Kage Baker was my sister and my friend. Probably my best friend, at least from the ages of 14 and 15 – that was high school. That’s where she realized she was funny, in a way that would haunt her later in life.
(A note, Dear Reader – sisters are not always friends, but they can become friends at any stage of life. If you have a sister of whom you currently despair, take heart – one or the other of you may yet evolve into a human being. I used to chase my younger sister Kimberly around the house with utterly deadly intent, which was only foiled because I was a half-blind klutz and kept running into doorways and major appliances. But she’s been my friend for a long time now, and in fact I currently live with her. What, I should go to a stranger?)
Anyway, sisters are useful. In high school, I used some of Kage’s textbooks, of course. Immaculate Heart High School was known more for academic excellence than for anyone actually having any money, and most girls sold their used books or donated them willy nilly them to their own younger sisters. Like any cliched Catholic school, we tended to also run in family packs, so there was always someone who already had your last name anyway, waiting to take your books.
Kage drew odd things in all the margins. Many of the odd things ended up in her Anvil Universe. One pen and ink sketch – a complex, beautiful one-line figure like a wire sculpture – of a Child of the Sun brandishing a trident actually sold at a student art show; Kage bought a fancy fountain pen and was in chocolate money for weeks. Some foreshadowing of Smith would have approved of the practicality.
In the Health Class text (noted already for general hilarity amongst the all-girl student body) Kage had written amusing little foot notes everywhere. Medieval prescriptions of the eye-of-newt variety were frequent, and usually ended in: ” – and then you DIE!” And I recall the recipe for The Universal Antidote, which recommended imbibing several pounds of charcoal and bread crumbs in the apparently common event of strychnine attack; after which I found her familiar hand had noted, “I, personally, would rather be poisoned.”
Miss Jasmine, the Physical Education teacher, was not amused.
But those notes were the beginning of what reviewer after reviewer would call “her trademark wry wit.” This phrase came to drive Kage mad. Not that she didn’t want to be known as witty – she did, and reliable comedy is much harder to write than drama. (It’s especially rare in science fiction, too, where the genre sense of humour seems to have been pretty much used up entirely by Douglas Adams.) But the reviewers always said the exact same thing.
Kage complained it was like the traditional description of Hyracotherium (Eohippus, the dawn horse, when it was at home), which is nearly always said to be “about the size of a fox terrier.” When this description was written in Victorian England, a lot more people were familiar with fox terriers and their relative size; now it means less and less to the modern reader. Additionally, the description gets confused and is sometimes abbreviated to “about the size of a fox“. Kage said it was obvious that as time went on, fewer and fewer people had seen a fox, a fox terrier or a Hyracotherium, and were just repeating the last thing someone had said.
Nonetheless, Kage did have a wry wit. Her humour was dry and sharp and observant of human foibles. Prat falls and dick jokes were not her usual style – she was both more subtle and more ruthless than that. Kage had a talent for tidily seeing the flaws in a matter, and then taking them just that critical step over the edge into insanity – that’s how she designed her future world, where chocolate is an illegal drug and you can be jailed for life for playing D&D. Kage saw to the heart of the ridiculous and succinctly announced it. Not only was the Emperor wearing no clothes, he had a really bad tattoo left over from his sailor days …
It’s what she did. She did it when she was 14 and scribbled in the margins of her school books, and she did it when she was 50-odd and wrote all those wry witty things in her books.
So, how large is a fox terrier? Large enough to remembered, apparently.The description does the job.
Tomorrow: monsters. Really.