The Sky That Wraps by Jay Lake
Here we are back with Subterranean Press and The Sky That Wraps, a handsome limited edition by Jay Lake with impressively evocative jacket art by Aurélien Police whose work is rather beautiful and haunting.
Leading off this collection, “The Sky That Wraps the World Round” (1) is beautifully understated, dealing with matters of planetary significance allusively, leaving it to the reader to make the necessary inferences. It is also pleasing to see a US author prepared to set a story somewhere foreign. Too often, American parochialism limits locales either to unreality through world-building or to some version of Poughkeepsie. “Journal of an Inmate” is a delightful story of innocence. Academic psychologists have grown increasingly fascinated with people too stupid to realise how stupid they are.(2) These are the terminally incompetent who will never understand why everything they touch always fails. So it is that a man who has given loyal service to a government upsets someone in power and is sent off to die in a distant prison. Soldiers are often victimised in this way. Civilian life is such a challenge to those who lack political skills. When hope dies, our hero surrenders himself to death only to find some acceptance of his lot in being denied even this simple request.
“Achilles Sulking In His Buick” is a good joke, all the better because the experienced Jay Lake knows when to cut and run. “Crossing the Seven” is also a kind of joke in that our hapless jobbing builder has the misfortune to be struck by lightning and caught in a compromising situation with a priestess. Yet, instead of executing him, expedience demands his transformation into a living symbol of hope, a messenger sent from a threatening star to take away the people’s fear. This sets his feet on a dangerous peregrination to the seven cities, allowing the seven Queens to use his progress as a kind of magic trick. His tenacious hold on life inadvertently saves the world from panic. It also leaves him with survival skills that may suit him to a career rather better than roof repairs. “The Leopard’s Paw” sees Flash Gordon becoming Conan becoming a leopard, although perhaps only in spirit. If that’s too much becoming for you, it shows how little you like Howardly barbarian fun. “Coming For Green” takes a harder edge to a barbarian world which in a young Amazon comes of age as she searches for a fellow acolyte forced from their Order after an assassination. The entry into adulthood comes when she realises she has become fearless. Meanwhile, back in the city, “A Water Matter” sees the consequences of that assassination begin to play out in a hunt leading to the death of knowledge.
Thematically, this continues in “Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable” in which a young girl is schooled in survival and leadership, growing into a woman who can trust herself and the decisions she makes. Counterintuitively, this begins with depersonalisation, then each facet of what it means to be a woman must be experienced and shed like a snake. The question, of course, is simple. Why does this programming actually produce a better leader? I suppose the answer is that if no-one ever pushes you beyond what you believe are your limits, you will never find out how far you can go. “Witness to the Fall” is an elegant tale of magic and its ability to see through appearance to the petty jealousies of everyday life. Small communities live in each other pockets. Those who claim the key offices build themselves up and have the farthest to fall when the past and present collide. “Number of the Bus” continues with numerology as the magical skill. In another coming-of-age story, a young magician must sever the ties of the past and embrace his talent. “A Different Way Into The Life” continues the same magical methodology with a different wizard demonstrating state-of-the-art skills in understanding the magical landscape. I like the logical extension of the magic into accountancy and the cut-throat word of Mergers and Acquisitions. This is an author prepared to explore the implications of his own creativity. The third of the wizard stories, “Green Grass Blues”, changes the methodology to more conventional earth magic, but continues the trend of a young apprentice wizard slowly coming to recognise danger and then having to cope.
“Fat Man” takes us back out into the free-flow of the supernatural with a wonderfully atmospheric Bigfoot accidentally caught in the crosshairs of a hunter’s rifle. This is one of these hiding-in-plain-sight stories where you always have enough information to know what’s going on, but prefer not to think about it. The process to make our Sasquatch so big is pleasingly original. I can’t remember anything similar in more years of reading than I care to admit. “Dogs in the Moonlight” has fun at the expense of rural Texans who love their guns and dogs more than their wives, until someone else loves their wives. Then they get all-fired jealous and find good use for the guns. Shame that sometimes what you shoot don’t stay quite as dead as it should. “Little Pig, Berry Brown and the Hard Moon” is set in prehistory as a mother’s death teaches the child about life, love and memory. If you’re “On the Human Plan” (3) then all you have to look forward to is death. If this is something that bothers you, perhaps you’d better change plans. “Lehr, Rex” is a recasting of that most excellent film, Forbidden Planet, as King Lear with a little P. K. Dick and Doc Smith thrown in for good measure. It is a nicely paranoid rumination on what it might feel like to be human, assuming you should ever have cause to ask yourself the question, of course.
“The Man With One Bright Eye” is a son plucked out of time who finds possible true love, but is unable to make progress down the road of life until he can step out of his mother’s shadow. “To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves” is also about who we are as people as we age. How much does the passage of time change us? In theory, the slow accumulation of experience should make us more wise but life is not always fair. Sometimes, the shadows from our own past haunt our present life. Incidentally, this might also apply to a machine intelligence as well. “To This Their Late Escape” adds the question of how best to occupy time while waiting for rescue. Perhaps a small-scale conflict might wile away the hours. “Skinhorse Goes To Mars” is a different take on life and death. Starting with the assumption we had made the Earth, Mars and Venus uninhabitable, would we just give up and die, or would we fight? Er. . . Who’s left to fight? “A Very Old Man With No Wings At All” wonders what happened after the Fall of Satan. “People of Leaf and Branch” plays with the idea of interacting life cycles. Through time, the culture of people changes. Just as a seed grows into a sapling and then a tree that drops more seeds, it’s plus ça change but not quite as la même chose as evolution plays its part. Similarly, “Chain of Fools” sees a newly promoted Captain take her first ship out only to discover that her sheltered training had not quite prepared her for the reality of leadership. Finally, “The American Dead” (4) tell us that while sex usually improves the mood, it’s not the panacea some priests would have the rich believe.
Looking back, we can now see general themes in Jay Lake’s work. He is interested in innate potential and how people get the best out of themselves. Sometimes, they are given the chance to do the heavy lifting on their own but, more often, they are prodded or provoked by circumstances or meddlers, and must shine to survive. Overall, this is one of the best collections of 2010 and worth every cent.
(1) Selected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
(2) Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 77, no. 6, pp. 1121-1134.
(3) Selected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
(4) Selected in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One, ed Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 2007; The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Vol. 18, ed. Steve Jones, Robinson (UK), October, 2007.