Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Sky Coyote, Chapters 11-15

Put down that Totter Dan game and fire up your buke, because it’s once again time for the Kage Baker Company Series Reread! This week, we’ll be covering chapters 11 through 15 of Sky Coyote.

As always, you can find all previous posts in the reread at Tor.com’s handy-dandy index page, which I encourage you to bookmark and share widely among friends and loved ones. What else, what else? Oh yes, spoilers! This reread contains spoilers for the entire series, so please be careful if you haven’t read all the books yet.

And with that, we’re off!

 

Chapters 11-15

Summary: At AltaCal Base, Joseph and Mendoza meet Bugleg, an unusual 24th century mortal, and Lopez, his immortal aide. Joseph gets fit for his Sky Coyote disguise. When he meets the Chumash tribe, he convinces them that he is there to save them.

Commentary: We’ll be going chapter by chapter this week.

Chapter 11

In these chapters, the action moves to California for the first time, and not just any spot in California. We’ll spend a good amount of time in this region of the world from now on, with novels and stories set to the south (e.g., Mendoza in Hollywood) and to the north (e.g., the novella “Son Observe the Time,” in San Francisco), but it’s in Sky Coyote that we’re closest to Pismo Beach, the small Central California town where Kage Baker lived and wrote her stories.

Pismo Beach is smack in the middle of the area where the actual Chumash lived. There are many places of historical and cultural significance within driving distance, such as the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, where you can still see authentic artwork similar to what the people of Humashup might have produced. It’s also very close to Point Conception, which is the location of the Company’s “AltaCal” base camp in Sky Coyote for a very good reason: in real life, Point Conception featured in the Chumash cosmology as the Western Gate, through which souls travelled on their way to the afterlife. Baker will make beautiful use of this fact at the very end of the Humashup mission.

The contrast between the AltaCal and New World One bases couldn’t be starker. The AltaCal base is utilitarian, the operatives wear drab and functional coverall uniforms, the food is rehydrated mush. It quickly becomes clear that it’s the 24th century mortals (or the “future kids,” as Joseph calls them) who are responsible for this austere environment. The brief conversation between Joseph and Mendoza on their way to their first meeting with Bugleg may be the best way to sum this up:

“You’ve never worked with any Company mortals, have you?” I paused, scanning the long featureless hall in confusion. What was that pinging noise?

“Sure I have.” Mendoza turned her head irritably, picking up the sound too.

“I don’t mean native busboys. I mean officers and shareholders of Dr. Zeus, from the future. We make them uncomfortable.”

[…]

“But why? They made us, didn’t they? We do exactly what they built us to do, don’t we?”

“I know. I’m not sure what the reason is. Maybe some of them feel we’re not much more than superpowered slaves and they feel guilty about that?”

Just like the base at Point Conception is the exact opposite of New World One, Bugleg is presented as the anti-Houbert: rather than a hedonistic and effusive bon vivant, Bugleg is “fairly pasty-faced,” prudish, and clearly nervous around immortals and their outlandish habits. He doesn’t understand the ‘big words” they use, but more importantly, he simply doesn’t understand their mentality: Lopez has to explain, patiently and using simple language, why the immortals wear period clothing.

Bugleg is really a bit of a mystery, at this point. I remember thinking he was sort of funny the first time I read this novel, especially compared with the sophisticated, debonair immortals we’ve been reading about—but in this first appearance he already helps create that sense of foreboding about the 24th century even without going into the Homo Umbratilis part of the overall plot. At the end of chapter 11, Joseph compares Bugleg to Victorian explorers who insisted on bringing all their creature comforts and having high tea in formal dress in the jungle. (Funny enough, Edward will do something similar in the final novels in the series when he’s raising the reincarnated versions of the other two Adonai.)

Chapter 11 is also the first time we get the actual mission details: Joseph and his team will be lifting an entire Chumash village, complete with people and artifacts, off the face of the earth, for the greater benefit of humanity or, well, we’ll find out the real reason later on in the novel…

We also get a rundown of what the Chumash are like: a Native American tribe that, despite Neolithic levels of technology, built up a complex economic empire and an advanced cultural society. There are some issues, such as domestic violence and infant mortality (we’ll learn more about those later) but, broadly speaking, their culture was considerably more advanced than many of their contemporaries.

(Fun fact: in chapter 11, Lopez mentions two cultural anthropologists famous for their work about Native Americans in general and the Chumash in particular. One of them, Alfred Kroeber, was the father of science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin—that’s what the initial “K” in her name stands for. Small world, huh?)

But the main point of chapter 11 is the contrast between the immortals and the 24th-century mortals. It’s ironic that an experienced operative like Joseph, who’s had to adapt to different cultures and outlandish situations all his millennia-long life, has trouble adjusting to a future mortal, but the chapter (and, really, the entire novel) also forces you to consider the situation from the 24th-century perspective: sure, Bugleg seems like a nervous prude compared to the immortals, but we’d probably be just as shocked if we were suddenly exposed to, say, 14th-century social norms and eating habits.

Chapter 12

There isn’t a whole lot to say here. Sky Coyote features several of these very short chapters, one or two pages with just one small scene, which is partly why we could cover 10 chapters last week. In this one, Joseph gets his Sky Coyote disguise: the prosthetics and implants that will allow him to appear as the Chumash trickster and intermediary between humans and the Sky People pantheon.

The tech Matthias is a Neanderthal who is confined to Company bases because he looks too different from the current mortal population. He tells Joseph about an upcoming clandestine beach barbecue, which we’ll read about in chapter 17.

