The big problem with anything that is labelled ‘Best Of…’ is no one can actually agree what should be included or left out. While it is useful to stimulate discussion, the ultimate choice will either leave the reader smug or frustrated. While the author is available to be the final arbiter, there is an excuse for such a volume to be labelled the ‘Favourite’s Of …’ rather than the ‘Best Of …’. Tragically, Kage Baker is no longer available to put that stamp of authenticity on this volume.
Baker is best known for her series of ‘Company’ novels which feature immortals created by a Company from the future from children in the past to act as agents to preserve human heritage. Many characters reappear in the various novels, though the settings are different time periods. Nine of the stories in this volume are related to the ‘Company’ novels. Eleven of the twenty stories have appeared in other collections. A Kage Baker completest will probably want this volume for these previously uncollected stories.
Because of the long life of Company operatives, there are long periods of time between novels when we lose touch with their activities. One character that runs through all the company novels is Mendoza, a botanist, who was introduced to us in ‘In The Garden Of Iden’. The first story in this ‘Best Of…’, ‘Noble Mold’ finds her in South America in 1822 where one of the vines she discovers get a priority tag put on it. The entire vine has to be moved but the owners go to great lengths to prevent her having it. She and Joseph (another character introduced in the first ‘Company’ novel) have different approaches. Mendoza comes across as mean and petulant, while Joseph is mild and intelligent.
The Company has also tried to mould history, making sure that the developments in their records come at the specified points. This is one of the paradoxes of the series; the belief that the past cannot be changed, yet operatives are working to make sure that it goes the way recorded. In ‘Old Flat Top’, an Enforcer, a genetically engineered immortal Neanderthal, tells a Cro-Magnon boy the origin of his tribes religious beliefs. Budu is the character followers of the series will be familiar with.
‘Hanuman’ is marginally a Mendoza story in that she is being told the life history of a member of an extinct species of ape by the creature himself and how he discovers that he fits into neither ape nor human society. It is a familiar dilemma, explored by other writers in various guises.
Victor is another familiar figure. In ‘Son, Observe The Time’, he is set the task of snatching children from the rubble of the 1909 San Francisco earthquake to turn into immortal cyborgs by the company. He also discovers that he has been engineered as a weapon against cyborgs during an encounter with Budu.
Baker enjoys having her characters meet famous historical figures as in ‘Welcome To Olympus, Mr. Hearst’, Joseph and Lewis have to ask a favour of the newspaper magnate. Joseph has to make promises that, at the time, he doesn’t think can be fulfilled.
With a series like this, where the Company seems all powerful, it is useful to show that in the beginning mistakes were made. ‘The Catch’ involves Porfirio, a character introduced in the novel ‘Mendoza In Hollywood’. Here, he has to neutralise an early mistake, a boy who was, as was discovered, too old to be made immortal safely. As a result, he has become mentally unstable, but can also manipulate molecules and pass through solid matter.
These stories have previously appeared in other collections but two other Company stories at the end of this volume are previously uncollected. Alec Checkerfield is an important player in later ‘Company’ novels and ‘Bad Machine’ relates an early episode in his life. As the hormones of puberty kick in, he wants to experiment, bringing the discrepancies in his background to the authorities. It requires Captain Morgan, the electronic programme that has guided his development, to step in and cover-up Alec’s indiscretions.
The last story in this volume is ‘The Carpet Beds Of Sutro Park’, a poignant story of another Company failure. Ezra, though, has an easier time as from 1851, he wanders the city acting as a camera recording the changes for citizens of the distant future. The tale re-counts his passive relationship with Kristy Ann, as she passes through her mortal life.
The other story that belongs to this group is ‘Speed, Speed The Cable’ which revolves around Edward Bell-Fairfax before he left England for America and met up with Mendoza in ‘Mendoza In Hollywood’. He is involved in making sure that the transatlantic telephone cable is laid and progress encouraged. It is different from the other Company stories as Bell-Fairfax is not immortal but a human recruit for human society dedicated to furthering progress.
Many of these Company related stories can be enjoyed in their own right but to get the most out of them and to see the interconnectedness of them it is better to be familiar with the related novels. Since most of the people that will buy this book are probably already fans of the series, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Baker’s other work is not neglected in this ‘Best Of…’ There are eleven other stories here. They range from SF as in ‘Maelstrom’ about two actors fleeing the reproductive restrictions of Earth to join a theatre company on Mars. This story is related to Baker’s delightful novel ‘The Empress Of Mars’, as most newcomers to the planet tend to end up in the tavern, Empress Of Mars, under the wing of Mother Griffiths, the proprietress.
‘Calamari Curls’ has a Lovecraftian touch, as the new owners of a faded and derelict establishment discover after renovation and refurbishment on the first full moon after re-opening. The story is character led rather than any dwelling on the horror of what happens. Events are observed by an outsider from across the road, so what is potentially nasty becomes a ‘nice’ story. In many ways, this sums up the stories in this collection. Kage Baker was a nice, talented writer who will be missed by her many readers who wrote nice stories.
(pub: Subterranean Press. 489 page deluxe hardback. Price: $ 40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-442-3)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com