Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Two very good authors, part II

I discovered the books of Kage Baker this summer. She is not that well-known in this country, and I had to turn to ebay, amazon marketplace, and to source most of her work. Now, Joyce Carol Oates is a serious writer, so very serious in fact that I didn't feel at all like reading her work until I found out that some of it is in genre; whereas Kage Baker wrote science fiction. Nonetheless I feel like Kage Baker was the better discovery of the two. There's a certain quality that some writers have which I find very relaxing, and which I'm now going to find hard to describe. I think of it as "humanity". It's a sort of sympathy with the whole human race without sentimentality. When you read, say, Martin Amis, whatever you may think of the book itself you know that the author is an arsehole; what I'm talking about is the opposite of that. It's a sense that the author would make an excellent aunt, or warden in a women's prison. It's something I tend to associate with female writers; Barbara Kingsolver has it, and so does Barbara Trapido. But I think Terry Pratchett may have it too, a sort of wise kindness. Anyway, I probably haven't described what I mean very well, but Kage Baker's work has it in bucketloads. It's particularly good to discover it in science fiction, because the genre as a whole is prone to a sort of aspergers-y coldness.

Most of her work is in the Company series. The premise is that in the twenty-fourth century a consortium of scientists and merchants have come up with two remarkable inventions, neither of which turns out to be marketable in the way they had hoped. They have invented time travel: but it's a really unpleasant procedure; and although you can go back in time and then return to where you started, you can't go forwards in time from your start point in any other way than living it. Plus you can't change recorded history. Martin Luther King still gets shot; the Titanic still sinks. They also invented immortality: but it's even more unpleasant to go through; it only works on carefully-selected small children; and at the end of the process you're not entirely human any more, but a sort of cyborg. So neither of these can be marketed to middle-aged billionaires. But then they find out that although you can't change recorded history, you can work around the gaps. You can't stop an animal from going extinct, but you can take a population from the wild before it happens, and hide them away somewhere to be rediscovered centuries later. And if you don't want to go through all the nasty time-travel yourself, why not go back to the dawn of time, make some suitable children immortal, and then leave them to it, preserving things to order for the billionaires of the future, and recruiting other children to join them.

The first chapter of the first book, which explains all this, is available for free here. The rest of the book is about a girl called Mendoza. Aged about four she is rescued from the dungeons of the inquisition in Spain, and put through the immortality process. She trains as a botanist, and is sent to England to stay in a house with a remarkable garden, and to take clippings and DNA analysis of some rare plants which are soon to go extinct. She's violently anti-mortal because of her inquisition experience, and although she's been made immortal she's still only seventeen years old so far. Unfortunately she falls head over heels in love with the garden-owner's secretary, a protestant. But it's the reign of Mary Tudor, who has just married Philip of Spain, and the inquisition is coming to England.

The second book involves Joseph, the man who recruited Mendoza. The Company sorts him out with some impressive prosthetics and sends him to the west coast of America, where he has to pretend to be Sky Coyote in order to persuade a Native American village to let anthropologists come in to document their doomed civilisation.

As well as the main books in the series, Baker has also written collections of short stories and novellas, some set in the same world. I've read almost all of them now. Some aren't quite as good as the others, but they are all an enjoyable way to spend time. Kage Baker is the sort of writer I would like to be, and I'm glad she managed to finish the Company series before her death earlier this year.

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