Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Mendoza in Hollywood, Chapters 8-11

It’s Tuesday, and this is Tor.com, so it must be time for another installment of the Kage Baker Company Series reread! Whoop-whoop and other assorted expressions of enthusiasm! In today’s post, we’ll be covering “chapters” 8 through 11 of Mendoza in Hollywood, meaning from the end of the previous post right up to the end of Part One, “Establishing Shot”, meaning next week we’ll get started on Part Two, “Babylon is Fallen”. In my Avon Eos edition, the ending point for this week is page 155.

As always, you can find the previous posts in the reread on our nifty index page. Also as always, please be warned that this reread contains spoilers for the entire Company series, so be careful if you haven’t read all the books yet!

The soundtrack to today’s post is the Miles Davis version of the Concierto de Aranjuez from “Sketches of Spain”. After all, what could be more appropriate for Mendoza in Hollywood than an American jazz interpretation of a Spanish classic? (Random music trivia: a song from El Amor Brujo, which was mentioned a few chapters back and which was the soundtrack to the previous post, was reinterpreted as “Will o’ the Wisp”, the track right after the Concierto de Aranjuez on that same Miles Davis record.)

 

Summary

Juan Bautista continues to have trouble balancing his work with his affection for the birds he studies. Cyrus Jackson returns for another visit to Imarte. Porfirio and Juan Bautista tell their families’ stories. Oscar continues to try and peddle his pie safe. Einar and Mendoza are inadvertently transferred to 1996 during a trip through Laurel Canyon, but manage to return safely to the 19th century.

 

Commentary

Chapter 8: This chapter’s main purpose seems to be illustrating how uncomfortable and downright dangerous mortal-immortal relationships can be. To make the point even more obvious, it does this from several perspectives.

First, Juan Bautista gets a talking-to from Porfirio about his pet Erich von Stroheim and about the dangers of falling in love with any mortal creature. Porfirio’s fatherly speech contains much the same wisdom Joseph imparted to Mendoza during the Iden mission. Don’t get attached to mortal creatures, because they will die and make you unhappy. Avoid unhappiness at all costs, because it’s the only thing that can hurt you as an immortal. The parallels between Mendoza and Juan Bautista are obvious, even before Porfirio points it out at the end of his speech.

After this, we immediately get to see the opposite side of the coin, when the love-stricken Cyrus Jackson appears, pleading with Mendoza for advice on what gift to give his beloved Miss Marthy. Clearly relationships between mortals and immortals are a bad idea for either side: yes, the immortals get attached to their ephemeral mortal partners, which eventually makes them unhappy, but let’s also not forget that the mortals unwittingly get sucked into unrealistic relationships with huge power differentials. After all, they have no way of knowing who or what they’re really dealing with. There’s something darkly amusing about Cyrus connecting Imarte with the story of Scheherazade, and then sadly ending on: “Except I’m the one doing all the talking.”

And then there’s the third example of mortal-immortal attachment, and the most memorable and complex one: Porfirio’s relationship with his family. Porfirio isn’t just attached to one mortal; he has an entire family tree of mortal relatives, who he looks after throughout the centuries to honor his mother’s dying wish. He watches each generation get born, have children, grow old, and die, then watches their children go through the same cycle, on and on forever. (I’m going to ignore the fact that Porfirio would have to track dozens of people after a few generations, and potentially thousands after several centuries. Maybe he just focuses on immediate family or even just firstborns and their firstborn descendants.)

Porfirio is such an interesting and unique character. Just in this chapter, you could read his fatherly speech to Juan Bautista as hypocrisy, given that he’s obviously quite attached to mortal creatures himself, or you could read it as a warning, because he knows (better than any other immortal!) what it’s like to see beloved mortals die.

There’s also the dark irony that Porfirio, who has cared for more mortals than any other cyborg, is a Company troubleshooter who kills troublesome mortals and defective operatives alike. The Company uses Porfirio’s love for his own family as leverage to get him to do dirty work and betray his principles. For just one example of this: there already were a few hints in the previous chapters that Porfirio knows Mendoza is a special case, suggesting he was placed in Cahuenga Pass specifically to monitor her. Then again, after the Laurel Canyon temporal incident he tells Mendoza that he didn’t get all the details about the event in advance. It’s never clear exactly how much Porfirio knows about everything that’s about to befall Mendoza, but it’s clear that he knows some of it and he doesn’t warn her. Comparing that to his generally honorable behavior with his family and his team members, I get the feeling that this is someone who wants to do the right thing but who’s occasionally forced to betray his principles.

For more Porfirio, I highly recommend “The Angel in the Darkness”, which features Porfirio in present day Los Angeles, still looking after his family’s descendants. This novella, included in the collection Gods and Pawns, is one of my favorite stories in the Company universe. (It’s also personally very meaningful for me: one of my parents, who suffered from dementia, recently passed away.) You can also find Porfirio again in the short story “The Catch”, and of course in the next novel in the series, The Graveyard Game.

