Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Sky Coyote, Chapters 31-35

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series Reread! In today’s post, we’ll cover the final five chapters of Sky Coyote and the elusive “Memorandum from Dr. Zeus, Incorporated” coda found in the Avon Eos edition of the novel. I’ll also include a quick rundown of some short stories set between the end of this novel and the start of Mendoza in Hollywood.

As always, you can find a list of all previous posts in the reread on our handy-dandy index page. And also as always, beware spoilers, because this reread discusses events and plot lines from the entire series.

And with that we’re off to Humashup, sadly for the last time…

 

Summary

During the last days of Humashup, Joseph keeps the Chumash entertained by screening Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. While the Chumash are taking off for transport to MacKenzie Base in Joseph’s “sky canoes,” Mendoza disappears into the California wilderness on her new assignment.

 

Commentary

Chapter 31: I can’t begin to tell you how much I love the scenes of Joseph screening cartoons for the Chumash. Taken as a whole, Sky Coyote has never been my favorite of Kage Baker’s novels, but this particular section by itself stands near the very top of the series, as far as I am concerned. It’s funny and melancholy, absurd and highly meaningful, all at the same time. It’s the distillation of everything I like about Joseph and everything I love about the series in general.

On the one hand, the scene illustrates the contrast between Joseph and Imarte’s very different approaches to their work: Imarte is only concerned with the integrity of the Chumash “cultural myth sphere”, while Joseph mainly just wants them to have a good time so they don’t fret about the upcoming relocation. He’s much more of a pragmatist than Imarte — or putting it another way: he’s a Facilitator, while she’s a Preserver.

On the other hand, the scene links back directly to the flashback in chapter 16 about Joseph’s training in prehistory, where he was told Bugs Bunny is the hero of the stories “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.” Here, Joseph comes to the realization that this doesn’t really apply to him anymore. “Gradually the world got darker and smaller, and my job got a little dirtier.” Joseph isn’t the hero anymore. He’s not even a very accomplished villain. He’s now become the coyote, in more ways than one, and even though the little puff of dust isn’t visible yet, he knows he’s falling fast. Only Kage Baker could use something as ridiculous as a Looney Tunes cartoon to bring a character to a moment of such painful self-realization.

And on yet another hand (as Joseph said back in chapter 26, “you never have enough hands, do you?”) Kage Baker is talking about the universality of myths and stories. The immortals instinctively understood the animistic tales about Coyote and Killer Whale and all the rest during the kantap’s performance in chapter 22, just like young Joseph was immediately captivated by the Bugs Bunny cartoon the nurses showed him after his first augmentation surgery in 18,000 BC. Here, the Chumash need only a few brief explanations to understand the cartoons — and they probably would have contextualized the “hunting medicine” even without Joseph’s slides and despite Imarte’s concerns.

What Kage Baker is doing here is not that different from what Catherynne M. Valente does in some of her short fiction, e.g. in her brilliant novella Six-Gun Snow White and especially in her collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams (which I reviewed for Tor.com here and here, respectively). Some stories are universal. They never go away, and even if they do, they instantly reconnect because they’re built on Jungian archetypes, on ideas and concepts that are universal across cultures and, as Kage Baker shows in her uniquely anachronistic way, across time. And again, I just have to stress the brilliance of doing all of this using, of all things, a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon AND tying all of it together with the culmination of Joseph’s doubts and fears about the Company. Kage Baker was one of a kind.

Chapter 32: This is another short, transitional chapter that’s mainly notable for the arrival of the “sky canoes” (or as Mendoza calls them, in another one of Kage Baker’s little jabs at Erich von Däniken, the “chariots of the gods”) and of course for the conversation between Mendoza and Joseph. Mendoza’s request to stay in California has been approved, at least in part thanks to Joseph calling in some favors, and she is obviously ready to let her work distract her from her painful memories of Nicholas:

“But, Mendoza — you have no idea what it’ll be like. I’ve been on field assignments in real fields, baby; there are no shelters, no generators, no emergency backup. You live like an animal in the woods, and you can lose yourself.”

“God, I hope so,” she said softly.

Chapters 33 and 34: The day of the sky canoes. The author evokes the melancholy atmosphere of the Chumash’s final departure perfectly and, as so often with Kage Baker, in cinematic terms:

Not a soul to see, not a sound to hear: the houses looked transparent in the bleak air. Some cameramen somewhere was about to turn a rheostat, and they’d all fade out, shadows on a screen in a darkened room, no more.

There’s something Pied Piper-esque about Joseph in this scene, walking backwards and guiding the villagers towards the holo-produced version of the Rainbow Bridge at Raven Point and the end of their old lives, all the while singing the beautiful song he composed for the occasion. I confess that I have no idea whether this is a real song Joseph appropriated or not. (Edit: thanks to one of our wonderful commenters, I now know the song is based on “Bye Bye Blackbird” by Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon!)

