Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Mendoza in Hollywood, Chapters 1-3

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series Reread! Today, we’re getting started on the third novel in the series, Mendoza in Hollywood. As always, you can find all previous installments of the reread on our handy-dandy index page. Also as always, ‘ware spoilers, because this reread discusses details up to and including the final novel of the series.

Quick programming note: this is the first novel in the series that doesn’t have numbered chapters. Unfortunately this will make pinpointing our starting and ending positions each week more difficult. Now, I like going chapter by chapter, because (for me at least) the best way to follow along with any reread is to read a chapter and then read that chapter’s part of the reread. So, as a workaround I’ll assign numbers to the unnumbered sections. To make it easier for everyone to find our start and end points, I’ll also mention the final sentence or phrase of the last section we’re covering each week, so those of you with ebook versions of the novel can search for it that way. Unfortunately I only have the Avon Eos edition of this novel so I can’t give page numbers for more recent ones, but maybe some of our wonderful rereaders can add those in the comments.

In either case, today we’re covering the introduction and the first three “chapters”, so from the beginning of the novel up to and including the section ending on “I hope he was appeased, somewhere, somehow.” (Page 53, in my edition.)

As a suggested soundtrack for this part of the reread, please enjoy this lovely rendition of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which Mendoza hums in the first chapter of the novel.

All set? Okay! Off to Cahuenga Pass we go.

 

 

Summary

Mendoza arrives at Cahuenga Pass HQ, which is disguised as a small stagecoach stop near Los Angeles. She meets the other operatives stationed there, and has the first of a series of troubling dreams about Nicholas Harpole. Einar organizes the first installment of the Cahuenga Pass Film Festival.

Commentary

Prologue: I’m going to skip the “Prologue” because it’s really just a summary of the previous two novels, but I do want to highlight one sentence that jumped out at me: “Transmit your orders to your cyborgs using that subatomic particle you’ve discovered that exists everywhere and in all times at once.”

Well, this ansible-like communication method both answers and poses some questions, doesn’t it? There were a few references to cross-time messages in Sky Coyote, and they’ll become much more noticeable starting with The Life of the World to Come. I’d always wondered how exactly the Company communicated across time, short of sending messengers back and forth, which would be impractical. I guess this subatomic particle is the answer, despite posing many more questions and creating a few internal inconsistencies. I’m going to file this one under the header “Handwavium” and just go with it.

Transcript: Mendoza in Hollywood, right off the bat, starts with the most explicit framing device we’ve seen in the series so far. As we discussed, the text of In the Garden of Iden will turn out to be the first section of Mendoza’s Back Way Back diary, and Sky Coyote is basically Joseph chatting with an unidentified person about the Chumash mission some time in the future. By contrast, Mendoza in Hollywood is immediately established as a deposition given at a disciplinary hearing, which sets a much darker tone for the story. (Looking ahead, The Graveyard Game is Joseph “in the darkness”, talking to Budu in his regeneration tank, and after this we’re switching to more traditional third person narration for most of the rest of the series.)

The date is March 20th, 1863, only three days after Edward’s death. Mendoza, still traumatized, has been given a whopping 5 kilograms of theobromos, which means she’s basically stoned out of her mind while recounting these events. This probably explains why the story takes some very long detours along the way!

The “auditors magisterial” taking Mendoza’s deposition are Labienus, Aethelstan, and Gamaliel. This is an interesting combination, because in the “Last Supper” scene in the final novel of the series we’ll find out that Aethelstan and Gamaliel are actually part of the cabal led by Aegeus, who is Labienus’s sworn enemy. There are a couple of possible explanations for this, including inter-cabal espionage (we’ll see Victor do something similar later on), actual cooperation between the two cabal leaders (unlikely though it seems), or even just a simple oversight on the part of the author. I’m not going to make too much of it because Aethelstan and Gamaliel are minor characters in the scale of things, and it’s quite possible they just happened to be stationed in the New World at this point and got assigned to handle this hearing by Dr. Zeus. Anyway, what’s much more important is that this is our second sighting of Labienus, after Sky Coyote’s coda. At this point his machinations are still mostly off-screen, but a few novels down the line he will turn out to be the immortal responsible for co-opting the Adonai project from the “Nouveaux Inklings”.

