Mendoza in Hollywood is the third of Kage Baker's Company novels. It was originally published in 2001, but Tor appears to be reissuing all of the previously-published Company novels in trade paperback form, something long overdue. Baker's series tells a complex story of several cyborg characters, living across the centuries, who work for the mysterious Dr. Zeus Incorporated, also known as the Company.
Before talking about this particular novel, it is helpful to have an overview of the series. There are eight books planned, and so far six have appeared, as well as collections of short stories set in the same universe. Each novel tells an individual tale, but together they also tell a collective tale about the motives of the Company itself, which appear more and more sinister as the series continues and we and the characters learn more. In order of original publication, the Company books are In The Garden of Iden (1997), Sky Coyote (1999), Mendoza in Hollywood (2000), The Graveyard Game (2001), The Company Dossiers (2002—short stories), The Life of the World to Come (2004), and The Children of the Company (2005). The last two of these were published by Tor, hopefully a sign that they are committed to publishing the rest of the series and making the earlier books available to readers. The first four novels were originally published by different publishers and often at different times in the UK and the US, making reading the entire series difficult.
The premise is that time travel is possible, discovered sometime in the 24th century. The catch is that while it is possible to travel back in time, one cannot travel any further into the future than one's own time. The Company, which controls the time travel device, uses it to shape the future, in ways that at first seem innocuous, even admirable. Their first step is to create a race of immortal cyborgs who will do Company business throughout time—Company business being the preservation of things (art, historical documents, species) that will otherwise be lost to the vicissitudes of war, natural disaster, extinction, etc. Cyborgs are created from orphan children, who would otherwise have died. They have augmented physical and mental skills, including a database that allows them to know all of recorded history, up to the mysterious point of 2355. The cyborgs are told that after 2355, Dr. Zeus creates a paradise on earth, having finally perfected society: war, scarcity, and other consequences of human vices are things of the past. The faithful cyborg servants are promised that they will get to retire and enjoy this earthly paradise once they have lived forward to 2355, but as the series unfolds the characters discover hints that the Company may be looking for a way to rid itself of the burden of an immortal race once the Company's goals have been achieved.
Mendoza in Hollywood builds quite directly on the original novel, In the Garden of Iden, which introduced us to Mendoza, saved from the dungeons of the Inquisition in Spain. It is not necessary to have read the first novel to understand this one, but it would be helpful, especially the last hundred pages of the novel which focus more directly on Mendoza's story. Something went badly wrong with her first mission, and when we meet her in this novel, she is an emotionally scarred person. She narrates the novel to a panel of Company interlocutors, although we never discover her crime or the reason for this confession until the very end of the novel. Baker periodically reminds us of this frame throughout the novel through Mendoza's direct address to the señors to whom she is speaking, a technique that reminds us that the Company has "saved" Mendoza from one inquisition only to subject her to another one. In this and other ways, Baker suggets that, although the Company presents its motives as benevolent, eternal life and endless service are not unambiguous gifts.
One of the delights of this series is the anachronisms made possible by a group of cyborg characters with knowledge of the future existing within history. Mendoza in Hollywood aptly showcases Baker's talent for both the humorous and the poignant scenes that are made possible by this device. Mendoza is indeed in Hollywood, for example, but the year is 1862 and Hollywood is not yet there. This does not stop the characters from referring to physical locations by their future street names or describing the landscape in terms of the films for which it provided location shots. Such narration is often amusing, but Baker also uses it to accomplish something much more important. The constant references to popular culture, and to seeing things through the eyes of Hollywood representation, draw attention to how Hollywood and popular culture dominate the contemporary experience. The cyborg characters are from widely different times and places, ranging from ancient Babylon to the American West not long before the novel's setting. Nonetheless, they share a common culture and common language—Cinema Standard—based on a shared set of values, references, and ideals generated from the cultural texts shipped to them from the future by the Company.
One of the most interesting scenes in the novel is an extended description of an evening spent viewing DW Griffith's Intolerance (1916) in a cabin in the woods of what is to become Hollywood, before Griffith is born and before cinema has been invented. Baker strikes the right note between humorous comments on how to read the subtext of Griffith's film, corrections to the film offered by those who lived through the historical periods narrated, and emotional responses to the theme of increasing intolerance and its consequences which the cyborgs have experienced firsthand as they live through human history. An overall theme of the novel is that change is inevitable as human history proceeds. "Civilization" comes to the Western wilderness, an unfolding the cyborgs are uniquely able to perceive since they live in one time but see the land through knowledge of what is to come. The typical narrative of "progress" thus comes to seem ironic as we focus more on what will be lost (untouched nature, species, space, clean air and water) than on the marvels to come. Mendoza comments that she doesn't enjoy comedy film nights because "so much heartache went with them. That world didn't even exist yet, that innocent place, but it was already lost. Those comedians weren't yet in their mothers' wombs, but their fates were known. It was hard to watch pretty Mabel and not look for the icy vivacity of cocaine" (pp. 80-81). This sense of the passage of time, of inevitable loss, and having to stand by and observe the destruction of most of the things they were sent to save, takes its toll on the cyborgs. The rapid narration of the final sequences from Griffith's film aptly captures their "time out of joint" experience. As Mendoza, increasingly intoxicated, watches the cuts in the film's conclusion, she begins to see anachronistic blurring in the film itself as racing 20th century automobiles appear to be "coming to the Huguenots' rescue" (p. 163). This leads Oscar to quip that the theme of the film is that technology is going to bring the earthly paradise as "of all the stories presented, the one story that ends happily does so solely because of modern and efficient means of locomotion" (p. 167). Mendoza, however, is focused on another inevitable result of technology, that "all this sweet wild land would be buried under an urban nightmare" (p. 166).
