Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Sky Coyote, Chapters 16-20

Okay folks, charge up the flux capacitors because it’s once agai— hold on, wrong time travel story. Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series Reread! In this week’s installment we’ll cover chapters 16 through 20 of Sky Coyote. All the reread’s previous installments can be found at Tor.com’s handy-dandy index page. As always, ‘ware spoilers: this reread contains spoilers for the entire Company series, so be careful if you haven’t read all the novels yet.

And with that, we’re off!

 

Chapters 16-20

Summary

On the Company’s AltaCal base, Joseph attends a weekly production meeting, has an uncomfortable interview with Lopez, and goes to a clandestine beach barbecue. In Humashup, he meets one of Kaxiwalic’s basket weavers and has meetings with the community’s religious leaders and industrialists. As the chapter set ends, the operatives set out to begin their mission.

 

Commentary

Chapter 16: At the start of this chapter, it suddenly struck me that Sky Coyote, much more than In the Garden of Iden or any other book in the series, is a novel comprised of meetings—not in the sense of people running into each other but rather actual, formal, scheduled meetings. So far, Joseph has had a formal sit-down with Lewis and a business brunch with Houbert at New World One, an interview with Bugleg at AltaCal, and a session with the community leaders in Humashup. Today’s set of chapters begins with Joseph attending an actual weekly production meeting, followed by an interview with Lopez, a meeting with the religious leaders of Humashup, and a sweat lodge session with the village’s captains-of-industry. All of this is the result of our narrator Joseph being part of a much larger Company mission than the low-key one at the Iden estate. More functionaries, operatives and now even Future Kids obviously means more Company protocol, and the sheer number of Chumash means it makes more sense to coordinate with the village leaders. Regardless, it’s yet another reason why Sky Coyote feels much more like a Company novel, emphasis on “Company”, than the relatively intimate In the Garden of Iden.

The beginning of that weekly production meeting contains one of the many Moments of Perfect Comedic Timing in Kage Baker’s writing. The reactions of the two immortals to the elderly Company investor’s complaints about Joseph’s behavior, specifically his time with the two Chumash girls, always makes me grin:

“I’m sure everyone at Dr. Zeus would like to thank Joseph for his report, and it sounds like he’s doing a great job, but I don’t see why he had to include in his report his adventures with the underaged native girls. I would like to go on record as protesting that.”

“So noted,” intoned Lopez, and I made my ears droop.

Right after this, the “better” native American tribe the elderly investor suggests as a more appropriate rescue target, with its monotheistic religion and its prophet, is almost certainly the Chinigchinix tribe we’ll hear much more about in chapter 18 and especially in the second half of the novel. It’s hard to miss the irony that this tribe, which is basically the novel’s equivalent of the genocidal Great Goat Cult even before Joseph’s recollections make the connection obvious, is suggested as the preferred one to save.

As far as I can tell, Chinigchinix was actually the name of a mythological figure for several native American tribes in California, and by extension the name of a religion, rather than the name of a tribe as it’s being used here. However, it’s not that hard to imagine that worshippers of Chinigchinix—who were indeed monotheistic—would collectively be called by that name, similar to how the name of the Chumash tribe (which roughly translates to “the people who make money”) was given to them by their neighbors.

During the same meeting, the immortals take issue with the term “android”, which they consider derogatory, compared to the preferred term “cyborg.” My take on this: an android is a robot that looks human, whereas a cyborg is an augmented human, so calling the immortals “androids” is tantamount to ignoring their human origins and, in a sense, denying them their humanity. This is another early example of the distrust between the immortals and the future mortals, which will become an important part of the plot in the second half of the series.

In the second section of this chapter, Joseph returns to Humashup, giving us another look at the internal dynamics of the village. The scene in which Joseph rescues a toddler from drowning and then witnesses a confrontation between a basket weaver (Skilmoy) and Kaxiwalic the entrepreneur shows the darker side of the Chumash’s thriving commercial empire. This was probably meant to point back to the line in Lopez’s briefing (back in chapter 11) about unusually high rates of infant mortality and domestic violence in the Chumash tribe, which this scene links implicitly to the weaver’s huge workload. (I have a feeling that the author had much more material about life in Humashup and about some of the Chumash characters than made it into the final version of the novel. This may explain why, aside from a few main players, many of the individual Chumash characters aren’t very well defined. Even after reading the novel multiple times over the years, I still have trouble telling some of them apart because they get introduced so quickly and, aside from Sepawit later in the novel, don’t get a lot of individual screen time. An alternative, in-text explanation for this could be that we’re witnessing all of this through Joseph’s eyes. You’d probably expect that a 20,000 year old Facilitator who’s distracted by intra-Company politics and by his own painful memories would pay less attention to the bit players in his missions than, say, a young, newly minted operative on her first mission.)

