Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Sky Coyote, Chapters 21-25

Anyone up for another trip to early 18th century California, courtesy of Dr. Zeus? With maybe a short side trip to prehistoric Europe and 11th century Byzantium? Well, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this week’s installment of the Kage Baker Company Series Reread!

This post will cover chapters 21 through 25 of Sky Coyote. Previous installments of the reread can be found on the index page. Spoiler warning: this reread discusses plot details and character arcs from the entire Company series, so be careful if you haven’t finished reading all the books yet.

And with that we’re off!  

 

Chapters 21-15

Summary

The Company’s operatives, led by Joseph, arrive in Humashup and begin collecting samples and gathering knowledge. The Chumash arrange a feast for Sky Coyote and his spirits, complete with a spectacular performance by the kantap. The zoologist MacCool is mysteriously transferred overnight after making more seditious comments. Joseph reflects on the last times he saw his immortal father, the Enforcer Budu.

 

Commentary

Chapter 21: The opening section of this chapter contains one of my favorite scenes in the novel: Mendoza’s stunned reaction to the natural beauty of central California, which only Kage Baker could have described so perfectly:

She turned her head to stare at me, and her eyes were a thousand years away. I shivered. Last time I’d seen that look, it was on a nun whose palms had suddenly and inexplicably begun to bleed.

(On a personal note: if you ever have the chance to visit this part of California, I highly recommend it. It’s unfortunate that so much of the tourism coming into the state centers around the big cities, because it’s in the stretches between those cities that you’ll find some of the most beautiful parts of the state. The area starting around Santa Barbara and going up to Big Sur and Monterey is simply stunning. So, next time you take the family to Disneyland, take an extra day and drive north an hour or two to experience some of the sights that so impress Mendoza in this chapter. Thus concludes today’s message from the Dr. Zeus Tourism Department.)

It’s fortunate that Mendoza is so taken with California’s natural beauty, by the way, because from this point on she will spend the majority of her life within a few hundred miles of this point, including several decades roaming the wilderness, a short stint near Los Angeles in Mendoza in Hollywood, and of course several millennia of imprisonment just across the channel on Catalina Island.

The arrival of Joseph’s “spirits” in Humashup is one of those scenes that just begs to be filmed, with the immortals in green body paint and loincloths walking into the village, terrifying the Chumash until Sepawit calms them down with a reassuring “It’s green men, not white men!” and Joseph breaks the ice by joking about the Sky People’s eating habits. I also love how Kage Baker contrasts the various groups in the village here: the hunters are a bunch of “skinny guys” who step forward uncertainly when called upon, whereas the basket weavers are a group of “hefty dames” who elbow each other out of the way for prominence… and the commercial leaders immediately break into their sales pitches once they’re introduced to the “Spirit Who Buys at Retail.”

The final scene in this chapter shows Joseph and Lopez trying to coax and cajole Bugleg into giving permission for the immortals to attend the upcoming feast in Humashup. The contrast between the mentalities of the immortal operatives and their mortal masters couldn’t be clearer, with Bugleg throwing out howlers like “If they play their drums and dance, they might attack” and Joseph trying to convince Bugleg that the meal will include something that sounds suspiciously like tofurkey rather than real dead animals.

As hilarious as it is, what I like most about this scene is that Joseph is really trying to understand Bugleg here, rather than just dismissing his concerns. He speculates about Bugleg hiding his appetites (and about the games he plays on his private console) and, at the very end of the scene, suddenly realizes that Bugleg isn’t just being ignorant and squeamish but actually trying to stand up for deeply felt principles. Facilitator training at its best: yes, Joseph is tricking Bugleg into giving permission for something he finds repellent, but while he’s sizing up his mark he also comes to a deeper understanding of his motivations.

Chapter 22: Party time! Most of this chapter is taken up by the wonderful feast the Chumash throw for Sky Coyote and his spirits. The Humashup Municipal Sports Field has been turned into a festival ground, complete with a buffet, picnic blankets, and port-a-potties (okay, a latrine trench, same diff). The scene that shows the immortals arriving in their surreal outfits (green body paint combined with period costume!) is one of the most memorable and defining visuals in the novel. Actually, it would probably make a brilliant cover illustration for a future edition.

Kage Baker often set up pairs of contrasting scenes in her novels. Sometimes they’re relatively subtle (e.g. the transit lounge scenes at the beginning and end of in In the Garden of Iden), but in this case the contrast between Houbert’s elaborate New Year’s Eve party back on New World One and the Humashup feast can’t be missed. Rather than an immortal pretending to be a god and exploiting his mortal servants (and forcing his immortal colleagues to play along), we get some very irreverent mortals making fun of their gods, in front of one of their gods. Clearly the immortals are enjoying this party much more.

