Kage Baker made her debut with the first of her stories about Dr. Zeus Incorporated in 1997. Her first novel, In the Garden of Iden, was published in 1998. In 1999, her novella "Son Observe The Time" was reprinted in the seventeenth edition of Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, and was a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Since then, she has built a solid name for herself, to the extent that she is now an established writer. Tor Books has now published her sixth novel, The Children of the Company.
Like all but one of her previous novels and most of her shorter works, the novel takes place in the universe of Dr. Zeus Incorporated, a twenty-fourth-century company of co-opted time-travelling immortal cyborgs, which has for millennia been covertly amassing wealth and power by manipulating historical events using its prior knowledge of their outcomes.
The Children of the Company is essentially a fix-up novel, comprising a half-dozen stories published between 1999 and 2000, including "Son, Observe the Time." More than in any other genre, there is a long and honorable tradition in SF of changing short stories from magazines into novels: by extension, as in James Blish's A Case of Conscience; by direct expansion, as in Roger Zelazny's The Dream Master); or by pushing short stories together, as Clifford D. Simak did with City and Charles Stross has done with Accelerando.
The Children of the Company opens in 1863, with the cyborg Labenius sitting in the Mojave Desert, reviewing his childhood and first assignment in Sumeria. Labenius has amassed a great deal of power over the centuries, but has also waged a perpetual feud with Aegeus, his fellow immortal and bitter rival.
From Sumeria, the story moves to sixth-century Ireland, then to seventeenth-century Amsterdam. In both stories Labenius is offstage, and merely referred to in passing. Labenius is consequently less a protagonist than a hook on which to hang the various stories which comprise the bulk of the novel.
In the second half of the book, the action switches to San Francisco on the eve of the 1906 earthquake, and the pace picks up. The facilitator Victor, whose role is to coordinate the salvaging of artifacts from disaster zones, befriends a mortal family while posing as a labourer, and Baker superbly depicts the level of duplicity the company's operatives need to resort to.
But just as the book gathers momentum, Baker abruptly switches viewpoint again. As the book staggers toward its conclusion, the disillusionment and disgrace of Victor, it becomes clear that there are no heroes in Baker's world; that there is even no objective truth. Labenius and Aegeus detest each other as much as they do because they are basically the same: immoral, devious, entirely without saving grace. Even history, which we are told throughout is unchangeable, is constantly moulded and shaped by the very servants of the company who purport to preserve it. (An interesting parallel with the news media, which constantly claim to report the news, but increasingly now seek to manipulate it, so that they can report it first.)
The politics of these stories is incredibly complex, the characters unreservedly amoral, reinforced by Baker's cool and elegant prose style. But the feud is never really expanded enough to feel like anything more than a plot device.
The real problem with the novel, however, is that it isn't a novel—it's a fix-up. Baker's constant grasshoppering of perspective—from third-person current to different-person past—serves only to make reading the book a jerky, awkward experience. The reader constantly stalls and is forced to reorient, making it nearly impossible to fully empathise with any of the protagonists.
While even classic novels like I, Robot have used clumsy plot devices—in that case, the biography of Susan Calvin—to link together disparate short stories, readers now expect modern authors to have greater ambition, and not patronize their audience. Baker would have been better served by either presenting The Children of the Company as a collection (even if this would have led to lower sales and royalties), or by having taken the effort to better integrate the primary works, if need be rewriting the stories from a simpler perspective so that they were truly embedded. Instead the plot feels as if it were there to justify the narrative style, rather than vice versa.
On the plus side, the short stories themselves read well, especially the superb opening line to "Son Observe the Time" ("On the eve of destruction, we had oysters and champagne"), and there is humour, although it's midnight black, cartoon violence as realistic as any Roadrunner cartoon. But this only serves to show what might have been, and overall, The Children of the Company is easier to admire than to actually like, and I didn't admire it that much.