In the end, what I find most shocking about this introduction is Mendoza’s pure hopelessness—such a shock after seeing her so happy and eager to go into the California wilderness at the end of Sky Coyote. We already get a hint that her mortal lover somehow found her again, after more than three centuries. Mendoza’s speculation that it’s the “baptism by blood” from chapter 23 of In the Garden of Iden that helped Nicholas find her again sounds more than a little unhinged, but at this point she has as little context to explain these events as we do, so it’s no surprise that the combination of unimaginable emotional trauma and large amounts of theobromos led her to this theory.

The second part of this introduction is a brief summary of the history of 18th and 19th century California. The American Civil War was raging but relatively remote from California, which was at the time a region in transition. Mexico had only recently ceded Alta California to the United States, and would itself be occupied by France soon after only having gained independence from Spain 40 years earlier! There were indeed international plots to grab the resource-rich and strategically important young state of California from the war-torn United States, which at the time was far from the superpower it would become in the next century. Russia did in fact have a settlement on the California coast, which Kage Baker used very effectively as the setting for “Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin”. Kage Baker weaves a great amount of actual historical detail into this story, some of it well known, some of it quite obscure.

I’m not going to bore you with too many historical details about this region during the years between the end of Sky Coyote and the start of this novel (also because I’m far from an expert!) but as usual I’ll drop the occasional Wikipedia link in the commentary when it seems relevant. If you’re not familiar with the period, I do recommend reading at least a basic summary (like this one), not just because it’s utterly fascinating but also because it’ll enrich your understanding of the novel and, maybe more importantly, make you appreciate how deftly the author blended actual history into this story.

Chapter 1: Mendoza arrives at Cahuenga Pass HQ after spending most of the previous 162 years happily working by herself in the California wilderness of the Ventana and Big Sur. (“Most” because there were a few interruptions along the way—see the previous post for a few stories set during this time.) To put things in perspective: this was probably the happiest time in Mendoza’s career since England, and it will take thousands of years (in her subjective time line) before she will find anything resembling happiness again, aside from the few brief days she gets to spend with Edward at the end of this novel.

Mendoza’s official mission here is to collect samples from the area’s “temperate belt”, where many plant species are about to go extinct. Kage Baker is careful to explain that most of these extinctions are not directly caused by drought (because after all here in California we get droughts all the time) but rather by one of its side effects: overgrazing. In other words, the new factor in California’s ecosystem here is not the drought but rather the vast and starving herds of cattle on the ranchos of the gente de razón, who are themselves on the way out.

Kage Baker introduces, in quick succession, the operatives based here: sub-facilitator and security tech Porfirio, Zoologist Einar, Ornithologist Juan Bautista, and the Anthropologists Oscar and Imarte, who you’ll remember from Sky Coyote.

Porfirio, with his “thin black mustache and a sad, villainous face villainously scarred”, is the leader of the team. The best way to describe him is as a Company troubleshooter, in the sense that if someone makes trouble, the Company sends him out to shoot them. This can include defective operatives, as seen in the short story “The Catch”. Porfirio’s story is a unique one, which we’ll get to later when he tells it himself a few chapters down the road. As you read on, it becomes fairly apparent that he’s mainly there to be the Company’s eyes-and-ears on the ground, because of course Dr. Zeus already knows what will happen to Mendoza, both the temporal incident that inadvertently transfers her and Einar to the future, and the tragedy at the end of the novel.

Next up is Einar, the Scandinavian Zoologist hoping to transition into a Cinema specialty (which he’ll never get to do). Einar is an ancient operative who’s been in the field for millennia. He’s also rather trigger-happy when it comes to dealing with the more aggressive locals, and a bit eccentric to boot. Thanks to Einar’s fascination with old Hollywood, Kage Baker will be able to include many great details about future studio locations and movie star mansions in this novel, not to mention the Cahuenga Pass Film Festival.

