Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Garden of Iden - Kage Baker

I ran across a collection of some of Kage Baker's Company series in a library last spring, but I didn't have the time to read any of them. Since then, I've been looking around, but hadn't stumbled across them anywhere, so I asked for the first book for Christmas. And here we are.

The Company was founded by some businessmen and scientists when time travel was discovered. They can't travel into the future, nor can they bring anything with them from the past. Nor can they alter anything that was recorded. What they can do, is go back and find species that are close to extinction, or pieces of art that were lost, and hide them somewhere, with someone they've convinced to ask as an agent for them, until they can be miraculously "discovered" at some point later on. To the Company's profit and benefit, of course.

What the Company found is, their employees don't really like going back in time on these sorts of missions. It's dirty, it's dangerous, it's unpleasant. So what they did was go back and find children in dire straits, and offer them a way out. Which involves not only teaching them, but altering them into essentially immortal cyborgs who will carry out the Company's work by simply living through all of human history. The Garden of Iden introduces us to all this through a young woman named Mendoza (I think her first name originally is Hija, but everyone ends up calling her Mendoza). Her mother sold her to some wealthy devil worshipers in Spain, and she wound up in the clutches of the Inquisition. So when a man called Joseph offers her a way to escape all that, she took it.

Now, roughly 19, it's time for her first mission, to collect rare botanical samples from a garden in Kent, while posing as the daughter of a noted doctor (who happens to be Joseph, the guy who saved her). Mendoza, and the others like her, have been taught to regard themselves as entirely separate from mortals, and generally look down at the way we scramble around killing each other over ideology or whatever, and so she frankly hates the lot of us. She had hoped to be sent to some quiet outpost in the New World (ignoring the fact there are also people living there, but hell, she's an arrogant teenager, immortal cyborg or not). Then she meets Nicholas Harpole, the secretary for the Lord of the Garden, and they fall in love. But all of this is taking place against the backdrop of the rise of Catholicism in the aftermath of Mary's marriage to Phillip of Spain, and Harpole is pretty adamantly anti-Catholic. So Mendoza starts questioning where her loyalty lies, and whether she can save Nicholas from himself. It's a lot of hard lessons.

I'm curious whether Mendoza will be a recurring character or not. She's relating these events from some point further along in her life, but the advantage of having all of human history to work with is you can start up anywhere and anywhen you like. It might be interesting to see some of Joseph and Nefer's (the two people on the crew with Mendoza) past, maybe through a brief intersection with some other plotline. Anyway, The Garden of Iden itself is a good story, though maybe it treads a little heavily on Biblical metaphor. Gardens, knowledge, loss of innocence that comes with it. And Mendoza can be kind of insufferable, but she's a teenager, so that's by design. She's the kid who read about all the horrible stuff in the history books, but lacked the real world experience of how much more complicated decisions can be.

I like how Baker portrays the Company's indoctrination. One wonders if the process of becoming a cyborg really does only work on children, or if that's just convenient. But picking kids who are desperate, dying, that's no coincidence. Get 'em young, make 'em eternally grateful. Give them gifts, tell them they're special, better than the rest of humanity, after helping to foster some bitterness and condescension towards them. Oh, and be sure to impress upon them how it's not the people who try to rally others to big causes that help humanity. Rather it is the people who make small contributions in the arts or science who make a positive difference. People like them, by a remarkable coincidence.

The one thing that concerns me about going further with the series is that I'm largely curious about some of mysteries around the Company. There's a sense even the people who founded it aren't sure who is running things, or who ordered the collection of different things. But with any mystery, there's always the risk of a letdown when the solution is revealed.

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