Kage Baker, |
Black Projects, White Knights
(Golden Gryphon, 2002)
From the first page, it's obvious someone cared a lot about Kage Baker's Black Projects, White Knights. Thick, cream-colored pages, fine type treatment and careful layout give it the feel of a valued historical tome. And it is a history of the agency that helps make history: Dr. Zeus, Inc. The prologue created by a hapless spy introduces us to their agents: immortal cyborgs created to withstand the rigors of all eras and all weathers and bring the agency treasures from throughout time.
Time travel gives an agency -- or an author -- the power to reshape history, and Baker doesn't hold back. We find our first gods in these files, the peacekeepers of early humanity. There are thieves and manipulators, stealing ancient treasures before less careful looters can find them. The darkness of the agency always overwhelms the sometimes noble intentions of its agents. This is an agency bent on pilfering and altering history, not for any noble reasons, but for pure financial gain. In various stories they steal art, scientific advancement and humanity from the time-bound mortals they travel with, and there is no place for the earlier peoples to lodge complaints.
Not all the stories are so focused on the agency's darker nature. Botanist Mendoza goes on simple plant-gathering missions, and in three different cases manages to find herself in the most complex circumstances. Agents set up in darker, more outwardly cruel times are often at pains to try and make life a little more humane for those around them, as though trying to make up for their essentially exploitative purpose. And one story, involving a fever, a now famous author and a very bad muse, hints that the agency sometimes gives as well as takes.
But even Baker's darker stories bounce with the genuine humor that comes from life and circumstance. An agent stationed in the brief time when Russians had settled America must cover for another, clearly damaged agent. The visitor is disturbing, and becomes more monstrous as the story goes on, but Dr. Kalugin's attempts to explain away his friend's quirks to the locals soon turn the story into humor. And the life story of Alec follows a boy through adolescence in a caringly dystopian future, but the bleakness sown around him only makes his careless dismantling of the system more invigorating to witness.
There's only one small problem with Baker's histories, and it's a natural problem of time travel. Why do these agents ever have to get things right on the first try? Given unlimited time travel, couldn't a botched mission simply be run over and over? There may be laws of time travel in Baker's universe that prevent it, but they aren't shown here. The one rule that is specified -- that they can't alter events that have been recorded -- seems rather silly, given how often history's recorders have altered or misreported the facts.
But the files of Dr. Zeus, Inc. are so compelling that even these seeming inconsistencies don't intrude while reading. The agents are so intent that even the most trivial missions seem desperate, without ever resorting to cheap plot twists to heighten tension. The care that shaped the book design is evident in the writing, While it defies the known laws of physics, Black Projects, White Knights stays internally consistent, and offers a taste of a life sweet, but too unkind to really want. Almost.