Jay Lake is an unknown to me, but he sure does get a lot of praise. His first novel, Rocket Science, received starred reviews in both Library Journal and Booklist, which prompted me to read it. Once I had the book in hand, I saw that Locus magazine also had nothing but praise for the book, and the author blurbs (none of whom I recognized) spoke of weirdness ... the kind of weirdness that makes regular weird look like the Stepford wives, y'know?
First off, let me say that I almost didn't make it through this book. I was about 30 pages into it when The Demolished Man showed up for me at the library, and was having a hard time getting into the book. I may have been distracted during those 30 pages, but I just wasn't getting any kind of feel for the book during that time. I contemplated just returning it, unfinished, a habit which I've finally adopted in order to have enough years left in my life to read the books I want to read. But there was a nagging voice in the back of my head, and it said, Give it one more chance.
Well, you should know by now that if I'm writing a review of the book, then I must have finished it, right? It's sort of like those suspense novels written in the first person; you never really worry about the hero making it through the events, because he lived to tell you the story. Anyway, I'm glad I did give it that last chance, because it picked up at that point, and I eagerly finished it within a couple of evenings.
Rocket Science is set in the late 1940s, shortly after the end of World War II. Patriotism is high, as is the Red Scare, but the main character of the book stayed out of the war (against his will, of course) due to a bad leg he received from a childhood bout with polio. During the war, he worked as an aircraft engineer, working on the planes that required top-level confidentiality. His best friend did serve in the war, though, and he's returning with a bit of contraband: He's taken a panzer tank, and also a large, unidentifiable aircraft. Of course, something that large can't pass into the country without someone noticing, and it's not long before the entire city seems to be drawing in on the two buddies and their machines....
OK, I liked this book. It read quickly, and once I got into the story, I found myself having a lot of fun with the story. It kept me involved, and kept me reading. The story is, at its core, a noir mystery, since it's all about who's after these two guys, but the story is classified as science fiction because of the mysterious aircraft. This is an odd pairing of genres, because I think the publishers do the story a disservice by attaching the SF label, making readers expect something extraordinary to happen during the read. By the same token, if they advertised it as a noir-style mystery, then that audience would likely be disappointed by the SF overtones. Either way, though, I think the fusion works, because there were enough red herrings in there to keep me guessing who was the guilty party, and I was also intrigued with the story behind the aircraft.
My biggest disappointment was that it didn't meet up with the level of weirdness I was expecting. Andreas Eschbach, Steve Aylett, and Damien Broderick all set the bar of weirdness high for me with (respectively) The Carpet Makers, Lint, and Godplayers, and if I'm reading blurbs about how weird this novel is going to be, it better be Alice in Wonderland-meets-Marilyn Manson-meets-They Might Be Giants weird. Rocket Science was a little unusual, sure, but it's certainly not weird.
Still, it was a good book, even if it ended abruptly. I have to say that it wasn't a complete waste of my time.