Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
Some stories stay with you. Most, entertaining as they often are in the moment, don’t.
I encountered Jay Lake’s ‘The Passion of Mother Vajpaj’ for the first time three years or so ago, in the course of reviewing the second Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy for Strange Horizons. Then, as now, I saw anthologies as opportunities to broaden my reading horizons, and this one indubitably did. There were better stories in it, I think—by Caitlin R. Kiernan and K. J. Parker, to the best of my recollection—but not a one was more memorable or moreish than this richly erotic and irresistibly exotic exploration of the milieu mined in Green, Endurance and Kalimpura.
‘The Passion of Mother Vajpaj’ may have been my first taste of Jay Lake’s literary legacy, but it was far from my last. Indeed, his name became as good as a guarantee to me: a mark of quality on magazines I mightn’t have looked twice at otherwise. Thus, through him, I discovered any number of other authors. I think he’d have been happy about that.
By all accounts, he was a great guy. I never had the pleasure myself—I never will now—but he brought light into countless lives, and approached his own hardships with good humour.
Joseph Edward Lake, Jr. died in June, just days before his fiftieth birthday, after a long and hard-fought battle with metastatic colon cancer. He knew the end was ahead, however. A matter of months beforehand he had handed over the manuscript for Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection of his terrific short fiction. “Chances are very good that by the time these words reach print I will either be on my deathbed or in my grave,” he wrote in the heartbreaking afterword appended to said text.
But take heed, readers: though the man may be gone, his stories live on. Not least the tale from which this collection takes its title. ‘Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story’ concerns Allen, the leader of a team of multinational mercenaries working, at the moment, in Mongolia:
It’s a beautiful country, Mongolia. All the ‘stans are beautiful in their way. Xin Jiang, too. Nichols was wrong about this being the asshole of the earth. God had made these countries, all right, to remind us all how damned tough the world was. And how beauty could rise from the hard choices and broken lives.
There’s darkness to endure before the dawn, I dare say. Allen’s old enemy, a turncoat called Hannaday, brings bad news to the secluded camp: he’s bought out the bonds and contracts of everyone stationed there. Without his help none of the mercs will make it home. He does mean to help them, however—all they have to do is “run a fake hostage situation with […] a special subject” they’re to capture and question.
A small price to pay, Allen’s men moot, and they’re all out of other options anyway. Little do they know that this “drop-in” is different from the others they’ve dealt with during their tenure:
Not more than fifteen, eyes bloodshot from reentry gees, barely moving even as she stared at us. Blue-black skin, shaved head.
Who’d dropped out of the Central Asian sky in a Russian spaceship.
Kids on the International Space Station? Not fucking likely. Not in this lifetime.
“Hannaday,” I breathed, “who the fuck is she?”
Who this girl is, where she came from, and why—these are the central mysteries of the fiction, and the answers are apt to surprise you. That said, the author’s aversion to easy explanations is part of what makes ‘Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story’ so special, so I’ll follow Lake’s lead here.
Suffice to say there are suggestions about her identity, her point of origin and her purpose from the first, but it’s not until the story’s almost over that we know… and even then, we don’t know the whole of it. It’s on us, ultimately, to put the pieces of this surprising prose puzzle together: truly a sure sign of a confident author—an author with faith in his own and his audience’s abilities—and Lake is absolutely that.
‘Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story’ is a challenging narrative in more ways than the one discussed above. Pretty as it is, the prose is opaque, at points. That said, there’s a method to it. And as for Allen… he mightn’t be the most pleasant protagonist, however his resolve is remarkable. Take the way he deals with the surreal dreams he and his team start having after the special subject’s arrival; his dogged determination doesn’t exactly endear Allen or any of the remaining mercs to readers, but it does engender our respect. The man’s no hero, no, but I was rooting for him to discover the truth, to be sure.
‘Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story’ is not necessarily the easiest of reads, but you owe it to yourself—not to mention the memory of one of speculative fiction’s finest—to give it a go. To read it for the first time, or for the fourth, as Gene Wolfe notes in the introduction to Lake’s last collection:
There’s nothing wrong with a kiss in the moonlight. But that moonlight kiss should not be all there is. It should be a beginning, not an end. […] So test yourself. Read ‘Last Plane to Heaven,’ the story that has given its title to this whole book. If you can’t finish it, you’ve failed. If you finished it and enjoyed it […] but find there are certain things you don’t understand, read it again. If you enjoyed it the second time and understand it a little better, you don’t have to read it a third time unless you want to. You’ve made it. You’re on the team.
Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection is available now from Tor Books. ‘The Passion of Mother Vajpaj’ isn’t in it, alas. But so much else is. Miss it at your own risk.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.