Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: In the Garden of Iden, Chapter 1

Greetings, and welcome to Tor.com’s reread of Kage Baker’s Company series! Each post in this reread will start with a chapter-by-chapter summary of events, followed by commentary by your humble re-reader. This first post will cover Chapter One of In the Garden of Iden. You can find the introduction post (including our reading order) here, and the index here.

Please be aware that this reread will contain spoilers for the entire series. I am going to do my best to avoid major spoilers in the chapter summaries, but my commentary (and especially the comments section) will include discussion of the series’ broader plot and references to story arcs and events from the end of the series.

And with that, let’s get started! Get comfortable, grab a copy of In the Garden of Iden and a cup of hot theobromos, and off we go!

 

Chapter 1

Summary: A botanist is writing down the story of her life “to provide the illusion of conversation in this place where I am now alone.” She warns the reader that this will be a long story that leads through Spain, England and “ever so many centuries of Time.”

She explains the origin and nature of Dr. Zeus, Incorporated, a company founded by a “cabal of merchants and scientists whose purpose was to make money and improve the lot of humankind.” In the 24th Century, Dr. Zeus, Inc. (also known as simply “the Company”) made two world-changing inventions: Immortality and Time Travel. During testing, they traveled back centuries in time to confer the immortality process on a native of that time, then went back their time to see if that person had survived through the centuries.

Time travel is only possible backward, into the past. You can return to your own present, but you can’t jump forward into the future. Also, history cannot be changed, but this rule only applies to recorded history.

The Company becomes fabulously wealthy by placing small investments in the past and letting the interest accrue, recovering “lost” treasures their agents saved from places like the Library of Alexandria before they were destroyed, saving extinct species of plants and animals for medical research, rescuing lost works of art for collectors, and so on. “As long as they stayed within the frame of recorded history, they had the ability to prearrange things so that every event that ever happened fell out to the Company’s advantage.”

In order to do this, Dr. Zeus sends a team to “history’s pre-dawn” to build training centers and turn Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal children into Company operatives by performing the Immortality process on them and then raising them using “careful indoctrination and superior education.” This gives the Company a “permanent workforce that didn’t have to be shipped back and forth through time, that didn’t have culture shock, and that never, never needed medical benefits.” Their work is “the noblest imaginable: the rescue of living things from extinction, the preservation of irreplaceable works of art.”

Who could ask for anything more, you say?

Ah, but remember that Immortality has certain undesirable side effects. Consider, also, the mental discomfort of being part of a plan so vast that no single person knows the whole truth about it. Consider, finally, the problem in logistics: there are thousands of us already, and as the operation expands, more of us are made. None of us can die. So where are they going to put us all, when we finally make it to that glorious future world our creators inhabit?

Will they allow us in their houses? Will they finally pay us salaries? Will they really welcome us, will they really share with us the rewards we’ve worked millennia to provide them with?

If you’re any student of history, you know the answer to that question.

So why don’t we rise in rebellion, as in a nice testosterone-loaded science fiction novel, laser pistols blazing away in both fists? Because in the long run (and we have no other way of looking at anything) we don’t matter. Nothing matters except our work.

Look. Look with eyes that can never close at what men do to themselves, and to their world, age after age. The monasteries burned. The forests cut down. Animals hunted to extinction; families of men, too. Live through even a few centuries of human greed and stupidity and you will learn that mortals never change, any more than we do.

We must go on with our work, because no one else will do it. The tide of death has to be held back. Nothing matters except our work.

Nothing matters.

Except our work.

The botanist wonders who is running the Company now and just how many people are working for them. She also wonders if they are now “faced with the responsibility of making sure history happened at all?”

 

Commentary: I remember reading this chapter for the first time, in a bookstore, right around the release of the paperback edition of In the Garden of Iden in the late ’90s. I’d picked it up from an end cap in one of the ginormous Barnes & Noble stores dotting Manhattan (where I lived at the time) and basically read through the entire thing standing there, entranced. I knew immediately, even after only these seven pages filled with, let’s be honest, mostly one giant info dump, that this would be a series for the ages. (No pun intended.)

