This collection of short fiction is the latest installment in Kage Baker's time-traveling history of Dr. Zeus Incorporated, also known as simply The Company. Black Projects, White Knights includes fifteen stories, one of which doubles as an introduction and three of which have not appeared in print previously. The remaining eleven are reprints of previously published Company stories, the earliest dating from 1997. The book is held together by the shared world for the stories and by four stories that trace the childhood and adolescence of Alec Chesterfield, whose unusual development is linked to the Company's genesis over the course of these stories. As is Baker's trademark, she hints at rather than explains Alec's role and the true story behind the Company.
Baker has published an impressive body of work developing the Company mythos in a remarkably short period of time. In addition to the stories collected here, she has also published four novels: The Garden of Iden (1998), Sky Coyote (1999), Mendoza in Hollywood (2000), and The Graveyard Game (2001). She has promised a further four novels that complete the story of the Company's origins, its ultimate intentions, and the apocalyptic events of 2355 (the date beyond which characters have no access to "historical" knowledge).
One of the strengths of Baker's novels is the delicate balance she strikes between engaging and intriguing stories that can stand on their own and the ongoing narrative of the Company which the characters and readers piece together from information provided sparingly over the course of the novels. Unfortunately, Baker seems somewhat less adept at striking this balance within the collection of short fiction. While some of the stories stand up well on their own, they often do not contribute to the ongoing narrative arc. Similarly, other stories seem written simply to fill in gaps in this arc and do not seem sufficiently engaging on their own merits.
Despite stories concerned with the narrative arc, the collection does not seem very accessible to readers who do not already know the Company universe. The introduction to the collection, "The Hounds of Zeus," which is intriguingly turned into a story itself, attempts to provide some background. Told in the second person, this story recounts "your" theft of a data diskette from a secret Dr. Zeus enclave. The data diskette introduces the cyborg characters who will be featured in the stories that follow and gives some of the background details of Baker's premise. For readers unfamiliar with Baker's other fiction, this introduction may be enough orientation to engage with the stories that follow, but I suspect not. Therefore, before discussing specific stories in the collection, I will provide some background on Baker's world here.
Her premise is that in the future, the Company -- how far past 2355 is not clear for reasons I will explain below -- discovered the secret of time travel and has used this secret to harvest the whole of human history and cultures. Baker's characterization of the Company strikes a nicely ambivalent note: neither the reader nor the Company's operatives can ever be clear about whether its motives are predominately benevolent (to save from extinction or ruin precious artworks, manuscripts, species, etc.) or banal (to make money from the sale of said items). Due to vagaries of time travel, the Company has determined that rather than sending agents from the Company's present into the past, it is better to create agents from humans it harvests from various times, who are then modified to become immortal cyborgs with trained specialties. The immortal cyborgs live throughout history, but live anachronistically with access to the technology and, more importantly, the historical databases from the Company's present, or at least up to 2355, the point beyond which the future cannot be known. These immortal cyborgs from various times and cultures are the main characters in Baker's fiction, struggling to fulfill their Company work, to learn ways to live among humans as immortals inevitably separated from human concern, and to discern who and what from the future really commands their actions.
With this background in mind, readers unfamiliar with Baker's Company novels may find the collection more accessible and satisfying. Readers already familiar with this background may nevertheless be somewhat disappointed by Black Projects, White Knights, as I was. Ultimately, the collection left me feeling very unsatisfied and still longing for the next novel in the series, rather than feeling as if it had served as a temporary "fix" to help the wait.
One source of my dissatisfaction is the lack of development of the larger historical narrative. While familiar characters from the novels do appear in the stories (most frequently Mendoza, whose personal torment is at the heart of Baker's mythos), the collection as a whole does little to develop the storyline. Instead, we only get fuller portraits of some events hinted at in other Company narratives. The pacification of the Great Goat cult and subsequent redeployment of the Enforcer class of immortals, for example, is explored in "Old Flat Top," a story published for the first time in this collection.