Rescuing the drowning child in Humashup also makes Joseph think back to his own rescue and his training days in Eurobase One in the Cévennes. Just like with Mendoza’s training in Terra Australis, I wish we could learn more about this part of Joseph’s life. One key point from this section is Joseph’s early exposure to Warner Bros. cartoons. I love how the nurse explains to young Joseph that Bugs Bunny is the hero “because he wasn’t trying to hurt anybody, and he used his intelligence to confuse his enemies so they hurt themselves instead of hurting him.” That’s Joseph in a nutshell, isn’t it? It also neatly sets up the wonderful scene at the end of the novel when Joseph shows cartoons to the Chumash. (I have a lot of thoughts about those cartoons, but I’ll save them for when we get to that scene.)

Chapter 17: This chapter shows the beach barbecue mentioned by Mathias in chapter 12. It’s a nice example of immortal operatives just relaxing and taking it easy. They’re unsupervised (if not unmonitored), enjoying all the wonderful food and drink that so grosses out the “future kids”, and throwing movie references back and forth like frisbees. However, as usual with Kage Baker, there are also some meaningful details.

The first one is Sixtus committing a faux pas when he indirectly refers to the violent past of the Company. As Joseph thinks: “Most of the younger operatives don’t know about that particular episode in prehistory, and official Company policy doesn’t encourage letting them in on the secret.” In other words, not only does the Company have a much more violent history than you’d expect from the brochures, but it also actively tries to keep those secrets hidden from its own operatives.

Next, it becomes clear that the immortals’ dislike towards their mortal masters/employers/creators is widespread and serious. The zoologist MacCool expresses this in the strongest terms:

“Aren’t you appalled by them? Weren’t you brought up to see them as the wise and benevolent Masters of the bloody Universe? Remote figures in their twenty-three-hundred offices who Know It All? God help us if these people are representative of Dr. Zeus.”

A few paragraphs later, he sums up the situation perfectly when he muses the future mortals are “more androids than we are.” It’s ironic (and a testament to Kage Baker’s skill as a writer) that readers have an easier time identifying with immortal superbeings than with the people from Bugleg’s sanitized, over-regulated future, but to be fair, the Homo Umbratilis hybrid Bugleg is an extreme example.

And finally, this chapter features the first appearance of the anthropologist Imarte, who plays a minor part in this novel but will briefly become a key character in Mendoza in Hollywood. (Imarte is pretty high up on my personal list of Company Characters I’d Love To Read a Short Story or Novella About, by the way.)

Chapter 18: Yet another meeting! In chapter 18, chief Sepawit introduces Joseph-as-Sky-Coyote to the religious leaders of Humashup, leading to some hilarious back-and-forth between the shamans, the astrologers, and the diviners as they try to attach high-flying but conflicting interpretations to Joseph’s straightforward statements, not to mention his accidental faux pas when he sits down on the celestial map. (And yes, I’m quite aware that the way the priests enthusiastically attach deep symbolic meaning to everything Joseph says and does isn’t all that different from the way that, say, an over-enthusiastic rereader might sometimes go a bit overboard when interpreting novels…)

Chapter 18 is also the first time Joseph learns about the threat posed by the Chinigchinix—a very different take on this tribe than what the elderly Company investor said at the production meeting, two chapters back. Joseph’s thoughts immediately turn back to the Great Goat Cult, continuing the novel’s pattern of linking the present with the far past to reveal important details about the Company.

Chapter 19: And yet another meeting! This time we get a one-on-one between Joseph and Lopez in which the latter starts off sounding like a political officer checking up on the immortal operatives’ attitude, and ends with a speech that hints at the power dynamic that will define the second half of this series.

First the interview, or maybe interrogation is a more appropriate term. Lopez’s friendly tone with Joseph masks the fact that he’s basically pumping the Facilitator for information. He quickly makes it clear that the Company is aware of the clandestine parties and of the seditious talk by people like MacCool. Later on in the series, we learn that the Company monitors the data feeds of its operatives, and that this monitoring is just as much about control as it is about safety. Joseph (among others) will start working on ways to circumvent this monitoring in The Graveyard Game. Lopez also makes it clear that he’s read Joseph’s personnel file, mentioning three disciplinary incidents in the past, including one during the Iden mission. Based on what Lopez says here, it sounds like Joseph shielded Mendoza from the Company’s wrath by taking the heat for her behavior in England.

