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In The Company Of Cyborgs:
An Interview With Kage Baker

An interview with Nick Gevers
August 2002

© Den'Al Damron-McElhiney
Kage Baker
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: The Graveyard Game
SF Site Review: Sky Coyote
SF Site Review: Mendoza in Hollywood
SF Site Review: Sky Coyote
SF Site Review: In the Garden of Iden

Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers
The Graveyard Game
Sky Coyote
Mendoza in Hollywood
Art: Michael Koelsch Sky Coyote
In the Garden of Iden

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In the mere five years since her first SF story sale to Asimov's magazine, Kage Baker has become a noted voice in American speculative fiction. Drawing on her sustained experience in the theatre and in education, she writes with keen, dramatic clarity; her preference for historical settings lends rich colour and authenticity to her steadily growing oeuvre. Her four novels to date, and the majority of her well-regarded short stories, narrate the continuing saga of the Company (also known as Dr. Zeus, Inc.), a twenty-fourth century corporation which, having mastered the technology of time travel, recruits agents from past eras, surgically alters them into immortal but still very human cyborgs, and assigns to them the accumulation and preservation of natural and artificial treasures the passage of the centuries would otherwise despoil or annihilate. This is a worthy and complex endeavour, extending across many millennia, but its ultimate purpose is perilously ambiguous, and the tension of the series is steadily increasing...

The Company novels thus far are In the Garden of Iden (1997), Sky Coyote (1999), Mendoza in Hollywood (2000), and The Graveyard Game (2001); many of the shorter series entries are now collected in the Golden Gryphon volume Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, published in September 2002. Four further novels are in prospect, including The Life of the World to Come and Children of the Company. But Baker has other strings to her bow, and a major fantasy novel is also on the way.

I interviewed Kage Baker by e-mail in August 2002.


Your book-jacket resumé recounts an ideal author's background -- artist mother, numerous siblings, varied occupations before settling down to write full time. What elements of personal experience have done most to shape you as a writer?
I'd have to say maternal guilt was a big shaper of my career. My maternal grandmother was a polymath, a woman born into the wrong time; she went for a Ph.D in English and was denied it because her professor felt women oughtn't have Ph.Ds, though he graciously admitted her thesis was brilliant. So she became an English teacher instead, never published. She died when I was three, and my mother dealt with grief by sort of pointing my life in the direction in which she felt her mother's life should have gone. I was supposed to correct that old injustice and become a writer.

So I obediently spent my childhood writing little stories, until I reached that age when you dig in your heels and tell your parents you hate them and you'll never ever be what they want you to be. And I more or less ran away with the circus for the next twenty years. I joined the Living History Centre, which produced the first Renaissance Faire and sundry educational programmes back in the 60s, and continues today in As You Like It Productions. And this was what really shaped my craft, because it gave me a tremendous education in both theatre and history and -- more important -- brought me into contact with a village full of outrageous, creative, funny people. Above all, it gave me the life experience necessary to write. The big parade in full Technicolor, joy, love, death, magic, moonlight and a cast of thousands.

You've taught Elizabethan English as a Second Language, a proficiency well utilized in In the Garden of Iden. Is there much general public demand for such teaching, or is it mainly of utility in the theatrical arena?
Generally it's restricted to theatre use, but it's a bit more than dialect coaching. You have to be able to know how an Elizabethan person would speak well enough to be able to improvise conversation, and not merely in the accents, but in grammar and vocabulary and subject matter. Essentially, you learn an entire 16th-century mindset. I've also had to absorb 19th-century English the same way, which is much harder because of the upstairs-downstairs class divisions, and both 19th- and early 20th-century American. I've coached a few writers through correct Elizabethan dialogue. Everyone, sooner or later, writes an SF story about Shakespeare. I stand ready to edit your grammar!

Your first story to see print appeared in Asimov's, and you've been closely associated with that magazine ever since. How long was it between your first fiction submission there and your first acceptance? Has Gardner Dozois, the Asimov's editor, been your primary creative mentor?
My submission record with Asimov's was uneven, to say the least. The first story I ever submitted was a novella version of Sky Coyote, back in the mid-eighties; I'm not even certain Gardner was at Asimov's at that time. It was rejected, with what I thought was a fairly rude form letter, and I never submitted to them again until my agent sent them "Noble Mold" in 1996. That was the first story I had written for sale in ten years. Gardner wrote back simply: "Thanks for sending me the Baker story. I like it, and I'll take it."

Words like that burn themselves into the memory, you know?

Anyway, he has certainly been a creative mentor for me, along with Michael Kandel, my editor at Harcourt. One of my two writing gurus, as it were. It took me a while to figure out that when Gardner rejects a story, with a long letter explaining why he rejected it, he doesn't want you to take it away weeping and burn it; he wants you to fix it and send it again. His advice is worth gold.

Considering your series of Company books -- now five volumes -- it's striking that their focus is so consistently on the past. Why, for you, is history such natural subject matter for the allegedly forward-looking genre of SF?
I think I find the pageant of history more interesting than rocket ships blasting off to other planets. And, at the end of the day, people are more entertaining than technology.

