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Sky Coyote
Kage Baker
Harcourt Brace, 310 pages


Art: Michael Koelsch
Sky Coyote
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: In the Garden of Iden

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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Sky Coyote is Kage Baker's second novel in what is presumably at least a trilogy about "the Company" -- a 24th century undertaking that fetches tidy profits by plundering the past for artifacts valuable to collectors. (There's also a Company novella appearing in the May issue of Asimov's; see below.) Because 24th century folk are constitutionally averse to frequent time travelling, the Company relies on a crew of Immortals -- children selected from as far back as prehistoric times suitable to withstand procedures that turn them into cyborgs -- to locate and carefully preserve "lost" relics for later "discovery" in the future. Immortality, however, has certain unfortunate consequences, not the least of which is centuries of indentured servitude that often requires unbearable exposure to the shortcomings of mere mortals.

Except for a few nuances, you'd have no trouble following Sky Coyote without having read the first Company novel, the widely and deservedly acclaimed In the Garden of Iden. That book was a 1998 Top 10 SF and Fantasy selection by Amazon.com and a runner-up for the Barnes and Noble "New Voices" award; Baker herself is a 1998 John W. Campbell Best New Writer finalist. Skipping ahead to Sky Coyote, however, might make you wonder what all the fuss is about.

Sky Coyote fails to hold up to its predecessor in part for all the reasons that second books in a series typically prove less than satisfying. Although there is a story of sorts, its primary purpose is to further develop characters and situations that introduce ideas important to whatever will happen in the next volume and, consequently, a number of threads remain unresolved. A more serious flaw for this particular series, however, is that Baker forsakes the delicate balance between farce and tragedy she successfully struck in her first novel for heavier handed satire that thuds more than it amuses or enlightens.

Part of the problem arises from a shift in first person narrator from one book to the next. In the Garden of Iden is Mendoza's reminiscence of how she came to become an Immortal and her subsequent ill-fated love affair with a religious dissident in 16th century England.

You can easily empathize with Mendoza's tale about her loss of innocence, even while knowing that all along things will eventually end up badly. Sort of like how every time you see Hamlet there's a vague hope that this time around the melancholy Dane will somehow or another manage to avoid the poisoned sword tip, despite the certainty he won't.

Sky Coyote, in contrast, is related by Mendoza's mentor, Joseph, and is thus laden with a cynicism that, while in keeping with a being who has not only witnessed but collaborated in acts of human stupidity and cruelty over the course of several centuries, ultimately becomes wearisome. Even for a cynical kind of guy like me.

Joseph is presented literally and figuratively as a fallen god -- prosthetically-enhanced to look like the Sky Coyote god worshipped by the Chumash of Humanshup Indian tribe in 17th century California. His assignment is to gain Chumash acquiescence to be transported in "sky canoes" to live with the "Sky People" in a Company-controlled sanctuary, thus saving the tribe from the imminent destructive arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. Of course, despite Company propaganda that its interests are purely altruistic in preserving the culture of an indigenous people from the upcoming clash with Europeans, there is a profit motivation. Moreover, exposing the Chumash to the presence of people from the future is also a contamination of their culture, albeit a more benevolent one. But for some reason Baker depicts this adoption of the Chumash by the Company as a mutually beneficial fit.

And here's where the premise starts to fall apart for me. In the Garden of Iden was widely praised for accurately evoking the times of England during the destructive reign of Queen Mary and her supporters in attempting to reestablish Catholicism as the state religion. Now, whether a work of fiction adheres to historical fact is, in terms of artistic merit, in and of itself irrelevant. (Witness the cheap shots some critics have taken at the movies Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love for their anachronisms and inaccurate retelling of historical events, as if the Bard himself was ever overly concerned about authenticity in penning his own histories because, after all, 'tis the play that's the thing.) So if Baker wants to depart from a realistic depiction of the times her characters visit, that's fine as long as the overriding artistic purpose is served. But for the life of me, I don't get the point of why Baker has the Chumash (who happen to be a real tribe, by the way) speak in 20th century slang:

"...So anyway, Uncle Coyote. Did you, like, really mean that about he white men coming and all. I mean the end of the world is, no shit, coming... That is so weird... And I can't believe the first person you talked to was Kenemekme. That guy is such a loser."
Or, that the Indians are capitalists that would make John D. Rockefeller proud:
"...she was having an argument with a man at her door. 'You have to be crazy"' she was shouting. 'I can't turn out three-color baskets that fast. Nobody can!'
"'My other manufacturers do,' the man said.
"'Oh no buster, no no no, you just said the wrong thing. Didn't you ever think me and the other ladies would get together and compare notes?' Her eyes widened in fierce triumph. 'You've been using that line on all of us! And we found out you've been lying about a lot of things. Like the price controls on deergrass!'"
Maybe Baker is trying to say that humanity down through the ages -- regardless of epoch, culture or race -- is innately avaricious. But that, and much else about what she finds fault with in human history -- religious intolerance, ethnic conflict, and ignorance in general -- was all covered previously, and more effectively, in the first novel. Additionally, it's hard to identify with the Chumash, who are essentially comedic caricatures. More seriously, the story of their transplantation itself lacks much dramatic drive.

