There are a lot of strange people in San Francisco, and if you work there, you soon grow used to occasional peculiarities in your customers; but the girl behind the cash register at Ghirardelli’s decided that this took weirdness to new heights. Two executives in tailored business suits were sitting at one of the little white tables in the soda fountain area, glaring hungrily at the the fountain worker who was preparing their eighth round of hot chocolate. They had marched in, put down a hundred-dollar bill, and told her to keep the drinks coming. On the floor between their respective briefcases was a souvenir bag stuffed with boxes of chocolate cable cars, and the table was littered with foil wrappers from the chocolate they had already consumed. — Joseph and Lewis get drunk on chocolate in Kage Baker’s The Graveyard Game
Golden Gryphon Press was kind enough to send us a review copy of this collection by Kage Baker, set in ‘The Company’ universe where four of her novels are also set (In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, and The Graveyard Game). You can find a review of those superb novels here. Black Projects, White Knights is best read after reading those four novels, as it fills in some of the gaps that Kage has — I suspect — deliberately created in order not to give away the story too fast; she has said that there are two, and possibly more, novels to go in the series.
The most interesting thing about a collection of short fiction set in a universe that has, up to Black Projects, White Knights, been set in full-length novels is how well those tales add to the feel of that universe. Some universes clearly benefit from such collections — the fictional city of Newford that Charles de Lint created for his urban fantasy tales owes much of its fleshing out to the shorter works that can found in such collections such as Dreams Underfoot and Moonlight & Vines — but this is not always true. Larry Niven’s Known Space universe was at its best in novels such as Ringworld, and collections like Worlds of Ptaavs were fine, but only Flatlander: The Collected Tales of Gil ‘the Arm’ Hamilton worked for me. Now, some universes beg for tales of any length to be written about them — Michael M. Jones shows us exactly why in his review of James Stoddard’s The High House and The False House. While not as outrageously fantastical as the Evenmere universe, Kage Baker’s universe of time traveling cyborgs, hidden histories, vast hoards of plundered loot, and a company that uses time travel to create its past after it has already happened (!) deserves to have as many tales as possible told about it!
Mind you, it’s important for me to note at this juncture that I generally don’t like short fiction, as I like nothing better that a really well-written, thick (say six hundred pages or more) novel that has layer upon layer of detail. Indeed, multiple novels in the same universe are even better, though the Dune series has proved that more is not always better. James Burke’s Dave Robicheaux police series set in New Iberia, a sleepy backwater parish in Louisiana, has nine or so lovely detailed novels now. Bliss! Equally wonderful were Niven’s Dreampark novels, which allowed him to develop an interesting near future society over the course of the trilogy. So it is with a great deal of delight that I can say that I loved every tale within Black Projects, White Knights! Admittedly, I was predisposed to liking the tales because the novels were all far beyond merely good, but I wasn’t completely convinced that Baker’s sprawling universe, could be contained within the confines of a few short pages. But it worked far better than just fine.
If you’ve read the novels, you’ll love the stories here. Revel in Botanist Mendoza’s search for the much sought-after hallucinogenic Black Elysium grape in 1844 Spanish-held Santa Barbara, California, as told in ‘Noble Mold’; watch Facilitator Joseph’s Faustian bargain with the dying but soon-to-be healthy Robert Louis Stevenson in 1879 (‘The Literary Agent’); thrill to Marine Salvage Specialist Kalugin’s recovery of an extremely rare painting from a sunken yacht off the coast of Los Angeles in 1894 (‘The Wreck of the Gladstone’); and, in a story that is a true screwball comedy, Literature Preservationist Lewis retrieves priceless literary artifacts, in 1914 Egypt, from the mummy case of Princess Sit-Hathor-Yunet (‘The Queen in Yellow’). All of these tales work splendidly here — Kage obviously writes well in both the long and short form.
This collection also includes the first four Alec Checkerfield stories, which feature a very strange child, one who, by the neo-Puritan standards of the 24th Century, should never have been born. Kage clearly intends for the reader to believe that Dr. Zeus, Inc. engaged in, errr, illegal actions by creating him, but why they did so is far less clear. Alec Checkerfield is powerful enough that he alone could bring down civilization, but I hardly think that Dr. Zeus, Inc. would have had that outcome in mind, as they clearly are risk-adverse. These are just a few highlights of a truly outstanding collection. And I’d be remiss not to note that Golden Gryphon Press did a superb job of designing and producing this book — good artwork by J.K. Potter and a wonderful jacket design by Lynne Condellone complement a nice, crisp font on far better than just good paper. Good work all!
(Golden Gryphon Press, 2002)