Filler content from Lake Wu

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #37 back in 2004:-

Wheatland Press pb, 246pp, $19.95

Each story in this first collection from talented writer Jay Lake comes with an illustration by the artist Frank Wu, images that bring the prose alive in new and exciting ways, suggesting that the book is a collaboration in the true sense of the word and not simply a matter of a hired gun artist coming in to add a few frills after the hard work has been done.

The collection opens with ‘The Courtesy of Guests’, a beautifully written story in which two evolved humans return to destroy the world that gave their kind life, and an alien shapeshifter joins forces with a sentient city to prevent this happening. Lake has an eye for the extraordinary, and his characters are a compelling blend of the known and strange, making their interplay a source of endless fascination. ‘The Trick of Disaster’, in which a Clown visits a small community in search of sinners, is reminiscent of Cordwainer Smith’s short work, a superb evocation of the sinister quality of clowns and revelling in its inversion of customary values. The savage and moving ‘Eglantine’s Time’ has a genetically advanced woman wreaking revenge on her creators, a story that examines the moral issues attendant upon technology and gives them a human dimension without descending into the realms of polemic. ‘The Scent of Rotting Roses’ is set in the wake of the collapse of a galactic civilisation, with scavengers visiting isolated worlds in search of lost technology, and this time getting far more than they bargained for, the story serving up a fascinating medley of ideas and people, but ultimately not quite convincing. In contrast ‘G. O. D.’ is provocative, witty and entertaining, an assemblage of three vignettes on the theme of deity, touching upon myth, fairy tale and religion. ‘The Angle of My Dreams’ has a young boy inspired by the Challenger disaster to discover the secret of flight, this in turn serving as a metaphor for his troubled relationship with his grandfather, the one a dreamer and the other too scared to imagine anything more than he can hold in his hand, a moving account of innocence and redemption. ‘Tall Spirits, Blocking the Night’ involves an encounter with otherworldly beings, an eerie and effective tale packed with unsettling imagery.

‘Who Sing but Do Not Speak’ is perhaps the least effective story here, detailing the quest of an insectoid being for beauty, with little to offer the reader except as curiosity piece, while ‘Glass: A Love Story’ is a clever adaptation of the Greek myths, as a man falls in love with a woman made out of glass and undertakes a trip to the centre of a labyrinth to win her heart. ‘The Murasaki Doctrine’ is the longest story, a novella in which a human colony world is invaded by insectoid aliens and the humans fight to warn the Earth before the enemy’s nefarious scheme can be put into operation. More than any of the other stories this is pure adventure, reminiscent in many ways of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, taking off at a terrific clip and never slowing the pace for a moment, packed with incident, invention, action and memorable characters, not least of them the old warhorse Murasaki herself. In the truly horrific story ‘The Goat Cutter’ a young boy encounters the Devil, an evocation of evil so strong you can almost feel the corruption coming off of the pages and taste it in the back of your throat as you read. ‘Jack’s House’ is another tour de force of invention, a vast domicile abandoned by its human owner and fought over by packs of mice, rats, cats and other, more nebulous creatures. Joshua the rat leaves the house in search of an alliance with the dogs to save his tribe from defeat. Imagine The Wind in the Willows rewritten by Stephen King and you’ll have some idea of what this one is like. Finally in ‘The Passing of Guests’ we pick up the story of Port and Ahriman, the sentient city and alien shapeshifter of the first story, incalculable millennia in the future as they confront the heat death of the universe and cast about them for an alternative, an elegiac piece that nicely rounds out the collection, with its hint of a new beginning and endless possibility.

Reading Lake one cannot help being reminded of other writers (Smith, Heinlein, Leiber, Asimov etc) and yet, while written in a recognised tradition and wearing their influence lightly, these stories are uniquely his own, dealing with themes that are universal, fashioned with all the skill of a born craftsman and fired with the passion of the true iconoclast. It’s early days yet, but I suspect that this young writer has great things ahead of him (Editor/blogger’s note – sadly Jay Lake passed away in 2014).

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