Welcome to the imagination of Kage Baker. Enjoy it; treasure it; don’t get too comfortable here. There won’t be anything new to come. Baker’s death in 2010 stilled one of America’s most original voices.
And ‘voices’ is the word for it. The first half of this book is composed almost entirely of stories told in the first person, with Baker effortlessly slipping inside the heads of one narrator after another –not always the most admirable or reliable ones — to craft her uncommon fictions.
When the tales shift to third-person narrative there’s something in her tone that seems vaguely familiar to me, like the echo of a voice I ought to recognise, but I can’t trace the nagging familiarity to any specific influence. Maybe it’s a sort of local idiom with roots in the eclectic theatrical crowd we shared in the early ’80s, working the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Southern California. Maybe it’s the influence of film or television — Baker’s worlds do have something of a Hollywood flavour to them — but if so, there aren’t a lot of screenplays as intelligent or as witty as these.
She loved her irony. Sometimes, as in “The Catch”, the layers of meaning she could pile into a phrase could just about sink a story — if it were not so artfully managed. That piece isn’t just good science fiction or fantasy — that’s a particularly good piece of American fiction, period. It’s a sly, lyrical dissection of the American dream, complete with dark side, and it maintains the balance between political satire and self-contained tale of character so delicately that it never does injury to either one.
Other pieces are not nearly so American. Her characters range from all over the span of Earth’s geography and history. If her primary narrative tone tends toward Southern California Eclectic, her people are defined neatly in their own places and times by distinctive voices all their own: her command of sundry period and local dialects was very deft indeed, and she communicated them with none of the standard ploys. Never spelling out the sound of her characters’ accents — a practise she apparently deplored — she instead simply sets the syntax and idiom of, say, an Irish-American labourer in the character’s mouth: and if you know the accent, you can’t help but hear it.
And while her strongest pieces are undeniably those set in America, that’s not to say she doesn’t deliver a wide world of solid entertainment: she’ll take you to jungled islands and Victorian London almost as readily as she brings to life the secret history of San Simeon and long-vanished parks and tenements of San Francisco.
You won’t find a lot of black and white in these pieces. From Mexican peasants with a secret treasure they don’t understand and a dread secret they dare not reveal to jaded, immortal time travellers with unexpected — and surprisingly credible — soft spots; from a reluctant pirate’s maiden voyage to a caged tyger’s seductive song of vengeance, or something like it, Baker does not judge. She lets her characters and situations play themselves out, and she lets us form our own opinions.
To be sure, not every story in this anthology is gold. The stories are assembled according to previous collection history, and the stories labeled “Previously Uncollected” toward the end are among them. It was probably a mistake to group them together, as it tends to weaken to final impression of Baker’s craft. Most of the first half of the volume is really excellent stuff; much of the second half is something of a letdown. And yet if they’re not all gold several of the rest are good silver, and most of the rest no worse than honest brass: solid coin still. I only found a couple of pieces of lead in the sum, and someone else might consider “Calamari Curls” or “The Faithful” more amusing than I did. But taken all in all, I look forward to finding some of the collections these pieces were excerpted from. What better can you ask of a “Best Of” anthology than to come away eager for more?
Except, of course, that there’s such a sadly limited amount of more that’s ever going to be available from this excellent author. Welcome to the imagination of Kage Baker. Enjoy it; treasure it; don’t get too comfortable here.
For further information on the life and works of Kage Baker, please see her site.