The Company Series by Kage Baker
(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 54)
The Company Series by Kage Baker
Tor Books, 1997-2007
Time travel is a great thing for science fiction writers to play with, but it poses a problem for the writer. One way to write time travel is to totally ignore the fact that the “science” behind it is slim to nonexistent, and just have a jolly good romp through time. The other approach is to explore all of the philosophical and scientific problems that mucking up the timeline creates. Kage Baker, in her mammoth Company series of novels, gives us both. In the process, she has created one of the most enjoyable science-fiction series to come about in years.
In the twenty-fourth century, a cabal of scientists discovers time travel and forms a company named Dr. Zeus, whose mission is to plunder the past for profit in the present. They have limitations, however, in that it is impossible to modify the known past, so the Company must operate in the shadow of the known timeline and acquire its products (such as rare plants and works of art, etc.) behind the scenes. If a manuscript or painting is known to have been destroyed in a fire (such as the Library of Alexandria) then the Company’s operatives will be found plundering like mad just before total destruction.
But time travel is expensive, so the Company develops a process to make its operatives immortal, creating super-powered cyborgs. These cyborgs do all the retrieval that the Company needs.
In order to know what happens in history, the operatives have a Temporal Concordance that details all of known history. There’s only one little catch: the Concordance ends in 2355 and no one knows what happens after that date.
The series opens in the dungeons of the Inquisition where a young girl who has been sold by her parents to a group of witches now finds herself. One of the Company’s cyborgs notices that young Mendoza has the potential to be an operative, and so he removes her from known history. She receives the enhancements, is assigned as a botanist, and then is sent on her first mission to 16th-century England in the reign of Bloody Mary to save some rare plants. Along the way, she falls in love with a mysterious and enigmatic anabaptistic protestant who eventually has England’s own version of the Inquisition catch up with him.
At the end of In the Garden of Iden, Mendoza is distraught at having lost her mortal lover, thus establishing one of the major plot lines of the series: the discovery of why seeming clones of Nicholas Harpole of 16th-century England keep on recurring throughout history and causing trouble for Mendoza. And what do Nicholas and Mendoza have to do with the mysterious events of 2355?
The entire Company series runs for a total of seven novels and three short-story collections, as well as a few short stories in other Kage Baker collections and one novel that takes place in the Company universe, but is not part of the series (also reviewed this issue). The story, to say the least, is complex. The cast of characters is enormous, with dozens upon dozens of cyborg operatives (although the main cast is only about two dozen in size). Each novel is a self-contained story, although not self-standing: you need to read the series in publication order to understand what is going on.
But each novel is also strong in its own right. Kage Baker is a very accomplished writer who can create very distinct characters, even dozens of them, and keep them consistent. Her sense of comedic timing is nearly flawless and there are plenty of comedic moments throughout the series, especially in the second novel, Sky Coyote.
The earlier novels in the series—the ones that take place in our own past—are by far the stronger stories. As the series progresses and gets more complex, more time is spent trying to keep all the balls in the air and the forward momentum suffers, but it is still an enjoyable series. My one major complaint, however, is that the ending doesn’t deliver all that is promised. Even though the final novel, The Sons of Heaven, is the longest novel in the series, it still rushes over too many of the dangling plot lines, tying most all of them up, but in an unsatisfying way for many of them. The novel needed to be twice its length to give everything the time it needed.
But don’t let that distract you from reading the entire series: In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, The Graveyard Game, The Life of the World to Come, The Machine’s Child, and The Sons of Heaven, as well as the short story collections, Black Projects, White Knights; The Children of the Company; and Gods and Pawns. My wife and I are into our third reading of some of the early novels and love the whole world that Kage Baker has created.