In the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker. Avon Books, New York, 1997.
This is a book that I have been hanging on to for a couple of years now, never really quite sure that I wanted to read it, but I ended up finishing it all in one shot - a fairly quick read, too. This book was a genuine article of steampunk, you know, cyborgs running around Elizabethan England, advanced technical manuals cleverly disguised as ladies’ missals, and the like.
So anyway, the setup is like this: some cyborgs (or immortals, as they’re more commonly referred to in this book) working for an omnipotent company in the future head to England disguised as Spaniards to save some rare samples of soon-to-be extinct plants from the garden of a curiosity-collecting nobleman. Now at this point the plot could have taken any number of turns - the cyborgs could have been oh-so-perfect and totally detatched from human nature while saving us mere mortals from our follies, and/or they could have ended up in some dangerous situation that could have forced them to fight for their lives, fleeing desperately throughout Europe, or something like that, and if the book had turned out like that I probably would have just put it down and not picked it up again.
The story is told from the point of view of a cyborg on her very first assignment, and she’s only eighteen. She has spent the last fifteen years in the company of other cyborgs like herself, totally apart from the world of the mortals, and she is unprepared for the world she is suddenly expected to work in. She experiences a painful first love with a mortal, but nothing goes dreadfully wrong (I mean apart from the guy getting burnt at the stake in the end), their cover is not blown, and she doesn’t do anything to disgrace herself with the company - in fact, she finds her way to a tropical New World paradise at the end of the book. I don’t think she necessarily learns to deal with mortals any better by her experiences, but it’s a good story nonetheless. And it’s comforting to know that eighteen-year-old immortals can make the same painful mistakes in love as eighteen-year-old mortals. I’ve used the word painful a lot in this paragraph, but the book wasn’t painful. There was enough foreshadowing at the beginning that you knew that something horrible was going to happen to the love affair (that or I’ve read enough vampire novels to know it couldn’t last) so there were no nasty surprises.
The story in itself was fine enough, but I was more interested in the general milieu. It’s always important in speculative fiction for the author to have placed their characters in an interesting world. The world of these cyborgs is very interesting. They have their own little pop culture going on in the background, they listen to live radio broadcasts (outside of mortal hearing range, of course) of Bloody Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain, they read something called Immortal Lifestyles Monthly. Now, the immortals in this novel didn’t really have the opportunity to indulge in the kind of lifestyle that I think would get featured in this magazine, but near the end of the novel you get a glimpse of it, and it looks like there may be some more of the same in the sequel, Sky Coyote. You know, cocktails, elaborate rules of etiquette, fashionable dress, the works.
I want to say something about the fashionable dress. The immortals, amongst themselves, seemed to favor Western Eurpoean fashions exclusively. Now, those of you who know me know I have nothing against Western European fashion, but it seemed a little strange to me that a group of people as diverse as the immortals, who celebrate a syncretistic sort of all-faiths-solstice celebration and speak something called New Cinema Standard among themselves, should prefer corsets and hoop skirts to quechquemitls and loincloths in the tropical New World heat.
Well, it was a good book for all that (and you know I really only said that because I like to talk about clothes). The setup was good. The story was good. And better yet, she’s planning to write more like it.
Sky Coyote: A Novel of the Company, Kage Baker. Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1999.
Well, I liked In the Garden of Iden so much that I immediately went out and got Sky Coyote from my local library. The things I liked so much about the first book really got me thinking in the second. Facilitator Joseph is so smooth you know his operation is never going to be in serious danger - the operation provides more of a backdrop than really anything else. The real interest in the novel lies in the relations between the immortals and their 24th-century creators.
There are lots of issues to be explored: who is really running the Company after all, and what will happen to the immortals as the 24th century approaches? What happens to immortals who were created for a purpose now unwanted or needed by the Company? Will Botanist Mendoza ever learn any social skills?
