In the Garden of Iden
by Kage Baker
Harcourt Brace, 1997, 329 pp., $23.00
Ultimately this book was a disappointment. It could have been either of two quite good books, but because it couldn’t decide which it would be, it was weak.
One of the books is about time travel and time travelers and has a clever premise. A company (it calls itself Dr. Zeus) is developing immortality. To test it without having to wait a thousand years, it develops time travel, sends a team back to, say, 1200 AD, administers a treatment to some “lucky” local and then returns to the present to see how well it worked. Cute. And because the past is immutable, Dr. Zeus develops a major sideline in preserving the past: hiding away artwork that would be lost, saving rare manuscripts before fires and salting away plants and animals before they become extinct.
Dr. Zeus, Inc., builds up a very extensive organization spread throughout history. And it stays secret because it stayed secret. It recruits its personnel from among children who disappear without trace — if a child is recorded as having been kidnapped by Gypsies, perhaps Dr. Zeus actually picked up the child and raised it to work immortally for the company.
The story begins following a 5-year-old girl in northern Spain right after the success of the Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain from the Moslems which ended in 1492. The girl is apparently bought from her parents by people for reasons unknown, and is rescued by agents of Dr. Zeus. The Spanish Inquisition is mixed in, and in one of the book’s better scenes, a priest-lawyer of the Inquisition is disgusted with a local magistrate who is convinced that there must be witchcraft involved somewhere — the priest-lawyer knows better and tries to steer the proceedings in a more rational direction (though like a 1950’s Communist hunter, he’s over-zealous in seeking out the King’s enemies.) So far so good.
The story now takes a zag and the girl is flown off to Dr. Zeus’ secret training base in Australia, where she is turned into a cyborg (evidently the way immortality is conferred, though if that’s the case, why they needed the elaborate time travel business, I don’t know). She’s educated and graduates at about 20 as a sophisticated young botanist. Being Spanish, she’s sent to England in the train of Phillip II when he goes to wed Mary I (Bloody Mary). Her task is to visit a garden in southern England and rescue a particular species of holly which is about to go extinct.
OK. One might reasonably ask why, given that they have time travel and given that they have had it for a great long time, they waited until the very last plant of this particular holly is living in England — why didn’t they go fetch a specimen from a previous period when it was more abundant? Oh. Of course. The plot made them do it.
One might also reasonably ask why they sent a Spanish agent into England disguised as a member of the Spanish Court. Spaniards — all foreigners — were hated and it would seem more appropriate to have used an English agent, since there were plenty of them. The plot again? Yup.
The events at the Walter Iden’s garden (the pun seems unnecessary) are pretty well done, and this is the other book: The young agent falling in love with Iden’s Protestant secretary. The events surrounding their love affair were interesting and could have been a good story by themselves. (I would have liked more on how the young, educated Protestant was interacting with the more traditional elements of local society, too.)
But the two stories really don’t fit too well together.
Some other peeves:
If the girl was extracted from her milieu at age 5 and educated in a very sophisticated, post-20th century establishment for 15 years, I don’t believe that she’d retain very much of her native culture. Yet a lot of her motivation supposedly stems from superstitions and the like absorbed early. Much too much to much to be believable, I think. (The plot again?)
I really hated the Radio Zeus broadcasts: Supposedly, Dr. Zeus maintains agents all over Europe who do nothing but broadcast play-by-plays of local history as it unfolds using very specific mid-90s news show inter-correspondent chatter. E.g., while watching the execution of a Protestant bishop by Mary, “And now the news. And it’s grim, we regret to say: Today England’s first victim of the Counter-Reformation was burnt at Smithfield. … Your news team had an operative on the scene, and Diotima, can you tell us about it?” “Well, Reg, you know I’ve been in the field a long time, and I’ve been there for most of the big events…” Oh come now! Even if Dr. Zeus had so much manpower that it could do this correspondent thing (in which case why import Spaniards to go after English holly?) they certainly wouldn’t speak that way. Bathos, pure and simple. (And I can’t even blame this on Baker’s need to move the plot along — this was nothing but sloppy self-indulgence.)
And the underground railroads (literally) and hidden landing pads that Dr. Zeus has all over Europe are ridiculous.
In the end, someone who is plainly a pretty good writer took too many ideas and crammed them into too small a book — and asked me to sentence my disbelief to hang until quite dead.
Not a winner, I’m afraid. (But it could have been.)