In this first novel, Campbell Award-winner and prolific short fiction author and editor Lake pays thorough homage to the pocket book genre. The volume's light weight and flexible slenderness in the hands is a sign of the youthful exuberance within, a reminder of earlier days when bad guys were really bad and good guys were really good and fistfights went Biff! Bam! Pow!
By the time you're a few pages in, however, there's no mistaking that this tale is a 2006 take on the 1946 world. Some of the good guys are fallible and some of the bad guys can be redeemed (and sometimes Lake is a little awkward writing fight scenes, cobbling together unwieldy phrases like "cocked him upside the head with two fists bunched together" (p. 214) that would do better service as stage directions). The story is likewise neither simple nor stereotypical. This Caddy has a jet engine, and all of a sudden its fins look awfully functional.
Vernon Dunham was lamed by a bout of polio as a child, so he stayed behind in Kansas and studied engineering while his high-school compatriots went off to fight the Nazis. When his best friend, Floyd Bellamy, returns from the front with a grin, a scar, and a couple of truckloads of contraband equipment, Vernon gets pulled into a crazy jumble of post-war politics and small-town loyalties. Thugs beat up his dad and set his boarding house on fire, but it isn't until a computer voice starts speaking German in his ear that he begins to realize just how much trouble he's going to be in. Soon he's being hounded and strong-armed by Nazis, Communists, bootleggers, the Mafia, the cops, and the U.S. Army as he struggles to unlock the secrets of Floyd's stolen intelligent flying machine (which, in a strange fit of classicism, Vernon names Pegasus). Hilarity, as they say, ensues.
Lake knows he has to pick his fights when it comes to updating the Golden Age for the readers of the 21st century, and for the most part he makes the right choices. Stereotypes are neatly handled via the repeated shattering of the protagonists' own preconceptions: the class clown grows up to be a serious, honorable police officer; the kindly doctor has some dark ulterior motives; the doddering old man makes a recovery so miraculous that one suspects his foggy-mindedness was feigned all along; the computer brain driving the well-armed spaceship is a rather self-righteous pacifist. Vernon, no hard-muscled manly-man to begin with, seems to spend about half the book in pain and the other half in tears over his father's near-death and their years of estrangement, yet he finds a great deal of gruff backbone when it comes to doing the right thing. Women seem to exist mostly to be gold-diggers, die young in tragic accidents, and rat Floyd and Vernon out to the Nazis, but you can't have everything.
Despite a number of loose ends and a near-cliffhanger conclusion, one gets the sense that sequels are unlikely to be forthcoming. Rocket Science is, for the most part, an extremely thorough exercise in wing-stretching: an intermediate step between Lake's established efforts with short stories and his anticipated plunge into the world of novel-writing. Given that, it would have been easy to write it as a throwaway story (and equally easy for a casual reader to dismiss it as one), but nothing about this book is slapdash, and it unfolds as gracefully as Pegasus stretching its wings. For a little while, it lets us all be awed farm boys stepping into the gleaming Art Deco future with wide eyes and pounding hearts, and our lives are the richer for it.
Rose Fox is the result of a genetic experiment to create the perfect writer. Having escaped from the laboratory, she now roams the streets of New York, looking for inspiration in gutters and rainbows.
You must log in to post a comment.