Mendoza is a bit of a disappointment in this book. Sure, she had a painful adolescence, but doesn’t everybody? I think in 150 years I would get over one love affair that ended in an auto-da-fe. Sure, she never really liked humans to begin with - the Spanish Inquisition will do that to you. But all the other immortals have been recruited under similar circumstances, and they all seem to be fairly well-adjusted. Other details of her recruitment were revealed in this book - it turns out she was putting out a higher level of a certain kind of radiation than is permitted by the Company in its recruits, but that Joseph pulled some strings and fudged some data to get her recruited anyway. Toward the end of the book it sort of looked like she had done a big no-no and remanded for some sort of nebulous but presumably terrible and never-ending reprimand. Oh well, I guess every immortal being (Joseph, Saint-Germain, Ramesses the Damned, Anne Rice’s vampires) is bound to create at least one tragically flawed protege.
The other questions I mentioned in this story are more important anyway. There are actual 24th-century mortal Company directors and bosses in this book, and judging by their reaction to their pre-missionary California surroundings and their immortal subordinates, who have just arrived from the decadent pleasures of New World One, the outlook is not promising. They have a horror of microbes, and cults, and mood-altering substances. They don’t eat meat, because you would have to kill animals for that, animals that have been cutesy-fied in generation after generation of Saturday morning cartoons. Yes, even the abalones. They don’t eat vegetables either, probably for some similar reason. They don’t even eat non-genetically-modified organic soy products. I think they eat synthetically produced rehydrated protein. They have no culture (by the immortals’ standards), not even any pop culture. The immortals are well-versed in every piece of literature, cinema, and music pretty much ever produced, but the mortals don’t look at any piece of entertainment more than two months old, if they are looking at any entertainment at all. Usually they just play shoot’em-up video games with little blue moving lights as the targets, because otherwise it would be violent. The immortals even have to speak a sort of dumbed-down version of New Cinema Standard to them, kind of like talking to children.
Near the beginning of the book, the characters attend a very theatrically maudlin fin-de-siecle celebration at New World One, where the administrator goes on about how all this glory and decadence must soon come to an end, and laces their champagne with something that makes their machine parts glow under black light (there is a similar scene in The Vampire Lestat). I didn’t really pay attention to what the administrator was saying (give me a break, neither did the characters - they were talking about recording devices shaped like headlice) but once I saw the 24th-century characters’ attitudes I began to wish that I had. Slowly but surely, the past that the immortals have so much free rein over must begin to crumble, to be replaced by a future which is not ready to accept them.
I’ve been drawing a lot of parallels to Anne Rice in this novel, which is strange considering I haven’t read any Anne Rice in at least five years, and considering that Kage Baker’s narrative style is absolutely nothing like Anne Rice. She is usually funny, almost tongue-in-cheek sometimes, and she has this wonderful way with dialogue (even if she has a slight thing about men having conversations with their penises) - it’s all written in English, but you have no trouble determining when someone is speaking Elizabethan English versus when someone is speaking New Cinema Standard. But I’m going to draw another parallel to Anne Rice anyway. Some books are just sort of emotionally draining somehow - even though they end cleanly with the protagonists ready to start over, you just can’t help but be kind of depressed. Interview with the Vampire was like that. Communion Blood (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) was like that. Sky Coyote was like that. Maybe it’s something about immortal beings - there’s something terrible about never being able to die (There was even a hint, just the teeniest tiniest hint, of the terribleness of never being able to die in AI).
Anyway, here I am getting all maudlin again. I’ll say something about the fashions again instead. The 24th-century mortals are very uncomfortable with the immortals wearing the fashions of the day, but the more uncomfortable they get, the more the immortals have no inclination to switch to plain, ugly 24th century coveralls. But Mendoza does trade her mantua, high heels, and bonnet a la Fontanges for something a little more practical in the field. Which is good - I never liked a Fontanges headdress anyways.
I couldn’t really tell if more books were planned in this series, but I sure hope there are. It wasn’t like there were annoying loose ends or anything - everything was wrapped up, but in a way to keep you thinking long after you’re done the book. But all those unanswered questions, well, I bet they’d make a really interesting third book. The other thing that makes me sort of think there might be more books planned is that subtitle “A Novel of the Company”. Oh well. I can always hope at least.
Baker, Kage, Mendoza in Hollywood. New York, Harcourt, Inc., 2000. -- Review October 13, 2001
In which we discover what happens to bad Immortals.
