Locus Magazine Review

Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, Kage Baker (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-11-8, $24.95, 288pp, hc) September 2002. Cover by J. K. Potter.

. . . Kage Baker's Black Projects, White Knights reads more like extended variations on one idea (which drives both her novels and her short fiction): the interaction of humans with the immortal, time traveling cyborgs of Dr. Zeus, Inc., aka The Company. The concept seems broad enough to encompass anything from never-ending space operas to alternate histories and intellectual adventures in higher (meta)physics, whether the mood be slapstick or High Art. But Baker creates an odd sense of intimacy while moving back and forth between a 24th century so bound by the rigors of alleged political correctness it resembles Victorian England (with Dr. Zeus a dark secret at its heart), and Company operatives off doing their business in little-populated regions of the past, most often along the California Coast. (California also spawned "Cinema Standard," the operatives' favored jargon.)

Baker is a more complex writer than she might first appear. In abstract terms, you can see it in "The Wreck of the Gladstone," with its references to "some celestial mirth at some tremendous joke," as well as matters of "cosmic significance" and the mingling of the "sordid" with "beauty." Getting down to particulars, in her first Company tale comedienne Baker's "Noble Mold" turns out to be the source of a psychedelic dessert wine rather than an order of chivalry, while "Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin" invokes horror reminiscent of an old Lon Chaney film. And there's more: a wily Facilitator rescues the young Robert Louis Stevenson in hopes of reaping the stuff of Hollywood potboilers ("The Literary Agent"); a modified relative of our ancient ancestor Lucy rejoices in his dapper wardrobe ("Hanuman"); and an early version of the classic California Nutcase assembles a library made of clamshells while awaiting UFOs ("Lemuria Will Rise"). But these same stories explore the knotty issue of what it means to be human, whether one be a mere mortal, augmented "chimp," near-godlike trickster, dour botanist, or one of the Company's various failed experiments. I won't be more specific than that, because much of the pleasure of these stories comes from finding the deeper truths beneath the laughs without prompting.

I've saved one additional aspect of the book for last. Woven through the tales where an ensemble cast goes about Company business in various centuries and cultures are chronological episodes in the life of "Smart Alec," the 24th-century "Likely Lad," a coming-of-age saga presented as the adventures of a kid genius and his virtual pirate friend, Captain Morgan. What seems most likely about Alec is his potential role as builder of a very different century from the one dominated by Dr. Zeus. But we'll have to wait for the novel (or more of this serial, buried in another collection) to find out all he may be capable of.

— Faren Miller, Locus, August 2002


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