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The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker

There is something slightly creepy about reviewing the work of an author so recently deceased. While not wishing to write an obituary, I satisfy myself with the bland assertion that I will miss her continuing to write — there are, of course, more books in the pipeline due for publication over the next year or so. When on form, Kage Baker was immensely readable and inventive.

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is a part of the ongoing building of the back-story to the Company oeuvre. Nell Gwynne’s is a companion to the Gentleman’s Speculative Society in which Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax played such a pivotal role. When the two organisations combine, this is a steampunkish exploration of Victorian espionage and great fun. Sadly, there is a slightly wooden quality to some of the writing. In part, this is a result of a failure to acknowledge the extent of the squalor of the real London and the appalling conditions under which most prostitution was conducted. The first section of this novella is a fast-paced introduction to our heroine, Lady Beatrice. It hurries through her early years, glossing over the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army and her survival of the subsequent Battle of Jellalabad. Frankly, I think this was a missed opportunity to explore the traumatic effect of those events both on her as a fictional survivor and on the British nation. It would have given real substance to her subsequent character and, more importantly, given more credibility to her rejection upon returning “home”. Although her family’s selfish reaction in rejecting her is not unbelievable, meeting such a survivor would have forced individuals and the community to confront their shock and horror at Elphinstone’s catastrophic leadership failure. Pubic opinion had yet to establish sufficient distance for objective assessments. She would have been put “put of sight” so that the spectre of Elphinstone could be “out of mind”. As it is, everything is too sanitised and, ultimately, genteel. Although, I suppose her desired intention of writing a fantasy justifies this rose-tinted spectacles view of the world.

The introduction, once done, leads into a slightly more leisurely telling of her recruitment to the upmarket brothel known as Nell Gwynne’s and her first assignment for the GSS. Although I think using antigravity as the primary trope of the story is somewhat over-the-top, it fits into the general wackiness of the scientific achievements attributed to all interested parties. The gathering of the interested parties for the auction of the technology is fairly routine, but finds some of Baker’s sense of humour at play. The mayhem at the end is then well-handled and the whole represents an enjoyable read. While this is not one of her best stories at this length, it nevertheless represents good value from Subterranean Press for those of you who like to see more bricks added to the Company wall. If you are not a Company fan, you should probably give this a miss at this price and wait for it to be packaged into a collection.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of HeavenThe Empress of MarsHouse of the Stag and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

As an added note, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s won the Nebula Award 2010 for Best Novella. It was also shortlisted for both the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo Award 2010 for the Best Novella.

The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

“The Empress of Mars” first appeared as a novella in Asimov’s in July, 2003 with the first hardback as the Night Shade limited edition published in September, 2003. In this early incarnation, it was not immediately obvious whether this was intended as a standalone or awaited incorporation into the Company series. We did not have long to wait as Mars was duly made relevant to the psychological destiny of Alec Checkerfield in The Life of the World to Come and subsequent novels. Frankly, I have never been terribly convinced that Alec, who had been operating as a smuggler and gunrunner, would be so devastated, but that’s a whole different can of worms we can leave for another review.

Being older and of increasingly fallible memory, I more or less forgot about the novella until, to my surprise, I discovered it had been expanded into a novel. There was a moment of internal debate. Should I buy it and revisit Kage Baker’s Mars? I harboured the unkind notion that this was a rip-off with author and publisher going for easy money from credulous buyers. It does not take that much effort from an author to add a few more words and suddenly the publisher has a “new” novel on its hands. In a moment of self-revelation, I was transported back to days of youthful arrogance when I thought my vocabulary included every word of significance. With shame, I admit buying a copy of Chrestomathy by Keith Laumer. After the first serious dip into it, I was painfully reminded of the lesson taught by Barnum & Bailey with their American Museum sign, “This way to the Egress.” People are always exploited through their ignorance. So, hoping I was not poking another pig, I ponied up the ante to play Subterranean Press’ new game. There were two questions to be resolved as I began reading the eerily familiar opening words. Has the author done anything interesting with the original idea? and Is its status still equivocal or has the author now formally converted it into a Company novel?