The kantap’s performance is balanced perfectly, alternating between drama and comic relief, from Nutku as Grizzly Bear to Kaxiwalic’s version of Coyote, then Kupiuc as Killer Whale, and finally back to Coyote. Despite the festive atmosphere and the hilarious scene with Coyote and his talking, injured penis, I’ve always felt that there’s also something melancholy about the entire performance, not only because it’s the high point of an era that’s about to end, or the last major party in a village that’s about to disappear from the face of the earth, but also because Joseph’s thoughts make it clear that modern audiences wouldn’t be able to experience this the same way:

In cities, in theaters in Europe at this very moment, with carriages drawn up outside and grease-painted players on dusty boards, it would be called suspension of disbelief. Here it was something a lot more profound, and it tugged at my heart painfully.

Joseph’s thoughts right after the performance ends (starting with “We cheered and cheered” right after the final curtain call and through the next few paragraphs) are one of the few instances in the series where Kage Baker really emphasizes the loneliness and alienation of immortal operatives as they watch years and ages and cultures and mortals pass away while their lives carry on. I won’t quote the whole section here because it’s very long, but it’s worth rereading because this sentiment is sort of implied throughout the series but rarely expressed this powerfully.

(Minor side-note before we move on to the next scene: there’s a brief reference to Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera during the Horned Owl bit of the Chumash performance. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but just in case: Kage Baker wrote extensively about early cinema for Tor.com. Case in point, you can find her post about this actual version of Phantom of the Opera here. Those articles were collected and published by Tachyon Press in a now out-of-print book, but the ebook is still available, or you can of course just read all of them right here on Tor.com.)

The final section of this chapter contains the first reference to 2355 and the “Silence” (although that specific term isn’t used here yet). It’s become clear throughout the series that the immortals have access to movies and literature and so on. They’re taught History (or I guess “Future”, from their perspective?) as we saw in the few scenes about Mendoza’s training in Terra Australis and will see again in the next chapter. The immortals don’t get the whole picture as seen in the Company’s Temporal Concordance, but they know how the world’s future will work out at least in broad strokes — but only up to 2355.

This chapter is the first time we learn that all the knowledge the immortals have about the future ends at 2355. No one knows what will happen in that year. No one has ever seen a message from a later date. Speculation about exactly what will happen in 2355 runs rampant, from human extinction all the way to space colonization. MacCool, in his final scene before he is mysteriously transferred away and never seen again, positions this event as an opportunity to rebel against the Company. Mendoza, chillingly, predicts some of the activities of Aegeus and Labienus and their respective cabals.

Just in case anyone forgot that our poor Botanist Grade Six isn’t exactly over her psychological and emotional trauma yet:

“But doesn’t it ever make you angry?”

“”Angry?” She stopped on the trail and turned to him. “You can’t imagine my anger. It’s infinite rage; it’s surrounded me so long, I no longer have any idea where it begins, where it ends. So what? I’m just a machine. You are too. What use is anger to either of us?”

And right after that:

“My human feeling is falling away, a grain at a time. Every year I find myself having less in common with mortals, even with my own kind, for that matter.”

Personally, I don’t know what’s better proof that MacCool isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer: the fact that he thinks he can get away with his treasonous talk without repercussions, or the fact that he attempts to seduce Mendoza right after that little speech.

Chapter 23: The next three chapters focus on Joseph and his immortal father, the Enforcer Budu. In this chapter, a flashback (cheekily announced at the very end of the previous chapter) takes us back to the Alps, probably around 11,000 BC if the Enforcer Dewayne’s statement that it’s been 7,000 years since Joseph’s recruitment is true.

This scene is the culmination of all those veiled and not-so-veiled references to the Company’s violent history. This started in the previous novel with subtle hints that Dr. Zeus maybe occasionally takes out an inconvenient mortal if it really really has no other choice, and built up all the way to the revelation of the Enforcer class and their role in prehistory. In this scene, it’s finally spelled out: the Enforcers committed genocide. Of course the target of that genocide was itself a genocidal cult, but regardless, Budu’s calm description of slaughtering every single man, woman and child associated with the Great Goat Cult is shocking.

Budu gives a brief rundown of some of the horrors that are in store for the world: Napoleon, Hitler, the Spanish Inquisition and the Conquista (ironically, Joseph would end up involved in both of those), even Mars 2 and the Church of God-A. The Company created the Enforcers to weed out the Goats, but they’re not doing anything about these other atrocities. Is that because history cannot be changed, as Dr. Zeus claims, or is it because losing all the treasure they will salvage from these events would hurt their bottom line? It’s the same question Mendoza pondered at the end of the Iden mission (did the Company’s interference cause the ilex tormentosum to go extinct?) but on an immeasurably broader and bloodier scale. This is one of the central ethical dilemmas explored throughout the series.