Porfirio’s story even influences Mendoza’s nightmares. In her dream that night, she returns to Spain to her old home and her family, now gone for centuries. It’s a chilling scene, even before Nicholas shows up and Mendoza wakes up in a flash of Crome’s radiation:

I wander around the room disconsolately, but they never wake up to notice I’m there. They will sleep forever. Only I am awake; only I can never sleep.

Going back to Cyrus Jackson and Imarte for a second, Kage Baker sneaks another key piece of the plot into Cyrus’s love-struck soliloquy: he mentions Asbury Harpending and his doomed plotting on behalf of the Confederates. Historically, Harpending was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. He outfitted a ship, the J.M. Chapman, to go raiding off the coast of California and disrupt Union shipping. While there were other successful Confederate privateers, Harpending’s plot was foiled. This is probably the most important historical event Kage Baker used to build the plot of Mendoza in Hollywood, even though it’s all happening in the background until the very end. (By the way, remember Jackson mentioned in the previous chapter that he fought alongside William Walker in Nicaragua? That was Kage Baker setting up the connection between Jackson and Harpending, who historically was part of the Walker filibuster in Nicaragua too.)

And finally, Porfirio’s mentioning of Francis Drake during his family’s story is probably there to introduce the (somewhat tenuous) connection between Catalina, England, Dr. Zeus, and the Adonai. This practically needs a flowchart, but in a nutshell: the proto-Company technology abandoned on Catalina in prehistory finds its way back to England in part thanks to Crokeham, a young man on Francis Drake’s crew. Crokeman was motivated to go fight for faith and country after hearing Nicholas Harpole’s sermon while being burned at the stake. In this way, Kage Baker made a (probably post facto) connection between the events at the end of In the Garden of Iden and the origin story of the Company. In this chapter, Porfirio probably mentions Drake mainly to alert the reader to the fact that “el Draque” actually sailed to the New World (he even claimed it for England at one point), because it’s one piece of a string of events leading to the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society and eventually Dr. Zeus, Incorporated. All of this gets more obvious starting in The Life of the World to Come, though it’s never spelled out in detail.

Random note: the image of Juan Bautista walking around with the condor Erich von Stroheim sitting on his shoulders, “straddling his head like a bizarre hat”, gets me every time. It always reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s Duck Man, for obvious reasons I guess.

Chapter 9: This chapter documents two more failed attempts by Oscar to sell his pie safe, but otherwise there’s not a whole lot to talk about here. The idea of Oscar giving a volume of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry to his would-be customer is so absurd that I went looking for a Shelley quote to include in this section, but in the end I decided to leave this as an exercise for the (re-)reader.

Chapter 10: And then there’s the Trip to Future Los Angeles, one of the most pivotal scenes in the entire series. Thanks to Kathleen Bartholomew’s post about In the Garden of Iden (check the fourth paragraph), we now know that a scene with Mendoza in historical costume appearing on a busy modern day California highway was one of the very first ones Kage Baker thought of when she came up with the idea for this series. Even though the location and setup changed a bit between that moment and the way it ended up in Mendoza in Hollywood, this is clearly a key moment in the series. So I guess we have a lot to talk about here…

First of all, Porfirio’s reactions before the event are interesting. On the one hand, when Porfirio tells Mendoza “you of all people” shouldn’t go there, it’s clear that he knows going to Laurel Canyon would be a bad idea for her, presumably because he’s already had plenty of direct visual evidence that she’s a Crome generator. On the other hand, he spits out his coffee when Mendoza announces her intentions, indicating he’s surprised. Based on his conversation with Mendoza after her return, I’m guessing the Company only gave Porfirio a vague warning (“keep her away from Laurel Canyon, the Crome Danger Zone, because she’s a Crome generator, but if she goes make sure she wears all this equipment”) without specifying when exactly she would go and, more importantly, what would happen to her and Einar. The Ghostbusters-style monitoring gear is conveniently on site and ready to go, presumably so the Company has it nearby to monitor the biggest Crome “spectral sponge” on the continent, but probably specifically for this event.

Laurel Canyon is an actual area/neighborhood in Los Angeles and has indeed been host to all kinds of weirdness throughout recent history, including stories of paranormal activity like John Barrymore’s wake, which is a real (if debunked) urban legend. Harry Houdini did in fact live there for a while, and his estate can still be found in the area. The bit about Houdini becoming an aggressive debunker of paranormal theories is true, but I can’t find any historical basis for the Montgomery Sherrinford story. Laurel Canyon was also Ground Zero for the Sixties peace-and-love movement and music scene in Los Angeles, similar to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. It is, for example, the titular canyon in Joni Mitchell’s classic album “Ladies of the Canyon”. (There’s now also a famous recording studio called “The Mansion” in the area, which, despite claims to the contrary, isn’t one of Houdini’s former residences but, maybe to make up for this sad deficiency, is said to be haunted.) All of this ties in perfectly with the Company series’ conceit that Crome generators and paranormal activity go hand in hand.

