Kage Baker Remembered

In honor of Kage Baker's posthumous release, The Bird Of The River, the author is remembered through the eyes of her younger sister, Kathleen Bartholomew.

The lovely RT Web Editor, Morgan Doremus, asked me if I would be interested in recounting some remembrances of Kage Baker's early writing career, and her evolution as a writer. I was stumped at first - an outside view of a writer's internal process is never as enlightening as what the writer says herself; probably, her stories are the best story of all. But I was there through all of it. It took most of Kage's life to become what she was, and since she was a year older than me, it took all of mine, too.

My sister, Kage Baker, was a natural storyteller from her childhood. Our games were all orchestrated with plots from the books she loved best. She told us younger kids stories constantly and with great authority - I remember her sitting on a wet lawn one summer morning around age 8, captivating her audience with descriptions of the worlds revolving in all the drops of dew around us.


Kage, age six, with her first typewriter. The man in the background is her godfather, Irish actor Sean McClory.

 

 

Kage plagued adults for stories when she was tiny, memorizing the plots and sternly keeping the reader in line - no deviance from the storyline was tolerated. She was a self-taught reader by age 5, and ruthlessly appropriated our less fanatic younger siblings' library cards as they each got one - on a good week, her take was 40 books at a time. Our mother, finally exasperated with keeping up with Kage's demands for more of her favorite tales, finally told her: “Well, if you want to know what happened next, write your own!”

And she did. For the next half century, her mind was set on the question of what happened next: And she never got tired of answering it.

Some of those plots eventually matured into the many novels and stories she published in the brief 13 years of her professional career, but she was writing long before then. She began producing completed stories by the time she was 9; by high school, she was binding and illustrating her own fantasy novels. Those volumes, which were fairly awful in general but amazing for a 15-year old, she hid away - but they're among my treasures.

She wrote on an ancient manual Remington, until our baby sister somehow disemboweled it with a nail file - then she got captivated with the magic of pen and ink, and wrote in long hand for years. Her first novels were transcribed by me, from her left-handed scrawl, on electric typewriters and early computers. And she wrote constantly: while I typed one day's output, she was working on the next. She usually outpaced me. When she finally took to computers herself, in her 30's, she hit her stride: the speed of the keyboards, the ease of correction, and the romance of composing in motes of light and electromagnetic radiation freed her to work at an amazing pace. She usually wrote about 3,000 words a day, all day, every day. The only way to be a writer, she said, was to sit there and write.



Kage and Kathleen at a long-ago Renaissance Faire.

 

  And when she did get up and out, everything she saw and heard went into her stories. Ideas came to her from everywhere and hit her anywhere. She told stories during lunch breaks in high school, and filled dozens of notebooks with the plots and characters that swarmed her mind. When she and I began to work at historical recreation events in our early 20's, we spent whole summers driving up and down California - Kage plotted and devised as she rode shotgun, wrote the stories down while she stage managed or as she sat in after-hours actors' camps, scribbling by lamplight. She told me most of her novels and short stories as we raced through the San Joaquin valley in the middle of the night, and her voice and the stories kept me awake at the wheel. When people asked Kage where she got her ideas, she usually replied, “Beside Interstate 5.”

 

What she herself loved to read were adventures and history and pre-Tolkien fantasy: Rudyard Kipling, Herodotus, Lord Dunsany. Her favorite writers were Robert Louis Stevenson and Patrick O'Brien, and she had a deep and obsessive love of sea stories. When she started to write, it was of intrepid adventurers and ruthless pirates, and her own unique fantasy world - but when she began to try and sell her work, she turned to science fiction first. She said it was because she had ideas that couldn't be addressed in mainstream fiction, but she simply couldn't stand any more elves. So she substituted machinery for magic, and the world of her Company novels was born.

Time travel. Immortality. Cyborgs. Kage started with those, and it gave her the entire history of the world for a playground. What she soon discovered, though, was that science fiction fandom was plagued with the preferences of very small boys - bugs and guns and explosions. Not much humor, very little romance, and absolutely No Girls Allowed. So, being an experienced older sister, she did what she had always done: ignored them. Her first and most lasting hero was a girl, the Botanist Mendoza, who had arguably the worst love life ever. There is not an elf to be found in her fantasy novels; no cursed jewelry, no requisite hidden princes or inexplicable Black Sorcerer Lords. In one of them (The House Of The Stag), the hero is the Black Sorcerer Lord. She put humor into her stories, because real life is funny. She put tragedy in for the same reasons. She wrote about people, real men and women - they may have been cyborgs or mutants or sorcerer's sons, but first and foremost, they were real people. She said that life was both more beautiful and more terrible than we are ever told as children, and she wasn't going to write down to the expectations of folks who had never outgrown their parents' basements.

This didn't go down awfully well with the die-hard fanboys, but literature has a lot more room than fanboys imagine. Enough people appreciated what she did that it didn't make a difference. And other writers of science fiction and fantasy mostly loved her work, because she was a shining fanatic of a wordsmith. Kage was a WRITER in large, bold, flaming caps.

Which brings me to The Empress of Mars. Kage had two goals - exploring an idea that had her in its teeth, and telling a story that had plenty of hard science but also had a plot and actual characters. The hero is a woman, a middle-aged woman, no less. The bedrock of the plot is domestic, the making of a home out of a wilderness place. But there is also adventure, wild action, techno-toys, rogues and romantics and renegade nuns. There are gun battles and discount dentists. There is greedy arrogance, humble altruism, and actual evil. And the science is as hard as Kage could make it, meticulously researched - in fact, in the years that have passed since the story was first published, the things we've learned about Mars have matched Kage's speculations, to the point where some of her plot is no longer fantastic. Now that is hard science fiction.

You lovely people got the point a lot better than the fanboys.

Kage based the plot on a run-in I had with blind corporate malice, mostly to make a point about the Big Guys versus the Little Guys. She based Mary Griffith, the intrepid innkeeper, on me - mostly as a joke. She peopled Mars and Mary's bar with loving portraits of friends and acquaintances, and for a while it was the sort of story she giggled through as she wrote it. Then the story got away from her, and she expanded my mundane situation into a truly heroic encounter. One of Kage's great talents was to successfully clothe extraordinary events in the disguise of the everyday, and yet still make the reader see the larger-than-life aspect behind the mask. To my eyes, no story does that as well as The Empress of Mars.



Kage at her writing desk with her parrot, Harry.

 

 

Even before her first book was published, what Kage mostly did was write. Once the stories and novels began to sell, she rebuilt her life around writing - happily, ecstatic to be making her living doing what she loved best. By the last year of her life, she couldn't write fast enough to keep up with the demands; most of what she wrote was by invitation and when she had time for a story that just would not wait its turn - and there were many - it was snapped up as soon as she could get it down. Kage was lucky, and she knew it. She said that writing never failed, that there nothing as satisfying as sitting down and falling into the world behind the keyboard. She had a clear picture of her muse - her very male muse - and she said she could always feel his hand on the nape of her neck, urging her on as she wrote.

That may have been why she wrote so constantly, at such a breakneck speed - like a runner chasing the rising sun, like a woman running toward her lover. And in the end, I think she caught him.

- Kathleen Bartholomew

Kage at a Renaissane Faire in front of the prop standing stones that she made herself.