Chapter 13

And this is where Joseph first reveals himself to the Chumash in his new guise as Sky Coyote. Note the foreshadowing when he realizes he looks like something from a Warner Bros. cartoon, sprinting up to a higher vantage point so he can strike a more impressive and god-like pose for Kenemekme and Wixay, the first Chumash he encounters. Ironically, the very first myth they ask Joseph to confirm for them involves eternal life.

Chapter 14

Right from the start of the chapter, we get confirmation that Humashup is just as prosperous as Lopez described it in his briefing. Joseph’s overview of the village sounds almost like a commercial real estate brochure: Here are the communal acorn-processing rocks and private steam baths, there’s the industrial complex, and so on.

During the big meeting at the council house, we’re quickly introduced to the most powerful people in Humashup, starting with chief Sepawit, followed by assorted industrialists, entrepreneurs, and community leaders such as Nutku, Sawlawlan, Kupiuc, and Kaxiwalic. Kupiuc and Nutku also function as the leaders of the Humashup Kantap, an organization that’s never clearly defined in the novel but sounds like it falls somewhere between a trade guild and a Kiwanis club in terms of community leadership, training, and entertainment.

Joseph attempts to explain to the stunned villagers why Uncle Sky Coyote is visiting his human nephews in Humashup: the Sun, being the Chumash principal deity (Sky Coyote is more of an intermediary between other Sky People and humans who live in the “Middle World”) is cheating in his ongoing gambling contest against Sky Coyote, where the stakes are Chumash lives. The Sun is using white men to collect more Chumash lives than ever. Thanks to Moon’s intervention, Sky Coyote is granted 70 years and four sky canoes to save as many people as he can. The Chumash are initially skeptical, showing they’re even more sophisticated than expected:

“So… we’re to interpret all of this literally, then.”

“Of course!”

“And not as a series of metaphors.”

This prompts Joseph to “ease up on the mythic style” and instead describe in more practical terms what the Spanish and American colonists will actually do to the Chumash people and lands. This approach proves much more effective.

Now, it’s probably pretty clear by now that I love the Company series to bits, and part of the reason I’m doing this reread is because it gives me the chance to go on at great length about the many reasons why I love it to bits. At the same time, I’m not going to hold back if I don’t like something… and the second section of this chapter is my least favorite part in the novel and one of my least favorite in the entire series.

The main reason for this: even though Joseph is nowhere near Aegeus in terms of how he treats mortals, and we’ll see him marry mortal women and take mortal lovers at several points in the series, I’m much more uncomfortable with this scene about the two young “groupies” (his term) than with any other situation where Joseph has a mortal lover. Their speech patterns seem to indicate they’re only teenagers, and he’s not just an ageless immortal but an ageless immortal who is pretending to be their god. I won’t go on about it forever, but let’s just say the power differential in this scene creeps me out.

Finally, I guess we should address the Chumash speech patterns. A few posts back I mentioned that one of the most common complaints about In the Garden of Iden was the amount of romance in that novel. Similarly, in Sky Coyote, the issue I’ve seen mentioned more than anything else over the years is the Chumash dialogue, which sounds surprisingly modern and anachronistic, especially compared with the authentic period English from In the Garden of Iden.

It may be a bit confusing at first to have the Chumash sound no different from the operatives or, for that matter, from modern-day Americans, but personally, just like with the romance in the previous novel, I don’t mind it at all. Kage Baker believed in “write what you know.” While she was an expert on Elizabethan English, she obviously couldn’t throw in actual Chumash speech—not to mention that trying to make the Humashup villagers sound more formal or “noble savage”-like would probably have ended up being immeasurably worse. Plus, let’s not forget that Joseph has been narrating this story in a conversational, almost chatty tone right from the first sentence, and that’s bound to leak into the dialogue, too.

More importantly though, the entire novel is about culture shock—between operatives and Houbert’s elaborate New World One fantasy, between operatives and “future kids,” between operatives and former Enforcers, and so on. Here, Kage Baker takes the culture shock to the next level by showing the difference between Joseph’s expectations of what the Chumash will be like (not to mention readers’ expectations) and their actual, sophisticated, surprisingly modern society. Having them sound like modern-day Americans helps emphasize this.

So, let the record state that I have absolutely no issue with the Chumash sounding like they do. Having the two groupies sound like characters from Valley Girl is maybe taking it a bit too far (“Omigod!”), but aside from that, it works for me.

Chapter 15

Another mini-chapter, but one with a much stronger impact than the previous one. Joseph dreams about Budu and the Enforcers wiping out the Spanish missionaries (bearing banners with crosses) and American colonists (with striped banners) who are about to do to Native Americans what he described to the Chumash in the previous chapter… but then Budu and the Enforcers wipe out the colonists just like they wiped out the Great Goat Cult thousands of years ago. Kage Baker draws a direct and obvious parallel between the Great Goat Cult’s genocidal tendencies and the American and Spanish colonists’ treatment of Native Americans.

Is this wish fulfillment on Joseph’s part? Or even nostalgia for a simpler time when the Company was free to do whatever it wanted, including a bit of genocide, as long as it helped civilization get started thousands of years earlier? Or is Kage Baker simply making it clear again that the Company’s actions were never guided by ethical considerations as much as by profit—because otherwise, why prevent one group from wiping out an entire indigenous population but not another? Is it true that history can’t be changed… and if it isn’t, would the Company even have wanted to do so when it didn’t directly benefit their own bottom line?

So many questions for such a short little chapter, right? And that’s all before the end of the dream, where Joseph sees himself killing his hero and mentor Budu.

The Iden mission was mostly about setting up Mendoza’s trauma, with a little history about the Company thrown in. In Sky Coyote, we’re getting a lot more background about the Company’s dark secrets, but it’s also becoming more and more clear that Joseph carries around his own unresolved issues.

 

And that’s it for this week! In the next post, we’ll cover chapters 16 through 20. See you then!

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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