I kept my eyes on the village as we went along, walking backward most of the way, and I swear I saw the thatching on the houses blow away, their upright poles collapse, everything crumble. The ghosts took it over. My village died again, the old life died again. It was the year 1700, and time was running out for the old ways, the little tribal villages under the trees. A couple more centuries, and there wouldn’t be any Stone Age left anywhere, would there? Except in my memory.

Despite the melancholy atmosphere, there’s also hope. Mendoza seems downright cheerful, joking with Joseph about Kenemekme, who is making a break for it in his flower-laden canoe. In the comments on last week’s post someone speculated that Kenemekme would live on to become an ancestor of Juan Bautista, the young zoologist in Mendoza in Hollywood who hails from one of the Channel Islands Kenemekme is heading towards. I must admit that 1) I never even considered the possibility and 2) I’m a bit skeptical. However, it is possible, and it would be a lovely (and very Kage Baker-like) detail, so I’m going to be on high alert for any textual evidence to this effect when we start rereading Mendoza in Hollywood in two weeks. (I always thought this was just a wink back to the “I hoped I hadn’t started a religion” line in chapter 23, and more importantly, an early example of Joseph going against Company policy by letting a “loose end” get away.)

Finally, a minor detail, but based on the way Joseph describes her thoughts, my best guess for the identity of the “lady of a metaphysical turn of mind” is Hildegard of Bingen. Can you imagine Joseph debating theology with her? I would pay good money to read that story.

Chapter 35: In this chapter, Joseph wraps up the story by describing what happened to the Chumash after their move to MacKenzie Base, what happened to the artifacts and genetic material the Company collected on this mission, and what happened to Joseph between the end of this novel and the start of The Graveyard Game.

I loved reading how commercially successful the Chumash became on Company bases. You’d expect Cut-Me-Own-Throat Nutku and company to rake in the cash, and you’d be right, but what really kills me here is that their first big commercial break are the Club Med-style “BeadBucks” used at Company resorts. After all, back in the real world, colonial aggressors will go on to cheat unwitting tribes out of their lands and goods by paying them with… beads. Trope successfully subverted!

The line “Most of them lived to see a third century” confused me at first, because while we’ll see mortal life spans of well over 100 years in the future, I don’t think over 300 years is possible without pineal tribrantine 3, even in the 24th century. Instead, that line is referring to the fact that, with most of the novel set in the year 1700, all the Chumash except newborns were born in the 17th century and, with Company-improved lifespans of well over 100 years, will live past the year 1800 and so into the 19th century.

The second section of the chapter shows why the Company lifted Chumash in the first place: in the future, a wealthy group of New Age aficionados will decide they’re reincarnated Chumash and pay Dr. Zeus handily to recreate the “total Chumash experience.” The Company, thanks to the Temporal Concordance, knew this would happen and, after hearing the magic words “spare no expense”, arranged the mission we’ve just read about.

You could argue that the Company saved the Humashup Chumash from historical colonialism, but turning them into menial laborers in the name of corporate profit isn’t really all that different, is it? This may be the single most unethical Company mission we’ll read about in the entire series, despite Joseph’s typically flippant tone.

Still, there are so many hilarious little Kage Baker touches in this section, from historical preservationists complaining about “picturesque old oil rigs” being dismantled off the coast of the New Chumash Nation, to the new Chumash complaining about the lack of psychic contacts with dolphins, and best of all, people muttering darkly that “the town’s being run by Indians” after the Chumash revitalize the Hollywood entertainment industry.

The third and final section of the chapter describes what happens to the immortal operatives mentioned in the novel after the end of the mission:

Happy endings aren’t so easy to come by when you’re an immortal, because nothing ever quite seems to end.

The first few examples Joseph lists aren’t too bad. New World One is closed down as scheduled, with another little joke at the expense of Von Däniken-style crackpots about “leaving not a rack behind for Colonel Churchward or any of those other guys to find.” Houbert moves on to Europe. Latif is reunited with his hero Suleyman in North Africa. Joseph himself remains in the New World, but now as a jolly Franciscan friar, a role he’s much more suited to. (See below for a few great short stories about this part of his career.). Eventually he’s assigned to Hollywood during the Golden Age of Cinema, where he’ll be joined by Lewis, leading to a few more great stories and novellas we’ll cover later.

Joseph loses track of Mendoza after the middle of the 19th century. He sees mention of a disciplinary hearing in 1863, but he’s “unwilling to integrate” the rest of that memo, letting it sit right next to Budu’s message in his tertiary consciousness. You can just feel Joseph’s conscience eating away at him, right? The next novel in the series, Mendoza in Hollywood, consists of the audio transcript of that same disciplinary hearing.

