From Baja to Bournemouth Time travel has been one of the pillars of science fiction since H. G. Wells. Over 100 years since his Time Traveller first pushed that lever forward into futurity, the subject still continues to provide fertile ground for the imaginative sf writer.
Kage Baker is one such writer. Since her career began, she has produced a number of well-received tales about a secretive Time Travelling organisation known as "the Company," or Dr Zeus Inc. As well as publishing these short stories, Baker has written, so far, four novels about the Company: In the Garden of Iden (1997), Sky Coyote (1999), Mendoza in Hollywood (2000) and The Graveyard Game (2001).
Now we have Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers by Kage Baker (Golden Gryphon Press, $24.95) which conveniently collects many of the Company short stories together in one volume. Fourteen stories are presented in this handsome edition. Eleven of them first saw print in Asimov's SF; three are new. There's also an introduction, in story form, but it serves merely to preview the characters in the book. A brief spotlight is shone on each one: much is left unsaid. The stories themselves are divided between two types: the first concerns the childhood and adolescence of an unusual boy, Alec Checkerfield; the second relates various incidents and adventures concerning the Company's operatives.
The four Alec Checkerfield stories are presented in narrative order, although they are scattered throughout the book. They are "Smart Alec," "The Dust Enclosed Here," "Monster Story" and "The Likely Lad." This last story is set in Bournemouth — a pleasant surprise for us Brits from that part of the world — and also features such Dorset delights as Sandbanks and Poole Bay. All of these stories have appeared in Asimov's SF before, and taken together they create a sympathetic portrait of this boy as he's confronted by the peculiar challenges of his society. Despite his lineage (he's the son of the sixth earl of Finsbury), his wealth (he lives in a mansion, looked after by his butler and cook) and his power (he's part of the ruling elite), his mysterious origins expose him to constant danger as he grows up. We are tantalized by hints that Alec is different from other boys; he soon begins to display superhuman abilities. Yet the stories rise far above that of the mundane superhuman tale, because the author provides our hero with a worthy opponent: the future society in which he lives.
Checkerfield's world is a sinister extrapolation of current political trends, and the kicker is that it's set in England (sometime in the near future). Baker is a Californian, and from her West Coast watchtower she has painted a future for the UK worthy of the most manic rantings from The Spectator magazine, or that of any barmy Tory Knight-of-the-Shire. She has looked at the European Union's ever more intrusive directives, and the Political Correctness gone mad that has infused both central and local government in the UK, and has predicted a nightmare Orwellian world of technological control and "thought-crime." Nothing original perhaps, but it's done creditably. Baker's stories take us into the delicious paradox of being in sympathy with our Hero, cheering him on, even though Alec Checkerfield may not be human at all.
The majority of the tales in this book, however, concern the Company's operatives. These are humans augmented into superhuman cyborgs, whose points of origin span history — and pre-history. They follow the Company's directives in preserving artefacts, researching lost historical information, and salvaging treasures from the past.
If all this sounds like Poul Anderson's "Time Patrol" series, it bears only a superficial resemblance to that classic work; Baker chooses to throw her literary eye on other aspects of time custodianship. Unlike Anderson's Time Patrol, the Company seems not too concerned about preserving the sanctity of recorded time, and preventing the creation of alternate worlds. Baker's organization is altogether a more post-1950s institution than a Time Patrol driven by high morals and ethics. Based in the 24th century, Dr Zeus Inc. undertakes commercial exploitation of the past: for example, by sending its agents out in search of rare, extinct plants. It even commissions famous writers from history to come up with new plot treatments for movies! As with the Alec Checkerfield stories, the background to the Company is only partially revealed, piecemeal, so it can be a trifle difficult for the reader to find a sure foothold. As a tip, I'd recommend the story "Old Flat Top," written for this book, as one which particularly delivers sufficient background information to satisfy the mystified reader.
The operatives themselves are a bunch of immortals, to whom being cut into pieces is only an inconvenience until the Company puts them back together. The tension in these stories therefore relies on their encounters with ordinary people in the past. Baker is adept at making us care about these folk; her sharp observations of character create some very touching moments. A lot of these stories are set in her native Baja California and she writes about this environment with authority, presenting a vivid, entrancing landscape, but the real delights are found in her portrayal of character. I was reminded of Damon Knight's phrase "pleasures like beads on a string."
One of the most powerful stories, however, takes a different turn: "Hanuman" features an enhanced Australopithecus afarensis and tells of his encounter with a colony of chimpanzees that communicate through sign-language. This mix-and-match game that draws parallels between primates (including Homo sapiens) makes for a thoughtful read.
But the stories do leave certain questions unexplored about free will and the rights of individuals. How much are the Company's operatives "owned" by the Company? Have they sold their human souls for cyborg immortality? And how much choice do they have in carrying out their duties? The last tale, a new story, "The Hotel at Harlan's Landing," does imply that there's a rebellion brewing, but we'll have to wait for future stories to get our answers. Black Projects, White Knights doesn't tell us the complete story of the Company, but perhaps a hint can be found in its title . . .
And where do the Alec Checkerfield stories fit in? The book's introduction gives a clue. I think I've figured it out, but I won't divulge it here. Answers on a postcard, please.
— Nigel Brown, Interzone, March 2003