Last Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection: Indispensable

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsLast Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection by Jay LakeLast Plane to Heaven: The Final Collection by Jay Lake

Jay Lake died in June of 2014. It was a tragic loss but not a surprise, since Lake had made his experiences with cancer public. Last Plane to Heaven, edited by Lake himself, is a reminder of just how much the speculative fiction world lost.

I have always loved Lake’s prose, but I had trouble with his novels. This collection of thirty-two stories shows him, mostly, at his best and strongest. As with his novels, even when a story is, by my lights, less than successful, it is still a fascinating read. Lake put a brief introduction to each story. In several cases these often humorous introductions are as interesting as the story. Fair warning, though; several of these introductions discuss the effect of his cancer and the treatments on his writing; be prepared.

Because there are thirty-two stories, I am not going to comment on all of them. At the end of this review I will list all the stories in the book. Last Plane to Heaven is broken into sections, and I will talk about the strongest or most interesting pieces from each section.

The categories Lake chose were: Science and Other Fictions; Steam, Punks and Fairies; Phantasies of Style and Place; Descent Into Darkness, and The End. The title story comes before the categories and opens the book. There is one angel story before each category.

Lake liked his angels and he does some nice things here. “Houses of the Favored” follows an angel sent to an ancient land, ordered to kill the firstborn of everything, except for the houses that have lamb’s blood on the lintel. This is a story we all know, told from a point of view we wouldn’t expect. In “Scent of the Green Cathedral” Lake acknowledges that he likes writing in second person, “one of the most obnoxious things a writer can do to his readers.” This vignette of a second-person narrator trying to find salvation in a lush forest is not obnoxious. It is forlorn and gorgeous. “A Feast of Angels” introduces us to Origen of Alexandria and Frederich Nietzsche, in heaven, and it gets more sardonic from there. “Novus Ordo Angelorum” is just Lake writing full-out beautiful prose, and “Going Bad” introduces a mean-streets police procedural in a post-Rapture world, where angels and demons interact with the remaining humans. It made me wish Lake had written an urban fantasy.

“Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story,” is a gripping adventure distinguished by a strong narrative voice. Allen and his company of mercenaries wait in the Gobi desert in Mongolia for their (maybe) CIA employer to arrive with instructions. Tensions are beginning to heighten, and when the operative finally arrives, things don’t settle down. Allen and his men go out into the dessert to retrieve a Russian Soyuz space capsule and its cargo. The cargo is not a thing, it’s a woman. The operative tells them to give her some training and wait for someone to come get her. Allen doesn’t trust these instructions and he’s right not to. The concrete, detailed descriptions (the windsock tugging at its tether, the smell of the desert) play an important part when things start changing, strangely and suddenly, as the story builds to its climax.

The category Science and Other Fictions had several favorites. Lake included two stories that were written with him and Ken Scoles as a “writing stunt” at Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco. Lake and Scholes each wrote half a story, then switched stories and each one finished the other’s. “The Starship Mechanic” is one of the two. It’s funny, with a charming nod to an iconic bookstore. “The Women Who Ate Stone Squid” is a mashup of James Tiptree Jr, H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Seriously. “ ‘Hello,’ Said the Gun,” is a short, chilling piece that may not be as far in the future as we would like to think. It’s a measure of Lake’s prowess that I felt sorry for the Gun at the end. “Permanent Fatal Errors,” while not my favorite, was an excellent space opera.

There was a lot to enjoy in Steam, Punk and Fairies. “The Woman Who Shattered the Moon” should be required reading, along with Shakespeare’s Richard III, for how to create a believable villain. Lake gives us a steam-punk past and an indomitable woman, just getting out of prison for the crime of destroying the moon. Madame Mbacha is brilliant, female, African, and angry about the injustices visited upon her continent by European imperialists. She is also ruthless and personally cruel. After forty years in prison, she is released. Mbacha discovers how much the world has changed, and how difficult it can be to go home… or maybe “home” is a new place now. What stands out here is what a complete person the main character is.

“The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen” is a lightweight Weird West Tall Tale. In many ways it is predictable, but the tone of the story is campfire-perfect, and the introduction of a certain cooking style is a lovely twist.

