You’ve been staring at your monitor too long. Relax and curl up with a book unrelated to IT, end users, or networks. Weekend Reading has your review.
By Kage BakerHarcourt Trade PublishersPublished February 2000334 pp., hardcoverISBN: 0-15-100448-XPrice: $16.80 at fatbrain.com.
Mendoza in Hollywood is the third installment in Kage Baker’s planned 10-volume Company series. In the first two novels, In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, Baker created a world in which mortals are selected to become cyborgs. These cyborgs are in the service of an organization that collects a vast variety of things from the past (e.g., Shakespeare’s first folio, Cleopatra’s necklace, a condor that will become extinct) and preserves them for the future.
The cyborgs are immortal, but they’re still affected by human emotions. As one says, “We immortals need to avoid unhappiness at all costs….It’s the only thing that can hurt us. Nothing else can get inside us and screw us up, not germs, not bullets, not poison—only unhappiness.”
In Mendoza in Hollywood, staying happy means different things to the cyborgs who are stuck in the Wild West of California during the 1860s. For Oscar, an anthropologist disguised as a traveling salesman, his greatest joy would be to sell an extravagant piece of kitchen furniture: the Criterion Patented Brassbound Pie Safe. Another anthropologist, Imarte, poses as a prostitute in order to exercise her passion: gathering life stories from strangers. Zoologist Juan Bautista is happiest when he’s caring for his pet birds. Einar is a film buff who holds private screenings of classic movies that will be made in Hollywood after the bullets stop flying.
For the botanist Mendoza, happiness is a rare thing. She enjoys collecting plants that will become extinct, but a man, the love of her life who died three centuries earlier, continually haunts her dreams. Eventually, she becomes involved with the British spy Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax, who seems to be the reincarnation of her previous lover. This time, will she be able to save him from his unhappy fate?
Baker’s characters are well drawn, and her descriptions of places are engaging (for example, “…the sun on the summer sea lit up the sky, and Catalina Island hovered out there like a lovely cool mirage, blue and eternally remote”). But there are problems with the novel. The first two-thirds of it is simply a series of anecdotes involving the various cyborgs. There is no big conflict to sustain your interest, and Mendoza’s recurring dreams are not compelling enough to make the book a page-turner.
In the last third of the novel, when Mendoza’s former boyfriend materializes as the British spy, the plot picks up, but we end up with a sort of science fiction/romance novel. Patches of the prose even turn a bit purple (for example, “I fled from the meaning of his words and lost myself in the worship of his magnificent mortal flesh. So we burned together beside that little fire…If the flames had risen and consumed us in each other’s arms, we’d have felt no pain”).
Another problem is that the book doesn’t work well as a stand-alone novel. There is a brief prologue that explains some of the history, but you will still have many questions about how the cyborgs and the Company came to be, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve walked in on the middle of a movie. At the end of the novel, many of your questions will remain unanswered.
Because of the interesting descriptions and characters, Mendoza in Hollywood is worth your weekend time if you’ve read the first two installments of the series. If you’re unfamiliar with the previous books and you’re looking for a time-travel tale that’s a good read as an individual novel, there are some better choices in the bookstores now. Fans of non-stop action might want to read Michael Crichton’s Timeline (click here to read the review). If you’re looking for a more thought-provoking work, consider Stephen Baxter’s Manifold: Time (for that review, click here).
Thomas Pack is a freelance technology writer.
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