I was more seriously dissatisfied by the mood of the stories. Consider another story new to this collection, "The Hotel at Harlan's Landing." Told from the point of view of a mortal woman about two immortals who are in rebellion against both the Company and an anti-human faction of immortals, its final line, which is also the final line of the book, captures the note of menace and awe that Baker wants us to feel when considering her world: "And it isn't a comforting thing to know the truth about angels." Sadly, in my view, these moments of discomfort are not as evident in this collection as they are in the novels. Nothing in Baker's work has topped the painful conclusion of The Garden of Iden and Mendoza's utter despair at realizing the gap forever fixed between her and the humans she must spend centuries living among and interacting with. Similarly, the menace of the conclusion of The Graveyard Game with Joseph's sinister discovery of the Company's policy for coping with the inevitable "overpopulation" of unneeded immortals as time marches toward the present is not matched by anything found within this collection. Instead, the moments of philosophical reflection or ominous speculation emerge only when the contents of these stories are merged with knowledge the reader brings from the rest of Baker's canon. For example, in "Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin" we discover that the Company had not necessarily perfected all other aspects of cyborg-creation at the time it was first able to perfect the aspect of this modification that confers immortality. What this story lacks is a sense of the vast scope of the Company's reckless experimentation with humans, something a reader familiar with the rest of Baker's world can add to the experience of the story. Likewise, In "Hanuman," the title character -- a cyborg modified Authralopithecus afarensis -- tries to deliver some hard truth to Mendoza about the nature of cyborg existence. He tells her, "You look at me and all you see is a monkey, no matter how cleverly I speak. They look at you and all they see is a machine they can't seem to repair. It's insulting. Unfair. Yet the hard truth is, neither one of us belong in the natural world." The punch that these lines deliver is pulled for those readers who are unaware of Mendoza's history from The Garden of Iden.
On the positive side, what these stories lack in menace and grand narrative development they compensate for with humor and wit. Baker's characters often make amusingly sardonic statements, often because of their ability to speak to the reader from a time frame that encompasses not only the future history the reader already knows (relative to the story's temporal setting as compared to our own date) but also our own future. This strength of Baker's writing became somewhat more muted in the most recent novel (The Graveyard Game) because of the increased focus on revealing the Company's nefarious intentions. The lighter tone in this collection allows this quality to shine through in stories such as "The Dust Enclosed Here" and "The Queen in Yellow."
Overall, more of the stories in the collection emphasize the "White Knights" aspect of the title over the "Black Projects" one. Many, like "Noble Mold," "The Wreck of the Gladstone," and "Studio Dick Drowns Near Malibu," show the immortals engaged in actions unrelated to the ultimate goals of Dr. Zeus Incorporated, acts of kindness that improve the lives of those humans they encounter. Such stories not only provide an alternative to the disturbing image of the Company and its agents developed elsewhere in Baker's work, but they also provide more rounded views on some of the characters we encounter in other guises in her publications. The Alec Checkerfield stories -- "Smart Alec," "The Dust Enclosed Here," "Monster Story," and "The Likely Lad" -- are worth reading for those intrigued by the Company mystery. While they do not contain hoped-for hints about what happens after 2355, they do provide a concrete image of the sort of world Alec was reacting against, a world whose features go a long way toward explaining features of the Company future that seemed bizarre to both readers and the cyborgs in the novels. Some readers may also appreciate the headnotes that accompany each story in which Baker explains the story's genesis. These brief introductions often fill in a bit more of the background about how the concept of the Company evolved in Baker's mind.
In the final analysis, I think it is "The Literary Agent" that best sums up the strengths and weaknesses of this collection. In this story, Baker draws on a technique she has used to good effect previously, taking some unexplained mystery from history and developing a plausible explanation for how the Company was behind it all. In this story, she draws on a story about Robert Louis Stevenson spending three days camping alone in a forest during which time he became ill and almost died. The writing career for which Stevenson is famous developed after this experience. In Baker's story, Stevenson spends the time meeting with a Company literary agent who is trying to get a new "lost" manuscript from Stevenson for production in the future. During their discussion in which various plots are proposed and then rejected by the agent's software, Stevenson decides the agent is a devil sent to tempt him. He realizes that successful fiction is more on the side of the devils than on that of the angels, arguing,
We feed a perverse urge in our readers by creating supremely interesting images of evil. Perhaps we even cultivate that urge. The villain wins sympathy in our hearts through the skill of the writer. I've felt admiration for the rogue of the old romance myself, the man with the hand of the Devil on his shoulder. Great God, what are we doing when we create such characters? And yet they make the story live.
This description strikes me as one well-applied to the strengths of Baker's writing. The menace of the Company, the moral shortcuts taken by Joseph in the novels, the moral debates the characters dispassionately engage in over whether or not any human life has meaning: these things are what bring life to Baker's work. Stevenson continues, "What if my old nurse was right and storytelling does imperil men's souls? Because we do pander to their worst instincts." Black Projects, White Knights fails for me because it doesn't try hard enough to imperil our souls but instead tries to tell a more angelic story.
Copyright © 2003 Sherryl Vint
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. She completed a dissertation on representations of the body in science fiction in 2000. You can send her email, or see her previous appearances in our Archive.
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