Well, the novel version of The Empress of Mars preserves the spirit of the original novella. This is not a fix-up with a new bit bolted on to make up the length. The resulting whole is a slightly strange book that requires the reader to accept a relatively benign planet even though only in the initial stages of terraforming. Conceptually, it echoes the Mars of Ray Bradbury as a metaphor for optimism in which there is always hope because only the small-minded and a crew of slightly perverse bureaucrats stand in the path of progress. The mechanics of space flight are also conveniently left unexplained as people and goods seem to be able to pass between planets in remarkably short periods of time. The strangeness comes from a fantasy element thrown into the sfnal environment with a heretic offering a curiously selective set of prophesies leading up to a miracle in which she formally ascends into sainthood. In its shorter form, you could overlook the cod science and the curious behaviour of the weather. But novelising the novella is attempting the mountain out of a molehill trick. The original plot is a distinctly shaky frame upon which to build and, no matter how endearing the eccentrics and basket cases who make up the group of heroic settlers, it is always going to be an uphill struggle to achieve any degree of credibility. There has to be a Mars Two for the future history to work out right. Thus, the force of circumstances, aided by the Company operatives, must continuously nudge events to avoid any paradox. Except, of course, for the aberrant components like Ottorino’s unexpected ability to take out a mortar with a single shot and cinema-inspired hand-to-hand fighting skills.

To answer my two earlier questions: Ms Baker has taken the shorter version as a design on a piece of fabric and then embroidered it to produce a richer picture of life on Mars. Having read the Company short stories and novels that explain something of the Earth’s repressive attitude towards eccentricity, I follow the logic of the colonisation strategy. This is a Botany Bay solution to a perceived social problem with corporations hoping it can be made profitable. But the resulting mix is a set of cardboard and stereotypical characters dropped into a very black-and-white political situation. Allowing for this being science fiction, the depiction of the relationship between the English and Scottish factions is unconvincing, and the suggested clan and implied class structures are unlikely. Unfortunately, Baker’s future history requires British characters and this exposes her lack of cultural understanding. But, for US readers, the character labelling exercise will pass unnoticed. For them, it will not really matter that SF is culturally unrealistic. All anyone looks for is entertainment. As to the second question, Baker has, for those who have the relevant background in Company affairs, made the link into the series more overt than it was before. I think this is an improvement even though many of the tie-in elements will probably pass unrecognised by the uninitiated.

This novel can be read as a stand-alone and is reasonably enjoyable in an undemanding way.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of Heaven, The Women of Nell Gwynne’sHouse of the Stag, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

The Sons of Heaven by Kage Baker

June 29, 2009 2 comments

Picture the scene (if you can): the Cro-Magnons are gathered round the fire in their modest pied-à-terre in the Dordogne (the women are waiting for homo to become sapiens while the men are waiting for cable). A sabre-toothed carcass is slowly turning on a spit, promising a feast to come. To pass the time, Papa has everyone on the edge of their seats with the latest instalment of the Adventures of Caveman Ug. Then, with a groan, he reads the fateful words, “Continued on the next rock” and, shock horror (!), delivery from the Rock of the Month Club is not due for weeks.

The art of narrative never changes. The storyteller introduces a cast of characters and puts them in a situational context. A series of events then builds towards a climax. The teller creates anticipation and tension in the audience. What will happen next? Well, as Scheherazade proved after marrying Shahryar, keeping your head requires you to repeatedly delay the answer until some time in the future.

In modern publishing, we have two convergent trends to contend with. The first is the length of the product called “a book”. Until about thirty years ago, most paperback books weighed in less than 75,000 words, usually for technical reasons, typeset on 192 pages. Now, 100,000 words plus is the norm. It’s the old “value-for-money”, “more-pages-for-the-buck” approach to publishing. The marketers have decided that bigger books sell better so that’s what the editors will commission. It matters not that each book would probably be better at half the length, the marketers know what sells and they have the sales figures to prove it.

Then comes the second trend. The accountants tell the commissioning editors that a series or serial sells better than a stand-alone novel. The theory goes that if you get the buying public hooked on a series character and build a narrative arc that will span, say, ten books, that’s all money in the bank for the publishers — although why stop at ten when Perry Rhodan Lemuria Vol. 1: Star Ark ran for 141 books and Larry Kent had around 431 volumes (an incredible record for a PI series you’ve probably never encountered)? Put both trends together and you have the theoretical capacity to sell millions of words set in the same shared universe or involving the same character(s) to a die-hard group of fans.

