sff she-read #13: IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN, by Kage Baker

The original she-read post.

I feel so stupid that my reviews don’t include book cover photos. This isn’t my favorite, but it’s what was on the library copy that I read, so it stays.

I read IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN on vacation several weeks ago, so my memory isn’t as good as it might be. The basics: IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN is centered around an approach to time travel that’s more than innovative enough to justify the Chapter 1 infodump and attendant slow start, and its point of view character is really well drawn and well written, with all the weaknesses you’d expect from what amounts to an eighteen-year-old godling. The romance is as sweet as it could be and as tragic as we pretty much know it has to be. If the book has a real defect, it’s that Mendoza’s professional objective, the botanical MacGuffin that brings her and her entourage to the garden of Iden, is not especially compelling—important, but not invested with any real emotional urgency. But I go back and forth on whether this is a defect. First, the book is and reads as an origin story, and so it makes some sense that the focus is on the force that events exert on Mendoza’s character rather than the significance of what she achieves. Second, maybe related, what she’s doing is her job. Sure, it’s a job that confers immortality and involves hiding things for your employer to find thousands of years in the future, but it’s still basically a job. So it makes some sense to frustrate the expectation that the quest will provide some deep emotional satisfaction. It provides the satisfaction of doing one’s job, which is a real but limited compensation; and there will be lots of quests to follow.

Actually, the one other potential defect is in the time-traveling conceit. The idea is that you can’t alter recorded history—so you can’t kill Hitler, but you can hide something for your boss to find a thousand years in the future. The storytelling function of this limitation is obvious, and you can lash it loosely to quantum physics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and so on to get a reasonably interesting take on reality as collective perception, but distracting questions immediately jump out. How long does history have to be recorded to be set in stone? If something was common knowledge in one era of human history and unknown in another, is it fair game? When does history stop for these purposes—remember, the Company’s future is some other future’s past. What about the butterfly effect—can you kill one of Hitler’s ancestors? If not, can you kill anyone? If not, what else can’t you do, or can you?

Anyway, I bring this up only because it nags; Baker may address these problems beautifully in subsequent books. I will certainly find out when I get the chance.

2 thoughts on “sff she-read #13: IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN, by Kage Baker

  1. I have a weird love-hate relationship with the Company novels. As you can probably guess, I loved Iden for the setting (and Kage Baker’s excellent Tudor English is a treat), and, oddly, for the fact that nothing happens for much of the novel: it really is about the slow boredom of living in the past when you’re from the future, rather than immediately falling into, say, a ring of Catholic spies out to kill the king or something.

    And I love several of the characters who come to prominence in the later novels and stories (if you keep reading, you will not be surprised that my favorite is Literature Preserver Lewis), such that I often check out a couple of random Company books from the library and go on a little time-travel binge. But I found the end of the series *so* disappointing! And the future in these novels is much less interesting than the past…although that might just be my typical orientation toward time travel stories, since I tend to feel the same way about Doctor Who episodes as well. Ah well; can’t have everything, I suppose.

  2. Pingback: sff she-read 2012 « the pulchrifex papers

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