Third to appear is the anthropologist Oscar, who looks like “a little Yankee lawyer and congressman.” He’s responsible for some of the funniest scenes in the novel and allows the author to insert a great amount of fascinating contemporary detail about the local inhabitants and early Anglo-Californian culture. I’ve always wondered if he was based on someone the author knew in life, because he’s so perfectly lifelike and so hilarious.

Next up is Imarte, who during this mission functions as an “insertion anthropologist” (cue the sniggers) and who obviously still holds a grudge against Joseph and, by association, against Mendoza. Maybe it’s the contrast with her “daughter of joy” role here, but this novel makes it much more apparent that Imarte is one of the most work-obsessed and, dare I say it, nerdiest operatives we’ve met so far, prone to impassioned lectures about anthropology at the drop of a hat and, Sheldon Cooper-like, mostly oblivious to the fact that she’s either boring or annoying her audience. I may have mentioned this a time or twelve already but gods, I wish we had a short story or novella dedicated to Imarte.

Rounding out the team is the young Ornithologist Juan Bautista, who has been recruited only recently, and by Joseph no less, as we’ll learn later. He has the distinctive silver hair of the Channel Island Indian tribes, which must have been incredibly striking. (When he makes his second appearance in The Graveyard Game, more than a century later, he has had to dye his hair black because that particular trait has been winnowed out of the gene pool by then.) Juan Bautista is already carrying around his baby condor Erich von Stroheim, or as Mendoza describes it, “a tiny writhing monster from outer space”. Juan Bautista will go through some of the same issues Mendoza went through during the Iden mission (as long as you substitute dour English protestant martyrs with, well, birds) and, like teenagers throughout eternity, will mostly ignore the well-meant advice he gets from his more experienced companions.

And then, after the introductions and the comedy of Einar doing what has caused so many singed eyebrows during family barbecues throughout time, it already begins to go south for poor Mendoza. Sleeping in a real, old-fashioned bed for the first time in decades, her mind is inexorably drawn back to Nicholas, who appears to her in the first of many nightmares. The Bible quotation “Talitha koum” roughly translates to “Little girl, arise”, which is in itself a strange and bitter twist, because those words were spoken by Jesus when resurrecting a dead girl, not by a dead man to an immortal woman who, as the dream progresses, rejoices at being stabbed through the heart so she can leave the world behind. Oh, Mendoza. When she finally wakes up, Porfirio appears to check on her because (as we learn later) Mendoza has started generating huge amounts of Crome’s radiation during her frequent nightmares.

During Mendoza and Einar’s first foray into the temperate belt, Mendoza gets her first real look at Catalina Island, where so much of the rest of the series will be centered. (I love that Einar mentions that some of Treasure Island was shot on location there. I don’t think it’s ever mentioned in the books, but imagine how weird it would have been for the pirate-obsessed Alec if he recognized some of the landscape!) Also, note the foreshadowing of Mendoza “almost hearing the blaring horns of the traffic, almost breathing in the smell of expensive cigars and auto exhaust” when Einar gives her his “tour of future Hollywood.” Unfortunately for everyone involved, she’ll soon experience the real thing.

My favorite part of this chapter is Einar’s breathless description of L. Frank Baum’s “Ozcot” house and especially the painter Lincoln Copeland, who’ll start getting artistic visions thanks to the ashes recovered from Ozcot during future L.A. riots. I love how Kage Baker draws a line from Hollywood’s past (Ozcot hasn’t even been built yet) to the present (the actual Los Angeles riots inspired Kage’s future history of California) to the future. And I especially love that she didn’t fall into the classic science fiction trap of only including art created before the novel was written, by making Mendoza instantly recognize the name of the fictional future artist Lincoln Copeland. After all, wouldn’t you expect some pieces of art created between today and 2355 to stand the test of time and become eternal classics?