Well, I wasn’t too thrilled with the greater part of this book. I mean, immortal cyborgs preserving stuff through time, okay. But Mendoza being haunted by the ghost of Nicholas Harpole? Come on, give me a break. Can’t she just put him behind her, like a normal immortal? But no, it’s not just his memory that’s haunting her. It appears to be an actual ghost. Not so sure what I thought about that.
Then there’s the excursion that Mendoza and Einar (yes, but is he a sweetie-pie?) make into the blue danger zone right in the middle of Hollyweird. There’s a giant quartz crystal embedded in the earth which can cause explosions of psychic radiation or something like that. As they’re going there, Einar tells her about all the weird things it will give rise to - Houdini being contacted by voices from beyond and getting so weirded out that he never wants to set foot in North America again, and a series of bars all in the same location that are fated to be haunted by John Barrymore’s ghost. They have to wear all sorts of protective gear against this psychic energy (Crome Radiation, the kind that Mendoza generates, that made her technically unsuitable to be turned into an immortal) but they see weird shit anyways. They see the stuff that is actually there, but they also see stuff that passed through centuries before, and stuff that won’t be there for at least another century. The imagery that came to mind when I was reading this passage was of the wraiths in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The temporal anomalies are so strong that they get sucked forward in time to 1996 despite the fact that The Company has had centuries to determine (or at least tell its operatives) that you can’t go forward in time past the time that is your “present”. They alarm some finicky 24th-century operatives and run briefly into one of Mendoza’s friends from the last book before being rushed back to 1862. Mendoza’s friend tries to give her a warning that at the time seems to be a warning not to go back with Einar, but probably has more significance later, as we shall see.
I wasn’t sure what I thought of that episode, either. The spirits and non-Company-caused time travel in this episode seemed to be a real departure from the direction that Kage Baker had taken in the previous two books, but once I had read to the end of the book they started to tie in a little more nicely.
The third episode I wasn’t too sure about was the screening of some very long and confusing movie by the immortals. I don’t even remember the name of the movie, but Kage Baker described it for pages, and pages, and pages. I gathered it was some sort of silent film that the characters felt had simultaneously been the best and the worst movie ever made. It followed plotlines in three different time periods, a nebulous and grey sort of future, 16th-century France, and the splendors of Babylon. My impression that the film was highly allegorical was enhanced by the fact that the characters in the film all had Roman de la Rose-style names, like “Little Dear One” and “Princess Beloved”.
I’m still not really sure why Baker spent so many pages on the watching of this movie, but let me just say, you thought SCA people were bad for commenting on the historical accuracy of movies? What happens after the screening of the movie is more interesting. One of the operatives stationed with Mendoza happens to have been Babylonian, and apparently the scenes of Babylon in the movie were so true to the original that she ends up going a little off her rocker and doing some Babylonian dances, and then Einar kind of goes off his rocker too and sings a Norse song, and then they all sit there and talk about the nature of being immortal, and time travel, and all that, and they wax maudlin about what it will be like to lose the world they know to the future.
Anyway, things even digressed further from there (or so I thought), when Imarte (the Babylonian) uncovered a British plot to take over California. Everything seemed pretty normal at first, the British taking advantage of the American Civil War to go in and take a nice piece of property, but soon there was a man involved who was like a total reincarnation of Nicholas Harpole and there was Mendoza abandoning her post and going with him, because maybe, just maybe, she could save him this time, and then they could actually be together, and, well, whatever. I still think Mendoza should just give up on her stupid Nicholas Harpole.
A couple of other interesting things happened in the book - one of Mendoza’s high school friends showed up, happily paired for immortality with some immortal guy whose job is going down with shipwrecks. Not sure why this was in there, maybe just to show that not all immortals are as screwed-up as Mendoza, or maybe to make Mendoza feel even worse about the fact that she didn’t get to keep her one true love. One of the other operatives stationed with Mendoza, Porfirio, had made a promise to his parents before they died that he would look after his little brother. The little brother turned out not to be a suitable candidate for immortality, but Porfirio kept an eye on him anyway, and when the brother died, on the brother’s kids, etc. etc., kind of like the “Great Family” presided over by one of the redheaded twins in Anne Rice’s vampire novels.
