Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Reread! For today’s session, please open your bukes to chapters 5 and 6 of In the Garden of Iden.
You can find the reread’s introduction (including the reading order we’ll be following) here, and the index of previous posts here. Please be aware that sections of this reread will contain spoilers for the entire series. I am trying to avoid major spoilers in the chapter summaries, but my commentary and the comments section will include discussion of the series’ broader plot and references to story arcs and events from the end of the series. Gentle reader, you have been warned.
Summary: Mendoza is stationed in Company base Terra Australis, where she and the other neophytes in her class are undergoing “the Process that would transform us from mortal human children into something else entirely.” This involves multiple surgeries, body augmentations and “cellular tinkering.” It also includes classroom teaching and rapid learning techniques like speed reading, sleep teaching and hypnosis.
Mendoza’s dislike for mortals develops into contempt and fear. After she becomes friends with Nancy, a girl from the Spider People tribe, Mendoza tells Nancy that she is specializing in New World flora so she doesn’t have to interact with “bloodthirsty zealot fanatic murderers.”
However, when she meets with her Company guidance counselor after graduation, she’s informed that she has a recommendation for “Assigned Acclimatization Europe” on her profile: for her first assignment, the Company is sending her to England, right when the religious upheaval of the Counter-Reformation is building to a bloody climax.
Commentary: I always love Mendoza’s terse summation of her formative years at Terra Australis: “It wasn’t all that different from any particularly demanding boarding school, except that of course nobody ever went home for the holidays and we had a lot of brain surgery.”
These two chapters give us the only close look at Mendoza’s training. Two little chapters! I wish Kage Baker had developed this part of the material further, either in this novel or in a short story or novella, because it’s such a massive treasure trove of possible story ideas.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment: I’d be all over a Harry Potter-style boarding school story or an X-Men-style “School for Gifted Future Cyborgs” following the lives of a class of teenage Company trainees, or even just some more stories about Mendoza and Nancy during their education and training. We’re basically skipping an entire decade between the end of Chapter Five and the start of Chapter Six, and the little details Kage Baker throws in about period clothing (the girls wore hoop skirts at one point and Mendoza mentions the “newer, fuller ruff” her counselor wears) and teenage speech patterns (“double-plus wowie”) left me hankering for a more detailed look at the lives and times of young Company neophytes.
These two chapters are, like so much of Kage Baker’s writing, both cheerful and disturbing. There are descriptions of the invasive augmentation process that the children are subjected to. There’s the careful classroom indoctrination speech that more or less recaps what Joseph told Mendoza earlier, except this time it’s followed by ice cream to really drive the message home. (Sure, these kids voluntarily signed up for service, but when you offer the choice between certain death and eternal life to a terrified young child with no concept of what it’s signing up for…)
“Nancy” is, as far as I know, the only other character mentioned in these two chapters who’ll make meaningful appearances later on in the series. All the other immortals we briefly meet (Martin, Kwame, Mateo, Mr. Silanus, Roxtli, just to name a few from these two chapters alone) disappear from view after this, but Nancy will appear throughout the series as Art Preservation Specialist Nan d’Araignée.
The way Nancy recounts her rescue in Chapter Five is another great example of Kage Baker’s ability to evoke sheer horror without going into much detail: a young girl hiding in a tree at night after a slaver raid on her tribe, while wild dogs eat the dead below. You can imagine she’d be receptive to recruitment from the Company, right? The bandages wrapped around Mendoza and Nan’s heads after their many brain surgeries remind Nan of the “Smoke Men” who raided her village (and Mendoza of “Moriscos”) suggesting that the raiders wore turbans. Nan was probably saved from becoming an involuntary participant in the burgeoning Arab slave trade.
This chapter also brings us another way the Dr. Zeus origin myth gets adapted for individual recruits, in this case Nan. The unnamed immortal who recruits her takes on the guise of Spider, one of the gods of her tribe (not that dissimilar from Joseph’s role in Sky Coyote, actually) and offers to save her from Dry Bone Dog. Nan/Nancy’s given name clearly points to Anansi the Spider, the West African god/trickster/folk tale character, and “d’Araignée” derives from the same root as “arachnid”, showing how much that recruitment speech must have influenced her. (But note: Nan doesn’t want to be “His Spider People” ever again and says He is no good. Mendoza is not the only person who resents her recruiter.)
The main point these chapters drive home is Mendoza’s growing alienation from regular mortals. She accelerates rapidly from the relatively benign “I don’t think I would have got on all that well with the human race anyway” and “The Company did not put that fundamental dislike there. Possibly the Inquisition did” to just lumping most of humanity together under “stupid mortal monkeys” and “maniac religious bigots.”
Mendoza is aware enough to realize that this attitude could become an issue in her future career with Dr. Zeus. She sets up her education in such a way that she can spend her time in the (at this point) sparsely populated New World to work with plants and minimize contact with mortals. Unfortunately, the Company sends her to England instead, and not just any period in England’s history but probably the worst possible one for her: the brief reign of “Bloody” Mary I, daughter of Catherine of Aragon. (Quick follow-up to last week’s post: in the comments, Kage’s sister Kathleen pointed me in the right direction for details about the story of Catherine of Aragon and the flying incense thurible mentioned in Chapter Two. I love little details like this!)
In either case, Mary is about to marry Philip, most Catholic heir apparent to the throne of Spain, and briefly restore Roman Catholicism to England in a wave of religious persecution and violent uprisings, and poor Mendoza is scheduled to travel to England with Philip’s entourage — not exactly the ideal climate for a traumatized, newly graduated immortal who was rescued from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition.
A few interesting tidbits: The Terra Australis Training Compound has been around for “about fifteen hundred years” when Mendoza arrives. At this point in the series, that number is impressive, but nothing compared to the truly Old Ones we meet later, already hinted at in the scene with Mendoza’s guidance counselor (and his pronounced brow ridges) as well as the first reference to the Great Goat Cult. (This will pop up throughout the series, but if you want to find out more already, check out the short story “Old Flat Top”, included in both Black Projects, White Knights and The Best of Kage Baker.) These chapters are also, as far as I can remember, the only part of the series taking place in Australia.
Another example of Kage Baker’s early planning: during Mendoza’s history lesson, the list of atrocities includes “Mars Two”, hinting at a major plot point in the second half of the series.
Mendoza asks Nancy: “Did you get left in the bed by Almanzor?” This is a reference to one of the rulers of Moorish Iberia, Muhammad ibn Abi Aamir, often called Almanzor, a Spanish bastardization of one of his Arabic titles. As we saw in the previous chapters, coming from pure white Christian blood became paramount in the aftermath of Muslim reign in Iberia, leading (several centuries down the line) to the myth of Almanzor as a sort of bogeyman who leaves black changeling babies with people. (Bonus points if you remember the earlier reference to Almanzor in chapter 3, during the list of improbable confessions the adult woman Mendoza made under torture.)
I love this quote from the end of chapter 5: “The leaf that spreads in the sunlight is the only holiness there is. I haven’t found holiness in the faiths of mortals, nor in their music, nor in their dreams: it’s out in the open field, with the green rows looking at the sky. I don’t know what it is, this holiness: but it’s there, and it looks at the sky.” (But again, as so often in these books, this beautiful sentiment is a double-edged sword: when Mendoza is writing this in Back Way Back, she doesn’t have anything left but those “green rows looking at the sky.”)
And that’s it for today, my friends! Next week we’ll cover chapters 7 through 10, in which Mendoza returns from Terra Australis to Spain, and eventually travels to England to start her first mission.
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.