The final interesting bit from this chapter is the Enforcer Marco’s rebellion. Knowing how hard it is for operatives to go against their programming, you could argue whether rebellion is the right term here. Marco is really just following his original programming, rather than the new orders to stand down, which go against the very principles the Company instilled in him and all the other Enforcers. It’s not that different from Nefer losing it during her extended layover and rescuing the unicorn/goat, except, you know, much more bloody and horrible, but then again the Enforcers were created to do bloody and horrible things. So yes, Marco turns into a monster later in the series (he’s the operative running Options Research in The Machine’s Child) but at this point it’s more a case of refusing (or being unable) to adjust to the realities of a more peaceful world, exactly like Budu in the next two chapters. You can be sure the Company is much more concerned with the fact that Marco refused a direct order than with the body count in the poor village he commandeered.

Chapter 24: There’s a deceptive amount of meaningful detail packed into this short chapter.

First there’s Joseph’s encounter with Kenemekme. Joseph “scrambles” the Chumash hunter’s brain and makes him experience a mystical revelation. This is the second time we’ve seen a Company operative directly influence a mortal’s brain. (Remember how Mendoza scared off her would-be assailant when she was travelling to Rochester to rescue Nicholas?) I’m still not sure what to make of this quasi-telepathy. There are multiple instances throughout the series where using this ability would get the operatives out of a tight situation, but for some reason it only pops up a few times here and there.

Yang-Na (mentioned at the end of the paragraph where Joseph explains how important it is to give your would-be mortal worshippers a Life-Affirming Experience and not a Call to Action) was the name of the Tongva village at the site that later became Los Angeles. This is another veiled reference to the Chinigchinix religion, which will finally appear on stage in next week’s chapters. (We’ve already had a few indications that the Chinigchinix missionary/spy is conducting his surveillance, e.g. during the Chumash feast in chapter 22.)

The second section of this chapter features another very uncomfortable conversation between Mendoza and Joseph. Mendoza asks Joseph if he still has any human feelings and almost pleads with him to confirm that the “human emotions” will eventually stop bothering her. Confronted again with his failure to protect Mendoza in England, and hearing that MacCool has been disappeared by the Company, Joseph sums up his own way to avoid unhappiness so perfectly that I couldn’t help but quote it:

“Part of the trick of avoiding pain is to make sure that all the people whose personal misery can hurt you too are off safe somewhere, doing something that can’t possibly screw up their lives again.”

This leads him to go back to reflecting about Budu. By the time of the Roman republic, some of the Enforcers have been retrained as a sort of Preserver/Enforcer hybrid, still making war (e.g. as Roman legionaries) but also rescuing some of the spoils of war for the Company. Joseph already realizes that this plan is doomed to fail once Republic becomes Empire, but he doesn’t allow himself to think about it, which explains nicely why he still has the occasional nightmare about killing Budu. It’s that growing sense of guilt that will drive him to go rogue in a few centuries.

In a later novel we’ll learn later that Budu recruited Nennius, of all people, during his stint as a Roman legionary. (Come to think of it, he probably recruited Victor during his campaign against the Saxons, briefly mentioned in the next chapter. In the Company, the old adage is really true: no good deed goes unpunished.) We’ll also find out in a later novel what Joseph was up to during his time as a centurion: he was with the famous Spanish Ninth Legion when it mysteriously disappeared.

Chapter 25: Joseph thinks back to the last time he saw Budu, under arrest in a transit lounge under Antioch in 1099. Budu has noticed that his Enforcers never return to the field after being taken to base for repair. Joseph still tries to believe the official Company line that they’ve been retrained to work on Company bases (and to be fair, we’ve seen that some of them have been) but he’s starting to realize that there’s something else going on. Following the secret message he receives from Budu in this chapter, he’ll learn in The Graveyard Game that the Company has been storing the Enforcers in regeneration tanks in underground facilities scattered across the globe, because it hasn’t been able to disable or kill them. In The Machine’s Child, he’ll get the second part of the equation: Marco, the same Enforcer who rebelled in prehistory, has been tasked with finding a more permanent solution to the Company’s Enforcer problem in the horrific Options Research facility in the far past.

 

I don’t think I realized, before I reread Sky Coyote from the perspective of having read those later novels, how much of a roller coaster this book is. In just a few chapters we went from the hilarious, bawdy comedy of the Chumash feast to all these broad hints at the very darkest parts of the series. And we’re not done yet…

We have 10 chapters left in this novel. I’ll probably split them down the middle, so next week we’ll cover chapters 26 through 30. 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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