Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Life of the World to Come, by Kage Baker

A Prelude to this review:
Sarah (who wrote this review) and I are huge fans of Kage Baker's Company novels. We've read every one in the sequence and I've designated Sarah as the point-person for reviewing Baker's latest novels (which, pleasingly, are coming out at a regular pace, and are being reissued as we speak so newcomers can enjoy them all; the exception being Sky Coyote which is inexplicably still out-of-print at the moment.).

Though the majority of the novels can be read alone, these more recent novels bring together story threads subtly woven throughout the books and as such MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS: read the following review at your own risk, or better yet, read all the other books and then come back to this...

The Life of the World to Come (Tor, 2004) jumps right into the reunion of Mendoza and her once-again-reincarnated lover, whom astute readers will have already spotted as Alec Chesterfield. Some sections are taken directly from Black Projects, White Knights (Golden Gryphon), but these are interspersed with new sections that flesh out the story of Alec’s life, illustrating its similarities to—and vast differences from—the stories of Nicholas and Edward (Alec’s previous ‘manifestations’).

Alec is the most jarring of the three incarnations, mostly due to his slangy, oddly monosyllabic speech. Even to modern American ears he sounds dumb, especially compared to Nicholas’ delicious Elizabethan eloquence. Compounding this problem is the fact that the areas in which Alec is a genius are not explained in enough depth to make them seem as impressive. The ‘cyber-science’ especially comes off as too abstract, lacking some essential texture required to make it believable. While this is a nice change from the tech-term heavy sci-fi littering the planet, in which the author tries to impress you with their ability to do research (Clade springs to mind), more detail may have made the point more effective.

The future is Baker’s weakest setting, though she is, as always, witty, and her social satire is well-aimed. As a West Coaster I do find her militant-vegan-fitness-fanatic future people to be both oddly plausible and funny in a despairing sort of way, and the gradual dumbing down of the population also seems all too believable. I am of course, gratified at her idea that the future Celts, at least, held out for cream and whiskey. What she is getting at with all this is not a new idea—that the cyborgs have in fact become more ‘human’ than the humans who created them; in terms of human values, emotions, pursuits, and appreciation for the finer points of human culture. She does, however, make this point with more subtlety and effectiveness than most.

Her characters remain as alive and vibrant as ever, and that carries the bulk of the book. Satisfying, too, for anyone who has followed the saga, is Alec’s refusal to once again become a pawn of the Company. Baker hints at the workings of fate, as if there is possibly a divine—or at least cosmic—plan, a higher power at work, in the series of coincidences that bring Alec and Mendoza together, and keep him out of the clutches of the Company.

Baker wends her way though the story before hitting her stride in a fireworks finale ending which spectacularly resurrects some unlikely characters. Newly aware of their situation—of Mendoza’s role in their survival, and having seen enough of the machinations of the Company to get really pissed off—they combine to take on the entire organization, in a splendid fire and brimstone Frankenstein-esque sequence both comic and gripping. The conclusion is so well done that even the cliffhanger ending, which would ordinarily drive me crazy, seems worth it. --Sarah Keliher, 2005

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