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Baby Killers
Jay Lake
PS Publishing, 68 pages

The Baby Killers
Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2010 books are Pinion from Tor Books, The Specific Gravity of Grief from Fairwood Press, The Baby Killers from PS Publishing, and The Sky That Wraps from Subterranean Press. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and has been a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

Jay Lake Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Jay Lake's Process of Writing
SF Site Review: The Baby Killers
SF Site Review: Trial of Flowers
SF Site Review: Rocket Science
SF Site Review: All Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories
SF Site Review: Greetings from Lake Wu

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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One of the more exciting aspects of small presses like PS Publishing is that they take chances where larger publishers cannot. PS has published a long-running novella series, which invariably proves interesting. Baby Killers is no exception.

Unrepentent speculative fiction readers are likely (or consider themselves to be) highly educated, either through degrees or by books. Their tastes in styles can often veer into the Romantic, taking on Baroque aspects. Consider Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P Lovecraft -- all writers who continue to hold a WWF wrestling grip on the dedicated readers of SF.

In this case, Baby Killers sketches seemingly random scratches on a broad canvas of a Philadelphia steampunk -- where the Queen of England, presumably, still reigns. The connection between scratches gradually take shape. The following quote summarizes the story's structure well: "It is entirely common for a single thing to have more than one cause."

The bleak, black comedy, opens with a mad scientist, Dr. M.T. Scholes (a friendly jab at his friend, Ken Scholes, but perhaps as well at the commercial shoe insert), experimenting on children, cobbling them together into mechanical human brass spiders that will rid the world of the unemployed. The children, we will learn, are the baby killers of the title. That double entendre plays with the idea that children can be killers, but in so doing kills the children as well.

Enter Belle, the Governor-General of Philadelphia, whose "peccadillos" include the unfortunate loss of young men and women. The Tsar has shipped in a coffin Arkady, the four-century-year-old Russian assassin who can't be killed -- from Russia with love. With all of this evil in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, it needs an avenging angel. The gollinoster born of evil, yet avenges herself upon it, and speaks in alliterations. Ostensibly, she will protect the innocent Tatyana Verigin, whom the Governor-General may harm.

The story concludes with the police and four different monsters of differing makes. The denouement is not especially comic or following the Skakespearean tradition of comedy, but for a black comedy, that tends to be the way: the eternal return.

For some readers, style may be an important consideration. It dips into the Mervyn Peake's ink well of Gormenghast. While Jay Lake can be a chameleon of style (contrast Baby Killers to another steampunk tale, Mainspring, a more straightforward adventure if containing some of Lake's Baroque leanings), Lake's work often springs from this fount of inspiration. Modern readers (or at least modified Baroque) may not always click with this style, but it does not detract from Lake's ability to artful stories. Jay Lake's story in the Steampunk Megapack stories how powerful they could be. It had a strong Edgar Allan Poe influence in its art. (See this article for more insight into Lake's art: "Analysis of 'Midnight at Valdosta's' by Jay Lake".

The following excerpt demonstrates some of the style's relative strengths and vulnerabilities:

  " 'Hoare, whatever happened to that girl...' Belle waved a pudgy hand.... 'The one with the pretty eyes?'

" 'Miss Francine?' Hoare sighed. 'I believe her employment was terminated last week.'

" 'Oh, why?' The Governor-General could be quite petulant.

" 'Unsatisfactory performance.' Due to being dead. Mortality had significantly reduced her ability to execute the duties of her position. Most of which involved bending to Belle's will, quite literally, whist being clad in a state of nature."

 

This shows how humor can be underplayed with institutionalized, formal euphemism. But also the abstractions and elevated language put out off some readers' radar. A few prominent wonder why Peake isn't more popular than Tolkien. This may in part explain why.

As always, my reviews try to connect the right readers for each story. If you enjoy your black comedies with some elevated language, Baby Killers will be exactly what the doctor ordered. Just be careful not to follow Dr. Scholes' orders, or you may find your body bound in a brass spider.

Copyright © 2013 Trent Walters

Trent Walters teaches science; lives in Honduras; edited poetry at Abyss & Apex; blogs science, SF, education, and literature, etc. at APB; co-instigated Mundane SF (with Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd) culminating in an issue for Interzone; studied SF writing with dozens of major writers and and editors in the field; and has published works in Daily Cabal, Electric Velocipede, Fantasy, Hadley Rille anthologies, LCRW, among others.


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