more clumps of low trees in adjacent canyons. She'd been expecting a denser forest, but perhaps this area was too dry to support one. There seemed to be only one highway across the plain. Where it disappeared among the hills on the horizon, a handful of lights twinkled dimly. If that was a town, it was the only one around for as far as she could see.
Walking in the silent, chill air was exhilarating. Her shoes made a crunching sound in the gravel just off the pavement, but progress was easier, more quiet, and faster on the pavement itself. The cool, gentle breeze smelled wonderful.
After rounding two curves, she became aware of a sound down the highway behind her. At first a faint sigh, it grew louder, and she had almost decided to jump down into the canyon when two lights appeared. It was an automobile! In no time at all it passed her, and then red lights brightened on the back of it. It stopped, two white lights came on, and it slowly rolled back to where she stood. A glass panel slid down. She had almost decided to run for the canyon when a woman's head appeared in the opening and a voice said, "Hey, miss, you need a ride?"
She forced her heart to quit pounding and stepped toward the automobile. The dark face in the window was smiling, and the voice had been kindly. Finally she stammered "Oh, thank you, no. I'm just walking up to the observatory."
"Oooh, that's a long walk on a cold morning," the woman said. "I work there. That's where I'm going. Get in. I'll give you a ride!"
She had seen enough movies to know that passengers rode next to the driver, so she walked to the other side, opened the door, and got in. The car gathered speed up the mountain.
She had just begun to consider the etiquette of the situation--who should speak first?--when the woman said "Oooh, this is a cold morning for a walk! And going all the way to the observatory! They don't open for visitors until nine o'clock! You gonna have to wait! You wanna see the stars?"
"Uh, no, ma’am...I want to talk to the director, to Dr. Harcroft."
"Ooooh, I know him! I clean his office! He's a very smart man! He knows everything about the stars. But he's very messy! You wouldn't believe the mess he make in just one day! I can show you his office! Those people, they stay up all night looking through their telescopes, but they sleep late--you might not see him until lunch time. I hope you patient!"
She smiled and nodded at the driver--a bit of good fortune, perhaps. There's one thing she wouldn't have to worry about. If only the rest went as smoothly.
Benning, Bynum, Caxton, Braithwaite were collectively filled with great joy, and not a little relief, none more so than Hartley Braithwaite. They were in their own meeting room in their own building, and by golly, if they wanted to smoke cigars they would smoke cigars. Bynum and Caxton actually lit up--Benning and Braithwaite merely smiled and acquiesced, out of expansive good humor. Gary Lollar had won a silver medal in an individual swimming event and a gold in a relay, Cheryl Ford had just won the gold medal for the 10,000 meters, and their long shot Ana Darcy had snagged a cycling gold medal out of the blue for Barbados. Benning, Bynum, Caxton, Braithwaite's athletes were four for three. Life was good!
Like much of the rest of the world, however, they were curious about what the enigmatic Ms. Darcy would do next. The morning after the bicycle race she was scheduled to run in the 100 meter finals, and that afternoon the high jump event began. The day after that she was to start the long jump, and the day after that, although it seemed impossible, she was scheduled for the preliminaries of the 10 meter diving event. The announcers at the affected venues were beginning to take increasing notice.
The next morning all four partners showed up without complaint at the unlawyerly hour of 7:30 am to gather before the television cart in their meeting room. Mrs. Anderson, the secretary, had splurged on a catered breakfast without even asking Jack Benning if he wanted it. She hovered in the background with an eye on the screen, where a 400 meter women's semifinal heat was taking place. As it ended and cut to a commercial break, the commentators dropped a teaser: "When we come back, we'll go to the finals of the women's 100 meter race in Dublin's Olympic stadium. We'll see if the favored American, DeShawn Williams, and the other favorite, Miriam Mkeba from Kenya, can be challenged by the Barbadian Ana Darcy, who just won gold in the cycling road race. It seems unlikely that a cyclist could stay in there with the fastest women in the world, especially after her grueling victory, but we'll soon find out. First, these messages...."
The partners hastened to pour their coffee and select some food before the commercials ended. Mrs. Anderson had never seen lawyers this nervous before. "Cool" was their normal professional demeanor. But now, they were not cool.
