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

Kage Baker's Company series is now on its eighth volume, which includes a chapbook and a story collection. In large, the series traces the story of Dr. Zeus Inc., a company that discovered time travel and is now engaged in looting ... mmm, "saving," the treasures of the past. Previous volumes have been characterized as "serio-comic," but in this latest entry, The Children of the Company, the comic aspects are so muted as to be invisible.

Because time travel only works one way -- a traveler can move backward, but not forward -- the Company creates immortal cyborgs, unkillable androids built on the frames of mortals, to be its agents. The title stems in part because these cyborgs are taken as children and altered and trained -- "enhanced" -- until they reach adulthood. And because it is a fact (at least in the Company's official position) that history cannot be changed, the cyborgs work in the shadow of events, those parts of history that have no written record. The characters, then, are the cyborgs, who are busily building their own little empires, jockeying for position, building alliances and finding ways to make enemies look bad, all with the idea that when the time comes -- and it will, in the mid-24th century -- when the company reaches standstill, which is to say when the past has caught up to the present, they will make their move.

The central thread in this volume is Executive Facilitator General Labienus, who provides a frame for the various episodes: he is in his office in the Northwest Territories of Canada, going through files and reviewing his career. It is a series of deep schemes, subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle revenge, and underhanded politics, all directed by a mind who holds both the company and humanity, as well as most of his peers, in complete contempt. The story is, by necessity, episodic, spanning millennia beginning in the days of the first agricultural societies, which the Company protects from their more warlike neighbors through the agency of the Enforcers, and revolves around a core group of cyborgs that have for the most part been introduced in earlier novels: Lewis, the Literature Preservation Specialist who comes very close to being destroyed and spends years in a regeneration tank, with his memories of the event carefully erased; Kalugin, a Marine Specialist, who is maneuvered into an experimental submarine in the Bering Sea and left there when the sub is sunk, only because Labienus thinks that he might at some point constitute a threat; Victor, a young Facilitator who is at first loyal to Aegeus, Labienus' chief rival, but is turned.

Victor's fall from youthful idealism to distrust and cynicism provides a major storyline in the book. He comes to a turning point when he realizes that Labienus has used him to eliminate his rivals, such as Budu, the chief of the Enforcers, and neutralize those he finds in some way threatening, such as Lewis (although Lewis does seem to manage to survive).

There are some sections of the book that drag. Kalugin's monologue, as he sinks in his submarine confident of prompt rescue and then realizes that he is being abandoned, approaches self-indulgence, although the book on the whole is fairly tight. Characterization is rich enough that we are even inclined to accept Labienus as the product of millennia of the erosion of his human qualities, rather than as a cartoon. And of course, the scope of the story is breathtaking: from the preliterate Fertile Crescent through Ireland in the Dark Ages to 17th-century Holland to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to modern times, as the Facilitators and their crews move from crisis to crisis and Labienus weaves his webs. One gains a real sense of an ongoing story, of which this is merely a selected group of episodes.

There are some wry touches: the cyborgs are intoxicated by chocolate, and Lewis's monomania about books is often humorous. Overall, though, it is very easy to take this as a savage indictment of multinational corporations, their goals, their methods and their effects. Although there are some good aspects to the Company's activities -- who would not jump at a chance to do research in the Alexandrian Library, or to have Aeschylus' lost plays available, or to view the golden treasures of the Incas that were melted down for bullion by the Spanish? -- Baker plainly lays out the ways in which power and greed can subvert even the most idealistic goals, and Labienus is a hard look at ruthless cynicism in the service of unrestrained ego.

It's a disturbing book. Even though it's not one that I can say I enjoyed, I have to say that it most definitely is an excellent example of science fiction, pulling in all the possibilities that mode has for sharp satire and broad social commentary. I am not one, however, who can contemplate a creature such as Labienus with equanimity. There is no real resolution, which adds to the discomfort: it is as much a subtle and indirect character study as anything else, and quite effective.

For this particular volume in the series, I don't think one need be familiar with the others, although that would certainly add to the enjoyment. That enjoyment, however, is going to be tempered by some fairly fundamental unease.

Other Company books to date include: In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, The Graveyard Game, The Angel in the Darkness (chapbook), Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers (story collection) and The Life of the World to Come.

by Robert M. Tilendis
14 January 2006

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