Kage Baker: An Appreciation

A favorite author of mine, Kage Baker, died young at 57 on 1/31/2010.

I took the news as a call to chase down and read anything I could find of hers that I’d somehow missed. There was very little to find. I’d been following her work assiduously since reading her In the Garden of Iden in 1997. Not much had slipped by me.

I was particularly fond of her popular Company series but I’ve liked everything she’s written.
The Company series began with a premise introduced in Garden of  Iden of a secret organization using a highly constrained version of time travel to ‘guide’ human history. Its agents are recruited (by other agents) from among otherwise doomed young children who are trained up, given immortality and near invulnerability, and then deployed to rescue cultural treasures and prevent the derailment of human history. Or at least that’s the story the agents are given.
The master organization exists in the 21st – 24th Century and stays there since time travel is one way and it would doom the non-immortal company officers to life in a primitive past.
The agents slowly realize things are not necessarily as they seem, factions form, and different strategies constellate all focused on 2355…the point where something happens and the news and instructions channel from the future goes dark.
The beauty of Baker’s writing is that she focuses on the human side of her cyborg agents. She gets to play with a clash of cultural backgrounds and character formation from different epochs with agents recruited in periods ranging back to the Neolithic but deployed potentially anytime or anywhere forward…although she focus on relatively recent missions (1500 and on).  She deals with the challenge to relationships and the strains on the personalities caused by her agents inhuman condition and there alienation from the regular human population who are, nonetheless, producing the magnificent cultural artifacts they are raised to protect and treasure.
It’s a great use of a nerdly science fiction premises to anchor an exploration of personality and culture. Oh, and did I mention that a key thread through all books is the romance of the two characters introduced in Iden, one of which repetitively dies and then reappears.
If I have any criticism, it’s that her later books have too much plot to get through. She seemed to be racing forward faster and faster to cover the full narrative to the events of 2355 in fewer and few pages. The final book in the series appeared in 2007. I don’t know the events of her personal biography: perhaps this rush was related to her illness; or it could be she was simply bored with the series but wanted to give her fans a conclusion and get on with other projects. In any case, I liked it better when she took her time and did a slower dive into culture and character.  There she shone although it was all interesting.
My favorite of her novels is Sky Coyote. Imagine an competent version of Rowling’s Gildaroy Lockhart, surgically altered to appear part coyote, and sent to convince a coastal, mercantile-oriented, California tribe to do the Companies bidding and move from their rich home territory. This is the second book in the Company series. I give it a strong recommendation. If you’re a purist, read Iden as a warm up.

Darwinian Interlude – References

Short version (extended quotation below):

“Three billion years ago, life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them.

Evolution was a communal affair.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share.

The Darwinian interlude had begun.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.

— Freeman Dyson

original quote from Visions of Discovery: New Light on Physics, Cosmology, and Consciousness
see The Darwinian Interlude  by Freeman Dyson

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From Our Biotech Future by Freeman Dyson, NYRB, 7/19/2007

Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his “New Biology” article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist.

Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria—and the first species of any kind—reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.

The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery of life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.