ON JUNE 6, 1964, Jay Lake was born in Taipei, Taiwan, the first son of a US Foreign Service family. On June 1, 2014, he died of colon cancer in Portland, Oregon. In between, he wrote 10 novels and more than 300 short stories. Toward the end of his life, he assembled what he referred to as his "death book," a collection of short stories under the title Last Plane to Heaven, with the understanding that he would likely not live to see it published. He didn't.
A familiar sight at conventions, readings, and workshops, Lake cultivated a devoted fan following through a constant output of material, and an outsized personality in the finest tradition of goofy sci-fi novelists. After his first diagnosis in 2008, he posted hundreds of entries on his blog about his cancer and its equally debilitating series of treatments. "It shouldn't be a secret," he wrote in one entry. "No one should be forced to make this journey alone."
"The dread and fear is there," he wrote in another. "The sheer enormity of it all could overwhelm me if I let it. [But] I am well loved, well cared for, and have good insurance. That and a little non-neurotic compartmentalization is what it takes."
Simon Owens, who covered Lake's last days for the Daily Dot, described the public response to his death as an "outpouring of love and grief." Fellow sci-fi novelist John Scalzi wrote in memoriam that Lake "shared part of his life with me, through his writing and through his company." And novelist/activist Cory Doctorow characterized Lake as "the model of a person who was looking death in its snake-eyed gaze and not allowing the fear to paralyze him."
Author Ken Scholes met Lake in 2001, when both of them were starting to submit short stories to publishers. Lake and Scholes would ultimately collaborate on a book (The Wings We Dare Aspire) and two of the stories in Last Plane to Heaven ("The Starship Mechanic" and "Looking for Truth in a Wild Blue Yonder").
"Jay helped a lot of writers, including me," Scholes told Agenda. "He offered to introduce me around at a convention we were attending that was seven weeks away—if I had a finished first draft by then. Then he made sure I met his editor, Beth Meacham, at Tor, which led to a five-book contract."
"His legacy is, I think, all the people whose lives he touched," says Meacham, who edited six of Lake's novels and Last Plane. "He made a habit of helping people out, something that was not generally known during his life. He helped financially, he helped by facilitating introductions, he helped by just being a good friend."
Tor is posthumously releasing Last Plane to Heaven in September; the 32 stories in the collection are representative of Lake's genre-hopping approach. Some of the stories provide good introductions to his longer series, but the strongest entries are the oddball one-offs that feel like pilot scripts for TV shows you'd beg your friends to watch but they never would.
"The Woman Who Shattered the Moon," for example, about a 19th-century East African woman striking a blow against colonialism for the sake of her own ego, is a magnificent manifesto by an evil genius who stands with Austin Grossman's Doctor Impossible as a villain worth (sort of) rooting for. "Spendthrift," on the other hand, is a dark little World War II vignette with the structure and punch of a Twilight Zone episode. Alternately moody and brutal, it demonstrates what Lake could do with a more contemporary setting and some light body horror.
His novels were equally diffuse. In the Clockwork Earth series, the solar system is arranged on giant mechanical gears like an armillary sphere. The scattershot first entry, Mainspring, begins with colonial politics and ends with towering crystal cities and magical clockwork robots. It's fun and loose, and Lake is always ready with a shiny new bauble just around the next corner.
In 2009's Green, Lake found a more focused saga in the adventures of a nameless girl who grows up to shape the empires that would subjugate her. Green (née "Girl") begins life as a rural guttersnipe in a provincial backwater, and progresses through adolescence in a mysterious and brutal school on the opposite end of the world. There's a strong, often uncomfortable sexual component, but Green never feels like a middle-aged man's idea of the Strong Female Character. Lake wrote like a father who paid close attention to both the positive and negative qualities children exhibit: Green is perceptive and impetuous, openly cruel yet sensitive to suffering in others. Through her, Lake carefully examines themes of privilege and gender, which never come off like empty edge.
It's difficult to write about an author after their passing: Criticism seems petty and praise seems hollow. But Lake's work reveals a creator who was interested in people and ideas in equal measure. What most struck me was how much his writing reminded me of the weird, trashy, and unapologetically adult sci-fi I read growing up, focused through an unmistakable lens of compassion. And while there's probably too much sex and guts and impolite language for me to recommend Lake's work to a child without getting yelled at by their parents, I wish I'd had the chance to read him when I was a kid.