Anyway, this brings us neatly to the Company Sequence by Kage Baker and its concluding novel, The Sons of Heaven. So now those of us who have consumed this final slice of the pie know what happens to everyone on the 9th July 2355. I should explain my use of the word “sequence”. Ms Baker has produced a body of work in novel form, and in novelettes and short stories — some have been collected, some have been incorporated into a fix-up novel format, and the rest remain at large. This sprawling narrative arc is actually surprisingly interesting. It involves contending groups of Company cyborg immortals whose motives vary between preserving the humans and their creative works, and culling the humans and keeping the loot, and key humans who work for the Company until the Silence falls in 2355 (the Company has time travel but cannot foresee the future beyond the inauspicious date).

Ms Baker set everything in literary motion some ten years ago and, in the final novel, accounts for almost everyone who has managed to survive thus far. Sadly, this means that, if you haven’t read any of the sequence, starting at the end will be next to incomprehensible because you won’t know who anyone is nor what their motivations are.

Does this final episode all hang together? Well, I’m not going to spoil it all for the fans. All I will say is that I’m less than thrilled by her explanation of the Silence itself. Frankly, I think she’s got her causal determination tied in a knot and the overall resolution is ontologically unsatisfying. The problem may be stated simply. The Company has compiled a historical concordance of all the major events in history. To avoid falling into the paradox trap, it ensures that nothing disturbs the flow of recorded history. Indeed, knowing what disasters will occur enables the Company to profit. So, the plotting for all the major characters is based on the proposition that, regardless whether there is such a thing as free will, history cannot be changed.

But, on the 9th July 2355, events conspire to produce a cusp, a kind of probability node of such Earth-shaking magnitude, where no-one can predict which of the possible outcomes will emerge, i.e. at this point, linear time could break into multiple universes. Unfortunately, the learned author then tells us what actually happens on that date, explains how it was inevitable and, worse, describes the Earth after that date. Thus, even if we just stopped there, she would already have shot herself in the foot. The smooth mechanism that is plotted history, carved in stone as from 1st January 2356, has determined the single outcome to the Silence from the outset.

However, there is a further existential difficulty because Ms Baker allows the cyborgs to develop the individual ability to step outside and manipulate time. I cannot think of anything more likely to introduce anarchy into a determinate time stream than having a group able to ignore real time. Once any number of individuals has this power, it would be like a herd of elephants charging across time, flattening everything in its path. What was once linear time will almost immediately be fractured into multiple universes where everyone creates endless new realities by advertently or inadvertently introducing paradoxes into their pasts. If this doesn’t happen, then the power to ignore time was only illusory. For a fun examination of this theme, try David Gerrold’s excellent The Man Who Folded Himself.

But, if you don’t want to disassemble the work at a temporal or philosophical level, most of the other explanations and dispositions are quite elegant, all the armed groups get to lift their weapons in anger, and most of the biters get bit one way or another. So from the first moment the Company makes its appearance to the last page of this novel, the story is often compelling, sometimes amusing and only rarely dull.

Could the novels have been improved?

Definitely!

Reduction in length by at least 20% would have produced a lean and better structured plot. But everyone has to work within the limits set for them. If I was Ms Baker, I too would write at this length because that’s what pays the bills.

But I cannot ignore the fact that, as a writer, Ms Baker is better at shorter length. It is instructive to compare any of the novels with one of the novelettes like Rude Mechanicals (Subterranean Press). Here her wit and style are clearly on show. Not weighed down by excess verbiage, the plot stands free and clear, winging its way through twist and turn, even introducing a little history for our enlightenment (the theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by German director Max Reinhardt in the 1930s). So the stand-alone short stories, novelettes and collections are significantly superior, but their appeal is enhanced by the context. No matter how good individually, the stories have added value because they are part of the whole which is the Company sequence. Yes, the novels suffer from the padding syndrome to bring them to the publisher’s desired length, but the overarching narrative is good enough to carry us through the dead patches to get to the end.

So, if you like a little history, leavened with some satire and mixed with a twist of science fiction, you should start off with the first novel in the sequence, In the Garden of Iden. The journey may be long to get to The Sons of Heaven, particularly if you decide to track down all the intervening short stories and novelettes but, for me at least, the whole sequence has been a real rock turner.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Women of Nell Gwynne’s, The Empress of Mars, House of the Stag, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

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