Because I don't have enough other series in progress, I decided to pick up Kage Baker's Company books. I'd read the first two back when they came out and liked them, but put them aside to see if she actually finished the series and in good fashion. Well, she did, and remarkably rapidly too: eight volumes in ten years, with two short story collections (plus her fantasy novel The Anvil of the World and another collection that I haven't read yet). The general consensus seems to be that the series concludes well, and they seemed to be about right for my current levels of energy and time: absorbing and with a good overall mystery to pull me forward, but not too dense or dark.
Judging by my re-read of the first two, this seems to have been a good call. The series opens with In the Garden of Iden, which is told in first-person retrospective by Mendoza, a botanist for the Company. She describes the setup very well in the first chapter, which is online and which I recommend. But the short version is that the Company, Dr. Zeus, invented time travel (backwards only) and a form of immortality in the 24th century [*]. It established bases in the distant past, turned a lot of children into immortals, and set them to work through time collecting genetic material, art, and other things that would not interfere with recorded history but that would generate fabulous profits when "rediscovered" in the 24th century. But when all those patient immortals catch up to the 24th century, what then?
[*] I suspect Baker may have had a better idea about the timeline later, but that's a minor point.
Well, eventually the series will get there, but it starts in Spain in the 15th century, where Mendoza is rescued from the Inquisition and turned into an immortal. She chooses botany as a field because she hopes to avoid assignments with mortals; instead, she's sent to England for what is supposed to be a quiet assignment collecting plant specimens. Except she's been sent in as part of a team with Spanish cover identities during the brief reign of Mary I, a.k.a. Bloody Mary, and there's this fascinating mortal man with emphatic religious views . . . (Hence the deliberate reference in the title, though the garden in question did belong to descendants of an actual historical figure named Alexander Iden.)
I liked this book a lot for Mendoza's voice, her mix of cynicism and passion, and the effective way that Baker slides into the explicitly retrospective parts of Mendoza's narration to leaven the teenage perspective. I'm unable to evaluate the accuracy of the historical portions, though I believe I've heard good things about it. Like the next book, I think the plot is a bit back-loaded, but the characters and narration carried me through.
The next book, Sky Coyote, is narrated by Joseph, who recruited Mendoza and was the leader of her first mission. It's 1700 and the Company is going to whisk an entire village of Chumash, a California tribe, off for preservation (genetic material stored, cultural information sucked dry, and complete environmental samples taken). Joseph is to play Sky Coyote, the trickster god, and convince the village to agree; and Mendoza is back as a botanist.
Joseph's narration, also first-person retrospective, is great fun and enlightening. Besides his healthy appreciation for the absurd (see this excerpt online), he knows a lot more about the Company because he was recruited in 20,000 BC or so. There are hints about the Company's dark past and not-so-light present, and the first mention of the Silence, the date in 2355 after which the Company's operatives in the past are given no information. The meat of the book, to me, is developing Joseph and the Company. The plot about the Chumash felt rather conflict-free until late, and I couldn't help but be conscious of its blatant wish-fulfillment aspect—though, to be fair, I think the book is also conscious of it and makes an effort to acknowledge that though these villagers will not see the arrival of the Spanish, it's still an ending for them and linked to a larger ending for the American Indian tribes. Also, the book is having such fun in smashing stereotypes that I couldn't help enjoy it. As a Company immortal sums up the Chumash,
"They're hunter-gatherers but also industrialists, if you can imagine that. They produce a wide variety of objects manufactured specifically for trade with other local tribes. They've developed a monetary system that other tribes have had to adopt in order to do business with them, but they've retained sole rights to the manufacture of the shell money they use. . . . These people have saunas. They have municipal centers for organized sporting events. They have ballet. They have stand-up comedians. I think most people would define that as the Good Life."
"Sound like stereotypical Californians to me."
Or, as one of the Company's investors from the 24th century puts it,
"These Indians aren't like the Hopi or the Navajo. Those were clean, peaceful Indians with an advanced society and beautiful mythology. They farmed and they built houses the way we do. These Chumash are different. They're dirty-minded, lazy, pleasure-loving Indians."
(The, err, differences in worldview between the historically-recruited immortals and the 24th-century members of the Company—mortal and immortal—is another source of conflict in the novel and presumably in the rest of the series.)
Anyway, so far so good, and I'm looking forward to the next book, which returns to Mendoza's point of view.
In Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, David Christian attempts to describe nothing less than the complete history of the universe, from the Big Bang up to the present day (and even beyond). While I am not convinced that the book needed to cover quite that broad a time span, I found it a useful look at the large-scale forces that have shaped the world as we know it today.
The first three chapters cover the inanimate universe, from the origins of the universe through the formation of the Earth. These are the chapters that I am least sure are necessary: not only are they radically different from the chapters that follow, but they include some of the most difficult material. And though Christian is not a physicist, he seems to have internalized enough physics concepts to toss off, just in passing, a couple of remarks that sent me running to Chad to ask, "why didn't anyone ever tell me this?!" Which somewhat disrupts the reading process.
