Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection
by Jay Lake
Cover Artist: Shutterstock / Getty Images
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765377982
Date: 16 September 2014 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Jay Lake was a prolific and inventive writer, working in a variety of styles and genres, but always marked by a richness of language and of imagination, particularly in his short fiction. It is a great tragedy that Last Plane to Heaven is his last collection of short fiction, as he died of cancer earlier this year. This collection highlights his numerous strengths; it is a testament to his short story talent that the collection is introduced by Gene Wolfe, one of the greatest short story writers in or out of genre.
The collection is divided by genre, beginning with science fiction, moving to steampunk and fantasy, then to Lake's more experimental and less easily classified works, and finally to horror. However, the stories within each section are almost as diverse as those in different sections.
"Hello, said the gun" manages in four pages to be unsettling, haunting, and to make us deeply sympathetic for an abandoned alien ray-gun -- a not inconsiderable achievement. "West to East" could have been published by Joseph Campbell, capturing the sense of wonder and courage so sought after by hard science fiction, while marrying this to Lake's keen sense of character and his gorgeous prose.
"The Woman Who Ate Stone Squid" is a elusive combination of homage to the pulp stories of planetary romance and a feminist critique of the same, with shades of Tiptree and some of the multi-layered story and hidden details of a Gene Wolfe story. And this is just within the science fiction section.
Among the steampunk stories, I particularly enjoyed "The Woman Who Shattered the Moon". The story is told in the first person by an aged mad-scientist whose signature accomplishment is the destruction of the moon, a blow on behalf of those that the powerful would prefer to ignore. Lake does an excellent job of getting us inside the head of a character who would normally be the villain and making her sympathetic. Moreover, he turns this over the top steampunk plot-point into a thoughtful and surprisingly elegiac take on oppression and aging. There are lots of threads woven together here, and the story sticks in the mind.
The section entitled Phantasies of style and place includes some very odd stories indeed, including one that is written as a critical analysis of an (imaginary) painting. There is also a story set in the worlds Lake explored in The Madness of Flowers and another in the setting of Green.
Finally, there is a section of horror stories. There are two Lovecraftian stories, well suited to Lake's vivid descriptions, but which he elevates via his focus on the characters, and their personal reactions to the incomprehensible world they find themselves in.
"Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors" is a creepy story about fairies, which challenges the depiction of fairyland as somewhere to escape to.
Last Plane to Heaven is a diverse and fascinating collection, tied together by Lake's beautiful writing and his lively imagination. Lake had a rare talent for writing across genres and styles, and making even short stories develop rich characterization and evoke strong emotions. We are the poorer for his loss.