The most important part of this conversation is its very end, where Lopez suddenly implies that, contrary to everything we’ve read so far, the immortals may really be the ones controlling the Company. Pardon the long quote, but it’s an important one:

“You know what you have to keep in mind, Joseph? They’re children, the mortals. No more than children. Life is so simple in that bright future of theirs, they’ve never had to trouble themselves to learn how to do more than play. For some of them it’s very, very creative play, mind you, but… it has a certain uncomplicated quality, shall we say. Because, like children, they’re bored by complicated things. More than bored: they feel threatened. […]

“But listen, Joseph. A child is easy to control. Keep him happy, and he’ll believe what he’s told to believe. The mortals believe that they’re running the Company, that they make the decisions, that they have the ideas. The child believes the world revolves around himself. Nursie knows better, but of course she doesn’t tell him so.

“Though,” he added thoughtfully, “he will learn the truth, someday.”

We’ve had a few dizzying shifts of perspective in this novel so far. We’ve learned that the Company isn’t as benevolent as we thought. We’ve learned that it did some shocking things in the far past, using a different class of immortals who are now retired. (The true nature of that “retirement” is the next major revelation waiting in the wings.) We learned that some immortals have no problem with exploiting mortals, in varying degrees. However, this is the first time we’re getting hints that some immortals consider themselves to be the ones in charge of the Company and, by extension, of the mortals who think they’re the ones running the show. To be clear, Lopez is just sounding out Joseph here, trying to see if he’ll reveal anything (fat chance, with Joseph’s Inquisition background!) but just the fact that Lopez makes it part of this interview/interrogation shows that there’s a real concern here.

Lopez has always been a bit of a cypher to me. He shows up here in Sky Coyote, and later on in the series he’s one of the few immortals in the inner circle of the Company. As Joseph points out, the fact that Lopez was able to get his personal possessions shipped out to this end of time is a clear example of his power within the Company. He’ll also be the one who steers the Company’s management towards creating the Dr. Zeus AI in The Sons of Heaven. Despite these crucial roles, he always feels like a blank slate to me. The only real background we get about him here is that he’s one of the older Facilitators, like Joseph himself, but I don’t remember getting many other details throughout the series.

The final section of this chapter shows Joseph with the Chumash community leaders in the sweat lodge. We get some more proof that life with the Chumash isn’t as idyllic as you might expect: Kupiuc’s ex-wife is after him for child support, and he talks about beating one of his children, who was caught stealing. Add to this the cut-throat practices of the canoe-builder cartel and this is starting to sound like a modern capitalist society, prizing material wealth above everything else even during their last days of existence on this earthly plane. All that’s missing is someone yelling “You’ll never carve steatite in this town again!” or something to that effect to make the connection with modern day California completely obvious.

Chapter 20: I absolutely love the visual of the 14 specialists and 30 security techs in green body paint and skimpy Chumash costumes. (In Joseph’s words, they look like “a bunch of avocados in a diorama.”) This is actually one of the largest Company missions we’ll see in the books in terms of the sheer number of personnel involved. The only one I can think of that may involve more operatives working together is the big salvage operation right before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, described in the novella “Son, Observe the Time”.

Bugleg flubs his motivational speech at the start of the mission and just weakly tells the operatives to “be careful,” leading Joseph to list some of the dire situations these immortals have survived, including Ashur during the destruction of Pompeii and Imarte at the Fall of Byzantium. (In Mendoza in Hollywood we’ll learn that Imarte was also present when Cyrus took Babylon. Did I mention I really would have loved a story or novella dedicated just to her?)

The final paragraphs of the chapter are a Cliff’s Notes version of the history of what would eventually become the U.S. state of California over the next few centuries, including Juniperro Serra building his Catholic missions, the Gente de Razón, the Yankees conquering the West, and finally William Mulholland’s aqueduct. (Pardon the flurry of Wikipedia links there. Like Kage Baker, I live in this part of the world and find its history incredibly fascinating.) There’s even a sneaky early mention of the “urban warfare” that will turn Los Angeles into a dystopian nightmare later in the series.

Most of all, the immortals just seem happy at the start of the mission:

But their spirits rose as we got inland, away from the wind. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, and nobody was shooting at us: basic elemental pleasures like that. More, though: we were finally away from all the bureaucratic crap and going out where we could do some work at last. We were on the job again. It produces a sense of euphoria in us. We were designed that way.

 

And that’s where we’ll leave it for this post! Next week we’ll cover chapters 21 through 25.

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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