(They were, for the curious, that photons and electrons interact (I know that photons and atoms interact, but no-one ever mentions electrons), and that energy has mass (I know that energy and mass are two forms of the same thing, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are also each other at the same time; after all, photons don't have mass). Chad is working on a popular science book that frequently uses photons as examples, so maybe I'm just sensitive to photons at the moment.)
So I think I would have been just as happy with a book that told the history of life on Earth, though I freely admit my species-centered bias here: what most interested me was the look, from a very wide perspective, at the way human societies have developed over time. And here I think the book is both clear and illuminating. It explores the factors that result in the crossing of different thresholds of complexity, with an emphasis on the networks of exchange in which information is shared. It takes an emphatically global perspective, particularly arguing for the importance of India and China up to the Industrial Revolution. And it does its best to avoid describing pretty much anything about humanity as though it were inevitable or a simple straight path of progress all the way. (I should note, though, that my background in history is so weak as to be nearly nonexistent, and so I'm relying on my general-purpose filters to catch problematic attitudes.)
The comparison that probably comes to mind immediately is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. While I haven't read that book, my impression is that people interested in the subject matter of Diamond's book, at least, might well want to take a look at Maps of Time. At about 500 pages, plus endnotes, it's a substantial read, but generally accessible. I didn't internalize as much as I would have liked, but that's partly because I was reading it in chunks over a long period of time. I'll be acquiring a copy for our own library (I read a copy borrowed from Union College) and look forward to having it on the shelf for reference and re-reading.
John McWhorter's The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language is a lively, discursive, readable look at how language changes. I particularly recommend it to SF and fantasy novelists looking for worldbuilding information, but think it has a lot to offer any reader who just thinks language is cool.
As the subtitle suggests, McWhorter is looking at language change in ways very similar to those of biologists looking at the evolution of life—though he takes pains to stress both the limits of the analogy and the lack of a "goal" for language change. He starts with the first language and the small-scale mechanisms that turned it into thousands and thousands of languages, such as sound changes and the creation of grammatical rules. He then looks at what happens when different languages encounter each other (with a side trip into language, dialect, and how the line between the two is essentially cultural), or when languages develop mostly in isolation, or when they get enshrined as standard written forms. He concludes with a look at language extinction and the prospects for language revival movements (with an epilogue on the claims that words from the world's first language have been reconstructed).
The book is full of fascinating tidbits about world languages: some languages have sixteen genders for nouns; or lack verb tenses; or require you, as a matter of grammar, to specify how you know something; or change initial consonants of nouns based on the preceding pronoun. The twenty most popular languages are spoken by a full ninety-six percent of the world's population. One Australian language, Jingulu, has just three verbs: come, go, and do. And so on.
The book is also full of digressions (usually on pop culture, a few of which have already dated poorly) and other authorial asides, which I found largely entertaining, but I can see that your tolerance may vary. For instance, in discussing the transition between treating Italian as a village dialect of Latin and a noble language in its own right, he notes that
Dante, afflicted with that queer medieval southern European malady called courtly love, in 1293 dedicated a volume of poems to his adored Beatrice, who combined two traits unusual in a dedicatee of love poetry—namely, having never been touched in by the author at any point in her life and being dead.
Or in discussing bits of leftover "junk" from prior days, he observes:
It's like Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown is a bald child. Did you ever think about that? Charlie Brown is an eight-year-old who has virtually no hair on his head! . . .
The reason Charlie Brown has no hair is that, until roughly the mid-1960s, in comics and cartoons baldness was a kind of established signifier for dopiness—when someone drew a guy as bald, it meant something specific. . . .
. . . By the end of the run in 1999, Peanuts was only faintly recognizable as the strip that had debuted in 1950. But throughout, Charlie Brown remained bald, as a reflexive remnant of an earlier meaning now bleached out and lost. Languages are chock-full of Charlie Brown heads.8
8. Never again will that sequence of words be used in the English language.
(As that excerpt suggests, there are a good number of footnotes, though many of them are in the more traditional vein of exceptions or providing additional information.)
I skimmed this quickly, because I'd already listened to an audio lecture series taught by McWhorter. If you also have already listened to that, I don't think you need to read the book: the content is very similar, and indeed the lecture series covers a few more topics. I slightly prefer the lecture series because I have a very difficult time "hearing" things on the page, and thus all the discussion of pronunciations in the book go right past me, though I did find the lecture series dragged slightly in the middle. In either format, though, I very much enjoyed the content and highly recommend it.
I continue to enjoy Kage Baker's Company series with the third book, Mendoza in Hollywood, which is the first new to me. I think this book is an improvement over the first two in a couple of respects, though it continues the less-than-ideal trend of leaving most of the plot until pretty late in the book.
One of the improvements is that the foregrounded plot, of life in 1860s California (where Hollywood will be, eventually), turns out to be relevant to the overall plot, of the mystery of the Company. I consider this a good thing because when a book has two plots going at once, I tend to get bored with one unless they are obviously related. In addition, the earlier parts of the book (before the plot kicks into gear) are very much concerned with the ways immortals deal with love, family, home, and loss, which I found more interesting than the equivalent sections in the first two books. I also note that the overall weirdness of Mendoza's life is beginning to complicate in ways that, presumably, will be relevant to the eventual payoff of the series. And I continue to enjoy her narration a lot; the book is almost entirely in the form of her testimony before a Company disciplinary hearing, as the opening indicates:
You want the truth from me? It's a subjective thing, truth, you know, and you could just as easily get damning evidence you need from the datafeed transcripts. Oh, but you wouldn't get my motive, would you? I see the point.
