April 2007

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Rude Mechanicals and Gods and Pawns by Kage Baker

Prior to reading the two books I’ve reviewed here, I had never read anything by Kage Baker before. I wanted to make sure this was clear as Baker has written a series of novels based on the adventures of time-traveling cyborgs who work for the all-powerful “Company” (officially known as Dr. Zeus Incorporated). I came to the two books cold and with a little bit of trepidation -- since I didn’t know anything about the Company, would I be lost in the jargon and details? It’s a reasonable concern when delving into the works of some science fiction authors, but completely unwarranted here. In both the novella Rude Mechanicals and short story collection Gods and Pawns, Baker has crafted standalone tales that readers will find themselves deeply immersed in. There is nothing intimidating about the Company’s world, quite the opposite in fact. The stories are funny, sad, thoughtful, and everything else that good literature should be. Combined, the two books provide an excellent entry point to Baker’s world.

Rude Mechanicals takes place in Hollywood in 1934, and is from start to finish one of those excellent screwball comedy romps that I am unashamedly fond of. If you exchanged the cyborgs Lewis and Joseph for Myrna Loy and William Powell in any one of the Thin Man movies, you would have a version of Rude Mechanicals that fits on AMC any night of the week. Lewis is back in time to work on a theater project as a translator for director Max Reinhardt. His real goal is to obtain an exact copy of Reinhardt’s notes and promptbook, however, which a collector in 2342 would like to purchase. That is what the Company does -- it finds things from the past and either duplicates them or keeps them safe for customers in the future. It’s all about the money (some things never change), but for Lewis things take an unexpected turn when his fellow cyborg Joseph shows up looking for a favor. It turns out that Reinhardt’s project at the Hollywood Bowl is endangering a treasure the Company had Joseph bury long ago. He has to find it and move it, and Lewis has to help provide cover. It sounds easy, but just about everything that could go wrong (in the most hilarious fashion possible) does. In the climax Joseph is dressed like Mr. Peanut and crashes a porn film being shot in a swanky house in the hills. Baker has successfully plugged a pitch-perfect 1930s wacky aesthetic into Rude Mechanicals.

For the record, Max Reinhardt was a real theater director who did put on an “epic theater” production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Hollywood Bowl before going on to direct a very ill-fated film version of the play in 1935 (James Cagny and Shakespeare? No wonder it wasn't a success). Baker grew up in the area and clearly knows the town and its rich history. There is a real rumored treasure, there was an infamous party house, and the set-up for what Lewis and Joseph find themselves in the middle of is quite firmly entrenched in what is known to be real and true. The personalities, of course, all belong to the author, and she does a fine job with the witty banter and snarkiness that seem to be hallmarks of this particular pairing. Add the Subterranean Press design and JK Potter illustrations and cover and Rude Mechanicals should be considered a boon not only to sf fans, but to anyone with affection for the glorious era of old Hollywood.

Gods and Pawns certainly looks a lot more like science fiction from the cover, and it does start in the future. But soon enough readers are with Lewis again, who is suffering a bit of an Office Space-type situation with his employer, and happily finds himself off on an adventure with the sexy and aloof Mendoza. This time the trip is much further back in time and involves a mystery concerning a Bolivian Native tribe that should not exist and yet, inexplicably, does. In “To the Land Beyond the Sunset,” Lewis and Mendoza are forced to remain in character longer than they planned and eventually find themselves confronting some rather unsavory aspects of this particular culture. It’s an interesting look at science versus tradition and a quietly disturbing tale for the protagonists, especially Mendoza, who is appalled by what they discover.

From Bolivia to late-1950s Midwestern America, Baker next gives readers a look in “The Catch” at how, in the early days of the Company, cyborgs were “recruited.” By tracing the life of someone who could not forget where he came from (or more importantly, let it go), she writes a highly moral tale about playing God. On a certain level this story considers what a social experiment is -- if turning lost and doomed children into cyborgs is more about forcing the process physically and emotionally or about what kind of people would participate in such endeavor in the first place. In fact the science seems to be the easiest part in “The Catch” (brutal as it is) -- it is the social part that gets screwed up and finally places a Company agent named Porfirio on a lonely stretch of highway in 1958, trying to put an end to this one particular bad decision.

Porfirio’s past is examined in depth in “The Angel in the Darkness,” a story set in 1991 that shows just how much one family has relied upon its guardian angel for centuries, and the price he pays to be there every single time. As it turns out, this particular cyborg is very unusual and, because of that, also very valuable. But the story is not all about him; it also concerns the lives of two struggling sisters. It is only when the mysterious messages start arriving that things take a turn in the direction of speculative fiction. Kudos to Baker for writing a story with a strong middle-aged female character in Maria Aguilar, and giving us all one more reason to be paranoid about nursing homes.

Rounding out the book is a look at the storied career of artist Jan Vermeer in “Standing in his Light” and a visit to the notorious Hellfire Club in “Hellfire at Twilight.” Sadly though (if not predictably), things are not nearly so exciting there now that most of the members are past retirement age. Both of these stories will appeal to fans of historical fiction, especially those who favor these particular figures or periods in European history. Additionally, “A Night on the Barbary Coast” brings Mendoza and Joseph back into the picture and is set in California in 1850, a time and place in the American West that is far less about cowboys and Matt Dillon fantasies than crushing poverty and all that social ugliness that tends to come with it. There are some nice twists and turns in this story, including the complicated relationship between the two cyborgs (which is not at all what you would imagine).

For me though, after enjoying Rude Mechanicals so very much, the big payoff in Gods and Pawns was “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst.” It has Lewis and Joseph together again (quickly becoming one of my favorite comedy team-ups ever), is set back in 1930s Hollywood (or nearby Heart Castle -- which is close enough), and involves the sort of hijinks that the two protagonists clearly excel at. The cast includes not only Hearst and his longtime mistress Marion Davies, but also Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and a cameo (from 1926) with Rudolph Valentino. There is also a most annoying yappy dog, a fake medium, and a plot that is dependent upon putting one over on arguably the most powerful newspaper man to ever live.

Longtime fans of the Company novels will be more than eager to acquire both of these new books, but I can’t stress enough how reader-friendly they are for anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a light and often comic touch. Rude Mechanicals in particular was a big favorite of mine, as it was clear that Baker had a very good time writing it and her joy is quite infectious. Both books have turned me on to a new author to add to my list of favorites, and I will be seeking out all the Company novels and reading them in the very near future. The final Company novel, The Sons of Heaven, is due this summer from Tor. It does not spell the end of the Company however, as Baker hints at many other short story projects in the future at her web site.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker
Subterranean Press
ISBN 1596060875
120 pages

Gods and Pawns by Kage Baker
Tor
ISBN 0765315521
335 pages