Kage Baker, The Machine's Child (Tor, 2006)

The Machine's Child is, unless I have lost count somehow, the ninth episode in Kage Baker's ongoing series of the Company, the shadowy organization that has a lock on time travel and is using it to loot the past.

This part of the story revolves around Alec Checkerfield, the seventh Earl of Finsbury. Alec is rather extraordinary, aside from his height and physical appearance, which are genetic. He has been cyborged through the agency of a particularly powerful AI known as Captain Henry Morgan, who runs his yacht (more on the order of a four-masted schooner), takes care of him, and also makes plans. Alec is also accompanied by Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax and Nicholas Harpole, both of whom readers of this series will have met before and both of whom are dead. They share a virtual reality within the confines of Captain Morgan, and take turns controlling Alec's body. The three of them are Recombinants, a new effort on the part of the Company, and share identical genes. They have also managed to elude the Company's control.

Things are going along fairly well until they get word of a facility called "Options Research." It's a holding facility, a prison, and a lab where an Enforcer named Marco is investigating ways to terminate the immortals, the Company cyborgs who run its operations. Among the other "inmates" (who are disabled and kept in boxes) is Dolores Mendoza, the botanist operative who has been such an important part of the lives (and deaths) of both Nicholas and Edward. So they rescue her, using the cyborg-specific virus used to disable Budu earlier, which the Captain has copied.

Speaking of Budu, he is involved as well, if only tangentially. Like the Captain, he has plans. Saved from the assassination attempt at the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 (recounted in The Children of the Company) by the Facilitator Joseph, who has gone rogue, he is yet another of the Company's creations who begins to think it's time to do something. Joseph, while devoted to his "father," is also engaged in a vendetta against Alec.

See? It all ties together.

The more I read of Baker's Company novels, the less I'm inclined to think of them as a "series." Not, at least, as we generally think of series, whether in the guise of The Story That Wouldn't End or as an ongoing group of stories with shared characters and milieus. What Baker is doing is putting together an extended mega-novel with all of time and all of humanity as its focus. By this stage of the game, it's become something on the order of Wagnerian opera, but accomplished with characters and relationships rather than with musical leitmotifs. I am reminded of a remark a friend made to me about Götterdämmerung to the effect that by that point of the Ring, it was just grand opera. I observed that by that point, the audience had three operas worth -- roughly eleven hours -- of emotional and psychological associations to deal with because of Wagner's leitmotifs. Baker has done pretty much the same thing, just not with music.

It's not a perfect book. There were a few places I could have done without the extended idylls of Alec/Edward/Nicholas getting reacquainted with their long lost/newfound love, particularly since the narrative is already fairly fragmented, and Mendoza's feigned ignorance of Alec's lack of immortality is perhaps too well concealed -- it becomes very close to being a deus ex machina, even though it's a throwaway. The weight of previous narratives, however, adds substance; even those who are not familiar with previous volumes and Mendoza's prior history, as well as that of Joseph, Budu, Edward, Nicholas, Suleyman, et al., can get a good sense of what has gone before, even if specifics are lacking.

It all just adds to the impulse to go back and read all the others.