“Grindstone” follows two women from different races as they prepare to battle the oncoming Shadow. Sarita is a human, the Skymistress of a port air-island on a world where landmasses float. Jakesia is a Tock, a metal-and-flesh person. She is the first mate of a skyship that limps into Sarita’s port after the captain is killed in a battle. Jakesia and Sarita, who are very different, must learn to trust one another, and each one needs to make a decision about what to do next. Lake uses small, elegant details to highlight the differences in the races. It’s a steam-punk triumph.

“That Which Rises Ever Upward” is a story about a dream of flight, a dream not abandoned but deferred. It is impossible not to read this story as an allegory for Lake’s life. It is beautiful, hopeful but elegiac.

In Phantasies of Style and Place, Lake includes “Testaments,” which introduces us to seven kings, each of which is visited by an angel. “Kings” is used loosely here. In his introduction, Lake says, “Sometimes you just have to let the language rip.” And he does.

“The Fall of the Moon” is an eerie, beautiful story about family. After Hassan’s grandfather dies, Hassan uses his bones to build a boat and sets off across the ocean. To do this, he must leave behind his tribe, his fiancé and his duty, and turn his face toward freedom and the unknown. The language is deceptively simple and the imagery, particularly the last page, lingered after I had finished the story.

Descent Into Darkness gives us Lake playing Lovecraft, and also writing as himself in Lovecraft’s universe. “The Tentacled Sky” is a Lovecraft pastiche, about a woman isolated in a strange city. It isn’t too hard to figure out what’s going on, but the language washes over the reader in a gently sinister flow that makes you shiver when you get to the end. “Mother Urban’s Book of Dayes” is a dark – very dark – comedy about a young man who has stumbled across a grimoire. He is not making much headway in the magic area, because he’s not very smart, and kind of a klutz, but a mysterious young woman, Geneva Fairweather, appears out of nowhere. She seems eager to help Danny use the book. Danny does not understand some of the basic rules of magic, and therein lies the heart of this twisted, funny little story.

The End contains one piece, “The Cancer Catechism.” It is a catechism, a list of the things you learn while you are fighting your own cells, which are going to kill you. It’s hard to find the right word for this essay that isn’t a cliché. Unflinching? Authentic? Heart-rending? All of those apply.

Gene Wolfe wrote the foreword to Last Plane to Heaven. He decided to say little about Lake and a lot about short stories. I found it political and a little baffling, actually, but… it’s Gene Wolfe. Jay Lake wrote the afterword, closing the loop by explaining in three simple anecdotes what an impact Wolfe had on him as a writer. I recommend reading the foreword and afterword together, as a set piece.

Last Plane to Heaven is indispensable for Lake fans, and a treasure-trove for writing teachers or English teachers. There are stories in here that introduce sub-genres, and there is beautiful language. This is a collection to give to someone who hasn’t read much speculative fiction, so that they can see just how wide a good writer can range in this field. It reminded me of what we’ve lost, but it also gave comfort. I recommend it.

Table of Contents:

Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story

Angels i: The Houses of the Favored

Science and other Fictions:

The Starship Mechanic
Permanent Fatal Errors
“Hello,” Said the Gun
The Spread of Time
West to East
The Women Who Ate Stone Squid
Looking for Truth in a Wild Blue Yonder

Angels ii: Scent of the Green Cathedral

Steam, Punks, and Fairies

Spendthrift
Jefferson’s West
They Are Forgotten Until They Come Again
The Woman Who Shattered the Moon
The Blade of His Plow
Grindstone
The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen
That Which Rises Ever Upward

Angels iii: A Feast of Angels

Phantasies of Style and Place

Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable
Testaments
The Fall of the Moon
A Critical examination of Stigmata’s Print Taking the Rats to Riga
From the Countries of Her Dreams
Unchambered Heart

Angels iv: Novus Ordo Angelorum

Descent into Darkness

The Tentacled Sky
Such Bright and Risen Madness in Our Names
Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors
Mother Urban’s Booke of Dayes

Angels v: Going Bad

The End

The Cancer Catechism


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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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3 comments

  1. Great review. I wasn’t a fan of his novels either, and wouldn’t have bothered with this collection, but you’ve convinced me to pick this one up as both a reader AND an English teacher

  2. Based on this, I would say the short form is definitely his strength.

  3. Did I send this to you, Marion? Gee, I regret that now. :(

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