Not Less Than Gods is one of the last couple of novels Kage Baker finished before her death, and the final novel in her Company series. For anybody familiar with the series, this is the backstory on Edward Bell-Fairfax, and how he grew into a strange fusion of Victorian idealist and sociopath. For anybody else, it’s a 300 page chunk of steampunk espionage that stands perfectly well on its own.
Of course, between a reader coming to a book cold, and one who’s already read the author’s other work, I think the fan is getting a better deal. You often hear of avid readers who find an interesting writer and obsessively track down everything that writer ever wrote. You might assume they’re just after more of the same. Nah–there’s more to it than that.
Most writers–and artists in general; painters, directors, whatever–have styles they prefer, tricks and techniques they reuse, thoughts and questions they return to. A few artists are stylistic chameleons, never the same from work to work. I actually find these artists less interesting! The best thing about having read many of a writer’s books is that you start to see patterns, and then you’re reading with a whole extra set of tools. Reading one book is like standing in a landscape; read more and you catch a glimpse of the map.
So, yeah, Not Less Than Gods is fun. But it holds an extra meta-interest for me because it demonstrates three techniques Kage Baker turned to often, and was very good at.
(Spoiler note: Later in this post, I discuss the ending of Not Less Than Gods. Also, there’s a somewhat vaguer spoiler for her fantasy novel The Anvil of the World.)
The past is another country (but we’re reading a good travel guide).
The plot engine driving Baker’s Company series is a 22nd century corporation that has sent a small army of immortal cyborgs back in time to preserve treasures that fell into the dustbin of history–lost artworks, films, and manuscripts, extinct plants and animals, sometimes even entire cultures–until the 22nd century. At which point the Company whips out its stash and sells out to the highest bidders.
Most of the Company stories are set in the past, all over the world and all over history. Baker has every time and place pretty much nailed. She sets a story in 18th century Amsterdam, and you think, yeah, that’s what 18th century Amsterdam must have been like, and that’s what the people must have been like, too. But they’re also very familiar people. They’re historical people, citizens of the foreign country that is the past, translated into our terms, with no false archaism. They’re of their time; when their time parts ways with ours Baker helps us empathize, if not always sympathize.
Any good historical novelist has this skill, but Baker in particular has the balance just right, in Not Less Than Gods as in all her other work. The dialogue has a 19th century touch, but it’s a light touch. Our heroes are about as progressive in their personal beliefs as 19th century English gentlemen got, but not walking anachronisms.
The big plot reveal.
A lot of Baker’s novels begin as picaresques. Things happen, they’re interesting and even exciting, but you get the sense that anybody insisting these things should arrange themselves into an orderly plot is missing the point. But just when you’ve decided you’re reading a novel of character, not plot… the plot shows up. Typical of Baker’s work is her epic fantasy The Anvil of the World. Which is actually kind of an anti-epic: no Fate of the World, just the ordinary business of running a caravan and a hotel, or at least what passes for ordinary business when some of the customers are gods. Until nearly the end of the book when, hey, the Fate of the World! It snuck up on us from behind! Aiee!
Sometimes, as in Mendoza in Hollywood, Baker’s plots seem to spring up from behind a hedge. (Not a “Where did that come from?” kind of springing from a hedge; more like “Surprise! I brought pie!”) More often her plots quietly climb out of the narrative and take over. Not Less Than Gods has one of those plots. It tells us about Edward’s childhood, his recruitment into a cabal of steampunk spies connected to the Company, and his picaresque adventures traveling around the world on his first undercover mission. Edward and his colleagues disguise and photograph their way through several foreign countries, incidents slowly accumulate into a plot, and they find themselves facing a rival group of steampunk spies. Which brings us to the third thing Baker does often, and well:
Shifting the tone.
Kage Baker was one of the SF genre’s great comic writers. I mentioned that the early chapters of her novels tend to be picaresques; they’re also usually funny.
But comedy was not her sole talent. I like stories that begin in one style or register and shift seamlessly into another, so one thing I particularly like about Baker is the way her comic stories have of turning serious, even grim, as their plots emerge.
Not Less Than Gods is one of those. The first three quarters feel like a century-old adventure novel: sunny, breezy, confident in its hero’s abilities even though he still has a lot to learn. The Good Guys uncover a conspiracy, an attack on a friend provokes their righteous anger, they make their climactic move against the Bad Guys… and the Bad Guys go down, but it’s awkward and bloody and botched, because the heroes aren’t living in an old-fashioned adventure novel after all.
It occurs to me that this is also a pattern in Baker’s stories: when things go very badly wrong, it’s often because someone tried to do something right, and it didn’t work the way they expected. Sometimes the person trying to do the right thing has been set up by a villain, but often the tragedy comes about because of the same flaws–foolishness, short-sightedness, vanity–that, a few chapters earlier, led to comedy. This pattern even turns up in the world-building behind the Company stories, some of which take place in an absurdist future dystopia created by virtue run amok.
The point being?
Every book has a worldview. It’s not the author’s worldview, not necessarily, because an artist’s work is not a direct line into the artist’s mind. And, besides, things sometimes get lost in interpretation, depending on who’s doing the interpreting.
What I get from Kage Baker’s work is a world where cultures change but people remain people, and people are, in general, a bit silly. They live lives of farce interrupted by sudden drama; things they assumed were not important or not serious turn out to mean something. When trouble comes they deal with it as best they can, but sometimes they’re betrayed by their flaws and bad instincts.
Kage Baker’s books have a view of humanity that’s half sympathetic, half cynical. From what I’ve described–comedies turning serious, well-intentioned disasters–it might sound like the cynical side overwhelms everything else, that this all sounds depressing. Actually, no: Baker’s stories are hopeful. I never come out of one feeling lousy.
The thing is: Baker’s work may sometimes descend into heavy places, but it always comes back up to its equilibrium. Pick up the next book and, hey, the sun’s back out. Sometimes people do good, sometimes people do badly, but doing good is humanity’s default state. And The Sons of Heaven, the last volume of the Company series (last by internal chronology, not last written) reverses the pattern: first grim, then hopeful.
If the world is a stage, the play may take a long, long time to work itself out, but in the final act we’ll find it isn’t a tragedy, but a comedy, after all.