SFRA Review

A publication of the Science Fiction Research Association

Kage Baker. Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers. Urbana: Golden Gryphon, 2002. Hardcover, 297 pp., $24.95, ISBN 1-930846-11-8.

Ever since Wells's Time Machine kicked modern English-language SF into high gear in 1895, time travel has been one of the genre's most fertile and popular tropes. Besides the small library of classics that includes, among others, Fritz Leiber's The Big Time and Poul Anderson's Time Patrol and memorable short stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Brian Aldiss and Ian Watson, it seems that every SF writer has made at least one pass at this perdurable theme. So what makes Kage Baker's time travels so special? Is it the pleasure she takes in deploying this trope in the service of sheer, outrageously old-fashioned adventure? Her use of such fictions as launch points for philosophical explorations? Her exploitation of time travel as an intellectual playground for a fascinating ensemble-cast of characters? All of the above, of course — and more.

Consider the depth and range of the following stories, all previously published in Asimov's: "Noble Mold," which leads the collection, reprints the first public appearance of the Company (a.k.a. Dr. Zeus Incorporated, a.k.a. Jovian Integrated Systems, a.k.a. Kronos Diversified Stock Company); a deceptively light adventure, starring series characters Mendoza and Joseph in a plot to steal a rare plant, the story serves as an excellent introduction to Baker's 24th century organization of time-traveling, near-immortal cyborgs, but also offers a compact study of ethics. "The Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin" is Baker Lite, the adventure of a flawed Company courier who is desperately allergic to his own short-term memory. A little meatier is "The Literary Agent," wherein a dying Robert Louis Stevenson is rescued by Joseph the Facilitator, seeking new material for the Chronos Photo-Play Company; the story provokes some interesting thoughts on the cultural significance of pop fiction, along with play speculation on the genesis of Treasure Island. Moving from pop fiction to pop mythology, Baker pulls out all the stops in "Lemuria Will Rise!" Placing agent Mendoza in 1860 Pismo Beach, Baker crosses her Company mythology with legends of Atlantis, UFOs, and occult conspiracies in a goofy, lighthearted romp.

Not all of the reprints in Black Projects are fun and games, however. "The Wreck of the Gladstone," for instance, could have been just a Three Musketeers-ish adventure starring the charming and elegant Mme. D'Arraignee, the cold and dangerous Victor, and the sensitive but courageous Kalugin; instead, it offers a story of both literal and metaphorical salvage, and a serious meditation on human values. In "Hanuman," the cyborg Mendoza is paired up with is Michael Robert Hanuman, a reconstructed and augmented Australopithecus Afarensis; what emerges from their encounter is a thoughtful investigation of commercial greed, the hubris of science, and the elusive boundaries separating ape, human, and machine. And in the comically titled "Studio Dick Drowns Near Malibu," the comedy is dark indeed as time-traveling Joseph saves a suicidal young woman from drowning, precipitating an intriguing drama of identity, mortality, and second chances.

Of the stories in Black Projects appearing for the first time, the best are the two written especially for this collection. "The Hounds of Zeus," which leads off the book, is an introduction-as-story which serves as a delicious hors d'oeuvre to the main feast, while "The Queen in Yellow," the story of a quest for treasure from Ancient Egypt, offers a thriller about archaeology, history, larceny, and timeless values (along with a touching portrait of Literature Preservationist Lewis). The other two newly published stories again display the range of moods available in this series. On the one hand, "Old Flat Top" is pretty much a flat-out action adventure about the Enforcers, "the optimum morphological design for a humanoid fighting machine," bred to stamp out the Great Goat Cult. In "The Hotel at Harlan's Landing," on the other hand, these same Enforcers play a deeper and more genuinely terrifying role in a violent confrontation between two immortals in hiding, the Enforcer sent to apprehend them, and the mortals caught in the middle. Where the first Enforcer story is basically a videogame in print, the second provides a sobering glimpse of the darker side of the Company.

For many of Baker's regular readers, the gems of this collection will be the four Alec Checkerfield stories, a series-within-the-series about Baker's most mysterious and intriguing character. Included here is "Smart Alec," the story which first introduced readers to Alec, to his wealthy but distant parents Roger and Cecelia, and to faithful servants Sarah (the nurse), Lewin (the butler), and Mrs. Lewin (the cook); the story also introduces us to the political hyper-correctness of Baker's 24th century, and to the Pembroke Playfriend AI (which precocious Alec reprograms into a Pirate Captain). The political theme of the miniseries is also exploited in "Monster Story," a biting satire of what Baker calls the "secular Puritanism" of her extrapolated 24th century. (Alec's "sorting" in this story — via "Pre-Societal Vocational Appraisal" — puts in a whole new light the famous Sorting Ceremony of the Harry Potter books.) In "The Dust Enclosed Here," Alec's encounter with a holographic reproduction of Shakespeare puts to good use Baker's long professional experience with Elizabethan drama. And in "The Likely Lad," the most recent (and best) of the Checkerfield offerings herein, young Alec stars in an adventure on the high seas concerned with technocrime, puberty, and the puzzle of our young hero's DNA. (Note: A novel about Alec, The Life of the World to Come, is in the works and eagerly anticipated.)

Within the ongoing series of novels of which they are a part, the stories in Black Projects, White Knights are positioned at roughly midpoint in the sequence, beginning with In the Garden of Iden and continuing through Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, and, most recently, The Graveyard Game. The collection will probably be of keenest interest to followers of the series, much as Kim Stanley Robinson's The Martians functions best (but by no means exclusively) for readers already familiar with his complete Red, Green, and Blue trilogy. But most of Baker's stories here are pretty sturdy standalones, and in the aggregate they whet the appetite for more, inviting new readers to go back and get caught up with one of the most rewarding time-travel series in, well, quite some time.

— Philip Snyder, SFRA Review, March-June 2003


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