When the commercials ended, all talk in the room ceased. The screen showed the eight runners, Darcy in a middle lane, by far the shortest and lightest. The banner with her four digit number on it wrapped so far around her chest that only three numbers could be seen at a time. The camera panned across the group slowly as the announcers identified the runners and provided a couple details about each for the audience. Darcy's team gold medal of the previous day was mentioned, the color commentator adding, "Darcy's favored position in one of the middle lanes was earned from her fast time in the qualifying heat, but that was run before the bicycle race. It remains to be seen if she has anything left for this all-out sprint. And now, the runners get set...."
At some signal inaudible to the partners in the room, the runners stopped jumping and quivering and began to set themselves in their starting blocks, placing their hands with exaggerated care on the track. Darcy backed into her blocks and kneeled with little fuss, setting her spread fingers down easily. Another inaudible signal, and all the women raised up off their knees, put their rears in the air, and their heads down. Then there was a sharp crack, and they took off--except Darcy, who stood up calmly and glanced to one side.
Before anyone could register surprise there was another bang and the runners broke stride and slowed to a stop. "A false start!" hollered the announcer. "One of the runners left too soon! But Ana Darcy, in lane 4, didn't leave the blocks at all, Art! Let's see the slow motion replay of that. Yes, there it is--the Kenyan, Miriam Mkeba, in lane 5, left a fraction of a second too soon. But note that Darcy, next to her, never left the blocks at all. She stood up just as the starting gun went off. Does that mean that she wasn't going to try to run, that she used up everything she had on the bicycle? Or maybe she has a pulled muscle...she’s looking very serious right now. Maybe she’s hurt. We'll have to see if she takes her place for the restart of this race, or if she simply leaves the track."
The runners repeated their elaborate positioning and tensed for the gun once again. When it went off, everyone shot out of the blocks, Darcy included. At the ten meter point she was a step ahead of the American next to her. At twenty five meters she was two steps ahead and visibly accelerating. At the finish line she was a good eight meters ahead of the second place American, her legs a blur.
The race clock showed a time of 9.6 seconds. At first, the crowd and even the announcers sat in stunned silence. They had just seen a new world record set by a full six tenths of a second, an unbelievably huge margin in such a short race. Darcy was congratulating the American silver medalist and the other runners around her, but as the magnitude of what they had seen sank in, the crowd finally began shouting and applauding.
The announcers were shouting too, to be heard over the crowd. "That's amazing, Art! Let's see that again, with the clock superimposed." They ran the tape of the race again, in slow motion, twice, from different angles. When they finished the crowd was still standing and applauding. Someone pressed a Barbadian flag into Darcy's hands. She looked as though she didn't know what to do with it. The American runner pushed her into a victory lap and accompanied her all the way around the track.
Benning, Bynum, Caxton, Braithwaite looked at each other with solemn faces, then back at the screen, as if that might explain something. Finally, Jack Benning stood up. After about ten seconds, he sat back down. He swiveled his chair to face the plate glass overlooking the bay. Then he swiveled to face the table. Bynum was looking at his coffee, Caxton at the television. Only Braithwaite met Benning’s gaze. "What the hell was that, Hartley?" he said. Braithwaite's face didn't change.
Distant Cousin is the best novel I have read in a long time. I can name about ten that I like better, and then I run out of titles. In what should be considered an appropriate fashion, the cover blurb (the same one you will read online) refers only to the first few pages of the book. The many pleasant plot twists of a book like Distant Cousin should never be given away for the sake of advertising. The author has added a new version at Amazon that provides a bit more information, but probably the less plot details you know, the more you will enjoy Distant Cousin.
Distant Cousin is a screenplay waiting to become a Spielberg movie. You cannot escape the visions in your mind from E.T. and Close Encounters as you read through it, and the magic so aptly personified in those two movies is also prevalent in Distant Cousin. The book is a SciFi love story with an adventurous plot. A human from another planet comes for a visit. She looks like Barbie, or the beauty from Species, except she is not a monster wearing a Barbie suit. She lands near Alpine, TX, which makes the landscape backdrop look like that in Wavelength, another movie with stylistic elements in common with Distant Cousin. A young journalist who has become somewhat bored with his job spots Barbie in the library, and he is fascinated by the combination of her beautiful innocence and the scientific books she is studying. The subplots begin to roll in, and that's all I'm going to tell you.