Joseph mentions spotting Mendoza in the Hotel St. Catherine on Catalina Island in 1923, in the company of a man he believes to be Nicholas but is really all three Adonai, who are at this point sharing Alec’s body, with Edward in control and Nicholas and Alec along for the ride. We’ll get to see this very same scene from the Adonai perspective in The Machine’s Child.

“A Memo From Dr. Zeus, Incorporated.”: This is a short, two and a half page mini-story that, as far as I know, was only ever included in the Avon Eos paperback edition of Sky Coyote. Until I got the Tor edition of the novel to help prepare for this reread, I didn’t even realize it wasn’t included there. (The “Eos Spotlight” graphic in the top left corner of the first page suggests that this was probably meant to be something like a bonus feature for the first paperback edition.)

Short as it is, it’s an interesting addition to the novel, but I don’t expect any but the most die-hard fans to go out and chase down secondhand copies of this long out-of-print edition, so I’ll quickly summarize what’s in this epilogue/story/chapter/whatever. It consists of three short sections:

The first one is the transcript of a top secret audio memo from Bugleg to Rappacini, recorded on June 6, 2351. It opens with Bugleg complaining, presumably to Lopez (“No cyborgs allowed”), that the recording equipment isn’t working. Once he gets it to work, Bugleg tells Rappacini that he put the “new stuff” in someone’s drink (possibly Lopez again) and “he drank it but nothing happened.” This is an early example of the mortals’ attempts to disable the immortals, which will become much more central in the second half of the series.

The second section is an undated memo from Aegeus, Executive Facilitator Western Europe, to Ereshkigal, who holds the same title in Asia Minor. Aegeus is informing “Reshi darling” about the contents of Bugleg’s memo, which he pulled from the Company’s secure channels. This is interesting because it shows that some of the immortals are already running circles around their “mortal masters.” There’s also an early indication of Aegeus’s mindset: where Labienus wants to exterminate the mortals, Labienus wants to exploit them. We’ll come back to this contrast in The Children of the Company.

The third and final section is a memo from “L” to “N”, obviously abbreviations of Labienus and his right hand man Nennius. Labienus has intercepted Aegeus’s memo and complains that his chief rival “simply cannot grasp that the monkeys will persist in their efforts to unmake us. Hasn’t he ever accessed Frankenstein, for heaven’s sake?” Labienus then goes on to suggest a few ways to deal with the latest treachery by the mortals (“What would you say would be appropriate? An outbreak of Marburg virus in metropolitan Paris? Another suborbital flight disaster?”), ending with the comical suggestion of subscribing them anonymously to a “Holo of the Month Club.”

For just over two pages of material, this little coda gives several solid hints of what’s going on in the shadows of the Company. It all makes sense now, and it shows that Kage Baker had planned the entire series arc from the very beginning, but I remember being mostly confused by it back when I first read it.

 

Further Reading

After the first three novels in the series, the internal chronological order becomes rather confusing, which is understandable, given that it’s a time travel series. (Please refer to the reread’s unofficial motto/slogan/fight song mentioned at the end of the introductory post.) However, at this point it’s all still fairly straightforward as long as you disregard a few specific sections, like the final chapter of Sky Coyote. I’m planning to cover all the short stories and novellas and so on after we finish with the novels in the series, but if anyone is interested in already reading some of the wonderful stories that fall square between the end of his novel and the beginning of the next one, I’d recommend “Lemuria Will Rise!” and “Hanuman” (featuring Mendoza), as well as “Noble Mold” and “A Night on the Barbary Coast” (featuring both Joseph and Mendoza.)

(That last one was included in the Tor collection Gods and Pawns. The other three are included in Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, which is the unofficial “Book 4 ½” in the series. While I wouldn’t suggest hunting down the Avon Eos edition of Sky Coyote to anyone but the most die-hard completists, I do recommend Black Projects, White Knights because it contains several stories that have so far not been collected elsewhere, and it’s a fascinating part of the strange publishing history of this series.)

There are several other stories set in California in this period but without Joseph or Mendoza, including “Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin” and “Hellfire at Twilight”, as well as a few stories that eventually would become part of the fix-up novel The Children of the Company. There’s also another significant chunk of Company material that’s set during these years but on the other side of the pond, focusing on the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society (the novel Not Less Than Gods and the stories “The Unfortunate Gytt” and “Speed, Speed the Cable”) and the ones about the GSS’s “Ladies’ Auxiliary” (“The Women of Nell Gwynne’s”, “The Bohemian Astrobleme” and “Nell Gwynne’s On Land and At Sea”, which was completed posthumously by Kage’s sister Kathleen Bartholomew.)

And speaking of Kathleen, if all goes well we’ll have another guest post by her next week (you can find the first one here in case you missed it), and the week after that we’ll get started on Mendoza in Hollywood!

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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