This chapter also sees the start of the wonderful running gag of Porfirio’s bet with Oscar, who will try to sell his ridiculous Criterion Patented Brassbound Pie Safe to unsuspecting Californians throughout the novel. I mainly bring it up here because it’s a prime example of this novel’s oddest feature: up until the very end of the novel, Kage Baker focuses the reader’s attention on literally almost anything except the main intrigue. It’s one big exercise in misdirection. Front and center stage we get Juan Bautista’s birds and Einar’s movies and Oscar’s sales pitches, while all the truly important plot points about the British plot sort of happen in the background. It’s only when Edward enters the story that all those little details about Asbury Harpending’s plot and Alfred Rubery’s briefcase coalesce into a solid picture.

Chapter 2: There are only a few points to highlight in this brief chapter, in which we visit the city of Los Angeles for the first time. Before the operatives get there, we’re treated to some absolutely classic, grade-A bickering between Imarte and Mendoza, as well as another example of Einar giving a Tour of Future L.A. and Environs. (This one includes a second mention of the Hollywood Bowl, where Kage Baker will set a wonderful Joseph and Lewis story about a very special performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Rude Mechanicals”.) This is also the chapter where Einar’s comes up with the idea for the film festival, which will already be put into practice in the very next chapter.

The way Kage Baker describes Los Angeles is borderline dystopian: a round of gunfire as a welcome, followed by a full paragraph describing the impressive diversity of the beggar population, even including one representative of the Chinigchinix Indians, who you’ll remember as the powerful monotheistic tribe from Sky Coyote. (“Sic transit Chinigchinix,” thinks Mendoza wryly.) The Bella Union, where Mendoza is mistaken for a prostitute, was a real establishment with an amazing history—and, like so many wonderful historical landmarks in L.A., it is currently a parking lot. Meaningful detail: the Bella Union was known as a place popular with supporters of the Southern Confederacy, to the point that Union soldiers were forbidden to enter. (It had obviously been named before the Civil War broke out.)

Finally, a small detail but a telling one: in the cocktail bar in the Lost City of the Lizard People (and what a typical Kage Baker idea that is!) Einar mentions the miles of Company tunnels running under the area, from Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert and even to the “undersea base in the Catalina Channel.” Now, we know the Company builds its bases in remote locations, and for obvious reasons, but I don’t think we see many other undersea bases, right? Must be something important on that island…

Chapter 3: One visit to Los Diablos was enough to convince Mendoza to go back to staying away from mortals, so until Edward pops up, we’ll mostly see her in Cahuenga Pass and immediate surroundings. This also means that, for most of the story, her primary sources of news about historical events in the outside world will be newspapers, magazines, and visitors.

As a setup, this is even more limiting than In the Garden of Iden, where the historical events of the Counter-Reformation at least trickled into the story via the radio. At Cahuenga Pass, the radio doesn’t work because of the surrounding cliffs, so the operatives are even more cut off. Still, important details sneak in here and there: in this chapter, for example, Mendoza learns from Porfirio’s Punch magazine that the British are playing both sides of the fence in the ongoing American Civil War—which is critical to the plot, but (as usual in this novel) completely overshadowed by the chapter’s main event: the first Cahuenga Pass Film Festival!

For me personally, the defining image of Mendoza in Hollywood has always been these operatives, huddled in their adobe coach stop in 19th century California, surrounded by darkness but completely engrossed in a silent movie projected on a bedsheet. Aside from being an anachronism so blatant that it could only have sprung from the mind of Kage Baker, there’s something heart-warming about it too: the operatives are in their own element here, geeking out about movies, even dressing up for the occasion. It’s a rare occurrence in this series to see the employees of Dr. Zeus off duty without any bickering or plotting.

Einar’s description of the way Greed by Erich von Stroheim (the director, not the condor) was shot is true, insane as it may sound, as is the way it was drastically edited down to less than a quarter of its length by the studio and against the director’s wishes. As to why Kage Baker picked this particular movie: I don’t think its plot or characters have any direct, meaningful connection to the novel, as opposed to the next movie with its time travel theme and the Babylon/Imarte link. However, the nine hour “director’s cut” of Greed that the operatives see here is apparently considered to be the long lost “holy grail” for film archivists… just the type of thing Dr. Zeus would keep in its vaults for the right buyer! I believe that Kage Baker just couldn’t resist including it here for that specific reason.

 

And that’s where we’ll end for today!

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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