The plot of Mendoza in Hollywood relates the experiences of the various cyborgs stationed with Mendoza at the soon-to-be-Hollywood outpost and is focused mainly on their various ways of accommodating themselves to the burdens of immortal existence in the service of the Company. Their leader, the Facilitator Porfirio, reveals that he has attempted to care for his mortal family across the generations, a project that experiences a disastrous setback in the course of this novel. The youngest team member, Juan Bautista, is responsible for saving bird species from extinction, but he keeps making pets of them rather than sending them back to the Company, which results in a similar tragedy. As Mendoza tells her interlocutors, "when those clever twenty-fourth-century mortals devised us, they devised badly. Our fragile mortal bones are replaced with unbreakable terroceramic; our weak mortal sinews are laced through with indestructible fiber, proof against any wrenching blow. Why not excise the wretched mortal heart too, give us a clean pump of steel, nothing that can weep at the appalling passage of the years" (p. 94). Only Oscar, a historian studying the spread of commerce, seems untouched by the loss and the passage of time, and this seems to be because he can most successfully identify with his work, feeling it essential that he serve not only Dr. Zeus but also "the worthy gentlemen at the Acme and Criterion Companies" with "complete commitment, absolute fulfillment of all responsibilities" (p. 112) as he performs his cover job of door-to-door salesman.
Oscar's better adjustment points to one of the other interesting themes in this novel, which is its exploration of the alienation of work. As in many science fiction treatments of the robot, android, or cyborg figure, these characters are perfect labour. They never tire, and they have no existence outside of their service to the Company. Their attempts to maintain human or other emotional ties are inevitably thwarted by the problems of living throughout centuries and being subordinate to the Company's needs; they "belong to the Company" (p. 194) and must be transferred at its whim. As Mendoza observes, however, the human emotions with which these cyborgs struggle create problems. Their reduction to work function alienates them from themselves, and alienates them even from their work, since their role is to preserve (Mendoza, for example, is a botanist), yet they are at the same time forbidden to interfere in the inevitable destruction they know to be the future, allowed only to pull out a few specimens to be shipped forward for Company reserves. It is never entirely clear whether the Company is primarily motivated by an ethic of conservation or merely by the profit to be made by being able to obtain rare things in the future, and this novel introduces the further possibility that the cyborg operatives are in fact accumulating wealth in order to ensure the political and economic domination of the Company in the future, to ensure their own birth.
The other interesting and related theme that emerges from Oscar's work as a travelling salesman in 1862 is the degree to which the spread of capitalism is responsible for many of the changes that Mendoza fears: urbanization, pollution, an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Accompanying Oscar on his rounds one day, Mendoza observes that it often costs him more in free samples which enable his entry into the home than he is able to recover in the things he actually sells. Oscar points out that Mendoza is thinking too much in the short term, that "the point of the game is getting them to want this stuff. After want comes need, and once they need what you have, all you have to do is supply the demand" (p. 71). Later Mendoza is able to observe some of the emotional consequences of this program for a woman who would like to buy some of Oscar's goods, but who lives without money, exchanging her and her husband's labour for a place to live and land upon which to grow the food they need. It is clear that the success of Oscar's plan for generating "need" will be part of what changes the culture and removes the few spaces in which people were able to exist without money, but in the meantime this woman can only look at the goods "in a long bitter stare, all those pretty and improbable things she'd never thought of having and shouldn't have thought of having" (p. 111). It should be noted that despite the novel's critique of some of the consequences of introducing manufactured goods into 1862 California, the operatives themselves enjoy a wide range of technological marvels sent from the future on a regular basis.
The overall tone of the novel is quite sombre, infused by Mendoza's awareness that "the land [is] sick, the people [are] sick, and crazy, certain ruin [is] trundling toward us like a siege tower" (p. 214) as she watches "extinctions, honest-to-God extinctions happening right before [her] eyes" (p. 215). Oscar, on the other hand, as the representative of emerging capitalism, sees his role as "document[ing] the forces of civilization at work, as they transform this murderous wilderness into a place where decent folks would want to live," dealing "chaos … another blow" with each labor-saving device or can of stove polish" he sells and, where he can't sell anything, at least leaving customers with "visions of a better world dancing in their heads" (p. 217) when they go home to long for the goods they can't afford. Mendoza characterises Oscar as "a good little machine" (p. 222) and is aware that she herself is "a bad machine" (p. 330). Mendoza is by far the more sympathetic character, and this contrast of perspectives on "civilizing" is one of the ways that the novel creates doubt about the Company's intentions.
These more sinister moments are the strength of the Company series, and Baker skilfully reveals just enough of the mystery to keep readers hooked on the next book, while at the same time writing powerful and engrossing stories within each novel. The last third of the novel focuses on Mendoza's personal emotional trauma, building on the love story begun in the first novel, and promising to continue this story of two inevitably intertwined lives in the coming books. Mendoza in Hollywood is an impressive and entertaining introduction to the Company series and will leave the reader wanting to return to this universe and read the rest of the novels as quickly as possible. You won't regret becoming addicted. Bravo to Tor for making it possible for us to read the whole series.
Sherryl Vint is an Assistant Professor at St. Francis Xavier University. She is currently working on a project about the intersections of science studies and science fiction.