Now that I'm caught up with Kage Baker's "Company" novels, waiting for the next one has been excruciating. At the beginning of December, however, The Life of the World to Come was finally published, and it was well worth the wait. Baker adds a lot more detail to the Company universe, telling us much more of the future than we even received in The Graveyard Game as we barrel toward the unknown event horizon of 2355, where not even Doctor Zeus, Incorporated, knows what happens. For any fans of the Company, rest assured that this book is well worth reading. If you're not familiar, then definitely don't start with this book. While it is understandable (for reasons I'll get into later), you'll lose a lot of the richness of the plot.
The immortal cyborg botanist known as Mendoza has been exiled to the Back Way Back station on what will eventually come to be known as Catalina Island - only this is 150,000 years in the past. Here, she's to provide produce for twenty-fourth century time travelers who come back for a little R&R. She's also able to continue her botanical research, but what she's really cultivating is a grudge against Dr. Zeus. One day, many years after her exile began, a time shuttle from 2350 crashes to earth. In it is what appears to be yet another incarnation of the love of her life. In the sixteenth century, he was known as Nicholas. When she ran into him in 1863 California, he was Edward. Is the third time the charm?
The occupant is Alec Checkerfield, and this really becomes his book. We find out about his extraordinary life, his strange abilities and where he came from, along with the intelligent computer that he created who now helps him run things. He had a very strange childhood, and things only get stranger as he grows up. Interspersed with these chapters detailing his childhood are meetings between three scientists from the Company who have decided there is a need for the creation who eventually becomes Nicholas, Edward, and ultimately, Alec. Things come to a head as Alec, who has led a gigolo lifestyle, joins a cause which leads him on the inevitable collision course with our botanist, a collision that will change both their lives forever.
I was expecting this book to be mainly about Mendoza, and since I had not read the cover jacket, I was quite surprised when the book left her and never returned (except very briefly near the end). Instead, we get the story of Alec, who has appeared in a few Asimov's magazine short stories but of whom I never really knew how he fit into everything. The Life of the World to Come explains it all. Were you bothered about how Mendoza always seemed to be meeting reincarnations of her old lover? This book explains it quite rationally, making the Company seem even darker as the scientists involved with his origin believe that they are doing good for the world.
The book does a wonderful job of explaining everything and keeps up a good pace as well. We see extended scenes of Alec while he's growing up and see how his personality is shaped by the strange, overly politically correct world that he's surrounded by, as well as the feeling that he was completely unwanted by his parents. His only true friend is the Captain, a former computer playfriend that he reprogrammed to be the ultimate artificial intelligence - and now his companion in everything he does. He even goes so far as to get a cyborg implant so he can always be connected to the Captain. Mixed in with these scenes (so we never get too bored by too much Alec) are the scenes with the scientists. These are, at times, even better than the Alec scenes.
Rutherford is an historian wants wants desperately to return to the old times. His ultimate goal is to recreate the Inklings, the writing group of which Tolkein was a member. He and his companions, Frankie Chatterji and Foxen Ellsworth-Howard, have fake wine, fake tea, a fire that only their service to Dr. Zeus allows them to have (fires are against the law). They serve a couple of purposes in the book. First, they explain Alec's background so the reader knows it before Alec does, along with explaining what happened with Mendoza in the sixteenth century and the nineteenth. Secondly, they give us a little bit of insight into the company workings, or at least one side of it. When they realize that the third incarnation of what they are doing is happening in real time (contemporary to them, rather than in the past), they get an odd thrill. There's no way to know how it will turn out. It makes them nervous, too, as Alec has already become too unpredictable for them. Baker captures these scientists perfectly. They have many idiosyncrasies and each one is truly three dimensional.
The star of the show, however, is Alec. He is a very rich character, and Baker is able to fully examine him. He is damaged by the way he grew up, and he's even more damaged when he finds out the truth behind his childhood. Baker never falters in her telling of the two intertwining stories, always capturing the reader's interest and moving on to the other story just when the reader needs a break. The opening, told from Mendoza's point of view, gives us an update on how she's doing and becomes even more important when we see the same scenes from Alec's point of view later on. For not being in the book much, we find ourselves caring even more about Mendoza as she does something that leaves her in quite the precarious circumstance.
For fans of Joseph and Lewis, Mendoza's fellow immortals, I'm sorry to say they are not in this one. The way The Graveyard Game left off, that's too bad, but we must wait until the next one. Baker is slowly building up to the event in 2355, and she's ratcheting up the tension as she goes. The Life of the World to Come progresses the story a little bit, but it also fills in a lot of back detail. It's clear that Alec will play an important part, so it's imperative we get to know him first.
Both Baker's characterization and her plotting skills are on vivid display here. Do yourself a favour and pick this book up.