This was my first exposure to the concept of the Company. After all these years, it still stands as my favorite take on the idea of time travel in all of science fiction. Setting aside the plots, characters, and themes of all the novels and stories in this series, and just looking at the idea of a 24th Century company using time travel to place immortals operatives throughout history and become fabulously rich — it’s sheer genius, as far as I am concerned.

There’s also the tone of this short introductory chapter. Mendoza starts off sounding bitter and alone (more about this later) but as the chapter progresses, Kage Baker’s conversational and somehow sly-sounding prose takes over, my favorite example being her subtle little throwaway line about the side effects of the immortality process: “Had he survived the intervening nine hundred years? He had? How wonderful. Were there any unpleasant side effects? There were? Oops.”

(Interesting quote, by the way. At this point, it probably refers to the psychological effects of living centuries or even millennia for some of the older recruits, but it may also be an early reference to the “Defectives.” These were early experiments in immortality that went wrong. Some of these appear in the actual novels (e.g. Abdiel in The Graveyard Game) and others can be found in some of the better short stories in the series, such as Courier in “Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin”, Ezra in “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park”, and Bobby Ross in “The Catch”.)

What really blew my mind, when I started rereading the series this year in preparation for this project, is how the first paragraph of this chapter shows the scope of Kage Baker’s planning when writing in this series. Yes, this is the diary Mendoza starts writing during her imprisonment in Back Way Back, after the events described at the end of Mendoza in Hollywood; the same diary Alec Checkerfield recovers in The Life of the World to Come, after finding Mendoza in her 150,000 BC prison but before he returns to rescue her. He even reads the first sentence out loud, sounding it out hesitantly because 24th century folks aren’t quite as literate anymore.

In other words, this is Mendoza writing from a perspective of pure hopelessness, after she’s seen her two mortal lovers die horribly, centuries apart but somehow doppelgangers of each others, and after she has been imprisoned in the far past by the Company. There’s no way a first time reader could get all of this, of course, but it’s neat to see how Kage Baker uses this chapter to lay the seeds for a number of events that will play out over the rest of the series.

(Mendoza is never actually named in this chapter, by the way, but the identity of the narrator is obvious so I decided not to make this post more confusing by not using her name. The name Mendoza only appears for the first time in Chapter Two, and it isn’t until Chapter Three that it’s applied to her.)

Minor point: I wish this chapter had been called a “prologue” rather than the opening chapter. It works as an introduction to the novel and the broader series, but it doesn’t have a strong connection to the rest of the novel’s plot aside from the fact that Mendoza is narrating it. It would have made more sense to call it a prologue and to change the second chapter, which starts with Mendoza’s childhood and actually launches the plot of the novel, to be the first real chapter.

Anyway, chapter or prologue, this section contains the seeds for several plot lines that will be explored throughout the series. It hints at the various issues the immortal operatives have, Mendoza’s distrust for mortals (although she doesn’t go as far as calling them “monkeys” yet), and indications of the deep conditioning the immortals go through so they only care about “the work.” There are also a few hints at what the future will look like: apparently tigers, whales, and gorillas are all extinct in the 24th century. (Amusingly, the botanist Mendoza is bitter that “people never get as excited about plants as they do over animals,” although she’s careful to add that dinosaurs are the exception, because: “Everyone knew what happened when you tried to revive dinosaurs.”)

In the end, this opening chapter lays out the groundwork for the entire series: here’s this fabulous technology that could allow people to live forever and travel in time and preserve priceless works of art and extinct species for the betterment of all of humanity… but somehow it has mainly been used to create an involuntary workforce of immortal cyborgs who generate massive profits for their unknown masters in the far future. The part of the Company’s mission statement about “improving the lot of humanity” seems to have taken a backseat to this. Moreover, it’s already clear that that far future won’t necessarily be everything the immortal operatives of the Company hope for.

 

And so it begins! Next week, we’ll cover Chapters 2-4.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.

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