Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Mendoza in Hollywood
Kage Baker
Harcourt Brace, 352 pages

Mendoza in Hollywood
Kage Baker
Kage Baker was born in 1952 in Hollywood, California. She grew up there and in Pismo Beach, where she now resides. She has worked as a graphic artist, mural painter and assorted roles in the theatre. Many years of total immersion research in Elizabethan as well as other historical periods has left her with a working knowledge of period speech and details evident in her writing.

Kage Baker Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Sky Coyote
SF Site Review: In the Garden of Iden

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Advertisement
While a growing category, serial novels are hardly unique to SF and Fantasy. In Mystery/Suspense the Travis McGee and Nero Stout books, to name just one of many, and Young Adult titles such as Little House on the Prairie, not to mention the endless Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys sagas, come immediately to mind. The late Patrick O'Brian's Historical/Nautical novels of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin ran to 20 volumes. Even so-called literary or mainstream fiction, such as John Updike's Rabbit novels and Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, feature recurring characters.

But while SF and Fantasy didn't invent the sequel, it can claim the perhaps dubious credit for the glut of multi-volume (sometimes into the double digits) sets in which each new edition is a fat chapter of a humongous opus that makes the Mahabharata look like a short story. Typically, you won't entirely "get" the storyline if you read these books out of sequence or fail to finish the entire series. Whether or not this is a good thing depends upon whether the ongoing narrative is sufficiently gripping or meaningful to carry you along over the course of several years of reading.

Which brings me to Mendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker's latest in her series of stories about the Company, a mysterious 24th century conglomerate that recovers lost artifacts from the past. Salvage operations are performed by a network of immortal cyborgs -- surgically-created humans recruited as children (the process is not suitable for adults) throughout the eons -- on the scene of various disasters to recover items just before, say, the Alexandria Library burns down or the San Francisco earthquake hits. Thus, the paradox of time travel -- whether going back in time can cause events that will change "the present" -- is sidestepped by using agents who are "of the time," though the time of their existence lasts for centuries, and who are careful not to alter the known historical record. According to history, the Alexandria Library burnt to the ground; by the 24th century, however, it can be revealed that the library's contents were actually salvaged before they were damaged and kept in safekeeping down through the centuries. Although the Company makes a profit by selling these "discoveries," it appears there may be other as yet unclear motivations of a darker and more devious sort.

Given that the series so far has gotten up only to the mid-19th century, it may take a while to find out what these ulterior motives might be. (Indeed, Baker's website reports that "several" more Company novels are planned -- presumably the next one, The Graveyard Game, is slotted for release in January 2001.) Thus, my frustration with Mendoza in Hollywood is that it is basically just a chapter, though a highly entertaining one, which I can't really evaluate until I've read the entire "book." Which is evidently a long way from completion.

Although it's the third in the series, Mendoza in Hollywood is more of a sequel to The Garden of Iden, Baker's debut novel. In both cases, we have a first-person narrative by the cyborg Mendoza on her unlucky love-life with mortal men. Mendoza appears only as a minor character in the second Company book, Sky Coyote, which has a different narrator and, in my view, is a much less successful story. (To be fair though, I seem to be in a critical minority as Sky Coyote has received many positive reviews.) After centuries of preserving botanical specimens in California mostly on her own, Mendoza is assigned to a stagecoach stop in an area that will eventually turn into the famous movie-making capital. It's a particularly clever setting in that it provides a structure for Baker to comment upon the coming age of the Silver Screen from the context of the Old West, itself destined to become one of Tinseltown's favourite themes. Making it even more eerie is the onset of regular "film festivals" of Company-supplied prints of early motion pictures, the highlight of which is D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, whose flashbacks and non-linear sequences provide the only type of time travel us ordinary folks are able to experience.

This is one of the things that Baker does really well -- using her extensive knowledge of an historical period to both provide interesting descriptive nuggets that ultimately reflect upon the futility and folly of the human condition. In fact, that's basically the underlying premise of the Company conceit. The problem is, it isn't always enough for effective storytelling.

