Fans of Kage Baker’s “The Company” novels may not realize that the series actually was first published in short story form. As she states in her introduction to “Noble Mold,” this story was published in Asimov’s magazine while In the Garden of Iden was still looking for a publisher. After The Graveyard Game was published, she decided to collect a bunch of Company short stories from Asimov’s (and they always appeared in Asimov’s) into a book. The result, along with three new stories and a new introduction, is Black Projects, White Knights. These stories range from the mundane to the bizarre, but all have that distinctive Baker touch that makes them readable. They also include a note from Baker giving some insight into either how the story was conceived or some other tidbit about it.
We are first introduced to all of the characters who will be featured in the coming stories, under the cover of a spy into the Company’s records bringing up dossiers on all of the major players in the series (and the stories as well). “The Hounds of Zeus” will eventually tie into the series itself (Baker has hinted as such), but for now it is a suitable summary of who everybody is. We then get into the stories, and the wild ride begins. As in most short story collections, there are some standouts and some weaker stories. Surprisingly, I found the stories starring Mendoza to be among the lesser works, though they were still interesting. She features in three of them (“Noble Mold,” “Lemuria Will Rise!”, and “Hanuman”), but none of them spring off the page. “Noble Mold” is the story of Mendoza and Joseph trying to rescue a rare plant from the Southern California desert, to meet some strange resistance from the local natives. “Lemuria Will Rise!” has Mendoza meeting a strange mortal on the beach in northern California during her self-imposed exile after Sky Coyote, and brings about the possibility of aliens studying Earth. “Hanuman” has Mendoza recovering from an operation and recuperating with the aid of a “missing link” in human evolution. While the potential of these stories is surely there, I found the writing of the first two stories to be lacking (especially “Noble Mold,” but it was her first story so it’s excusable).
As usual, Joseph stars in the best stories, with “The Literary Agent” being the best of the bunch. In this one, Joseph interacts with Robert Louis Stevenson during his three-day stint on a mountain in California where he almost died. Joseph comes to see if he can get Stevenson to write a screenplay for him so that his “masters” can have an original work by him to film (it seems they’ve already adapted all of the books Stevenson has or will have written). Baker captures Hollywood perfectly, with Joseph submitting the screenplay ideas and then having them rejected, or accepted with some “slight changes.” The story is a riot from beginning to end and I couldn’t stop laughing through all of it. It’s fast-paced and Baker captures the personalities perfectly.
An interesting addition to the Company mythos is a series of stories about Alec Checkerfield, a young boy living in a time near the “Silence” (2355, or the year that the Company is working toward; nothing is known about what happens afterward). Checkerfield’s stories show us how ugly the world has become, where an adult can’t even hug a child in public without a license for fear of being taken away as a possible pedophile. Alec is a young boy who doesn’t know his place in the world. His parents have left him (though there’s some doubt that he’s even their child) and he’s being raised by his “father’s” servants. He has reprogrammed his electronic “child companion” so that he can break all of the social norms of current society. He’s very intelligent, and he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with someday. The book contains three stories about Alec at various stages of his growth, with the final one taking place when he’s sixteen. Baker obviously has plans for him, but I have no idea what they could be. The stories themselves aren’t that interesting other than in showing the future world, with the exception of “The Dust Enclosed Here.” In this story, Alec meets a hologram of William Shakespeare in a museum. Shakespeare’s plays have been forbidden for being too violent, but his sonnets are well-liked and they have created a semi-sentient hologram of him to entertain the public. Alec comes in and gives old Will a lot more sentience then he bargained for. The interplay between the two of them crackles and the story is witty yet slightly frightening. It’s another standout in the book.
Other stories give interesting insights into some of the characters we’ve seen in previous Company novels, giving some history to them and making them more complete (especially if you’ve read the stories before reading the books). While I didn’t think any of these stories stood out among the ones already mentioned, I thought they were interesting, well-written, and had some good characterization. Baker is a great short story writer, and even the lesser efforts in this book are well worth reading. The new stories are about extremely minor characters, and thus aren’t quite as interesting as the rest. The exception is “The Queen in Yellow,” which is a rollicking adventure of Lewis, the Literature Preservationist and friend of Mendoza, and his adventures in an Egyptian archeological dig in 1914. There’s a weird professor, an immortal woman controller who’s not above using her wiles to get what she wants, and good old Lewis stuck in the middle. Having just read The Graveyard Game, I found it interesting to hear a bit about Lewis’ past, and Baker again excels in the characterization department.
If you’re a fan of the Company books, Black Projects, White Knights is a valuable addition to the whole story. You won’t get any big insights into the ongoing plot, but you will get to see some of your favourite characters in some interesting situations, and you’ll get to experience Kage Baker, the short story writer. It’s well worth the time and investment.