No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, July 23, 2007

#37: The Sons of Heaven -- Kage Baker

However immortal we are, we still wear human shapes, live in human patterns. The values of humanity are the only ones we know.
9th July 2355: the Silence, the point after which none of the immortal employees of Dr Zeus, Inc ('the Company') know any future. Their time-travelling mortal masters go back and forth in time via time transference fields: the immortals go the slow way, being made immortal as children -- five hundred, a thousand, twenty thousand years before the present day -- and living and working through all the long years, salvaging treasures (biological and artistic) for the Company.

In The Sons of Heaven Baker finally reveals the events of that July day when history apparently stops. Almost casually, she spins in the threads of all the characters in all the novels and stories that have come before now: Lewis the Literature Specialist, noted for his encounter with Robert Louis Stevenson and last seen in the realm of the little people under the Hill; Budu and his army of Enforcers who sleep in deep caves the world over, ready for the final battle; cunning Joseph; sickly-white Victor; Kalugin the marine salvage specialist; and Mendoza, who has had the very special fortune to fall in love with three men, in three centuries, who are somehow one and the same.

All momentous and epic stuff, so I should also say that the zest of Baker's writing, her knack for one-liners and her taste for surreally cinematic presentation are all present and correct. This is a thoughtful exploration of the immortal's (not to mention the Recombinant's) lot, the loneliness, the spiritual emptiness, the quest for purpose; it's also laugh-out-loud funny and more tortuously plotted than any of the previous Company novels. Not least because one of the central characters, an artifical intelligence in part created by Alec Checkerfield, goes by the name (and increasingly the manner) of Captain Morgan.
"You've got to work harder at your personality when it's artificial. You think it's been easy being a pirate all these years?"
"Good thing I wasn't into dinosaurs, then ..."

Some of the funniest (and some of the most poignant) episodes of the novel focus on the Captain, and his relationship with Edward Bell-Fairfax, who's emerged as the dominant incarnation of the three. (Nicholas the Protestant martyr is still howling at the 'senseless universe'; Alec the hedonist is just along for the ride, trying to forget that he has a debt to pay and redemption to earn for his part in the Mars Two catastrophe. The two are not entirely side-lined, though, and Edward has some remarkably Victorian ideas...)
So ... yer giving me an order to sail about, hither and yon, la-de-da, looking for islands what ain't there until we runs aground on one that is, only it ain't? You see, Commander, sir, me being only a machine and all, I'd like orders what ain't quite so open to interpretation and semantic confusion. Otherwise I'm liable to conclude you're a God-damned idiot and mutiny.

There's music throughout, most notably at an especially barbed dinner party where the first course is served to the strains of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, followed by 'Brophy's Discworld symphony' and climaxing, over dessert, with the doomy dinner scene from Don Giovanni, where the statue's calling on the Don to repent. Out of time, indeed ... But the novel resolves to a major key (indeed, that's made explicit) and there's music to provide a framework of balance, harmony, order: lute-music to soothe not only savage mortals but their suddenly-aware machines.

More and yet more, questions played out to find answers: how do you kill an indestructible immortal? (Badu favours flint axes; untraceable and easily made.) Are mortals worth saving merely for their ability to create art for the immortals who walk amongst them? (Why was Lewis's novel so bad?) How do you stop history? Are time and matter simply a matter, ha ha, of perception? Does humanity exist only to give meaning, beauty, harmony to a purposeless yet balanced universe? And are the immortals really going to leap upon their gift-wrapped Theobromos selections (the best chocolate ever and then some) with cries of delight, especially when the chocolate boxes are presented as gifts from the Company in recognition of long service?

(There's some wonderful pacing in this novel; scenes that are headlong without being hectic, scenes that work like clockwork, scenes that move like falling dominoes. I keep rereading to see how she does it. And the chocolate-factory scene springs to mind for pacing, as the dinner party does for plot and structure.)

The conclusion is not exactly deus ex machina -- quite the opposite, really -- but there are elements that are wrapped up suspiciously neatly, with a firmness that doesn't (to Joseph, anyway) ring true. It's hard to tell if Baker had these conclusions in mind when she first wrote some of the pendant stories, but what the hell: they work. And there's a sense of new beginning, of immanence and potential and a parting of the ways. The future's bright, unknown, unknowable.

This is a rare thing, a Company novel in which someone is 'happy, as though nothing could touch her any more' -- and yet alive. And this is a book in which I confidently expect to find something new at every reread.

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