One final note about the real Laurel Canyon: you can actually follow Mendoza and Einar’s exact path through Los Angeles using Google Maps and Street View. Search for Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Los Angeles, then look for the intersection with Lookout Mountain (it’s an Avenue, not a Drive like in the book), then look east and you’ll see Mt. Olympus Drive and Zeus Drive. Yes, it actually exists! (I’ll admit that I spent some time looking for a house with a “Dr. Zeus logo picked out in green pebbles on the red-pebble tessellation of the front walk” on Street View, but I’m guessing Dr. Zeus must have switched to a different sign now the old one’s been revealed in this novel…)

As terrifying as the event must be for Mendoza and Einar, there’s also something a bit comical about them showing up in a mundane 1996 L.A. cul-de-sac, leading their horses through the garage and into the living room, to the disgust of the Future Kids. Regional Facilitator Maire tries to act cool when she introduces herself to Mendoza, but her brief moment of hesitation suggests she knows not only what’s about to happen, but possibly also what’s in Mendoza’s immediate future. (Anyone remember if Maire shows up anywhere else in the series, aside from the mirror scene in The Graveyard Game? I can’t think of any other appearances by her.)

The most heartbreaking part of the scene has to be Lewis, who has been desperately in love with Mendoza for centuries, trying to warn her about her impending doom. In 1996, Lewis doesn’t know all the details about what happened to Mendoza yet, but he thinks he knows what got her in trouble (killing several mortals after Edward’s murder at the end of Mendoza in Hollywood) so he tries to warn her. Mendoza misinterprets his desperate warning (“Mendoza, for God’s sake! Don’t go with him!”) because, from her perspective, Edward hasn’t appeared yet. As a result, she thinks Lewis is referring to Einar, not Edward.

The Graveyard Game will show us this same scene from the perspective of Lewis, who at this point is already busy investigating with Joseph what happened to Mendoza. This scene is the only time Lewis and Mendoza meet between their New World One farewell in 1700 and the end of the series in 2355, making the dramatic gesture of touching hands through the glass while the stasis gas is already swirling around Mendoza even more dramatic. As we know, neither Mendoza nor Lewis will have a particularly great time over the intervening years.

So why is this scene so important? Well, it’s a turning point in the series for a number of reasons. On the character level, it’s the first time Mendoza witnesses a future city, complete with urban concrete sprawl and smog, which must be a shock for our emotionally fragile Botanist who relies on plants and trees to maintain her last shreds of sanity. More importantly, it’s the first time the supposedly ironclad law that no one can travel into their own future is broken. This has all kinds of implications for how the Company controls the flow of history to ensure its own creation, as well as how it controls its operatives/employees/slaves by only giving them very limited information from the Temporal Concordance.

This threat to the Company’s control, and not Mendoza killing several mortals at the end of the novel, is why Dr. Zeus is so eager to get rid of her after this incident. Looking forward, it also raises more questions about the nature of Crome’s radiation: Mendoza and Alec/Edward/Nicholas will explore how Crome’s and time travel interact in more detail in the final two novels of the series. This will prove to be a much bigger threat to the Company’s control. All the seeds for those key developments later in the series are planted in this chapter, so we’ll probably point back to it many times as the reread continues.

Chapter 11: This one is mostly interesting for Juan Bautista’s recruitment story: Juan Bautista’s grandfather delivered him to a Christian mission in California. Based on the time period, the location, and the physical description of the immortal who recruited Juan Bautista, it’s almost certain that Juan Bautista’s recruiter was Joseph. Add this to some of the other characteristics Juan Bautista shares with Mendoza at the time of her first mission, especially their shared tendency to love mortal creatures despite the advice of more experiences operatives, and you again get the feeling that Juan Bautista is meant to remind the reader of a less emotionally damaged Mendoza.

Since we’re looking at Juan Bautista’s origin story, maybe this is a good time for a question I’ve been pondering for ages. I’ve always wondered if his name—which means, after all, “John the Baptist”—is meaningful or not. On the one hand, it’s not an uncommon name at all, so part of me thinks I’m reading too much into things as usual. On the other, it would fit in perfectly with the religious imagery, especially at the end of the series when the Captain, Mendoza, and the three Adonai are outside of time and the story takes on a distinctly messianic tone. That’s probably too intricate a topic to start exploring at the end of this post, so we’ll save it for when we get to The Sons of Heaven. In the end, I’m inclined to believe it’s just a realistic name for a missionary to give to a rescued indigenous child, but still, it’s something to consider.

 

And that’s where we’ll leave off for today!

Stefan Raets used to review tons of science fiction and fantasy here on Tor.com and his website Far Beyond Reality, but lately his life has been eaten by Kage Baker’s Company series.

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