Throwdown!: Time Traveling Botanists
In The Garden of Iden
The Cusanus Game
Every once in awhile, I acquire two or more books with nearly identical themes and read them sequentially. (And by “identical themes,” I mean something more narrow than just exploding spaceships or men with swords and mighty thews.) This is almost always coincidental and inevitably leads to another (infrequent) Throwdown post. I believe this to be the third I have written, with increasing levels of thematic obscurity. Nobody is as surprised as I am that this time I have two books to compare about botanists who travel through time. Maybe there is an entire subgenre about this that I have previously missed, but I’m guessing that I won’t read another similar book this year.
First up is In the Garden of Iden, the opener to Kage Baker’s stupendously popular Company series. It is only the second Baker book I have read, but I already regret being so late to the party. Without knowing Baker’s reputation, I would never have picked up Iden, as the description of time travel and romance trips all sorts of alarm bells. I have mentioned before that I’m not really a fan of time travel (I think too much about the mechanics and get annoyed) and that romantic subplots make me grind my teeth (no good reason, but I’m just not into other people’s relationships). Adding insult to injury, the whole plot revolves around a character who studies plants, not physics or some other traditional Hard SF topic. I hated biology and got bad grades in it. Still, I trust Kage Baker to make it happen, as we all should.
Iden isn’t quite as funny as Anvil of the World, but it is still a jolly read. Not that serious and depressing things aren’t happening, because this is Reformation England and of course life is brutish and short, but the story bounds happily along anyway. That seems to be the way Baker is, which is just fine with me. The history is covered (I assume) accurately, but with a light touch – no painful infodumps or clumsy summaries. It probably helps that the time period and locale are familiar to many of us, but not having to hack through a text book just to understand what is happening speaks volumes of Baker’s efficiency and skill, especially considering that she is introducing two civilizations, a bit of future history, a time travel system that doesn’t eat its own tail, and a host of characters, all in just a few hundred pages.
Finally, while the book can stand on its own, this is one of those that really begs to be a series. Iden is wholly self-contained, but Baker has folded in enough thematic material to fill multiple volumes. The time travel mechanism is plausible, the characters are built to last (literally and figuratively), and with thousands of years to work with, there isn’t much threat of exhausting things. The position that the titular Company creates for itself raises questions that Iden declines to address, despite it being completely satisfying as is. Having read books whose sole purpose is to set the stage for sequels, I can’t overstate how pleasant it is to deal with an opener that is content to deal only with the moment. That may be the book’s biggest strength, though it is one among many.
I don’t remember why or when The Cusanus Game entered my TBR list, though I suspect the influence of either The Coode Street Podcast or something on Tor.com. Regardless, I saw a copy on a recent excursion to a previously unvisited library branch and snapped it up. (That same day at another branch, I checked out Iden.) Cusanus is a 2005 book by Wolfgang Jeschke, apparently a prominent SF author and editor in Germany. I hadn’t heard of him before the 2013 publication of Cusanus, though it looks like he has at least some short stories available in English. I hope Tor puts some muscle behind Jeschke, as he seems like the sort of author (and Tor the sort of publisher) that could make a push for more translated SF.
In my SF world, aliens always invade America and giant monsters always flatten Tokyo. It is nice to read about Europe, for once, even if that Europe is a pretty awful place to be. Not because of socialism, good health care, and strong labor unions though, but because somebody pushed the “Oops” button on a nuclear bomb or plant and turned much of Germany and Poland into glass. Adding insult to injury, climate change took the worst possible path in Jeschke’s future, leaving what’s left of Europe awash in refugees from places that are now either under water or turning into deserts. Into this steps the Catholic church, who ishiring scientists for a mysterious project that is supposed to save Europe.
It just so happens that the main viewpoint character is a botanist who, oddly enough, gets to travel through time. She too tromps around Medieval Europe, contending with many of the same issues as Baker’s characters: religious conflict, witch burning, and a budding scientific world view. Jeschke employs an ingenious time travel mechanism for this, involving waves that roll back and forth through the multiverse, carrying potential travelers along for the ride. Where Baker deals with one immutable timeline, Jeschke allows for a multiverse of countless parallel realities, albeit one that allows many of its universes to shrivel and die in a bid to keep some form of order. There may or may not be intelligences outside of time that are using these time waves to bring about some ultimate purpose, though things are quite vague.
Of particular interest in Cusanus is the European viewpoint that carries beyond just the setting. Die hard fans of the USA may not appreciate the author’s bland dismissal of our great nation. (I minded not a whit.) The weight of history is ever present, though its pressures change depending on the region. Italy is never far from its Renaissance glories, while Germany and France remain in the shadow of war. I was particularly fascinated at the fears of resurgent Nazism, something that seems close to the surface in other books I have read from the Continent. Race relations in Europe are every bit as fraught as they are in North America, but with very different dynamics in play; readers sensitive to this will find much of interest.
I wish I had gotten to this book a bit earlier. I have no idea what the rules are for translations, but Cusanus would have been on my Hugo ballot for 2013, had I submitted one. It is heavy reading, with a pace and characterization that will turn off some readers. It is also crammed full of ideas, world building, and commentary on hot topics like climate change, nuclear energy, and race relations. With the right push from certain factions of the community, Cusanus is a book that could generate serious, if slow burning, buzz. It has everything I look for in SF and delivers an original, brain twisting, story. I will understand when some people bounce off, but must give a strong recommendation to fans who want to be challenged when they read.