Mendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker (2000)
Review by Paul Kincaid
Once, long ago, Mark Twain presented his time traveller with a world in which everyone spoke in cod-medieval except for the Connecticut Yankee himself, whose no-nonsense language proved both engaging and salutary to the people of Arthur’s court. Since then, however, writers of time travel stories have made more effort to have their traveller blend in with local time, including speaking in a language that approximates ever more closely to what might actually have been spoken at the time. Of late, however, a curious trend has started to emerge in this type of science fiction. You see it, for instance, in novels like John Kessel’s Corrupting Dr Nice, when not only do the time travellers maintain their modern habits of speech but the people in the time they visit have started to adopt the same language. Now Kage Baker has taken it a step further in her series of novels about ‘The Company’ which has reached its third volume. Here the characters come from the past, but they have been made into immortal cyborgs by visitors from our future, and in their endless journey through time they have picked up a wealth of knowledge of cultures that have not yet happened.
This novel, for instance, is set in 1862 in the wild, drought-stricken hills that would, another half-century down the line, be Hollywood. Not one of these characters has actually seen the 20th Century, but that doesn’t alter the fact that everything they see around them is coloured by the films that will one day be made here. Nor does any of them fail to talk as if they have habituated the late 20th Century all their lives. For these cyborgs the length of their experience (at least centuries, in some cases millennia) has shaped them less than a movie or two. That we accept this as readily as we do while reading this novel says something curious about our perceptions of ourselves and of our culture, I wish I knew what it was.
While centuries of life have done little to shape these characters, it certainly helps to shape the plot. In her first outing, In The Garden Of Iden, immortal Mendoza fell in love with a mortal in Tudor England, only to lose him to the flames of religious intolerance. Now, three centuries and half a world away, she meets him again, or rather she meets another Englishman with the same appearance and the same mannerisms as her lover. This particular Englishman is a spy involved in a hare-brained plot to aid the Confederacy and so wrest California into British rule, but the ramifications of this plot could involve a strange spiritualist episode in 1920s Hollywood and the origins of ‘The Company’ itself. Stirred by the apparent rebirth of her lover, Mendoza embarks on a madcap race to help him, and to keep him alive. It is doomed to failure, of course: this is a determinist universe, the future is known and unchangeable, events move with the inevitability of tragedy but the sprightliness of farce. From the moment the Englishman appears, we are swept along by engaging characters, wacky plot, incident piled upon incident. Baker has a light touch and an ability to keep the pace just right, this is wonderfully entertaining adventure written as light comedy.
Unfortunately, the Englishman does not appear until more than two-thirds of the way through the book. Until he does, what we have is stodgy and ill-controlled. We get endless scene-setting and heavy-handed foreshadowing, but we don’t get the plot that this book so desperately needs to get it going. Instead there is a series of episodic incidents which don’t form a coherent whole and which are mostly played for laughs – Baker’s touch with comedy is much more assured when it arises from sustained action rather than being presented as a series of sketches. Throughout this part of the book Mendoza’s companions are painted with a very broad brush and with little finesse, while Mendoza herself is simply morose. She does not engage either our sympathies or our interest until her lover appears on the scene and suddenly injects a spark of life into her. It reads, for all the world, as if Baker was simply intent upon continuing her series but had no real story to tell until she happened upon the English conspiracy plot. And, of course, coming so late in the book it is necessarily truncated, making this a curiously ill-formed novel. Given how well the whole thing takes off during the final section, that is a real pity.
This review originally appeared in New York Review of Science Fiction 144, August 2000