Back to the Future
Kage Baker Half-Bakes a Good Idea
Great ideas aren't always conferred upon those who can best honor them. For instance, imagine the idea of the spork popping into the mind of a not-very- inventive organic chemist. Sure, the chemist is probably pretty bright, but he she also probably lacks the wherewithal to sit right down and invent the utensil that changed the face of cafeteria dining. Better that the idea randomly pops into the mind of an engineer or cutlery designer, one who would know how to move the great idea from concept to prototype to marketplace.
The same holds true for science fiction. In this genre more than any other, the idea is of paramount importance -- but it matters not a sci-fi author can come up with a great premise if the writer lacks the chops to make it work on the page.
SF author Kage Baker is one of the lucky few who has been visited by a truly great idea. No, it's not the sort of great idea that will cure cancer, but it's engaging enough to provide the spine for some really good science fiction. In the universe Baker has created, a 24th-century firm called Dr. Zeus Inc. has unraveled the secret to time travel. Of course, there's a hitch: It only works in one direction. Folks can travel into the past, but once they're there they can only go forward one day at a time, like everybody else.
Dr. Zeus and company see a way around this tangle. They have also perfected immortality -- which, of course, also has a hitch: In order to live forever, you have to give up on being fully human and allow the Zeus team to replace most of your meat parts with metal parts, which also makes you practically indestructible. Oh, and they have to do it when you are very, very young. The solution is where Baker's great idea lies: The good Dr. Z. mines the past for misplaced children -- ones whose parents are violently killed by Goths, who wander away from the Norman Conquests, etc. He and his team of white coats implant the kids with all sorts of machinery, make them immortal, and employ them as scavengers. These new cyborgs work their way up to the 24th century, at which point they will get a big reward.
Just think of the possibilities! As the author of this tale, you can set your invincible characters in any time, explore that era's history and mores, have them collect a few works of art or culture along the way (the immortals' ostensible job for Zeus Inc.), and all the while poke fun at the natives. The series can go on indefinitely, lining your pockets with great gobs of cash, as long as you don't give away exactly what will happen in the 24th century. It's a science-fiction writer's dream.
Unfortunately, Baker doesn't quite know what to do with her brilliant idea. The first novel in the series, which is now referred to as "The Company" (a reference to Zeus Inc.) by marketing flacks and SF geeks, was an uneven mess called In the Garden of Iden. Iden concerned an immortal botanist, Mendoza, who was rescued from the Spanish Inquisition as a child by a Company operative, Joseph. Mendoza and Joseph, along with a team of other immortals, descend upon Elizabethan England to rescue some rarities from Sir Walter Iden's garden. Mendoza falls for a mortal, Harpole, who is later burned at the stake for heresy, which breaks Mendoza's poor, mechanical heart.
Iden was a typical first novel, and like all typical first novels, it should have been left in a sealed box, to be discovered upon the author's death and used as proof that writing is a skill you must learn by churning out uneven dreck and lopsided characters. But the idea was just too good for an editor to pass up, and Iden was thrust upon the world.
Likewise Baker's second book, Sky Coyote, just out in paperback. Coyote concentrates on Joseph -- who gets short shrift in Iden -- and his latest assignment, saving a 17th-century tribe of American Indians from the oncoming wave of white men. Joseph is surgically altered by Dr. Zeus' team into the personification of Coyote, one of the prime mischief-makers in Native American legends. Sky Coyote turns out to be disappointing, though, because you know Joseph can't fail. He can't be killed. He is backed up by mammoth amounts of technology that guarantee his success.
Baker attempts to set up some conflict with the appearance of workers from the 24th century -- pale, skittish characters who make the immortals wonder why they're bothering to conserve great artifacts in the first place. But the conflict never really develops and is never resolved. Plus, a decent editor should have had the cojones to cut down some of Baker's lengthy digressions, which slow the plot and add no new information. It's enough to make a reader cry.
Still, Baker's central idea remains a fine one, and she comes closer to making it work in her new book, Mendoza in Hollywood. It's set -- you guessed it -- in Los Angeles (of the 1860s) with Mendoza, who's moving on despite her 350-year-old broken heart, back in the lead role. This isn't the California of dreams and movie stars; it's still a rough and dusty land, full of plants for Mendoza to collect. Until, that is, a stranger who is a carbon copy for her dead beloved wanders into her arms. Then all heck breaks loose.
Without her first two books, as unraveled and sloppy as they are, Baker could not have learned how to write this one. Mendoza is fairly tight (except for a long passage about D.W. Griffith) and fairly interesting. Finally, we are given intriguing tidbits about the 24th century, the Company, and time travel. Finally, Baker has learned how to make her invulnerable characters somewhat vulnerable. And, finally, Baker has learned how to craft suspense. It's a shame that there's no way to erase her first two efforts from readers' memories. But if we did, would her great idea still exist?