Jay Lake has been hovering around the edge of my observable SF/fantasy universe for a while now, finally entering that universe when I read his Clockwork Earth series. Unfortunately, Mainspring disappointed me, and while the other two books in the trilogy were a big improvement on it, I was not much impressed. Sometime between acquiring Mainspring and reading it, however, I decided to buy this anthology from Subterranean Press.
I like novels more than I like short stories. Odd, I know: a bad short story takes much less time to read than a bad novel, so it should be less of a waste of time. But a great novel is a proportionally greater reward—what can I say? I’m a gambler! Single-author anthologies excel, however, in exposing the reader to a wide range of that author’s work. The Sky That Wraps is an excellent survey of Jay Lake, from the familiar surrounds of his fantasy milieux—including a story from his Clockwork Earth universe, and I confess I skimmed that one—to the exotic locales of a far-future, posthuman universe.
Even though I still can’t quite bring myself to love his voice the way I do some of his contemporary luminaries, I don’t begrudge Lake his standing in the field: his is a singular, creative mind. That’s obvious in all of the stories in this collection. Lake seems to thrive in an ambiguity that suits the short story form well: he doesn’t establish more of the world than he needs to. And he frustratingly sets up boxes we never get to open. So in the eponymous “The Sky That Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black”, we learn that the narrator destroyed a piece of alien technology that could have revealed the purpose of alien artifacts he now paints to sell as trinkets. It’s a lugubrious tale. And as much as I’d like to know what the artifact was, what those trinkets do, Lake never tells us. He chortles explicitly about this in his preface to “Journal of an Inmate”, telling us how the writer’s circle to whom he first showed the story demanded to know what was in the letter that the narrator destroys, unopened, at the conclusion of the tale. Lake is comfortable not taking the reader into his confidence in a way that few authors seem to be—I suspect this is one of the reasons Mainspring grated on me, because it always seemed like elements of the story were coming out of nowhere. For his short stories, however, this sleight of authorial hand is quite effective.
The two stories I mentioned above are both told from the perspective of a narrator who is a prisoner—or, in so many words, an exile. In fact, many of the characters in The Sky That Wraps are exiles in one form or another: in “Coming for Green” Samma is an exile in all but name as she traces Green’s footsteps; the Befores in Lake’s two Sunspin stories are very old, very special types of psychological exiles. Most of the protagonists in these stories are unique and usually lonely individuals walking through a world that doesn’t quite fit them. These stories of exile were, for the most part, really interesting. I really liked “To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves”, and I would love to see Lake’s planned space opera novels come to fruition. It tapped into some of my favourite posthuman tropes, like shipminds, in a stylized, high-stakes setting. I’m very interested in seeing that universe developed as a novel.
Then there are the weird stories, ones that verge on what I might call experimental. This includes “Achilles Sulking in His Buick”, the sort of one-off joke that begins as a title and doesn’t get much better than that. There’s also “Skinhorse Goes to Mars”, which has an excellent but confusing plot. I’d also include “Little Pig, Berry Brown and the Hard Moon” as well, even though that one isn’t so bad if you follow it carefully. I guess I’m just lazy; I prefer my stories to be more linear and easy to parse, and Lake doesn’t always let me off with such fare. These are the stories that will please the connoisseur of short SF and fantasy fiction.
Finally, like Stephen King or some of Orson Scott Card’s work, Lake also enjoys writing about weird stuff happening in small American towns. So “Dogs in the Moonlight” and “Fat Man” will please those of you who do. And while Portland isn’t quite a small town, I’d probably throw the Portland wizard series in here—intriguing urban fantasy though it is. These stories were no less creative than others in the collection, just less to my liking.
And that’s the key to this anthology: it has breadth. It was good for me, as someone who wanted to read something by Lake that I could enjoy. I suspect that fans of Lake will probably have seen most of these stories already (although there are two brand new ones), but this is still a lovely collection to own. There were no stories that really blew my mind, alas, but neither were there any that made me groan. It’s a solid anthology where your enjoyment will vary with your tastes.