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Rocket Science
Jay Lake
Fairwood Press, 218 pages

Rocket Science
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
SF Site Review: All Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories
SF Site Review: Greetings from Lake Wu

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Hughes

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During the couple of days when I was reading Jay Lake's snazzy little debut novel, Rocket Science, a link on Locus Online led me to a CBC site. There I found an article that argued that Canadian SF writers Robert Charles Wilson, Robert Sawyer and Karl Schroeder should be seen as part of a "new old wave" of authors out to re-energize our venerable genre now that its two-decades-long diversion into grim-and-gritty cyberpunk is clearly running out of oomph. Without commenting on the merits of the argument, I will say that if there is a "new old wave" of science fiction writing, those at the crest had better make room for an American named Jay Lake. Lots of room.

Set in a Kansas small town just after the end of World War II, Rocket Science has the feel of one of those Heinlein-Asimov adventures from the Golden Age. Vernon Dunham is a sensitive young man, the son of the town drunk, who was kept out of the war by the damage done during a childhood bout with polio. But his lifelong best (and only) friend -- that girl-chasing good ol' boy, flamboyant Floyd Bellamy -- has not only been to see the elephant but has come back from the Battle of the Bulge with a Nazi half-track full of radar tracking gear and what he thinks is an experimental airplane that is centuries ahead of the times. The two of them tuck the contraband away in the Bellamy barn until Vernon -- an aeronautical engineer who has spent the war as a parts manager in a Boeing aircraft plant -- can figure out how to fly it. And from there on in, the plot thickens, and tastily.

It turns out that Vernon has unknowingly lived all of his life atop a layered parfait of secrets and lies: some concerning the Bellamies, some his own family, and a few of them touching on geopolitics and espionage. The arrival of the flying machine triggers an accelerating and increasingly painful peeling back of all these strata of subterfuge. As the revelations emerge, Lake keeps stirring fresh ingredients into the mix: a Nazi spy ring, a nest of white-lightning moonshiners, a dozen Cadillac-driving mafiosi from Chicago, a murderous NKVD sleeper agent, the US Army's Criminal Investigation Division, a local sheriff and a small-town family doctor straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting who may not be what they seem. Before too long, Vernon is in big trouble and knows not where to turn nor whom to trust. At that point, the mysterious aircraft wakes up and starts talking to him.

Events move with whiz-bang velocity -- the actual text covers only 208 pages -- as the hero dodges bullets, tries to figure out whether the Bellamies are hiding him or holding him prisoner, and worries about his dad who had turned up beaten half to death in the trunk of Vernon's old Hudson only to subsequently disappear while allegedly in police custody. Meanwhile, Vernon investigates the mystery of the flying machine, discovering it didn't come out of a German research lab, but was dug out of Arctic ice by a Nazi expedition looking for an entrance to the legendary hollow Earth. This is a lot of plot in a few pages, yet amidst all of the zigs and zags, Lake manages to keep an eye on his character's inner turmoil, because this is also a story of emotional self-discovery. Vernon grows from his experiences, finds his true place in the scheme of things and becomes the hero he was always capable of being, his gimpy leg and his failure to wow the girls back in high school notwithstanding.

And it's all handled very well, with a smooth delivery and a nice economy of words, presented in the unabashedly golly-gee voice of Vernon's Henry Aldrich, 1940s-virgin point of view. Still, there will be those who will turn their noses up at this display of virtuoso storytelling skill and accomplishment because it's all devoted to producing a decidedly old fashioned, and therefore unfashionable, science fiction novel. Lake has the sheer nerve to give us good guys and bad guys in Rocket Science, although he takes his time in letting us discover definitively who is which. He also mixes in a good chunk of angst, and even the occasional tinge of despair, though he has the pre-post-modernist gall to offer these conditions, not as bleakly unalterable realities to be endured, but as problems to be resolutely overcome. And then he has his characters prevail and win through to a happy ending. When it's all over, the good guys have triumphed, and a whole new universe has opened up for them to explore. Exactly the way science fiction novels used to end back in the Golden Age -- which, just maybe, the new old wavers like Jay Lake might one day resurrect.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His novels are Fools Errant, Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, and Majestrum. The first chapter of his new novel, The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn (Night Shade Books, September 2007), is on his web page is at http://www.archonate.com/spiral-labyrinth.


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