Norman Spinrad hits the problem on the head in his Asimov'sOctober/November "On Books" column about In the Garden of Iden and the need for "closure":

    "For closure means, at novel length, a conclusion that leaves the main characters psychologically altered, maybe even dead, the fictional universe in which they have been operating either changed or seen in a different light by readers, ideally the consciousness of readers somewhat enhanced by a terminal epiphany.
    "All of which are anathema to editors or producers enforcing the strictures of a series bible... This tends to mitigate against the publication and therefore the writing of novels whose conclusions leave the readers' cozy conventional presumptions of what endings should be disturbed instead of pandered to, as real closure should.
    "It also tends to commercially encourage even first novelists, even excellent first novelists like Kage Baker, to conceive of even that first novel as the opening episode of a series... What makes [In the Garden of Iden] work as a story is that Nicholas [Mendoza's mortal lover] is a man at once intellectually and to a more limited extent psychologically liberated for his time and a religious fanatic extreme even for his time, giving the love story intellectual interest, irony, and emotional poignancy.
    "What makes the closure work admirably is that Baker faces the inevitable tragic outcome unflinchingly and has the courage to present it to the reader as such.
    "Unfortunately the novel doesn't end there. [My emphasis.]
    "Mendoza, who has undergone a tragically traumatic experience in extremis, is then reassigned to the Aztec era Mexico of her desire, where she is installed in a secret Company resort base that far outdoes anything in present-day Acapulco or Cozumel for grand luxe, and where she... is ready for the adventure of the next episode...
    "What this does, aside from setting up the next novel in the series, is make a protagonist who has been portrayed with some psychological depth as sympathetic throughout seem like a callow cardboard adventure heroine..."
Sad to say, although she is not quite the cardboard character Spinrad fears, Mendoza's sequel essentially revisits the theme of In the Garden of Iden through a physical and intellectual "lookalike" of Nicholas in the form of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax, a British agent assigned to provoke a Confederate insurrection in the isolated Union state of California. I don't think I'm revealing anything unexpected to say that Mendoza's relationship with this mortal won't turn out well, either, though it does raise the question of "Is it real, or is it Memorex?" Another unanswered question relates to Baker's introduction of an additional time-travel paradox, which in the interests of not spoiling the ending I won't reveal. Whether this paradox will be critical to future installments or will just be sidestepped remains to be seen.

Indeed, raising questions about the Company's objectives and interventions in the past seems to be a primary purpose of this book. Unfortunately, we're given clues we won't fully understand until the end -- presuming there will be one -- of the series. While this is great marketing, I don't know yet if it's going to be great storytelling.

Baker is similarly guilty of this in her latest Company short story, "Black Smoker," appearing in the January 2000 Asimov's SF. The story focuses on Vasuli Vasilievitch Kalugin, who has had cameo appearances both in Mendoza in Hollywood and in a previous short story, "Son Observe the Time" (Asimov's SF May 1999). The story, such as it is, hints at further insidious manipulations by the Company that have fatal consequences not only for humans, but the seemingly immortal. If you're "into" the series, all fine and good. But if you're not, you're not likely to be impressed. Given the predictable plotline, had an unknown writer submitted this story with a different situational setting, I wonder if Asimov's would have published it. Contrast this with the thought-provoking "Son Observe the Time" that is, deservedly, both a Nebula nominee and on the Runner-up list for the Locus 1999 Best Short Stories. The difference is that the latter is a bona fide narrative that can stand by itself, not merely a quick and inconclusive chapter of a larger epic.

That said, Mendoza in Hollywood is not without redeeming qualities. For one thing, Baker has a cynical wit that is appealing to those of us who share her less than flattering view of the human species. And in depicting the relationships of Mendoza's fellow Immortals with our pitiable mortal species, she provides an insightful framework with which to view our own personal and inevitable doom. Characterization, in fact, is Baker's strength, and it holds together a novel in which nothing much in terms of compelling plotting happens until at least the last third of the book, which, come to think of it, is also true of her other work.

The bottom line here is that I'd heartily recommend Baker's In the Garden of Iden; consider the sequels only if you're ready to commit to a long haul before you'll find out if it's been worth the ride.

Copyright © 2000 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to editor@sfsite.com.
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide