The more I read Kage Baker, the more I love Kage Baker. Of the hundreds of speculative fiction authors I’ve read, I rank Kage Baker in the top ten. Maybe top five. She’s that amazing. I love her clever imagination and her style which is unembellished, straightforward, and full of wit and charm. Which is why I was jumping up and down when the nearly 500-page story collection called The Best of Kage Baker showed up on my doorstep.
This collection, published by Subterranean Press, contains 20 excellent stories; nine have been published in five previous collections and eleven are uncollected. Several are set in the world of Baker’s most famous creation: THE COMPANY. Here are the stories you’ll find in The Best of Kage Baker:
1. “Noble Mold” — (1997, Asimov’s Science Fiction) Mendoza, the Company botanist, is sent to collect an important vine from an Indian mission in California, but the Indians refuse to give it up. Joseph, acting as a Roman Catholic priest, has to play a trick on them to get the precious vine out of their hands.
2. “Old Flat Top” — (2002, Black Projects, White Knights) A Cro-Magnon boy climbs a mountain searching for God. It turns out that God is a Company Enforcer.
3. “Hanuman” — (2002, Asimov’s Science Fiction) When Mendoza meets a pre-human hominid at a Company R&R facility and hears his story about how he visited his chimpanzee surrogate mother, Mendoza must consider her own feelings about being human.
4. “Son Observe The Time” — (1999, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Hugo nominee) Before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a group of Company operatives is sent on a mission to preserve the city’s important relics before they are destroyed. This story is full of magnificent imagery and will likely bring tears to the eyes of anyone who loves that city. You can almost feel the earth starting to tremble… what a beautiful story.
5. “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst” — (2003, Asimov’s Science Fiction) Joseph and Lewis visit the mansion of media magnate Walter Randolph Hearst. The Company wants to make a deal with the inestimable Mr. Hearst.
6. “The Catch” — (2004, Asimov’s Science Fiction) Clete and Porfirio are tracking a dangerous rogue Company operative who used to be a freckle-faced baseball- and cowboy-loving All-American boy from 1951.
7. “Leaving His Cares Behind” — (2004, Asimov’s Science Fiction) This is a sequel to Baker’s novel The House of the Stag, which I loved. The spoiled loafing son of the King of the Mountain and the Saint of the World needs some spending money. It was such a pleasure to revisit this world.
8. “What the Tyger Told Her” — (2001, Realms of Fantasy) A caged Tyger advises a young girl about life. Using her family members as examples, he demonstrates that to get what you want in life, you should not talk too much and you should never underestimate your opponents.
9. “Calamari Curls” — (2006, Dark Mondays) In this silly tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, the owner of the Chowder Palace restaurant (whose customers seem to all be missing body parts) hires a transgender mime to ruin the business of the new Calamari Curls restaurant that opened across the street. In this story we learn the real words to the song Louie, Louie.
10. “Maelstrom” — (2007, The New Space Opera) On Mars, a rich man uses his money to build the Edgar Allan Poe playhouse. Now where is he going to find some decent actors?
11. “Speed, Speed the Cable” — (2008, Extraordinary Engines) The Society is involved in a covert operation to prevent sabotage to the world’s first transatlantic communications wire. While they’re at it, they install a little something extra for themselves. This story ends with a thoughtful vignette about copyright and internet piracy.
12. “Caverns of Mystery” — (2008, Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy, World Fantasy Award nominee) This spooky story is about a girl who has the curse of being able to see phantoms from the past. While on a beach vacation with her family, she is drawn to the caverns which have an old sad story to tell.
13. “Are You Afflicted With Dragons?” — (2009, The Dragon Book) A hotel owner can’t get rid of the dragons roosting on his roof until he meets a man in the marketplace who offers to do the job for free… For free… Really?
14. “I Begyn as I Meane to Go On” — (2008, Fast Ships, Black Sails) Slaves escaped from Barbados are picked up by some unlucky pirates and eventually find themselves hunting treasure on a creepy booby-trapped island. There’s not much fantasy here – it’s just a thrilling pirate adventure that would make a great movie.
15. “The Ruby Incomparable” — (2007, Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy) We return again to the world of The House of the Stag in this story about the headstrong daughter of the King of the Mountain and the Saint of the World. I love this world and its inhabitants and this story seemed like just a fun frolic until the poignant end that brought tears to my eyes. This is a story for parents, and especially for mothers.
16. “Plotters and Shooters” — (2007, Fast Forward) This hilarious story is about a colony of geeks who plot and shoot asteroids above the planet Mars. The Shooters have enslaved the inferior Plotters, but when a new plotter arrives, geek civil war ensues. I laughed all the way through this story.
17. “The Faithful” — (2003, New Voices in Science Fiction) Two temple priestesses are in danger of losing their faith when their goddess is replaced with a new religion. If you’ve never read this clever story, I guarantee that as soon as you read the last paragraph, you’ll go right back to the beginning and read it again. I love stories that make me do that. This was one of my favorites.
18. “Leaping Lover” — (2007, The Mammoth Book of Dickensian Whodunnits) In letters to a friend, a delusional narcissistic lady explains how Spring-Heeled Jack has fallen in love with her. Another hilarious story.
19. “Bad Machine” — (2005, Asimov’s Science Fiction) The 16 year old son of a parliamentarian living in an Orwellian future England has been noticed by the authorities because he’s been ordering too many condoms by mail. His computer, which manifests as a pirate, must “patch” things up.
20. “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park” — (original) A Company operative whose surgery was unsuccessful is used only as a living camera to document decades of change in Sutro Park in San Francisco. As the park declines, so also does a little girl who grows up and eventually deteriorates into madness as she fights to preserve the park she loves. I cried at the end of this story, too.
In my experience, story collections are almost always a mixed bag, but The Best of Kage Baker is not. Even those I’d read before were welcome re-reads. I enjoyed every single story in this collection. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s the honest truth that nearly every one of them made me think, smile, laugh, or cry. What can be better than that? And at the very end, I wanted to cry just because Kage Baker, who died a couple of years ago, will write no more of her wonderful stories. We have lost such a great talent.
The Best of Kage Baker is one of the best story collections I’ve ever read. I will treasure this volume. Please don’t ask me if you can borrow it.