Have any previous works of SF particularly helped inspire the Company novels? Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series bears some similarity to yours, but his time-travelers battle to prevent alteration of history, whereas yours conserve its artifacts...
I'm ashamed to say I've never read the Time Patrol series. I did read C.L. Moore's Vintage Season at an early age, and it impressed me deeply. What I most brought away from it was the realization that, if anyone ever did come up with a way to time travel, they'd use it in commercial applications rather than humanitarian ones. Likewise Ray Bradbury's classic "A Sound of Thunder". The Day Six Resorts run by the Company are something of an homage to that story. We have the ability to take you back through time to witness any of the great events in human history, but we know that what you really want to do is... shoot dinosaurs! Or relax by the pool at our five-star resort after a mastodon-watching tour!

It would be nice to be able to say that I enjoyed Mr. Peabody's Improbable History, but I didn't. I hated the way it made historical characters, whom I genuinely cared about, look dumb. What can I say? I was an eight-year-old snob. I love Time Squad, oddly enough.

That contrast between your scheme and Anderson's: why did you decide to imagine the fabric of history as unalterable, excluding the possibility of alternate time-lines and the speculative angles they can generate?
It was tidier. And, it seemed to me, less overdone than the idea of having to change or prevent change in history. I find the idea of a multi-verse very hard to believe in, with infinite universes branching off from every possible outcome of any given event. I incline more to the idea that all of time exists simultaneously, and causality does not work in the manner in which we perceive it to work at all.

Besides, I left myself an out with the proviso that history's immutability can only be observed to apply to recorded history. And recorded history is so often mistaken. Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man plays with that idea, to a certain extent. His hero goes back through time to discover a gaping hole in history... which he compulsively fills in himself, becoming a part of recorded events. So nothing in the history books alters.

How did the concept of the Company evolve in your mind? What prompted aspects such as the immortal cyborgs, the enigma of the Company's true purpose, etc.?
The idea of saving creatures from extinction took root at an early age. I remember my mother reading to me from a National Geographic about coelacanths, supposedly extinct for millions of years but in reality very much alive, which impressed me no end. And at about the age of four, I had a little book about a puffin, with a rhyming story, and for some reason my mother was under the impression that puffins were extinct. She solemnly explained that there were no puffins anymore, and I used to cry about the poor sad puffins, until I discovered she'd been mistaken. By then I was permanently scarred, of course.

Then too, anybody coming of age at the end of the 20th century sweated under the lists of endangered species, all those scary statistics we couldn't escape. I had a friend on the Condor Watch program, when they were debating whether to save the handful of remaining California Condors -- were there even enough of them left to provide an adequate gene pool? Could they survive in the wild without human intervention? Should we intervene? It did seem to me that if you were going to save creatures from extinction, it made sense to do something about it well before they were endangered. Time travel would be a big plus in such an endeavour, yes?

And anyone travelling through time would have to be superhuman, gifted with encyclopaedic knowledge, able to blend into any society and work unobserved, deathless to be maintenance-free and also for the objectivity necessary. I don't believe in vampires, so it had to be cyborgs. And where you've got hundreds of superhuman creatures operating outside human ken, with unlimited power... well, their Mission Statement is likely to get a little tweaked, isn't it?

Your commitment to the Company chronicles is long-term -- all your novels to date, many short works, and a number of volumes yet to come. Why such single-mindedness? It's clearly a sustained and profound story arc you're bringing to term...
It's a big canvas. I might have gone with a nice little still life of maybe some fruit and a dead pheasant, but for some reason the damn thing is the size of The Raft of the Medusa, The Oath of the Horatii and The Night Watch combined, with a couple of Bierstadt landscapes tacked on. Maybe it's the inevitable consequence of having one's story span a hundred and fifty thousand years. When it's finished, though, it's finished.

Although your books range widely in time, your geographical focus is predominantly the West Coast of the USA. You employ loving accuracy in this; are the Company stories in some vital measure a fictionalized social and ecological history of California and environs?
Most regional writers use their environment as a way to tell universal stories in a microcosm, hopefully gaining some original slant thereby. California, though, is so many different places existing at once. You have Hollywood -- which exists globally, whether a film is shot in Encino or British Columbia or at Pinewood in the UK, it's still a product of Hollywood, which has become a concept rather than a place. And you have El Dorado, where everyone hopes to find gold. Miners came here hoping to get rich. Ordinary people came here hoping to become movie stars. Dustbowl farmers came here hoping to find work. Power, fame, salvation. People love California because they love hope, and they detest it because no real place can ever match their dreams. And you have the real place, the land itself, which is beautiful and unstable. Anything grows here. Anything is possible here. And, at any given moment and without warning, the earth may move and the solid world shatter like a pane of glass. Nice metaphor for life itself, eh? Which is, perhaps, why I use it as a setting as often as I do.

