Monday, April 21, 2008

 

Book Report

Good morning, internets. I haven't been fielding too many meaty posts lately, I'll admit. After finishing up Three Unbroken a few weeks ago, I did a little work-for-hire that I'm not sure I can talk about yet (but which I'll be shouting to the rafters as soon as I can), and then spent a bit of time doing some research for some other potential franchise gigs. But having worked more or less for a year and change straight on a number of Celestial Empire projects (with short sidetrips for various short stories and the Star Trek gig), I decided I needed a bit of recharge, and something of a palate cleanser before starting the next big project. And so, as a result, I did something I haven't done in a long, long time: I read a few books just for pleasure.

Shock and horror.

I've raved often and loudly about Kage Baker's Company sequence. I'm responsible for converting at least four other people to the Cult of Kage, so far as I know, and those four might well have gone on to infect others. Simply put, I think that the Company novels are the best SF series of the current generation, and that Baker is one of the best writers working in the English language today. Her prose is so skillfully put together that it comes across as deceptively simple, but is compulsively readable. I picked up a copy of Black Projects, White Knights in the summer of 2004, having heard good things about it. I immediately sought out the first in the series, In the Garden of Iden, which was still on bookstore shelves in its original mmpb edition. I consumed it in a day and rushed out to find Sky Coyote, which as I've said before includes the funniest line I've ever read in a novel. Then I was able to find Mendoza in Hollywood without too much difficulty, and read it in a trice. But when it came time to read The Graveyard Game, things got a little complicated. It was the last book published by Baker's previous publisher, Harcourt, and apparently had a relatively low print run. In those dark days before the series was reissued by Baker's new publisher, Tor, thanks to the efforts of David Hartwell, it was all but impossible to find a copy of The Graveyard Game for anything like a reasonable price. But to give you an idea how badly I needed to read that next installment, even knowing that within another year or so Tor would be issuing an affordable tpb edition, I paid something like one hundred dollars for a second-hand copy of the Harcourt edition online.

And then, when the copy didn't show up in a week or so, and I found another copy available online as well, I paid another hundred bucks to buy a second copy and have it express shipped to me.

Crazy? Well, probably. But that should give you an idea of the desperate hunger to find out What Happens Next that the Company novels engenders. (As for that extra copy of The Graveyard Game I then had lying around, I ended up trading it for a review copy of The Life of the World to Come, which wasn't due out in hardback for another few months, to Jude Feldman, who hadn't found a copy of it for herself. So it was still a win, all around.)

So you can imagine what it's been like for me, for almost two years now, to have an ever growing pile of unread Kage Baker Company novels in my office, that I just couldn't find the time away from work to read.

The week before last, with a few days open in my schedule, I finally was able to scratch that itch.


The Machine's Child

The basic idea behind the Company novels is simple. In the future, the Dr. Zeus corporation makes two groundbreaking technological discoveries--the ability to time travel, and the process for making humans immortal. The problems are that it is only possible to travel into the past and back, not into the future, and the immortality process is long, painful, and only works on certain individuals when they are very young. Recorded history cannot be changed, but there are gray areas, "event shadows" in which there's a bit of wiggle room.

The Company's solution to these limitations, naturally, is to travel back into the past, locate children who fit the profile for the immortality process and who won't be missed (orphans, children who would have otherwise died in fires, floods, and wars, etc.), and make them immortal with cybernetic implants. Then these immortal cyborgs will work as agents for the Company throughout history, saving things that would otherwise have been lost, and squirreling them away in hidden places for the Company to "discover" up in the future. Lost Shakespeare folios, forgotten masterpieces, extinct species, and historical rarities.


Gods and Pawns

We are introduced to the world of the Company through the eyes of Mendoza, in the novel In the Garden of Iden. Caught up by the Spanish Inquisition in the sixteen century and destined for the stake, she is whisked away by a Facilitator, a cyborg named Joseph, and transformed into an immortal. Like several of the novels and stories in the sequence, In the Garden of Iden is told in first person, in "Cinema Standard", the lingua franca of the immortals. Cinema Standard is, quite simply, the way that people in 20th Century American movies talk, as movies are a regular source of entertainment for the agents of the Company.

