R.I.P. Jay Lake, Irreplaceable Science Fiction And Fantasy Author

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Jay Lake, Irreplaceable Science Fiction And Fantasy Author

The first time I met Jay Lake, he was greeting people at a convention party in a Hawaiian shirt and joking, "That's right. I'm Cancer Guy." Lake was willing to joke about his identity as cancer survivor, while also inspiring others. But his identity as a writer and editor of groundbreaking SF was even more important.


Long before I met Lake, and was exposed to both his legendary buoyant personality and his willingness to joke about the disease that ultimately claimed his life, I was well aware of the massive debt SF owed him.

The Campbell Award-winning author put out a slew of novels that defied categorization. He helped make the New Weird into a vibrant movement with the urban fantasy-tinged City Imperishable series. He blurred the lines of steampunk, epic fantasy and religious weirdness with the Mainspring trilogy. And he created one of the great memorable female characters of recent years with the courtesan-warrior in Green and its sequels. We praised the beautiful, evocative writing and mixture of brutality and cleverness in the worldbuilding in Green.


Lake was working on a novel called Calamity of So Long a Life, set in the Sunspin universe, stories set in which had already appeared in Clarkesworld, Subterranean Online, and elsewhere.

But Lake was also an incredibly prolific short story author, who never stopped experimenting and reinventing himself. And he helped put out some of the most memorable and ambitious anthologies of the past decade. With Deborah Layne, Lake co-edited the biannual journal Polyphony, which was a beautiful mixture of slipstream, magical realism and unconventional speculative fiction that included authors like Carol Emshwiller. He co-edited the truly bizarre and thrilling Spicy Slipstream Stories anthology. And Lake helped to produce two volumes of Metatropolis, an anthology series featuring stories of future cities that helped expand our understanding of what cities could be and what they could mean.


And Lake was a force for playfulness and expanding boundaries in science fiction and fantasy generally — his outgoing persona went hand in hand with his enthusiasm for writers whose work challenged our understanding of genre and storytelling.

Back in 2007, Lake wrote that he identifies with Baron Munchhausen in Terry Gilliam's film of the same name:

I always want to push open the gates and see for myself what lies beyond. I mistrust the proclamations of authority, from the pulpit or the hustings either one, especially when their self-serving nature is beyond painfully evident. Most of all, I believe in the power of storytelling to change hearts and minds.


And in a 2009 interview, Lake talked about his love of writing, and how he worked his entire adult life to achieve "overnight" success:

I first knew I wanted to be a writer in my early teens. I just didn't know what do about it. I read Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun when I was 20, and thought "You're allowed to do *this* with the language?" I was hooked but still clueless. At 26 I found my way into my first writers' group. I wrote, critiqued and mailed out stories for eleven years before I sold the first at the age of 36, in 2001. That year I sold three stories, and turned 37. So figure a twenty year take-off roll, the last eleven with serious effort behind it.

Three years later, in 2004, I made the Hugo ballot and won the Campbell Award. In 2005 my first small press novel was released, and in 2007 my first trade press novel was released. My career arc looks meteoric to some outside observers, but that is the result of literally an adult lifetime of effort, and the patience to keep trying right into my middle age before succeeding...

This isn't a career one pursues on a rational basis. This is a career one pursues for the sheer love of the thing. And it's that sheer love which drove me.


But in recent years, Lake has become well known as an outspoken cancer survivor, who was willing to joke about it. Talking to The Oregonian a year ago, Lake repeated his new favorite joke: "What's the only difference between Jay Lake and a ham?" "The ham is curable." And he showed off his tattoos: biohazard symbols for the chemotherapy he'd undergone, and the zodiac symbol for cancer, one for each surgery. He also had a tattoo on the back of his head that read, "If you can read this, I have cancer again."

Lake had a fundraising campaign to raise money to sequence his genome, in hopes that it would help with coming up with a new cancer therapy. Authors performed "acts of whimsy" to help raise money for the campaign, which had a goal of $20,000 and raised over $50,000. He also took part in experimental NIH treatments, and the data from those trials may eventually help to save a lot of lives. He also took part in a documentary called Lakeside: A Year With Jay Lake, a rough cut of which was shown at WorldCon in 2013.


Talking to the Oregonian in 2012, Lake said he felt ambivalent about getting fan mail for his relentlessly honest blog about his experiences with cancer:

"I don't want to be the cancer guy. I want to be the sci-fi guy. ... One of the things I realized almost out of the gate, literally the second day I was in the hospital, was I'm not going to get very much that's good out of this experience, maybe get to keep my life for a while, so I may as well make something of it that will help other people."


But Lake will always be "the sci-fi guy," first and foremost. Through his writing, Lake leaves an enduring legacy, and his impact on science fiction and fantasy will be felt forever. His work as an editor, helping to publish new voices in the field, cannot be underestimated. His wealth of short fiction, and the novels he managed to complete, will be around forever — and a final short fiction collection, The Last Plane To Heaven, comes out this September. He'll be missed, but he'll also be read.


Nance Cedar

Jay wanted to be at his own wake, so we held one for him in January 2013.