Kage Baker, The Life of the World to Come (Tor, 2004)
'We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen'. -- The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal)
The Life of the World to Come is the latest novel in Kage Baker's The Company series of novels and shorter fiction, which tell the tale of Zeus Inc. and its not so merry band of immortal cyborgs who pillage the past for all the shiny trinkets that those who run this 24th century corporation desire. However, that plot line is largely offstage this outing, as this tale focuses on a 24th century mortal -- or at least he appears to be -- for whom the Company has undisclosed plans. Oh, did I fail to mention that Captain Morgan, an AI who thinks he's a pirate and acts accordingly, figures into the story? But you really, really need to immerse yourself in the rich worlds of The Company series before reading this novel. Right now. Go. Come back when you're up to speed. While you do so, I'll wait around drinking chocolate and watching 1930s movies, which Lewis and Joseph, two of Baker's heroine's fellow cyborg companions, would appreciate.
Up to speed now? Took you a while to get back here, but that's not surprising, given there's four previous novels (In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, and The Graveyard Game), four tales invloving Alec Checkerfield, who is front and center in The Life of the World to Come, and a chapbook, The Angel in the Darkness, that, had there been any justice in this world would have won a Hugo!
If not, I said in my review of The Angel in the Darkness that :
'What if you discovered that time travel was practical, but only one way -- back into the past? You certainly don't want to be stuck in the past if you're planning on being very, very rich in the time that you come from. And mortals of the past are both frail and short-lived. Sigh. . . . Damn. But what if you could create immortal cyborgs by using the discards of their societies? (Being rich and clever is very, very good -- It also can be a terrible trap if you think too logically.) Now, the process only works on relatively young children, so you yourself will never be immortal. And although there are often horrible side effects, at least in theory you can create a cadre of loyal, extremely strong and intelligent workers who can be used to do your bidding for tens of thousands of years if need be. And the only rule governing your actions is that recorded history can't be altered. Not because it can't be changed, but because no one wants to find out what happens if you did. Remember the classic Heinlein story "By His Bootstraps" in which events to change history were to no avail? Or Leiber's The Big Time, in which time was so changeable that nothing was fixed? It appears Dr. Zeus, Inc. is not interested in risking wealth, long lives, and really nice acquisitions on the chance that things might go terribly wrong!' But what if, as the cyborgs have been told, that after a certain date history ends possibly? What would you do to stop that from happening? Most likely, anything you could.
But I digress, as this book isn't about the Grand Schemes of cyborgs and their apparently mortal masters. Or perhaps on a smaller scale it is. As Kage noted in an email to me,
I think TLWTC is best approached as Alec's story. Hero born under obscure circumstances -- his growth and self-discovery -- the beginning of his journey. As I noted on the Night Shade Board last night, this is a segment of a honkin' huge mural -- you can frame bits of it as separate pictures, but it isn't really going to click for you until you see the whole thing with all the scaffolding cleared away.
This tale is more focused, more intimate than much of the series is.
Mendoza, our ever-so-cursed immortal botanist, has had not one, but two mortal lovers that looked exactly alike. Both died horrible deaths -- one burned at the cross, the other dying in armed battle, both as she watched. Now, no one would suggest that Mendoza's the smartest of the immortals. A good botanist, but not as intelligent as Lewis the Archivist or Joseph the Facilitator, as she simply doesn't think in terms of conspiracies. And what we have smacks of being the grandest of all conspiracies that Zeus Inc. has engaged in. Keep in mind that Mendoza is the only cyborg who can time travel forward! Not the sort of cyborg Zeus Inc. really wants around. So after the second mortal lover dies, they ship her to off to raise veggies way, way back in time -- hundreds of thousands of years to exact.
But, as Kage noted, this is not Mendoza's story except in a sort of tangential manner. It is the story of a boy and his pirate. Alec was introduced in Black Projects, White Knights where I said in my review of that collection that:
This collection also includes the first four Alec Checkerfield stories, which feature a very strange child, one who, by the neo-Puritan standards of the 24th Century, should never have been born. Kage clearly intends for the reader to believe that Dr. Zeus, Inc. engaged in, errr, illegal actions by creating him, but why they did so is far less clear. Alec Checkerfield is powerful enough that he alone could bring down civilization, but I hardly think that Dr. Zeus, Inc. would have had that outcome in mind, as they clearly are risk-adverse.
What The Life of the World to Come hints is that the Company ain't nearly as smart as it would like to think it is.
In a future England where no sane person from our time would even want to think about existing, all that's left of Oxford are three not terribly bright males by the names of Rutherford, Chatterji and Ellsworth-Howard who are emulating the Inklings, which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien among its members. Or so they think they are. What they are really doing is creating myths and giving them flesh. Yes, they created -- using the same genetic template -- both of Mendoza's mortal lovers. Having done so twice is not enough -- now they have created a third one. You guess correctly -- Alec Checkerfield is the latest in their line of tall, dark, and, so Zeus Inc. believes, disposable heroes. Sure. All goes well until dear Alec modifies his digital playmate, which allows that formerly crippled AI to become possibly the most powerful AI in human history. Captain Morgan, as he names himself because Alec likes pirate stories, cares for only one being -- Alec. Woe unto anything or anyone that Captain Morgan thinks might harm Alec!
(How bad is it in England those days of future passed? Cheese is illegal. No one reads -- not even the self-professed Inklings Nouveau. And don't even think about sex. Brrrr! Smuggling of cheese, chocolate, and the like from the Celtic Fringe, including that done by Captain Morgan and Alec in their pirate ship -- I am not kidding -- is highly profitable. And wait 'til Captain Morgan figures out how to make it a time traveling pirate ship!)
I will admit I found The Life of the World to Come a slower paced novel than the previous novels in the series, but having read The Machine's Child, the next true novel in the series, which you won't see for a while, I can say that everything Kage does here makes perfect sense when you read that novel. The Life of the World to Come is a novel which appears to be less complex than the previous novels, but don't let that fool you. Captain Morgan and his love for Alec will, if I read what's going on here accurately, set in motion events that could well shatter Zeus Inc. at some point, since the New Inklings have no idea that their Hero Mark III, being of the networked age, will not be hindered by the Company. And even if Alec doesn't want to bring Zeus Inc. down, Captain Morgan does.
It's not my favorite novel in the series -- The Machine's Child gets that honor! -- but it's a must read to see where Baker's going with this series. Of course, you'll really want to start at the beginning. But this novel can, in a pinch, be read without reading the rest of this series. It's reasonably self-contained and Kage does a good job of giving you the needed back plot. Oh, and Mendoza does make an appearance here -- an appearance which does not bode well for Zeus Inc. and its plans for Alec!