NOVELS / NOVELETTES > ROCKET SCIENCE by Jay Lake
ROCKET SCIENCE by Jay Lake

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Vernon Dunham’s friend Floyd Bellamy has returned to Augusta, Kansas after serving in World War II, but he hasn’t come back empty-handed: he’s stolen a super-secret aircraft right from under the Germans. Vernon doesn’t think it’s your ordinary run-of-the-mill aircraft. For one thing, it’s been buried under the Arctic ice for hundreds of years. When it actually starts talking to him, he realizes it doesn’t belong in Kansas—or anywhere on Earth.

The problem is, a lot of folks know about the ship and are out to get it, including the Nazis, the U.S. Army—and that’s just for starters. Vernon has to figure out how to communicate with the ship and unravel its secrets before everyone catches up with him. If he ends up dead, and the ship falls into the wrong hands, it won’t take a rocket scientist to predict the fate of humanity.


 *Starred Review* "When sharp-but-not-bright Floyd Bellamy returns from the war, Augusta, Kansas, has a parade for him. His polio-crippled best friend, Vernon Dunham, has been home all along, studying aeronautical engineering, learning to fly, then holding a job at Boeing in Wichita and getting Lois to consider him. Now things default to normal: Floyd gets the girls, and Vernon plays pal, though he sometimes wonders why. Sometimes become full-time after he helps Floyd hide a tank and an aircraft (ostensibly bought from some Germans) in the Bellamys' barn. Vernon won't regret it, Floyd says, after he sees the plane. For once, Floyd's right. This is no ordinary flying machine. For one thing, it talks. Unfortunately, others know about it, and Vernon, the aircraft's new master (he unwittingly found its remote control), becomes most wanted by die-hard Nazi agents, U.S. military intelligence, Reds masquerading as moonshiners, and the Kansas City Mob. Eventually, Vernon has to take off, vertically; this, fortunately, the aircraft, "Pegasus," can do--fast. Sixty years ago--exactly when it is set--this low-tech (well, except for Pegasus) sf romp, chock-full of surprises, might have made one of the best B movies ever. Nowadays, Hollywood would destroy the situational rather than dialogue-dependent humor, the non-ironic characterizations, the clean talk, and the good manners that Vernon must ruefully flout. This is a real tour-de-force by a top-flight talent."   Booklist

"Jay Lake has made a name for himself in recent years with scores of story publications, and on the strength of those stories he was given the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His first novel, Rocket Science, demonstrates that he’s just as adept at the long form – maybe even better. While his short stories are inventive and well-written, they sometimes seem rushed, and implications are not always as fully explored as a reader might like. In Rocket Science, Lake has room to stretch out and take his time, and the result is a historical romp that evokes the can-do spirit and sense of wonder that characterized much Golden Age SF. It’s no surprise that Lake can write a fast-paced novel full of neat ideas, but it’s a delight to discover how well he handles characters when he has this much space to work with them. Rocket Science is an auspicious debut, paying tribute to SF’s golden age without mawkish sentimentality, action-packed without being shallow. If Lake’s prolificacy with short stories is any indication, we should have plenty more novels to look forward to, and it will be a pleasure to watch his career continue to take off."   —Tim Pratt, Locus

"When Vernon's friend Floyd returns to Kansas after World War II, he brings back the usual souvenir German weapons as well as an entire top-secret aircraft formerly buried in the Arctic. Once the plane demonstrates its full capabilities, the two friends realize that they must guard it with their lives lest it fall into the wrong hands. Staying just one step ahead of government agencies and several clandestine organizations, Vernon and Floyd have to figure out how to direct the plane's internal intelligence system. Lake—winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and author of several highly praised short story collections (e.g., Greetings from Lake Wu)—presents a fast-moving, quirky sf adventure as fresh and entertaining as its two heroes. Lake is an up-and-coming sf writer to watch. For most sf collections."  Library Journal

