In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Garden of Iden (A Novel of the Company) by Kage Baker
I had not previously heard of Kage Baker and was just a bit skeptical about this book but I have read Connie Willis's To say nothing of the dog and after reading the sample of this book decided it was worth the try. I'm delighted that I did because not only does she have the fresh humor that Connie Willis demonstrates, she also has a depth of character and story that are quite compelling.
My first warning to anyone starting to read this is that it might be misleading to think that this is a futuristic time travel novel. The bulk of this novel reads more like a period piece with the incidental that time travel and future technology and immortality are integral in the event that stirs the main character into the story. Also it's a clever device that Kage Baker uses to enable her characters to think along anachronistic lines that actually make sense when you consider the whole.
To explain-in the future they develop technology to extend life-but are in a hurry to test it without having to wait the length of time it would take to verify first that it appears to work second that there are minimal side effects and third that it actually does work. But then they create time travel and have a host of common people to chose from on which to test this and if it works they just look them up in the present and test them for side effects and such. Presumably after much testing our main character, Mendoza, has the latest greatest with least amount of side effects.
Now a number of rules apply here that make the story interesting. They can't change the past-even if they try- so they don't try. They can go to the past and return to the present but can't go to the future- which means those they make immortal in the past have to stay in the past, but that's key to what they want to do anyway. So the premise is that if they find and alter people who have no visible impact on history it won't alter time and no one will know about it because those people were just common folk and there are just so many of those around that it makes no difference.--Sure there might be a hole in this somewhere in real causality but we can overlook that for now--.
These past participants are then isolated and trained to preform special tasks for the Company that will result in saving things for the Company to use in the future such as works of art that history never noted or perhaps were mysteriously lost and herbs and plants that had gone extinct and perhaps even some animals that had gone extinct. They would have to be isolated somewhere where they wouldn't be discovered until around the dawn of time travel so to speak. Mendoza is a botanist by training so is intent of getting specific things from the Garden of Iden.
These inductees are pumped full of nanites and drugs that make them immortal and it becomes questionable whether they are any longer human and their isolation makes them weary of and in many cases fearful of the apes known as man. They also have knowledge of history that extends well into the time time travel began so they have all sorts of influence from movies tapes and books that they would otherwise not know about. This leads to some interesting thoughts from Mendoza that seem anachronistic when the reader forgets that she learned all of the history and culture and literature that would give her this knowledge. So even though this takes place in mid 16th century she makes reference to things like Shakespeare and Don Quixote and more. Which means they have to be particularly careful when they are around the normal human animals.
What this story is really about is Mendoza's coming to terms with the notion that even though she is immortal she may still be human and it takes an unlikely romance with one of the human animals to bring this to her attention. Still throughout she constantly tries to deny that she might still be human. The reader on the other hand can have no doubts as they see her so easily fall sway to normal human pitfalls and prattles. Basically she's smitten and love sick. Of course since she is brought up to be areligious it makes perfect sense that she fall for a devout Protestant during a time of turmoil in England when the Catholic church and the Inquisition are going to be, for a short time persecuting Protestants and heathens. It's a tragedy in the making.
Mendoza is torn between duty to the Company and her job and her love for Nicholas and she vacillates between desire to run off with him and the knowledge that since she is immortal any such relationship would end badly. There is one particular incident when she is dancing with her beloved Nicholas that she is almost resolved to go with him when somehow her own conversation inadvertently leads to Nicholas having a logical conclusion that removes the possibility for them to run off together. Later there is a suggestion that part of the training imparted on Mendoza is full of subliminal triggers that prevent her from abandoning her work with the Company but Kage Baker's writing is so tight that even so, as a reader, I felt that it might have just been some human part of Mendoza that managed to crash things now and then.
Another clever piece of writing in the story is that we never quite cross any pivotal moments that make the history books, creating a sort of leeway for guiding the story where it needs to go.
This is a great story for people who like historical fiction and for SFF fans who are interested in immortal beings and time travel; even though it is mostly a sort of comedy tragedy about a romance between a radical Protestant and a Cyborg Atheist set in 16th century England. A great start to a series and fantastic debut novel.
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