Will it help if I freely confess? I killed six—no, seven—mortal men, though I must say it was under provocation. I acted in direct violation of all the laws that govern us, of the principles instilled in me when I was at school. I betrayed those principles by becoming involved in a mortal quarrel, supporting a cause I knew must fail in the end. Worst of all, I stole Company property—myself, when I deserted the post to which I had been assigned. I don't expect mercy, señors.
But it might help you to know that what I did, I did for love.
I had an unfortunate experience when I was a young operative, you see; I was baptized in the blood of a martyr. No, really. Did you know those things work, baptisms? I didn't. . . .
I was blindsided, as I'm sure you would have been, by the discovery that the experience had actually left some kind of psychic mark on me. . . . For a long time I thought I had shaken off his spell. I was almost happy there in the mountains all alone. But you wouldn't let well enough alone. You sent me back into mortal places, and he found me again, tracked me by the mark he'd put on me for that purpose.
He will never let me rest.
I speculate that the book may be the end of an opening trilogy for the series: it comes back to the very opening of the first, and the next book appears not to have a historical setting. I'm really looking forward to additional movement on the overall plot, and it's only the vague feeling that I ought to write up one book before starting the next that's kept me from plunging ahead (well, and lack of time, but what else is new?).
My reaction to Kage Baker's The Graveyard Game, the fourth Company novel, can be summed up thusly:
Woo! Plot! All the way through!
Which is to say, the book opens with Joseph and Lewis (introduced briefly in Sky Coyote) deciding to search for Mendoza after Mendoza in Hollywood, and thus avoids the prior books' pattern of spending a while enjoying historical ambience before the plot kicks in. They go questing, learn lots of nasty things about the Company, and find the burdens of their past increasing in different ways, as Joseph wrestles with his guilt and Lewis slowly unravels. And then—cliffhanger! Off in at least one unexpected direction!
It's possible that the unexpected direction could end up being somewhat wacky or over the top, or that the future portrayed in the series (this book spans 1996-2276) could get on my nerves. But I'm willing to roll with those possibilities for now because I like the characters and appreciate the momentum that's being built up. (In that regard, it may be a mistake to go to one of the short story collections next, but I like reading in publication order.)
The other thing of note here is the point of view, which is omniscient wrapped in a first-person framing device. The omni is a bit peculiar in a series that had been so tightly first-person until now, but I can see why the expanded nature of the story demanded it. (Also, randomly, it made me belatedly notice that Sky Coyote lacked an external framing device.)
Kudos to Tor, by the way, for bringing the entire series back into print, even if it does mean that my copies will be a mix of trade and mass market paperbacks.
I don't normally listen to abridged audiobooks, but I saw Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!) in the library and thought I could use some energetic absurdity to keep me awake on my commute.
This was absurd, yes, but surprisingly lacking in energy. Perhaps it was the rehearsed, recorded nature of the audiobook, but Colbert's delivery lacked the flair I'm used to hearing on his show. Without that, even only three CDs' worth of material often dragged.
There were of course some good bits—our text copy is on loan, else I would quote the bit about how, to help people "not see race," all non-white people should cover themselves in bandages—but when the bit I liked best was about how people in the future should defrost his head, well, kind of a disappointment.
(P.S.: I just made some changes to the spam filter here, which I believe will not affect the overwhelming majority of actual people; but if you have any difficulty, please let me know.)
Black Projects, White Knights is a collection of Kage Baker's Company stories that was published between the fourth and fifth books of the series. Two other stories, "Son Observe the Time" and "The Fourth Branch," are uncollected but available online (the first from the Wayback Machine, the second from Fictionwise). I suspect that, first, these are only for completists, and second, that they must inevitably be so or Baker isn't doing her job as a series novelist.
The stories fall into three categories: historically-set tales of Company operatives who we've already met; expansions of the Enforcers' backstory, as described in the second and fourth books; and the early life of Alec Checkerfield, who will be appearing in the next novel. Some of them illuminate aspects of the overall plot or the recurring characters, but in very small ways—which, as I said, is kind of inevitable if the novels are to stand alone as a complete series. Thus, "Son Observe the Time" is Victor's POV on what happened in 1906 San Francisco, but the only really new piece of information is a hint at an upcoming conflict, not a significant addition to what was deduced in The Graveyard Game. (Speaking of that book, "The Fourth Branch" is a fuller account of the event Lewis remembers there.)
(Though, to be fair, I was quite surprised by the Introduction, which outright handed me confirmation of one of my speculations—the Introduction! In retrospect, however, I can see why.)
Some of the stories with historical settings are a little slight or otherwise peculiar—"Hanuman" doesn't sound like Mendoza's voice to me, for instance. Combined with the side-nature of the tales, I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to find the collection or read the uncollected stories, though I don't regret the time spent on them.