Kage Baker, The Children of the Company (Tor, 2005)

This week, I started reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series which runs, to date, to just under three thousand pages. So far what I have read in The Company -- of which The Children of the Company is the latest published piece -- suggests Kage will reach that impressive number of pages rather soon. (If you could read the next novel in this series, as I have, it is already quite close to that number.) If A Song of Ice and Fire series is anywhere near as good as the The Company series has been to date as a reading experience, I am in for a lot of pleasurable reading! But this is not a review of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but rather is a look at the latest published novel in Baker's series. Is The Children of the Company worth reading? Of course! As the good folks at Golden Gryphon said of this novel, 'Baker's The Children of the Company demonstrates her mastery of the short story, while providing significant background information, setting the table nicely for the final (Final? Let's hope not!) book in the Company series.'

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning. . . . What if you discovered that time travel was practical, but only one way -- back into the past? You certainly don't want to be stuck in the past if you're planning on being very, very rich in the time that you come from. And mortals of the past are both frail and short-lived. Sigh. Damn. But what if you could create immortal cyborgs by using the discards of their societies? (Being rich and clever is very, very good. It also can be a terrible trap if you think too logically.) Now, the process only works on relatively young children, so you yourself will never be immortal. And though there are often horrible side effects, at least in theory you can create a cadre of loyal, extremely strong and intelligent workers who can be used to do your bidding for tens of thousands of years if need be. And the only rule governing your actions is that recorded history can't be altered. Not because it can't be changed, but because no one wants to find out what happens if you did. Remember the classic Heinlein story, "By His Bootstraps,"' in which events to change history were to no avail? Or Leiber's The Big Time, in which time was so changeable that nothing was fixed? It appears Dr. Zeus, Inc. is not interested in risking wealth, long lives, and really nice acquisitions on the chance that things might go terribly wrong!

(I cheated. Really. Truly. That paragraph is my introduction to the series in The Company omnibus review I wrote back when there were but four novels in the series -- no chapbooks from Golden Gryphon, no collections, and not even a hint that the series might warrant a nice thick, illustrated concordance of its own like the sprawling Dune series got with the Dune Encyclopedia, and which hopefully the Song of Ice and Fire series will someday get!)

The Children of the Company is, as critics elsewhere have noted, a mosaic novel in that it's (partially) comprised of material that first saw light elsewhere. Now this is not all that unusual. Robert M. Tilendis, in his review of Charles de Lint's Moonheart and Spiritwalk, noted the latter novel was assembled out of shorter pieces. The only question that should be asked is does the novel work as a narrative regardless of where the source material is from. And The Children of the Company is, if you're reading the series as it evolves, well-worth your time. No, it's not the best of the novels in the series -- the next novel, The Machine's Child, is simply one of the most brilliant novels you'll have the pleasure to read when Tor publishes it -- but The Children of the Company adds a bit of needed back story to the universe the series is set in.

The focus here is not on Alex Checkerfield or Mendoza, not even Lewis or Joseph, but rather Executive Facilitator General Labienus, who was last seen presiding over a hearing to determine the fate of the Botanist Mendoza. (What he is decided was her fate is best left unsaid here. Poor Medoza never, ever gets a break from the Universe.) Millennia of working for his apparently mortal masters have given Labienus contempt for humanity but failed to take away his wicked sense of humor. He has effectively become a minor god -- Loki if you will -- quite patiently planning for the eventual extinction of all mankind and the overthrow of the Company whom he hates with such a passion that it has made him an immortal sociopath. (Did The Company have any idea what it was doing in creating immortal cyborgs who, for all practical purposes, can be at ground zero of a nuclear blast and survive? I think not.) The stories that are told by Labienus are chilling and sometimes quite funny. The old bastard might be insane, but he tells a good tale.

What Kage has done here is essentially -- without giving away any plot lines --a history of Labienus, starting from when he was recruited by the Enforcer Budu when his village was wiped out by the Great Goat Cult about 15,000 years ago. (And offering proof that The Company is not, despite what they've said, tampering with the development of humanity down the millennia. They're simply being very good at covering their interference. Of course, they'd claim they were doing it for the good of the lab rats, errr, humanity.) What Labienus does here in The Children of the Company is muse at length on how he has subverted The Company -- aka Zeus Inc. -- in what they have been attempting to do, including Project Adondi, which has had Mendoza, errr, losing her knickers at least once. And he muses upon the actions of Angeus, a fellow immortal, who has discovered a race of supposedly extinct humans, Homo Sapiens umbratilis, who may have given rise to some really nasty folk legends. And rounding off his trip down memory lane is the story of how he will plot the downfall of Victor, an willing protege of his.

This novel was chosen by the folks at scifi.com as one of their 'scifi essential books'. Well, it isn't. It is part of a long and fascinating series which ranks among the very best speculative fiction series ever created. But do not read it until you've read the previous novels in the series, as you'll likely not have a clue what is going on. Luckily for you, Tor has re-released -- in handsome trade paper editions -- three of the first four novels (In the Garden of Iden, Mendoza in Hollywood, and The Graveyard Game, but not Sky Coyote) so you have many, many hours of reading ahead of you before you get to this novel. When you have caught up on what has gone before, you will find reading this novel well-worth your time.

[Cat Eldridge]