I was first introduced to the works of Kage Baker through Lou Anders’ Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge, a former book of the month club pick. Baker’s contribution to the collection, “Plotters and Shooters”, was far and away my favorite of the short stories in FF1 and so, when it came time to put in my next book order with Amazon.com, I placed In the Garden of Iden at the top of the list.
It’s no secret that one of the thing my favorite authors have in common is a sense of humor – Abercrombie, Banks, Ford, Martin, Scalzi, Willis to name a few. I’m not talking about balls-out side-splitting comedy but an undercurrent of humor, often subtle, that serves to contrast the occasionally dark themes introduced. Now granted, “Plotters and Shooters“ was a fun piece of short fiction, and I was fully prepared to encounter a very different tone in Baker‘s novel. Still, I’ll admit to growing a little apprehensive after having Baker describe the book as a “Hard-Boiled Bodice Ripper”.
Bodice-Ripper? Images of a shirtless Fabio sweeping a swooning heroine off her feet materialized in my mind’s eye. And then, remembering this was SF – images of a shirtless green-skinned Fabio sweeping a silver spandexed heroine off her moon boots. Funny, yes, but not intentionally so.
Oh, me of little faith. One chapter in, and I was intrigued by the clever scifi premise. Two chapters in, and I was captivated by the characters, our plucky heroine Mendoza in particular. Three chapters in, and I’d been completely won over. If this book is indicative of the sub-genre, then I may have to start doing four BOTMC selections in the categories of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and, yes, Hardboiled Bodice-Ripper.
Our protagonist, Mendoza, is one of a class of immortals, former orphans rescued from certain death and transformed into cyborgs by Dr. Zeus Inc. Under the employ of The Company, these cyborgs (humans in mind but physically superior) are dispatched to points throughout history to collect extinct species and valuables that will better humankind. Mendoza’s first time-tripping assignment finds her in 16th century England where she and her team – high-strung mentor Joseph and no-nonsense zoologist Nef – have been sent to gather samples from the garden of Sir Walter Iden. Alas, these are complicated times in England with Bloody Mary’s ascension to the throne. And so, amidst a backdrop of political and religious struggle and techno-temporal subterfuge, the hitherto hardnosed Mendoza discovers the very best and very worst that humanity has to offer.
Thematically, it is somewhat reminiscent of Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, a book that, similarly, follows the exploits of a time-hopping retrieval crew, but The Garden of Iden is its own unique beast. In fact, were I to compare it to any other work, I’d liken it to a futuristic Jane Eyre. Like Bronte [not Austen, oop], Baker does a beautiful job of immersing the reader in period detail, offering up a very convincing setting complete with equally convincing characters, possessed of a charm and subtle humor that draws the reader in from the get-go.
Baker’s treatment of time-travel is interesting, neatly side-stepping the issue of paradox (ie. You travel to the past to kill your grandfather. But can you ever be successful because if you do succeed in killing your grandfather, you would have never been born and so who was it that traveled into the past and killed your grandfather?). In her world, time-travel to the future is impossible. It is only possible to travel back to the past but, in so doing, one can never change the course of history. If it’s a part of recorded history, it’s set in stone and cannot be changed. However, the smaller details of history that have not been recorded can theoretically be changed, although one can argue that were these smaller instances detailed, they would always play out the same way, either through The Company’s interference or without. What this presents us with is not the ability to change the unrecorded details of the past, but the perception that the past is changeable when it is, in fact, not. Sure, The Company can influence history in small ways (ie. by rescuing a goat) but one could argue that these influences were, for lack of a better word, “fated” to play out a certain way (ie. in the grand scheme of things, that goat was always destined to be rescued). The absence of a historical record concerning certain details gives the illusion that one can influence the past in certain ways because one does not know the outcome. So it is with Mendoza at novel’s end as she struggles to save Nicholas’s life. Success or failure are not in her hands, but in the determination of an immutable history. And I feel that the book’s conclusion says as much.
At first, I was a little disappointed with the way things wrapped up but, upon further reflection, I realized that, thematically, it was the only possible ending for this novel. We, as readers, are much like the agents for The Company, mere witnesses to these past experiences – the oft baffling, occasionally amusing skirmishing of monkeys. It’s easy to see the errors committed in retrospect which is why the desire to change past mistakes overwhelms. But what strikes home is not so much the inability to change what was, but the inability to see what is – history’s lessons applicable to the still compliant present. And, at book’s end, when Mendoza notes “There were monkeys out there fighting, screaming and pelting one another with rotten fruit” and she shudders, I shuddered right along with her.
Well-written, thought-provoking, and enormously entertaining. And, the best part is, it’s the first in a series.
So, what did everyone else think?
Hmmm. I see yesterday’s post engendered a fair amount of panic in fandom land. Sorry. I was in an introspective mood for a number of reasons and I wanted to put things into perspective. Too often, supporters of a show are left in the dark concerning the realities of film and television production and I just wanted to make sure you were all informed because, quite frankly, as supporters of this franchise for so many years, I thought you deserved to know that, often, a show‘s fate is not as cut and dried as one would thing. Now, given everything that was covered in yesterday’s entry, what most failed to note was my reference to SG-1’s impressive and surprising 10-year run. Way back when, we assumed it wouldn’t make it past a fifth season – and it did. Boy, did it ever. Things look more hopeful on the Atlantis front however, especially given its ratings (and, as I mentioned in yesterday’s comments section, particularly in key demos). And if this uptrend in the ratings continues, it will certainly go a long way toward making a case for a sixth season pick-up. Still, in spite of what some may assume, that decision is still a long way off. Come mid-season, I believe we’ll have a pretty fair idea of how things will play out. Until then – rally the troops and help get the word out! Give ’em a damn good reason to pick us up!
Today’s entry is dedicated to birthday boy Enzo Aquarius and to new Stargate fan Adria Nicole.