I’ve been following Lou Antonelli’s career for the past couple of years now. He’s a frequent panelist at the various sci-fi cons that I get to attend in the area and always presents an interesting view of the business. His stories are unabashedly old-school and are usually interesting takes on alternate history set in the weirds and wilds of East Texas. In the chapbook Music For Four Hands, Antonelli teams with 2009 Rhysling award nominee Edward Morris on four intriguing science fiction tales set in alternate times, alternate worlds, and in our own backyard.
The collection opens with a piece that serves as an opening curtain on the show called, aptly, “The Scene is Set”. It is very evocative of the sights and smells of a dark carnival (ala Something Wicked This Way Comes). In hindsight, it doesn’t really gel with the tone of the more full-blown stories in the collection. Nevertheless, it is a gem in and of itself.
The first tale, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, takes on an alternate history in which the late, under-appreciated comic Ernie Kovacs does not die in an automobile accident (while trying to light a cigar) in 1962 and how this fact affects the smoking industry and the unlikely livelihood of another historical figure. The story does a great job of invoking the time period and Kovac’s wit. The extrapolations from the pivotal event are interesting and unexpected. However the end comes rather abruptly and ultimately leaves it being the least satisfying of the four stories in the collection.
“Off the Hook” is another story involving a comedian who encounters something from the unknown. Jimmy Slade is a successful but cynical older comic who never really recovered from the early death of his talented former partner, Danny Deuce. After meeting a “Stranger” who could be Death himself literally knocking at his door, Slade makes a Faustian bargain to give Danny a second chance. A fine fantasy with a lot of heart.
“Acroscaphe” is a delightful story about first contact–and about how self-interest can literally (and figuratively) muddy the waters of cross-cultural understanding. It reads a bit like a drive-in movie directed by George Pal; a lot of fun and it’s central premise does a good job of capsizing your expectations.
The final story, “Stairway to Heaven”, is probably my favorite in the collection. A miserable small town newspaper editor in conservative East Texas meets beautiful hippie chick who’s been missing since 1971. After several increasingly tense encounters, she gives him a chance to see how the other half lives. Sparkling dialog helps to make the characters pop from the page; it feels as if the authors had a lot of fun with this one and it translates well to the reader. The ending is satisfying and even a little wistful. A very strong finish to a good collection.
Music for Four Hands is a fine collection of original and entertaining tales. This a great book for whiling away a sunny afternoon. These are the kind of stories that brought me into science fiction as a kid–they not only make you think a little bit but, even more importantly, inspire you to daydream.