May vs. Can

Kage Baker was driven to tell stories. Those who read her work must be aware of her amazing productivity – she was a writer prolific to a fault, because she did almost nothing but write. Those who knew her familiarly also know that she was a flawless raconteuse, a teller of out-loud stories in a style that dates back to hearthstones,  and shadow shows on the walls of caves.

It’s a specific manifestation of the urge to communicate, which is common to most everything that is alive – communication being a survival trait. Everything communicates with everything else, often automatically, in the endless business of accomplishing being alive.

For most creatures, it’s practically automatic. Everything from bacteria to humans broadcasts a constant stream of messages regarding their willingness and readiness to eat, mate, be eaten, move; we/they are constantly giving off indications of health, strength and motility. It tells  all our neighbors whether to avoid us, court us or take advantage of a sudden weakness to bite off our legs or foreclose on our house.

Deceit enters into this at an astonishingly tiny and early level; even very small organisms will contrive to give off false signals in order to profit off a victim. “Oh, I am wounded and helpless” is always popular. It’s used for everything from convincing a sexual rival you’re not cheating on them, to leading a fox away from your nest, to luring a would-be predator close enough to convert them into your own lunch. But the urge to create fiction (as opposed to just a lie) appears to be unique to human beings.

Maybe cetaceans tell stories, too. Maybe elephants. Some birds appear to sing for delight. But nothing else seems inclined to tell stories, or listen to them,  just for entertainment. Humans do, though. The urge to be the storyteller is as strong as the appetite for food and water – it’s just not as common. Even so, it’s more common than the necessary skill to accomplish it; and so successful storytellers are as rare as mighty hunters or elderly gazelles. Everyone may want to do it, but only a few can succeed.

Kage could succeed. One of her editors once remarked, “The characters may not be that great, but, oh! The story!” Her first editor of all, the wonderful Michael Kandell, told Kage that she told the story as if she were sitting with friends around a fire, with that special intimacy and immediacy.

Some of us have been lucky enough to actually sit around a fire with Kage Baker. Get a little rum in her, make sure she was warm enough (she was always cold) and sort of channel-surf through subjects until her eyes began to gleam … then the stories would begin. Sometimes she made them up for the occasion (Two Old Women started that way), and sometimes she tried out a story-in-progress on a live audience – at least, as far as it went; and God! how the outraged yells went up when she would stop and say thoughtfully, “You’ll have to wait for the rest.”

Sometimes she told completed stories, and you could watch them mutate and change as she repeated them. Since they were already done (and usually published; she published as soon as she finished a story) she’d stop in mid-narrative and then say: “No, you know what? This happened after that, when Ermenwyr was on his way to buy some government his father wanted, and he got a sudden craving for candied violets …”

Or she’d have a sudden argument with herself on whether or not Hudson Bay is the remnant of a meteorite strike or the washout from a continental flood; and we’d all find ourselves listening as a plot and and setting and a list of characters was assigned to the idea. “It’s a Joseph story. I’m in the mood for a Joseph story …  But he needs a companion, he has to be facilitating something … do I have any geologists? What would a Company geologist be like? Wait, listen, remember about the Venus Fly traps plants? What did you tell me about those? Oh, this could be a Mendoza story!”

That one is still in the drawer, by the way. At least, as much of it as emerged that night around a fire above Sand Dollar Beach, just south of Big Sur. Kage could write it. I may – in that I have permission and the urge and a sacred duty.

Let’s hope they come together.

Tomorrow: Nanny State outrage? Depends on you feel about a quarter-million terrorists under 4 feet tall.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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