Rude Mechanicals is a short novella set in Kage Baker's Company universe. The Company series is comprised of eight novels—the highly anticipated final book The Sons of Heaven is due out this July—two collections of short stories, and two standalone novellas in limited edition chapbooks, The Angel in the Darkness (2003) and the book under review. Rude Mechanicals can be read without knowing the background of the Company world, although as always with Baker's work the reader is rewarded for greater familiarity with the background story.
The Company series narrates the adventures of a group of immortal cyborgs, snatched out of history by Dr. Zeus Incorporated, the Company, which invents time travel at some unspecified point in the future. The Company is able to send things back in time, but is unable to send things forward in time (or so it first seems). The result is a curious situation in which people from various time periods are enlisted into the employ of Dr. Zeus and transformed into cyborgs, so that they might continue to live throughout history until they eventually reach the Company's home time. The cyborgs' purpose is to preserve documents and artwork of historical and cultural value and soon-to-be-extinct plant and animal species. Overall the series strikes a nice tone of ambiguity regarding whether the Company's ultimate goals are altruistic (as the cyborgs are led to believe), simply avaricious (most saved items are sold for profit) or mysteriously nefarious (the ongoing series suggests something apocalyptic occurs in 2355, the date beyond which the cyborgs have no access to historical knowledge).
This framework allows Baker to write a delightful fusion of historical and science fiction. Each novel is predominantly set in a richly imagined past, but at the same time the characters have access to information and technology up to 2355. Baker cleverly exploits this time discrepancy to create narratives that appeal on a double level: her research into the historical settings is extensive and thus we are able to immerse ourselves into this other world, while at the same time the cyborg characters are aware (as are the readers) of alternative perspectives on this time and of future events. Baker's writing is filled with wit and humour largely fuelled by this dual focus, the cyborg characters being both participants in the human world that surrounds them and readers of it.
Rude Mechanicals is set in Hollywood in 1934 and concerns two cyborg characters familiar to Baker's readers: the facilitator Joseph and the literary preservation specialist Lewis. They are both involved with director Max Reinhardt's live staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Hollywood Bowl, which became the basis for his 1935 film of the play featuring stars such as James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland (who had also appeared in the stage production). Lewis is tasked with preserving Reinhardt's script notes for a collector, while Joseph is trying to recover a diamond (the Tavernier Violet believed to have been cut into the Hope Diamond according to the historical record, but actually a quite different and larger stone). The diamond was buried by Company operatives near the Hollywood Bowl long before there was a Hollywood Bowl, and now Reinhardt's production threatens to displace it, thus preventing Company operatives from recovering it from its known hiding spot in the future.
As with much of the short fiction set in the Company Universe, this novella is strong on wit and humour, and somewhat weaker on the serious themes and sense of menace which also shape the novels. As the story is separate from the ongoing chronology of the series, we are able to enjoy the bantering between Lewis and Joseph without the overwhelming sense of loss that has come to characterise them in the novels, the result of the loss of a friend and their increasing doubts about the Company's motives. For readers who miss the simpler times of earlier Company novels, this can be a refreshing change; for those anxiously awaiting the next revelation of the overall narrative, this novella may be somewhat frustrating, and it is slightly disconcerting to see Lewis and Joseph so blithely go about their business for the Company when one is aware of the larger story. Most of the action in the ongoing narrative has turned more sinister in recent novels, and we have become accustomed to Joseph and Lewis working both for and against the Company, fulfilling their missions but at the same time using each as an opportunity to further investigate Dr. Zeus's long-term plans. Their unquestioning acceptance of the Company's goals as their own thus seems slightly out of character and the caper-ish tone of the novella seems inconsistent with their mourning in books set in an earlier historical time period.
As a standalone novella, however, Rude Mechanicals is enjoyable and illustrates Baker's talents with intertextuality and comedy. The story plays on the themes of A Midsummer Night's Dream, humorously suggesting that the fairies have much in common with the cyborgs. Both observe human life from the outside and are amused by human folly. Puck's exclamation "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" regarding the behaviour of the Athenian lovers might equally characterize Lewis's frustrations in attempting to negotiate between prima donna cast members who see the performance as vaudeville, Reinhardt's avant-garde sensibilities, and the popcorn-munching audience whose failure to applaud the performance leads Lewis to assure Reinhardt, "They really did enjoy it, you know. They're just not used to live theatre" (p. 110).
The major themes of the play concern the relationship between waking and dreaming life. Shakespeare explores the strange logic of dreams, their disruption of the normal flow of time, and their unquestioned acceptance of impossible events. The dialectic between dreaming and waking life can also be understood as a way of describing the cyborgs' relationship to human history. They move both within and outside of time, living each day as do mortals, but at the same time experiencing them in the context of much longer life spans and greater knowledge of history. The play also is structured around a tension between order and stability (represented by Theseus and Hippolyta) and uncertainty and darkness (the major action of the play). If we place Rude Mechanicals in the context of the Company series, we might also think about a similar tension between the seeming order and stability of the Company's rational programme and the uncertainty and darkness with which the major characters struggle as they come to doubt the Company and see life beyond 2355 as menace rather than reward.
The novella might be read as an example of Shakespeare's play-within-the-play technique, serving as a playful interlude within the larger and more serious Company series. The comic scrambling about to find the diamond and the various costumes and stratagems Joseph must employ on his quest are entertaining and diverting in the style of the craftsmen's play-with-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which serves as comic relief to the utter seriousness with which the Athenians pursue their convoluted love affairs. Rude Mechanicals similarly serves as a comic interlude in the Company series, bumbling through some of the crises that are treated more seriously in other works, and reminding us to see the humour as well as the seriousness of Baker's oeuvre. Perhaps it is best to think of Rude Mechanicals as Puck urges the audience to think of the play at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
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.