Al Past is a very accomplished, literary author. The sequel to Distant Cousin is already out, and I know you SciFi fans love sequels. The author thought about, researched, and studied the details of his concept for many years before releasing Distant Cousin, and the depth of his effort shines from the pages. Yes, the usual number of ubiquitous grammatical and typographical errors are present in the book, but that is my sole complaint. When the characters and plot are this good, holding up for the entire, considerable page count, I won't let the boo-boo drivel tarnish a book that deserves at least five stars. The closest thing to cheating that this book does is have a plot related to many movies, and the author has told me that he has seen less movies and television than the average American. If I never review another book, Distant Cousin has proven my thesis once and for all. There really are regular novels out there published by iUniverse that have not cheated with an appeal to obsessive genre readers, and they are outstanding! I am not a SciFi fan nor a romance fan, and I read about equal numbers of fiction and nonfiction. Distant Cousin will stamp its wonderful magic on your soul.
“Distant Cousin” is an interesting and eccentric book that manages to cross a number of genres – a little bit science fiction, sprinkled with alterna-sociology, a generous dash of techno-thriller, several roman-a-clef conventions gently folded in, and a rather sweet love story. Oh, and finding a place in the world for yourself; not the easiest thing for anyone, let alone for the young woman who calls herself Ana Darcy. Ana Darcy appears very early one morning at the University of Texas’ Mt. Davis observatory with an urgent warning; the Earth will be in terrible danger from a so-far-undetected asteroid. Ana knows this for certain, because she is much, much older that she appears, and from a good bit farther away than the place she first claims to have come from. Which is the moon…
She is, in fact, a scientist from another planet, sent to observe the earth from a distance on behalf of her own people, who may have originated here – hence the ‘distant cousin’ – but Ana has good reason to keep quiet about many things, even among those friends she makes in the course of her quest. And she is an endearing person, both as a character and as written; observant, studious, given to sudden impulses and often quite uncertain about herself. The various stories unfold at a leisurely pace, but seem to conclude in mid-arc – not surprising once the reader realizes the final quarter of “Distant Cousin” is a careful set-up for not one but two sequels.
Much of the story is set in the mountains and deserts of West Texas around Alpine, or in southern New Mexico; the scenery, the culture and the cuisine are observed in close details, as an alien like Ana would see them. Mr. Past has included a few local characters and locations, which must especially amuse readers who know that part of the country well. This is a very readable diversion, and what is revealed about Ana’s own culture and civilization is worked out in considerable and convincing detail.
Beeville Bee-Picayune, June 17, 2006
This will be the shortest rave review you have ever read. Because Al Past's just-published "Distant Cousin" is a pure delight, too good to give away any of the details. However, one must say that it is the story of a petite blonde underdog from far, far away, who must overcome insurmountable obstacles in order to save...well, that is already telling you too much.
Al's first novel is one of the best reads I have ever had. He has grounded the story in the unmistakable reality of West Texas, with characters you will not only believe in but love. Each chapter is a wonderful surprise that leads you on to the next. There is no doubt that "Distant Cousin" would/will make a spectacular crowd-pleasing movie. And, guess what, a sequel to this delightful story will be published next month!
Don't miss it! It is so heartwarming and fun, you will want to give it a great big hug.
Margaret Moser, Beeville Bee-Picayune, June 17, 2006
Al Past’s novel Distant Cousin is a most unusual science fiction story with a most unusual heroine. Ana Darcy has jeopardized her mission and cut herself off from her own people to bring a desperate warning to Earth authorities. Astronomers at a Texas observatory don’t believe her, but the US military is willing to interrogate her—under custody of course. Her astonishing escape from Army detainment is our first hint that she may be more than she first appears and capable of more than we imagine. While the military scrambles to locate and recapture the woman they call “Gidget from Outer Space,” Darcy realizes that her journey to Earth has placed her in the path of the oncoming destruction and she will suffer Earth’s fate if the calamity is not avoided. Befriended by ordinary people as varied as the family owners of a Texas dude ranch, a mild-mannered reporter, and an Olympic contender from Barbados, Darcy conceives a daring plan to evade government capture, while hiding in plain sight, and to deliver her warning in a manner which cannot possibly be ignored. Afterward, she might just fall in love … if she can trust her own feelings … and if she can trust her boyfriend with the truth about her origins. This is a science fiction novel which might better be described as a love story with scientific speculation. The premise of humans on another world is startling, and the author reels out details about Darcy’s homeworld so sparingly that our curiosity is cleverly aroused. It is only when unexpected arrivals provoke a sudden crisis of diplomacy that we learn exactly what Darcy gave up in accepting her mission to Earth—and what she might be running from.
Distant Cousin has won an 2007 iUBR award for Pleasurable Read! "Whatever it is that Spielberg has at the movies, Al Past has in his Distant Cousin series. Show me the magic!"