It seems to me that the story is really just a background to drop some hints that all may not be well in the 24th century for mortals. Or for those Immortals who have begun to question their assignments from imperfect -- and quite possibly severely neurotic-humans. The mortals who control the Company (if indeed they actually control it) are depicted as fairly pathetic creatures, afraid of the cyborgs that supposedly serve them. What happens once the intellectually and physically superior Immortals eventually live to meet their masters in the 24th Century -- who will be serving whom? Or, to prevent this possibility, perhaps the Immortals will not be allowed to co-exist with their creators?

But those sorts of questions are for subsequent installments. At the conclusion of Sky Coyote, Joseph says in passing that the Company has assigned him to work in the entertainment industry of early 20th Century Hollywood. He has lost track of Mendoza, although he thinks he might have run into her in 1923 with someone who "couldn't possibly have been... the person I thought I saw there."

Which brings us to the third volume in the Company series, Mendoza in Hollywood, due sometime next year. According to Kage Baker's web site, the story begins:

"...in the year 1862, as the Company transfers Mendoza to duty at a stagecoach inn in dusty, remote La Nopalera, noteworthy only for the fact that it will one day be better known to the world as Hollywood. She settles down to a quiet life of dodging stray bullets, collecting endemic plants and watching dramas played out in the lives of the other operatives stationed at the inn - think Grand Hotel with cyborgs. And then a man enters her life; or perhaps re-enters would be more correct ..."
Baker has already touched upon the power of entertainment to dull the minds of even the intellectually-enhanced Immortals, and certainly there are interesting analogies here, not the least of which is actual Immortals working in an industry that creates "immortals of the silver screen" and love stories that turn out happily ever after. It's also a potentially dangerous move to try to satirize the Hollywood ethos, given that it is already a self-parody.

That said, despite my reservations about Sky Coyote, I for one am looking forward to see where Baker is going with this. And to see if that man who re-enters Mendoza's life is who I think he is.

"Son Observe the Time"
Kage Baker
Asimov's, May 1999


Now this is more like it. Kage Baker's novella, "Observe the Time" gets all the elements right that made her In the Garden of Iden such a good read (an intriguing first person narrator evoking an historical period as a context to meditate upon human foibles and fate), while avoiding the pitfalls of Sky Coyote (broad comedy that falls flat). While a character introduced in Sky Coyote has a featured role here (and who, despite the dire circumstances in which he is left, probably will make future appearances), with some further tidings about the Company and its cyborg operatives, this story easily stands on its own merits.

On the eve of the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the Immortal narrator Victor heads Company operations to appropriate hoards before the rubble falls that will be presumed destroyed until their "discovery" in the 24th century. Victor is also responsible for "rescuing" Donal, the child of poor but hardworking Irish immigrants, who has the mental and physical propensities required to be converted into a cyborg like himself indentured to Company's future salvage operations down through the remaining centuries.

Victor is somewhat pompous, having adopted the privileged airs that go with his cover identity of a proper upper-class gentleman, although it becomes evident that even among Immortals there are class distinctions determined by intellectual aptitudes and job roles. Moreover, despite their immortality (Victor survives a throat-cutting thanks to self-repairing agents in his bloodstream and skin), apparently his ilk can still be frightened about events they can foresee, but not fully control. Indeed, Victor comes to a revelation about himself that questions whether he has any control over his own actions.

But what is primarily of interest is Victor's relationship with humans. He befriends Donal's father by pretending to be an Irish laborer who is having a wee bit of a problem with drink. The father befriends Victor and offers him the hospitality of his own family and modest home. This is according to plan, of course, to provide Victor the opportunity to confirm Donal's suitability as a cyborg and to gain the boy's trust to ensure that his abduction right before the earthquake hits goes off smoothly (which, thanks to another unforeseen intervention, it doesn't). Victor is sufficiently sympathetic towards the family to buy tickets for them to attend a children's play Donal's sister wants to see, but which the family is otherwise too poor to afford. At the same time, Victor makes no effort to save them from what he knows is certain death the following night, Donal being the only family member that qualifies for salvation. That's just the way it works.

Of course, the cognitive dissonance of the immortal Victor provides dead-eye insight into one of the many contradictions of human behavior. Perhaps the most recent example is the American aviators who, after kissing their loved ones asleep, take off from Midwestern airfields to inflict collateral damage on innocent people in their Belgrade bombing runs and then return to their regular suburban routine. Like Victor, they are just doing their jobs.

Whether Victor will continue to feel this way depends on whether Baker decides to continue the thread of this character in future Company stories. For now, what's important is how we readers feel about his -- and, by implication, our -- complacent acquiescence regarding such matters.

Copyright © 1999 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.


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