"Jay Lake’s first novel, Rocket Science, recalls Golden Age SF both in its setting, 1945, and in its mixture of can-do candor and screwball comedy. Lake is a writer of many voices, and here he quite successfully pastiches the laconic, wisecracking, self-deprecating tones of a mid-century mid-American technical man thrown suddenly into a nest of vipers, both domestic and alien; a scrambling resourcefulness is demanded in response, and Lake’s narrator Vernon Dunham, despite his bum leg (polio as a child) and feelings of inadequacy over his lack of a combat role in the recent War, is certainly up to that job. An aircraft engineer, he is just the man to tackle the arrival of a mysterious, in fact alien, aeroplane; of course, even as he displays the brave and flexible intelligence of his epoch, he also shows up the absurd if in some ways well-founded paranoia of a superpower leaving one conflict and entering another. Vernon is heroic enough, but he is no Thomas Schell, to defend the democratic essence of America; he is hard put simply to survive. Rocket Science [is] an entertainment rather than a serious SF novel, and it seems content with this status. A short book, it is skillfully plotted, but in ways calculated to maximize thrills rather than to interrogate conventions or put characters through truly demanding paces. There are fine twists within twists, slapstick wheels within wheels; Lake, then, has contrived a gonzo secret history, an affectionate, knowing tribute to the SF of a simpler age, in the playful postmodern spirit of Howard Waldrop and Paul Di Filippo. In Rocket Science, coincidences are outrageous, personal motivations highly improbable; but this is not to criticize, for silliness is intrinsic to the experiment."  —Nick Gevers, Locus

"Jay Lake is hot, coming off a string of fine short stories (collected in four small-press volumes) and a number of awards and nominations. This debut novel will only solidify his status as one of the bright new voices in the field. For someone who's done a fair amount of cutting-edge or surreal stories, this retro excursion that exactly duplicates the frissons of the best SF from, say, 1948 is not exactly a predictable move. But you have to hand it to Lake for choosing an unshowy, old-fashioned type of SF, then pushing it to its limits with craftsmanship and ingenuity and heart. This novel is the next best thing to having Clifford Simak alive and writing at the peak of his powers again. Lake's bucolic setting and his small-town hero (whose first-person voice carries the tale unfalteringly) evoke such classic Simak works as "The Big Front Yard." The sense of cosmic mysteries unfolding in mundane circumstances is palpable. And Lake evokes his vintage Americana with real feeling and precision. The attitudes and worldviews of these characters are utterly of the period, as are the physical accoutrements of their environment. Yes, not too long ago, outhouses were in common use. Lake has also captured the thrill-a-minute plotting of the pulps, and a Heinleinian transparency of prose. These attributes conduce to a book that rockets along as fast as its UFO "protagonist." But he's also conceptually modern enough to have Pegasus talking about "massively redundant low-bandwidth atmospherically dispersed microspore telemetry units"—talk that leaves Vernon baffled. After all, the most advanced computer he knows about is an artillery-range calculator. But with pluck and luck, he stumbles to victory. Like some perfect early 1950s black-and-white matinee starring John Agar but scripted by Howard Waldrop, this novel delivers heartfelt excitement and sense-of-wonder riffs."  —Paul Di Filippo, Scifi.com

"Rocket Science turns out, suddenly and warmingly, to be a tale of escape: from Kansas, from 1945, from the horrors of history, from the bloodmouths in suits, and from SF. It is a tale which does not make sense until it ends, until Vernon leaps out of our past and into the Beyond. It makes the Beyond seem possible again."   —John Clute, Interzone

"For a taste of good, old-fashioned SF fun, you could do much worse than pick up a copy of Jay Lake's Rocket Science. The time is just after the close of World War II. Vernon Dunham, made less than able-bodied by polio, stayed home, became an aircraft engineer, and earned a pilot's license. Vern's childhood friend Floyd Bellamy went off to Europe and returned full of stories that strike Vern as a bit too embroidered. But what the heck--Floyd carried Vern on his back when they were kids, he's a convivial fellow, and when Floyd asks Vern to borrow his dad's truck and meet him at the depot, Vern obliges. When the train pulls in, there's an enormous crate for the truck, along with a Nazi halftrack. They get everything back to a barn at Floyd's folks' place, open the crate, and by golly, there is the durnedest airplane, sleek and marvelous, and Vern wonders who the heck could possibly have made it. There's no real mystery about where the plane came from. But who's beating up dads, stealing papers, and trying to get their paws on the plane? Besides Vern and the plane, there are at least four teams in play, and Vern's going to have to move pretty fast to keep from getting scrunched in the scrimmage. But he doesn't let his bad leg stop him, and at the end... You'll have fun finding out what should end that last sentence. I did."  —Tom Easton, Analog

"Without commenting on the merits of the argument, I will say that if there is a "new old wave" of science fiction writing, those at the crest had better make room for an American named Jay Lake. Lots of room. There will be those who will turn their noses up at this display of virtuoso storytelling skill and accomplishment because it's all devoted to producing a decidedly old fashioned, and therefore unfashionable, science fiction novel. Lake has the sheer nerve to give us good guys and bad guys in Rocket Science, although he takes his time in letting us discover definitively who is which. He also mixes in a good chunk of angst, and even the occasional tinge of despair, though he has the pre-post-modernist gall to offer these conditions, not as bleakly unalterable realities to be endured, but as problems to be resolutely overcome. And then he has his characters prevail and win through to a happy ending. When it's all over, the good guys have triumphed, and a whole new universe has opened up for them to explore. Exactly the way science fiction novels used to end back in the Golden Age -- which, just maybe, the new old wavers like Jay Lake might one day resurrect.  SF Site

"Jay Lake is the 2004 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, on the basis of his many short stories, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for his editing, so it should come as no surprise that his first novel, Rocket Science is easily one of the best I've read this year. The novel is set in post-WWII Kansas where our first person narrator finds his life turned upside down when his best friend shows up with what appears to be a stolen German secret weapon. What makes Rocket Science so entertaining, however, is ... the way Lake manages to bypass the last forty years of my life to plug directly into my 13 year old hindbrain and plunk me down once again in the middle row of the Roxy Cinema for a new Saturday afternoon serial. Lake throws more curves, cliffhangers, Nazi spies, traitors, moonshiners, benevolent aliens, angora sweater babes, and trigger happy army commanders into his novel than any actual serial would have dared. As our protagonist finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into misadventure, he begins to realize that everything he knows about his small town Kansas life has been completely wrong, that practically everyone else has a guilty past or current secret they do not want him to expose, and that life is a lot more complicated than it appears. Lake even manages to deliver an upbeat ending and an optimistic view of humanity, in spite the many villains and hard breaks that beset our hero. This is a protagonist that believes in the American dream, the progress of science, and that nice guys can finish first, and he almost makes you believe it too. I highly recommend Rocket Science and am convinced you'll find it worth the trouble of tracking down through your local bookstore or direct from Fairwood Press."  Neo-Opsis

"There are two things that stand out in this book. The first one is that Lake is clearly an obsessive geek when it comes to aircraft, Nazi war vehicles, and so on. It is classic boy stuff. Were my father still alive, he and Lake would probably get on very well together. In addition, Lake has an obvious affection for this time period and has put quite a bit of effort into making sure his characters react to what is going on in a 1940s way. The story ends the way every good boys' story of the period should. Jolly good show, Jay old chap."    —Cheryl Morgan, Emerald City

"The book really is a fun fast read...It certainly repays the reader's investment of time with enjoyment. Vern Dunham is a mildly handicapped aircraft worker in the years just after World War II. His friend Floyd Bellamy is a classic war hero -- not the best student or the most upright citizen but a handsome young man who went off to fight the Nazis and returned successfully. Soon enough, though, Floyd is asking Vern for help with a mysterious vehicle he smuggled back from Europe. It seems to be some sort of experimental aircraft. Apparently Floyd stole it from the Nazis -- perhaps without the permission of the US government. Well, we're all SF readers and this is an SF book, so we know exactly what this airplane is. Vern figures this out quickly enough, though the specific way in which this airplane is special is something unusual. And very quickly he is embroiled in a real mess, with different governmental factions (or are they?) chasing him, along with Nazis, organized crime, and other elements. And he's learning some surprising facts about his own personal history, and about Floyd's personal history, and about both Floyd's parents and his own ... It's a wild mix, and if never precisely new it is often enough twisty and surprising -- and always fast moving and exciting."    —SFF.net

"Jay Lake's short stories won him science fiction's 2004 Campbell Award for best new writer. His first novel, Rocket Science, shows he can stretch into longer fiction. Lake's storytelling style would be perfect for campers circled around an evening fire. His tale advances in short scenes and quick surprises. Rocket Science is a swell piece of old-fashioned science fiction. The only problem with this book is that it ends too soon."    —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Rocket Science, by Science Fiction Campbell Award winner Jay Lake, is an entertaining adventure story, perfect for teenage boys or for the escapist in all of us. Set in Augusta, Kansas right after WWII, the story concerns a super-secret aircraft stolen from Germany and wanted by the Nazis, the Russians, the Mob, and the US military. Caught in the middle is Vernon Dunham, an engineer who knows his best friend Floyd means trouble, and who only wants to settle down to a quiet life. But nothing is quiet in this Kansas town after word leaks out about the plane, and Vernon ends up trying to save his father, his best friend, the plane, and--oh yeah--the world. Narrated in a low-key, folksy style that perfectly fits the material, this is a fun read."  —Orem Public Library

"Rocket Science is a deliberately nostalgic paean to pulp adventures, lost innocence, and plucky engineers—the story of an alien aircraft, Nazi agents, bootleggers, gangsters, government spies, and friends...After reading Rocket Science, I tried to explain to a friend why I'd enjoyed it so much, but there simply wasn't much to say. It worked for me. It held my attention, because the situation of the characters intrigued me and the scenes were written in such a way that I didn't find them either too short to be effective or too long to overstay their welcome. Such balance is essential to any book where entertainment is the central goal. It is not an easy balance to achieve, and it depends as much on instinct as skill...I know how few books truly achieve that balance, where every element of plot and character is woven into a narrative that continues to move forward. It is a balance of information, really: the reader is given enough information to be simultaneously satisfied and desiring more. I expect the balance is somewhat different for each reader, but when a reader as jaded as I can feel it, that's a real accomplishment. I find most books that are written to be entertaining tedious: they are disposable books written to be read only once. If a book can't repay rereading, frankly, I don't want to read it at all, because such a book is likely to be nothing more than an attempt at manipulation, a cheap drug with the crude goal of molesting the pleasure centers of the brain...Rocket Science rewards the reader by doing well what it was designed to do: create suspense, joy, and wonder. I don't think one sort of book is necessarily "better" than another, because I wouldn't want to live without either. In fact, what keeps me reading and reading and reading, despite the many disappointments and the ever-growing list of peeves, is that I want more of both types of books."  —Strange Horizons

"I don’t typically fall for jacket blurbs but when I read what author Jerry Oltion had to say about Rocket Science -- “If the Hardy Boys stayed up half the night reading Astounding Magazine by flashlight, this is what they would dream after they turned out the light” -- well, I had to have this book. Just the mere possibility, of combining the boy detectives with an element of outer space science fiction was enough to pull me in before the book even arrived. Once I started,and found everything that Jay Lake was able to fit into this outstanding book, I was one very happy reader. Rocket Science is a great adventure/science fiction story. From start to finish Lake channels the talents of the great writers from the Golden Age of science fiction. This book is just flat-out fun. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this ride. As soon as I was finished I put my copy in the mail to my older brother -- I knew he was going to love it too and I didn’t want to keep him waiting."  —Bookslut.com

"An enthralling story of fallible humans struggling to cope with inexplicable technology before time runs out, Rocket Science is a fast-paced novel that leaves the reader guessing right up to the end."  Midwest Book Review

  "If the Hardy Boys stayed up half the night reading Astounding Magazine by flashlight, this is what they would dream after they turned out the light."     —Jerry Oltion  

"Rocket Science pulls out all the stops and hits all the notes. I envy you if you’re getting ready to read it for the first time, and I suggest you read it twice."  —James Van Pelt

"Jay Lake writes about the weirdness that underlies the ordinary. And yes, there is weirdness everywhere. Even in Kansas. Rocket Science is your ticket to glimpse a little of it."  —Deborah Layne    

  

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