For no good reason, during a free five minutes on Sunday, I started writing about some of my favorite writers (which could be an excellent theme for a continuing series of posts here). I am confident I have not done my initial choice any justice whatsoever. But I wrote the following thousand words on her writing Monday morning, so here is the not-quite-an-essay anyway…
There arenʼt many contemporary writers to whom I have taken strongly. For some reason I got interested in Neal Stephensonʼs Baroque Cycle (which may deserve its own post[s] sometime) at the very time those three books came out, acquiring them in the expensive hardcover editions (each a First, now that I think about it). In the mid-Nineties I finally paid attention to John Varley, spending a few years assembling a complete collection of his writing (just in time for him to get really active in prose fiction again with his antiHeinleinian Mars trilogy, Mammoth and then that fine short story collection that I still peruse for the great writing and memories). He has become a favorite, and especially after encountering, briefly, the movie of his Millennium (a rotten flick, as he says), I think I need to write about him soon. But the writer who amazed and overwhelmed me the most since I turned thirty, perhaps, was one whose name I had seen on the covers and contents pages of Asimovʼs Science Fiction while I subscribed to that, but who I ignored originally (at least for a year or two) — Kage Baker.
What a perfect name, simple yet utterly memorable. (Yet I think it was that odd first name that put me off for years as well, that and the fact I just didnʼt read very many new authors.) Her pathetically brief Wikipedia biography (go on back, click the link) gives her active writing time as 1997-2010, so I must not have ignored her quite as long as I had remembered. Once I finally tried one of her stories (I think in a Yearʼs Best anthology from Gardner Dozois), I was hooked. It was, of course, a Company story.
Immortal time-traveling cyborgs heisting all the lost wealth of the past?! Irresistible.
Yes, it sounded corny to me at first, too. (Still, it is the greatest one-line summary for a science fiction series ever.) So I dredged out the old Asimovʼs I had saved and searched for the roughly ten stories I hadnʼt previously read. And Science Fiction Book Club (in those days still publishing science fiction and not just vampires, comics crap and Star Wars® knock-offs — hard to believe how little I notice to buy from them in the last several years) started publishing omnibus volumes of her Company novels, almost at the very same time, so I grabbed up the first two (comprising four novels I had ignored until then), and they were more amazing than the short stories. The first, In the Garden of Iden, had a genuine lived-in Renaissance feel (and the section in Spain when Mendoza was first recruited, equally vivid). That book itself was like a time-travel device for me. The second, Sky Coyote, was completely different, but it featured native Americans and good anthropology, so I remained hooked and reading (and I was starting to like Joseph a lot; little did I know just what an army of charming Baker cyborgs I had embarked on knowing). The third novel, Mendoza in Hollywood, seeemed tougher-going, slower, but it had its own rewards and interests, including an astonishing tour-de-force describing the lost, uncut version of D.W. Griffithʼs Intolerance ( a movie I hadnʼt really heard about or cared about, but which is now almost as real to my mind as Metropolis, which I have actually seen — and which Baker believed was overblown with portentous symbolism and inferior to Modern Times, which Iʼve also seen and enjoyed). I am not really much of a Hollywood buff, but Baker has been converting me and piquing my interest in Southern California places and history.
And, of course, there are four more novels (go ahead: click their links back on this page).
Baker had been selling short stories that appeared not to be Company-related to Asimovʼs, featuring a character of the 24th century, Alec Checkerfield, in a hideously PC dystopian future London, and she surprised me by turning all of that into the new twist on the Company, almost unbelievably — thus four more novels, each more incredible than the last, and each more mindblowing (I have come to think that was part of her point), building to a fantastic step-now-into-the-new-reality superhuman sci fi trope.
There were even more (and better) short stories, mostly novellas, which appeared through this millennium, some holding a bleak darkness within them. And then the nonCompany stuff — fantasy of a quite new kind (The Anvil of the World remains unique, a novel take on fantasy regardless of the reviewerʼs blarp on that link), kidsʼ stuff, pirates… All enthralling, detailed, amusing and so candidly well written I humbly should just slit my wrists and depart now instead of trying to peck out another word. Or better, I should be inspired to attempt anything in the shadow of her unbelievably fine work.
I tried by actually loaning out my treasured SFBC omnibus volumes to convert my sister Margaret (who returned the favor with Catherine Asaro — and I still have to really get gong with her stuff — and Lois McMaster Bujold — whose Vorkosigan stuff really does grab me, and therefore whose name belonged back in the first paragraph and whose writing I have been searching out in much the same way I tracked down Varley and Baker), but I am unsure of the result. (She returned my Baker books, but I still have about twenty of her paperbacks in a bag, only about half of them read.) Now I am trying to convert the couple dozen of you who read this blog.
However, Ms. Baker died on January 31, as I noted sadly upon discovering the fact, so except for a few more stories and books (most of which I already have my pre-ordering hands upon, thanks to some references I discovered via the excellent DeWitt public library site), all her work there will ever be is already out. Unfortunately, with the state of modern publishing and mega worldwide bookstore chains, youʼll have to hope your local library stocked up as the books appeared or else haunt the used bookstores well (or eBay or used resellers from the mega worldwidesʼ online stores) because her books just arenʼt in those stores now. And thatʼs a real pity. Although gone from this reality, Kage Baker remains the new great thing in science fiction…