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Greetings from Lake Wu
Jay Lake
Wheatland Press, 268 pages

Greetings from Lake Wu
Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his family and their books. In 2003, his fiction will appear in over twenty markets, including Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. He is also a first place winner in Writers of the Future XIX.

ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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The danger with many collections is that, when one spends so much time exclusively with one author, one becomes aware of similar themes, frequently used tropes, sometimes obviously favorite plot devices that get repeated. Even if one is fond of the author's work, sometimes collections can be a little like eating one's way through a box of the same kind of candy. The breadth of Jay Lake's interests and his authorial skill avoids this pitfall, even for the reviewer who rereads the entire collection in a couple of sittings. One notices the appearance of roses twice (and is wrong about their significance the second time), the use of the odd name Eglantine twice; twice huge eyes wink in windows, once outside and once from within. And that's it. The stories range from small-town Texas to far-future worlds, the characters from horny teenage boys to alien hive-mothers.

So is there a thematic connection? Yes. In his introduction to Greetings from Lake Wu, Andy Duncan observes that Jay Lake writes about religion -- that all the stories are about religion, but hastens to add (correctly) that does not mean there is any propounding of dogma because there isn't. Lake tries to dig down inside the human psyche for those impulses that some call religious, others might term the contemplation of the unknown -- the sense of wonder.

He also writes, gleefully, about blood and death and life and love, using horror and humor and adventure and action. The stories I found the strongest concerned aliens -- contact, alien thinking, dealing with an unknown quantity. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that theme of teleological question.

The collection opens and closes with a pair of stories set in the far future, featuring Ahriman and Port -- an alien and an A.I. respectively. In the first story, "The Courtesy of Guests," Ahriman has come to the dying Earth to observe. Presently a pair of humans appear, advanced, perfect-seeming, to tidy off last messy origin of human life -- Earth. Their encounter with Ahriman and Port is exquisitely written, thoroughly unpredictable, ending on just the right note.

The next two stories, "The Trick of Disaster" and "Eglantine's Time" take place in a sort of futuristic dreamscape. Both stories clue the long-time reader to what's coming fairly early on -- the first when the evil clown meets the Innocent, and the second as soon as the evil doctor brings in the kitten to bed-ridden, imprisoned Eglantine -- but Lake manages to transform predictability to expectation, and in both stories accomplishes the payoff with lyrical skill that provides just the right emotional touch.

"The Scent of Rotting Roses" takes place far in the future, on another world. In this story, Terran representatives are trying to contact long-lost words, to bring them into contact with the main civilization. But these encounters are often fraught with peril deriving from old war hardware, and the strange ways life evolves therefrom. The pacing is terrific, the imagery sharp, clear, and very, very weird.

"G.O.D" is a short, delightful triptych, riffing on words and old folk tales.

"The Angle of My Dreams" concerns an eleven-year-old boy living with his grandfather, who in measuring the angle of his dreams learns to fly... just to discover that flying is not unknown in his family. Many readers will love this story for the tight relationship between the boy and his grandfather, for the hints of complexity in the grandfather's personality. I felt it was the weakest of the collection; in the shortcuts here (dying mother, no father, tropes that seem a tad too convenient) there is a veering close to easily-tapped sentiment, rather than the emotional depth one sees elsewhere in Lake's work.

"Tall Spirits, Walking the Night" takes place around a grubby bar in Texas -- which is the setting for more than one story. Moke is an old drunk whom the protagonist helps out, though not believing any of his weird ramblings, until one night when the sky is "like blood staining a bathtub full of warm water." Again painful death is central to the story, but Lake brings it all together with furious pacing and unrelenting imagery.

From here on the stories in Greetings from Lake Wu just get more powerful. "Who Sing but Do Not Speak" is best described as alien myth, resonating with our own mythic ur-tales. Lake's alien voice builds steadily in strength to a transcendent ending; looking back, I was surprised to see how short the story is; it carried enough image and idea for a much longer piece.

"Glass: A Love Story" is set in a nightmare version of a big city. Deke has fallen in love with a woman and stakes one of his kidneys on getting her the perfect diamond ring, with disastrous results; she's a woman made of crystal, and as she shouts when she leaves him, diamonds cut! The woman takes off and Deke spends the rest of the story chasing his perfect love, meeting some bizarre and fascinating characters along the way. One wonders if Deke will be cut to pieces before he finds her; another unpredictable and wild ride.

"The Murasaki Doctrine" is the longest story in the collection, at eighty-four pages. It reads, in fact, like a severely compressed novel. In the beginning, especially, there are bald statements of information that the reader wishes to have seen played out. Even so, the pacing is terrific from the very first paragraph, when a mid-level officer named Wanda Murasaki is leaving the Government House in Katyn, the capital of the world she lives on. She sees giant insect warriors dropping from the sky, who proceed to start killing humans in a systematic and obviously well-planned attack.

She strikes back the only way she knows how, discovering that up close and personal they are easy to kill -- if you can avoid their energy rifles and powerfully wielded machetes. The velocity builds steadily as she tries to save her own life, gather information about an attack that begins to make less and less sense, and fight back, carrying the reader past some rather abrupt transitions, and shortchanging of character, especially Wanda, who seems at first one of those protagonists you see sometimes in SF or military adventure: eternally in their thirties, no encumbrances like a family or even a past except maybe a conveniently bad love affair or two to fuel their brooding. Once or twice Lake employs the tactic of eyes revealing information, but this universal trope, too easy for a writer of Lake's caliber, only appears briefly, and only in this story; it seems as if that, too, was part of compressing a novel down to novella length.

Great science fiction ideas and world-building, alien strangeness, and characters that increase in complexity as Wanda begins to emotionally engage make the tale riveting -- I kept scamping my day job in order to get back and read just a few pages more. The emotional handling, once Wanda gets to the orbiting station, is terrific. Check out the scene when Wanda is going to use a corpse to try to send a message, the sort of scene that could be banal in a lesser writer, but strikes with hard emotional verity. I hope this means Lake is one day going to write a novel; I suspect the greater length would give his powers of observation, imagination, and lyrical ability the air time they need to reach new levels of expression.

The last three stories would have to be very strong to follow that -- and they are. "The Goat Cutter" is another Texas story, a nasty little piece of horror in a vivid voice, deceptively entertaining at the beginning, with its two small-town, horny teenage boys looking for fun and trouble. With remorseless skill Lake carries the reader with them straight into hell.

"Jack's House" features a young Rat who lives with other animals in a disintegrating mansion that had once belonged to Jack. Life is constant warfare as the animals slowly consume the house in order to survive -- when they aren't fighting, mice against rats, rats against cats, cats against the dogs outside, and dogs against bears and other creatures in the woods. The Rat becomes a hero, an outcast, a diplomat, as he seeks to answer questions that seem to have no answers.

And finally there is "The Passing of Guests," and back to Ahriman and Port as the universe appears to be ending, and they carry on their teleological debate. This story splendidly weaves together science, religious question, and action, bringing the reader to the last line, which is just breathtaking.

Greetings from Lake Wu is a keeper.

Copyright © 2004 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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