The title story in Jay Lake’s Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection is about a girl who falls from the sky… and into the hands of those who see her, first and foremost, as a possible military asset. To that end, a team of mercenaries in the South Gobi desert is tasked with (really, blackmailed into) assessing her combat-readiness. Perhaps not surprisingly, this doesn’t end well for Team Free World.
“Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story” is something of a tough love opener: it’s not without flashes of sweetness, but the mercenary at its core is rough-edged, unpleasant and at the end of his proverbial rope. The bleak backdrop of Outer Mongolia, vividly evoked in Lake’s always-precise prose, adds to the sense of menace in this piece. As an entry point into the book, it makes a definitive statement: these tales wind a path through places of shadow and fire.
There’s more than war narrative and bitter veterans to be found in this collection, of course. The stories are divided, loosely, into categories: SF, steampunk and fairy stories, “phantasies”—as Lake puts it—“of style and place” and, finally, Lovecraft-tinged horrors. The subsections are divided by vignettes featuring a variety of angels, vignettes so blood-curdlingly cool I’m tempted to say I’d read an entire book solely populated by these not-always heavenly creatures. I really dug the angels.
The sorting of these stories into baskets of genre is as pleasing as the angels on their boundaries, and there are delights to be found within each section: In the SF, “The Starship Mechanic,” co-written with Ken Scholes, shines out. It’s also about a lone alien on Earth. This one lives in a bookstore, because he can, and because people quickly learn it’s better than letting him out into the world where he may be inclined to fix things. “The Women Who Ate Stone Squid” is a gender-divergent alternate future about a fan of the Joan Carter of Mars books, and the unusual and unfeminine body she finds in the ruins on a planet called Malick’s World.
As I write this review, it hasn’t quite been four months since Jay Lake died of metastatic colon cancer. Many readers will come to this book already aware that when Lake wrote these stories, he knew they would be among his last. It is easy to see a preoccupation with death in this book, and perhaps harder to step back and note that most—if not all—writers circle this topic, sometimes quite obsessively. (My review prior to this was for the latest Peter Watts novel, for example. and anyone who has read Watts knows his books always boast an impressive bodycount and a punishing awareness of the frailty of human existence.)
But it is a different experience to read stories about death written by someone who was trapped in the act of dying. And it’s difficult to read those stories, too, so soon after the author’s passing. When I think of Jay’s work, I often flash on his readings at SF conventions—reading pieces, frequently, that were brilliant and hilarious. There isn’t much to laugh at in this particular collection: it’s not depressing, but it is, overall, somber.
Lake’s writing in his humorous fiction was always deft and witty; in these last stories, the prose is sure-footed, measured, and at times poetic. His characterization is nuanced and convincing, and he moves easily from the technospeak of SF to the purple phrasing of Lovecraftian horror.
As with most collections, Last Plane to Heaven is made up of good stories, better ones, and a few greats. A couple of my picks for the latter category, along with the angel vignettes, are stories with elderly protagonists: the steampunk “The Woman Who Shattered the Moon,” about the long imprisonment of a woman who very nearly conquered the world, and “That Which Rises Ever Upward,” which follows a man called Attestation from his teenage years to the end of his life. There’s also an early piece from his unfinished “Manifest Destiny, Original Sin” cycle, about Lewis and Clark, that is a must-read.
If he had been a different sort of guy—which is, really, unthinkable—“Last Plane” might simply have contained fiction, and in that case it would have been tempted to mention Lake’s death glancingly and focus wholly on the tales he left behind. Instead, Lake wraps up Last Plane to Heaven with something called “The Cancer Catechism.” It’s second-person, it’s intense, it’s about having cancer and it’s only glancingly like the blow-by-blow blog entries Lake created, over five years’ time, chronicling his illness. I think it’s safe to say he didn’t want the issue ignored.
The closing piece is a patchwork of anecdotes about how it came to be that Gene Wolfe, a hero of Lake’s, wrote the introduction for the collection. Lake’s voice—his actual voice, as opposed to the chorus of his various narratives—comes through very clearly in this final piece, as well as in the short behind-the-scenes intros that proceed each of the stories. The afterword ends with a gentle farewell, and those who knew him will inevitably be saddened anew when they read it.
The thing to remember, I think, is that each word in this collection was written while its author was still blazingly alive and fighting hard. These stories are finely crafted and beautiful things in and of themselves. They are all the more precious because we won’t be getting any more.
A.M. Dellamonica has written many things for Tor.com and Tor Books over the years, and will tell you all about them another time.