There was also young Juan Bautista on his first mission in the field. He too turned out to have been recruited by Joseph, who Mendoza describes as her “demon godfather”. Oh come on, Mendoza, get over it! Juan Bautista illustrates that all teenaged immortals have their problems coming to grips with the mortality that surrounds them, although his experience is not quite as overblown as Mendoza’s - he loves birds. He adopts a condor, a pelican, and a bald eagle, and cares for them to the detriment of his work for the company. He gets a stern talking to about how he shouldn’t get too attached to the birds, because one day they’ll die, but of course he doesn’t really come to grips with the whole concept until there is an incident with the bald eagle.
So there wasn’t really a lot of exploration in this book of the issues from the first two. There was some exploration of issues of how immortals adapt to their immortality, how they try to hold on to things that must inevitably slip from their grasp, but there was not really any sort of speculation on the relations that mortals and immortals will have once the 24th century arrives. There was, however, something WAY cooler.
As Mendoza gets more involved with the spy antics of her Nicholas look-alike, she starts to discover that something is totally up with the British plot to take over California. Now maybe it looks like Lewis’ warning wasn’t to not go back to the 19th century with Einar, but to not go with her Nicholas look-alike. Specifically, they’re interested in Catalina Island. The maps Mendoza has access to get vaguer and vaguer about what’s actually there as they go forward in time, but it’s certainly not the silver mine the British in 1862 are claiming it is. There appears to be some sort of really advanced technology there. In the twentieth century, it will become controlled by the Company, and will thereafter become the site of some bizarre incidents, UFOs and Sean Connery sightings. But wait, that’s not the weirdest part. Mendoza discovers that the CEOs of the various Dr Zeus subsidiaries that control Catalina in the 24th century are all loyal British subjects. This is weird because operatives are always told that the Company is a multinational. Hmm. Looks like Mendoza has stumbled on a conspiracy, or has at least constructed a conspiracy theory.
Mendoza does something pretty bad, because she’s upset about the death of her Nicholas look-alike, and she gets re-assigned to something that could be seen as a punishment. It’s not so clear that they’re not actually putting her away because she knows too much about Catalina Island rather than because of the bad thing she did. Mendoza’s parting sally is some babble about reincarnation and how eventually her Nicholas will set her free. Um, whatever. Maybe someday Kage Baker will make it clear how the whole reincarnation thing fits in with the world she’s constructed. But right now, I’m more interested in Mendoza’s current assignment. She’s on Catalina Island, way back in the mists of time. Her official job is growing produce for a resort for 24th-century tourists (wait a minute, I thought they didn’t eat anything that had ever been living, let alone sport-fishing or cavorting with mammoths). Her unofficial and more important job is to watch for a certain race of people (who she claims emphatically are NOT Ancient Lemurians) who will come to the island and create advanced technology, which will eventually enable the Company to “invent” time travel.
The liner notes definitely state that there is a fourth book in the works, and this book really opened up the possibilities even further than they had been before. I am really on pins and needles. I totally have to find out what happens next! One of the reviews on the back of the book calls the series “a terrific addiction, like O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series”. I’m definitely on side with that.
These pints are mostly for the possibilities raised in the last few chapters, rather than the rest of what actually happens in the book. They are definitely not for Nicholas Harpole.
The Graveyard Game, Kage Baker, New York, Harcourt Inc., 2001 -- reviewed November 1, 2001
“I hate that stupid poem,” said the raven.
With 75 years to go before the Silence falls, three factions of Immortals seem to be squaring off for some kind of final conflict.
The Gentlemen’s Speculative Society: A secret society with some very advanced inventions. Currently English but reaching back at least to Ancient Egypt. Its immortal membership has often included Nennius. Its mortal membership has included that favorite of speculative historical fiction, Imhotep, as well as Roger Bacon, John Dee,* Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, H.G. Wells, and good old Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax. It was in the aims of the GSS that EABF was on his mission to acquire Catalina Island. Did I mention that in 1886 the GSS changed their name to Kronos Diversified Stock Company?
