Science Fiction is my most preferred genre. I’ve been reading it for more than fifty years. So, I’m surprised and delighted to find an extraordinarily good Science Fiction series that’s been around since the Nineties and which I completely missed. I’ll be reading the entire twelve book series.
It’s a series of time travel novels called ‘The Company’ and it’s written by Kage Baker. There are quite a few time travel series out there and, different as they are, most of them have some sense that history is important and time travel should help to spread knowledge and solve problems. Kage Baker starts from a very different place. The purpose of time travel is to make Dr Zeus, the person who invented it, fabulously rich and extremely powerful.
Dr Zeus thinks big. His first invention was a process that bestows immortality on people by installing various pieces of technology in them when they are still children. It’s a great invention but one for which there was no viable market because those who could afford it were too old for it to work and the benefits were too far in future to generate a decent return.
So Dr Zeus invents two more things: a means of travelling back to the past and The Company. The Company is an organisation that spans centuries. It exist to turn kids who won’t be missed into immortals who work for Dr Zeus for centuries so that, by the time they reach the twenties-fourth century, Dr Zeus’ now, The Company will have acquired huge amounts of wealth and influence and will be staffed by formidable and loyal immortals.
The first book in the series, ‘In The Garden Of Iden’ was published in 1997, well before Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk got into their stride and yet it perfectly captures the entitled rapacity of an organisation that knows how to use technology to secure wealth and get its own way. ‘The Company’ that Kage Baker has conjured up is a kind covert East India Company that is colonising the past for profit.
Kage Baker is my kind of author: very bright, a wicked wit, deeply knowledgable about history, especially Elizabethan England and she approaches politics, religion and commerce from an orthogonal perspective to the mainstream. Her view of history is nostalgia-free. She is unflinching in her understanding of just how nasty to one another we have proven ourselves to be able to be in century after century.
I found all of this stimulating but what pushed ‘In The Garden Of Iden’ from ‘What a great idea’ into ‘What an extraordinary book’ was Kage Baker’s ability to keep the story on a human scale and focus on the people rather than the organisation or the technology.
‘In The Garden Of Iden’ tells the story of Mendoza who, at six years old, was extracted by The Company from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition, was operated on to be made into an immortal cyborg and trained to be a botanist who will gather specimens of soon-to-be-extinct plants that The Company can ‘rediscover’ in the future and make money from. Most of the book is about Mendoza’s first assignment and her first love.
It takes places in 1554 when the nineteen-year-old Mendoza is sent from Spain to England as part in the influx of Spaniards following Philip II of Spain when he marries Queen Mary of England. Mendoza’s mission is to collect rare samples from an English country estate called ‘The Garden Of Iden’.
Mendoza is not a normal nineteen-year-old. She has been given a twenty-fourth century education. She knows how the Queen Mary’s reign will turn out. She has extraordinary physical capabilities, she can speak several languages, she can communicate subvocally with her teammates and she has access to an equivalent of Google (although Google was still just a program called BackRub being played around with in Stanford when this book was published).
Kage Baker’s descriptions brought mid-sixteenth century England alive and let us see them through the fresh eyes of a nineteen-year-old woman experiencing her first freedom and her first love and coming to understand the consequences of being immortal.
The Mendoza telling the story is much older (we don’t learn how old) and is looking back on her time in the Garden in a ‘was I really that young?’ way which gives a little emotional distance but which also marks out how important to Mendoza her time in the Garden was.
I liked Mendoza for her wit and for her courage. Here’s Mendoza’s reaction to encountering snow for the first time in real life.
‘Despite the expectations fostered by literature and art, I) snow does not fall in beautiful crystal kaleidoscopic flakes, and 2) it does not fall silently. It sounds like rain, only stealthy.’
And here’s one of her ‘how young was I then?’ reflections on a remark made by one of her teammates who is talking about the release of all the Bogart movies onto their entertainment network, (Yep, The Company has Netflix as well as Google)
But I was young then and had yet to appreciate the wisdom of Bogart, particularly as regards the problems of three little people not amounting to a hill of beans in this or any other crazy world.
Although ‘In The Garden Of Iden’ contains a love story, it isn’t a Love Story. This is a world where terrible things happen not just in the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition but in the squares of English cities, where dissenters are once again being burned alive. There are no guaranteed happy endings here. Kage Baker takes a brutally honest view of humanity and the cruelties it inflicts. At one point, Mendoza’s team leader is warning her against expecting humans to change and make a better world. He says:
‘Don’t you ever make the mistake of thinking that mortals want to live in a golden age. They hate thinking.’
So, I’m hooked. I want more both of Mendoza and of Kage Baker.