Your central character is the somewhat intractable Botanist Mendoza, dedicated and disappointed all at once. How did you conceive her contradictory nature? Is she drawn from life?
Mendoza is drawn from several observed lives, one of them mine, and to some extent is emblematic of the conflict between faith and experience. She's a very hard-edged, skeptical little girl with few illusions about life or humanity, yet she's cajoled into letting her guard down time after time -- and every single damn time, the result is disaster. Consequently she's bitterly angry with the world, and especially with Joseph, the father-figure who gave her immortality. She'd prefer to do without a heart; but the damn thing just keeps on beating.

The only thing that keeps her from shrivelling into self-loathing like Victor, or turning into a truly evil creature like Labienus, is that the girl loves. She loves her work. She faithfully, obsessively, helplessly loves her Englishman, beyond common sense or even sanity, and she dooms herself for him. And the consequences of this will play out in the remaining books. Will love destroy her, or redeem her?

Of the other significant Company personnel, which is your favourite creation? Lewis and Kalugin are appealingly flawed, Hanuman is an interesting anomaly, and Joseph has a devious wisdom...
Joseph has half the narrative voice and centre stage half the time, and his voice comes most easily. He's old, he's wise, he has no illusions either and he has compromised and done underhanded things in the Company's service; he's a survivor, like a cockroach. He's a trickster figure, slippery and untrustworthy. But, against his better judgment, he actually likes mortals. He is capable of pity. And he loves Mendoza and feels remorse about her tragedy, though he helped to cause it, and he loves his father-figure Budu, though he feels he betrayed him. Insofar as I create any of these people (because they do assume lives of their own, and do things that astonish me) I'm proudest of Joseph. But I love Lewis. He's the innocent, the pure-hearted fool.

In Black Projects, White Knights, several stories feature Alec Checkerfield, a vigorous, innovative presence on a jaded and debilitated future Earth. Why are his childhood fantasies so fixed on old-style piracy? How much can you say at this stage about his coming (and existing) role in the novels of the Company?
Well, there's a pretty broad clue in "The Hounds of Zeus", the mini-story that opens the collection, about Alec's role in the larger picture. He loves pirate stories because they're the only link with his happy early childhood, after he's taken to live in London. Pirates, in the gray oppressive world he must inhabit, are a symbol of freedom, chaos and rebellion. Moreover Alec is a little boy desperately in need of a father figure, and there is a strange tradition in literature of Pirate as Paternal Substitute: Long John Silver, Captain Hook, even Blackbeard where he appears in fiction.

Your portrayal of Alec Checkerfield's England is dystopian -- everything lively is prohibited by a sort of killjoy totalitarianism. A satirical direction is being taken here; what's your perspective on so-called "political correctness"?
"Political Correctness" has its roots in simple courtesy: don't insult others, don't assume your point of view is the only acceptable one, be inclusive rather than exclusive. But any good thing can become terrible if it is institutionalized. You can't force spiritual or moral growth on others. California has a lot of rigid Puritans, in a New Age eco-sensitive kind of way (Berkeley, for example, is attempting to make it a crime to sell coffee unless it is organic and shade-grown). And there will always be people who simply enjoy telling others what to do, and use their authority to enforce their opinions as morality. How did the Sermon on the Mount lead to the Spanish Inquisition?

I have nothing against vegetarians, animal-rights activists or Goddess worshippers. I am a tie-dyed California Liberal and I always will be; but I thought it would be instructive to depict what any coercive law, taken to its logical extreme, must inevitably produce. And I hate to see Britain trading its traditions, its sovereignty and its civil liberties for some Euro-homogeneous mess. I make a rude gesture at thee, Tony Blair.

The Company sequence appears to be tending towards an Armageddon, the mutiny of the Company slaves, visualized at the end of Black Projects as a revolt of the rebel angels. Can we expect the tone of the series to alter as this develops?
Somewhat, yes. Things are going to get quite a bit worse before they get better. Some real villains are about to step onstage.

You have a non-Company fantasy novel in the offing. What sort of book is this likely to be?
It's an outgrowth of the stories I've been writing since childhood. Bears no resemblance to Tolkien whatsoever. Part of it appeared, in an earlier version, in Asimov's, as "The Caravan from Troon". There's a lot of humour. I'll bet it's the only fantasy novel on record with a white-uniformed nurse, gourmet cuisine and one hundred and forty-four glass butterflies. Oh, yeah, and a steamboat.

Finally: if your Company actually exists -- will exist -- how will it feel about your exposure of so many of its secrets? Have any cyborgs been sighted in Pismo Beach lately?
Pismo Beach is already so full of Priestesses of Lemuria, Enlightened Ascended Masters, Rosicrucians, Anti-Federalists, Conspiracy Theorists, Beat Poets and surfers that I doubt cyborgs would stand out terribly much. If I see any big bearded men with stone axes, though, I'm gonna run like hell.

Copyright © 2002 Nick Gevers

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Locus Online, Foundation, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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