The Plague Club: Rumored to be creating horrific plague after horrific plague with the intention of wiping out all humans before 2355. Certain evidence points to Budu as the mastermind, especially the evidence that shows all of the plagues to have originated from a certain cave, the fact that Budu has been “missing” since the first crusade, and the fact that Budu was created for a purpose that looks an awful lot like wholesale destruction of humans to anybody who didn’t live through the upper Neolithic. The only drawback to this is that Budu has been somewhat definitively missing (read, decapitated and buried under rubble) since the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. The new front man for the Plague Club appears to be Labienus. His CV includes AIDS, a plague that swept jails and pretty much wiped them out, and a plague associated with a recombinant child, ensuring designer babies are never tried again.
Suleyman’s group: The group that seems most reasonable to Joseph, if he must choose a group to side with (and if they will have him). They have perfected a technology allowing them to disrupt the constant datafeed from their brains to big brother (whoever big brother is). This is very useful, if you’re an operative that wants to do things without the Company knowing what you’re up to, and presumably very much frowned upon by the Company. They’re not as convinced as Joseph that Budu was never involved in the Plague Club, whose actions they are closely monitoring. They’re also closely monitoring the movements of the GSS/The Company, which is reassigning constantly increasing numbers of operatives to numbers (really fates of some kind). Joseph was assigned to a number and left in the Pacific Ocean to die, but happily for him a dolphin and then an Islamic brotherhood got him to Suleyman, who permanently removed Joseph’s datafeed unit and then loosed him on the world to wreak whatever havoc he is apparently planning to wreak. If asked, Suleyman’s group knows nothing about Joseph.
So I mentioned that operatives keep disappearing. For instance, Einar disappeared apparently just because he was with Mendoza when she travelled forward in time. Kalugin (Nan’s love interest) disappeared for no apparent reason as mentioned in this book, except perhaps to motivate Nan to investigate the disappearances and discover the possibly important fact that reassignment to numbers apparently indicates some fate dealt by the Company to the operative in question. Of course, whether the Company’s fate assignments are meant to permanently get rid of an operative or just to wash the Company’s hands of the matter (as with Joseph) is open to debate.
Lewis was assigned to the same fate as Joseph, but that says nothing. I think Lewis is in serious trouble. He has been having troubling nightmares since his illicit visit to a holding facility with Joseph, apparently well-suppressed (by the Company, of course) memories of a 10 year regeneration stint in a holding facility. He can’t fathom why, but one day as he’s minding his own business as his cushy job in a library, an apparently developmentally disabled man comes in, hacks into a very high-security Company site, and publicly identifies Lewis as a cyborg to some mortals. Lewis is freaked out, his cover is blown, and as he’s escaping to France two more of the same creatures accost him with some sort of ray gun. Now, these are some very strange creatures. I had to read the description three times before I finally decided that Tweedledum and Tweedledee had not, in fact, invaded from Wonderland. They’re puny little creatures, no great conversationalists, but man, can they create those cyborg-destoyin’ ray guns. Kind of like Morlocks.** Apparently they’re some third branch of humanity, the youngest and puniest brother. Way back in the Dark Ages they got their hands on Lewis and experimented on him with their ray gun. The Company tried cross-breeding them with humans, without much success. They went into hiding, but they’re pretty single-minded, and here they are in the third millennium still trying to experiment on Lewis with their ray gun. At this point, the Company’s not so enthusiastic about deterring them. If you can get some lesser race to create cyborg-destroyin’ ray guns for you, hey, in 2355 all your cyborg problems are solved (watch out for those Morlocks though).
Good old Mendoza. I was happy to get through this whole book without having to hear Mendoza obsess about Nicholas Harpole/EABF and reincarnation theories (doesn’t mean there was none of this in the book though). Mendoza survived several tens of thousands of years in the Back Way Back before being reassigned to a number/fate. We remember that her mission was to wait for a mysterious race of people to come with some kind of advanced technology and then report on them to the Company. Were her mysterious race of people the Morlocks? No matter who they were, it’s not terribly surprising that the Company did something to silence her after she reported on them. It was a pretty top secret matter, and Mendoza has never been exactly the best operative, and she’s a Crome generator to boot. There was some speculation by either Joseph or Lewis in this book that her Crome radiation could somehow have caused the reincarnation of her one true love. Mind you, the Company may be playing a pretty deep game with Mendoza. After all, she was conveniently not given another (official) assignment just in time for EABF to come through the stagecoach station so she could help him to get to the coast, and remember that EABF is some kind of Company operative. And who knows what the Company has really done with Mendoza, especially since Joseph was sure he saw her on Catalina Island in 1923 accompanied by someone who looked exactly like EABF?
We finally get to hear a little more about some of the failed immortals. Every time Joseph visits another one of the holding facilities (kind of like the human storage units in the Matrix, or like those things Mulder and Scully find at the South Pole in the X-Files movie) he sees this chalk marking on the wall, “Abdiel was here” with some dates in the not-too-distant past. Happily for him when he inevitably finds himself in the same holding facility as Abdiel, Abdiel turns out to be a failed immortal who is, like, really dim. Abdiel’s mission for all eternity is to make a big circuit around the globe and perform maintenance at each of the seven holding facilities. Joseph smoothly gets all the maintenance information he (thinks he) needs from Abdiel before Abdiel leaves the facility, promptly forgetting all about Joseph, let alone the fact that he’s just visited the holding facility. Abdiel himself is obviously not going to rat on Joseph, but what about his datafeed? What about the fact that Joseph failed to get an apparently pertinent piece of information out of Abdiel about how to give the immortals in the tanks sweet dreams instead of bad ones? That could really come back to bite Joseph in the ass. (By that time, Joseph may well have other, much bigger problems, relating to his apparent plan to loose the Enforcers on the world again).
Another possible failed immortal is Victor. Victor always wears gloves. The last time Budu was seen (just before being buried in the SF earthquake) Victor had just spit on him, apparently causing damage. Is his failure that he is poisonous to the touch, like the X-man Rogue? And why was he arguing with Budu anyway?
Mostly apart from all of the lovely cloak-and-dagger conspiracies going on in this book, you have the general weirdness of immortals. Juan Bautista, the obsessive savior of large obnoxious birds in Mendoza in Hollywood, loves birds so much that in this book he has performed an augmentation on at least one. The augmentation process doesn’t make animals immortal, but it does make them an awful lot smarter, hence the Poe-hating raven. If you think that’s screwed up, get a load of Lewis. When Lewis discovers a daguerreotype of and three letters from EABF, he becomes TOTALLY obsessed with him, digs up all that information about EABF’s connections to the Company, putting himself in danger, and, even more screwed up, starts writing this, like, seventeen-volume fictionalised account of EABF’s life and adventures, making him more heroic than at all plausibly possible, and finally writes a science-fictioney, sleeping-beauty-ey ending for it where some future incarnation of EABF is finally reunited with his beloved Mendoza. Lewis has like, major Mendoza-and-EABF fantasies, which finally leads him and the unfortunate Joseph into a trap set for him by Nennius.
Finally, where would I be without saying something about the world Kage Baker has created for her characters? I must admit, I had to wonder after September 11th how Kage Baker would incorporate what happened into her stories, but she conveniently skipped over everything that happened between 1996 and 2026. I was happy to see that as time progressed the West lost its hegemony and the East was able to assert itself and its culture. I enjoyed the continuing reference to rampant Vegan-ism and the consumption of non-genetically-modified meat-flavored soy products, the Beast Liberation Party (and how chickens didn’t know what to do to assert their civil rights and spent most of their time trying to cross the road, going extinct in the process) and the codification of all the pretentious Wiccan neo-pagan types. I did kind of have to wonder about the whole Enforcer/Great Goat Cult thing though, especially after some offhand comment was made about how if the Enforcers hadn’t gone in and wiped out the Great Goat Cult they would have set back civilization by several thousand years. It seems as though perhaps the Company is afforded a lot of leeway during prehistory by the unrecorded history loophole. Exactly how much is the Company actually responsible for?
Score: 5 pints (of Hot Chocolate). If I wasn’t totally hooked before, I certainly am now.
*If you don’t know who Roger Bacon or John Dee are, I’ve taken too much History of Science.
**If you don’t know what a Morlock is, for God’s sake read “The Time Machine”, by H.G. Wells.