(You may note that I'm not actually offering much in the way of capsule reviews of the books themselves. That's because these are the last entries in the series, and even a cursory plot summary would give away way too many spoilers for the earlier books.)


Rude Mechanicals

In addition to the main sequence of eight novels and two short story collections (or nine novels and one short story collection, or seven novels and three collections, depending on how you slice them), there have been a few associated shorts that have appeared here and there, well worth reading in their own right but not essential to an appreciation of the whole. The story which appeared in my anthology Adventure Vol. 1, "The Unfortunate Gytt," is one such, and this recent stand-alone novella from Subterranean Press, Rude Mechanicals, is another. Completists will also want to track down a copy of Mother Aegypt and Other Stories, the title story of which contains some tantalizing bits of backstory, and The Empress of Mars, which provides some context for some of the later events of the Company sequence. Other than these, though, all of the other short stories related to the Company have been collected in one of the two story collections, Children of the Company and Gods and Pawns, including what may be one of the best short stories I've read in the last twenty years, "Son Observe the Time," set before and during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.


The Sons of Heaven

As the sequence begins, with In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, it appears that the business with the time travel and the immortal cyborgs is really just an excuse to tell historical stories from a contemporary perspective, interweaving modern and archaic language. (And it is here that Baker truly excels; an expert in Elizabethan English, the language in In the Garden of Iden, to cite just one example, is absolutely convincing as period English, while at the same time being compulsively readable.) Beginning with Mendoza in Hollywood, though, things begin to take a strange turn, as a character thought long dead in the first novel appears to return under a different guise. And an offhand reference to something called Crome's radiation in the first novel turns out to have far greater importance. Then, as The Graveyard Game unfolds, things become increasingly complicated. In the short stories, particularly the aforementioned "Son Observe the Time," we begin to get inklings that not everything we have been told about the Company and its aims is entirely accurate, and with The Life of the World to Come we are presented with the solution to one mystery, that serves only to raise even more questions.

Eight novels, two short story collections, and a constellation of satellite stories culminate in the final novel, Sons of Heaven, which handily answers all the questions posed by the series. I had my own guesses, along the way, nearly all of which proved to be wrong. And there was something of a bittersweet sensation to knowing that I'd reached the end of the road, and that so far I know there won't be any more to follow.

I've read and enjoyed some of Baker's non-Company work, in particular the fantasy novel The Anvil of the World. And while I'm looking forward eagerly to her forthcoming The House of the Stag, I'll admit that there's a large part of me who'd prefer for the Company sequence to keep spinning off novels and stories, into infinity. It's such a terrific idea, deceptively simple and yet capable of such subtlety and invention, that I burn with jealously that I didn't think of it first.

I can't recommend the Company sequence highly enough. And don't just take my word for it. Everyone that I've convinced to read just one of the novels in the sequence immediately goes on to read the rest, without fail. They represent a high-watermark in contemporary English-language science fiction, and I predict that they'll be read and appreciated for long decades to come. Jump on the bandwagon now, and you'll be able to tell your grandchildren you were reading them when they were still just hot off the presses (or close enough to count).

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Comments:
I've been reading the Company books from the start (and I actually bought the Harcourt Graveyard Game when it first came out, if only I'd known it once had so much value!), and been loving them for years.

Renee
 
Having been notified of all your nice praise via a friend, nevertheless, "Shock and Horror" is indeed my reaction.

Bloody Hell, Chris! Before you EVER spend that kind of money again on something of mine you can't find, email me first! I'll send you a damned rtf file!
 
Kage, you have my word on it! (And my wife, who apparently doesn't remember that I paid that much for Graveyard Game--twice!--is a little shocked and horrified to discover it herself! I think if she wasn't one of the four I'd converted to the Cult of Kage I'd be in a bit of trouble at the moment...)
 
Renee, you should have sold your copy to me at an outrageous price when you had a chance!
 
I've always liked the Company stories that appeared in Asimov's and always meant to get around to reading everything but haven't yet. I think I should make that one of my 2008 projects.
 
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