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Kage Baker – The Life of the World to Come

May 25, 2009

The Life of the World to ComeThis was actually a second read, as I was so enthusiastic about Baker’s Company series that I started deliberately spacing them out, and then . . . realized that I needed to review before moving on.  Oops.  The good news is that I liked The Life of the World to Come even better the second time.

The series—which I can’t recommend highly enough—revolves around the cyborg creations of the very long-lived corporate entity/global conspiracy most often, though not always, known as Dr. Zeus, Inc.  Dr. Zeus discovers a process for conferring immortality, but there are two hitches.  The first is that becoming immortal requires sacrificing the subject’s humanity and turning them into a cyborg.  The second is that Dr. Zeus puts its cyborgs to good use by sending them back in time, where they serve the company by collecting and preserving artifacts (and even populations) that history has incorrectly assumed were destroyed, lost, or missing.  But there is some indication that Dr. Zeus may not prove as perpetual as the living machines it creates: Dr. Zeus’s operatives in the past are never given knowledge of events beyond 2355, even though they routinely receive orders and even visitors from times up until that mysterious date.

One Dr. Zeus operative, a botanist named Mendoza, has turned into something of a thorn in the company’s side.  She generates an anomalous energy, isn’t much of a team player, and has managed to run into the same inamorato in three different time periods . . . even though their encounters have led to his death in the past two. The Life of the World to Come focuses on Mendoza’s mysterious boyfriend, who is, in his latest incarnation, Alec Checkerfield, Seventh Earl of Finsbury and self-styled piratical bad boy of the twenty-fourth century.  The novel delivers a satisfying explanation for the existence of Alec and his predecessors, while opening up new mysteries regarding their possible role in the Silence of 2355, which is rapidly approaching.

The Life of the World to Come breaks from the earlier Company books in that it doesn’t have a historical setting.  Alec is also a very different viewpoint character from the previous cyborg narrators, because he has no sense of who he is in the bigger picture until the end of this installment.  Baker can’t play with the self-deprecating, irony-attuned voices of Mendoza or her quasi-mentor, Joseph, which were part of what made the earlier books so enjoyable for me.  Nevertheless, I loved Alec, and my second read impressed upon me what a neat trick Baker pulls off in presenting both him and the Bowdlerized era in which he grows up.  Alec is clearly much too much for the dumbed-down twenty-fourth century against which he rebels, but he still can’t help but be a product of it, among other influences (in his first encounter with Mendoza, he calls her “babe” at least three times, with zero sense of irony).

The brakes Alec’s environment put on his emotional development and intellectual growth, along with the competing acceleration effect of the artificial intelligence that is Alec’s best friend and protector, keep Alec’s deliberately-constructed heroism from feeling stale or grating.  In fact, much of the action of the book is crammed into the last quarter of it, but it’s relatively easy to overlook this, because there’s no hurry to turn away from the evolution of Alec—or from the first look at the era in which the Silence will occur.

A subplot involving a group of three would-be history buffs, who affect the title of Inklings Nouveau, is by turns wincingly funny and creepy.  Without giving too much away, the Inklings demonstrate how at least one portion of Dr. Zeus operates in the future, and it’s not quite what one would have expected.

(Note: The Company novels can be confusing enough when read in order, so newcomers ought to start with In the Garden of Iden.)

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