Strange Doings

Kage Baker loved treasure hunts, especially the sort with maps and cryptic clues and secret codes. She loved scavenger hunts, too. She was particularly fond of the ones took all day and  ran you all over the neighborhood or the city looking for exotic things. We took part in a few of those in our 20’s, assembling crews of experts in cryptology, cartography (and not throwing up in the back of the truck during fast drives) with us  to follow complicated lists of clues across Los Angeles.

You need people who can subsist on bottled drinks and finger food, who can eat a Tommy Burger with one hand while flipping pages in a Thomas Guide with the other. People who know right from left, and are not shy about insisting on which is which; who are not too hung up about the direction one drives through a parking lot, a car wash or a drive-through. Really enormous bladders are good, too.

Our best showing was 4th place. But that was pretty good, considering that to win you had to climb the fence of the locked Botanical Gardens at UCLA, and that half the teams didn’t make it back until after dark. One never made it at all; just gave up somewhere in the wilds of San Pedro and went home …

Kage also loved research, and for exactly the same reasons: solving puzzles, beating weird hidden clues, locating treasure where no one thought it existed. Research, though often viewed as a boring past-time of necessity, is actually a wild ride through other people’s obsessions and secrets – or so Kage felt. And she want to know what was hidden. The gossip of the ages was her goal – maybe not to make it public, but to hoard the secret knowledge for herself.

Besides, as she was fond of telling history students at Renaissance Faires, fact is not only stranger than fiction, it’s more fun. The things people really do – and then understandably and frantically conceal – are a lot more peculiar than anything a writer can make up. Although Kage certainly gave that axiom a run for its money … but as she also said, when questioned sometimes about the sources of her ideas, all the crazier ones were based on utter fact. She couldn’t make up stuff as weird as that.

(Well, she could., actually. But she didn’t have to very often. And it was only because she spent a lot of time with very, very strange people.)

Kage loved specialty libraries and locked stacks. She nagged contacts into giving her entry to museum laboratories, back stages, locked sound stages … Aunt Anne let her investigate all the hidden tricksy concealed trapdoors in the set of Phantom of the Opera at the Music Center once – Kage was enchanted. (Tiny lifts and trapdoors for individual candles! she exulted. And the whole staircase Death walks down folds up like a garment bag!) We wandered around the bridge of the Enterprise on the first two Star Trek movies.

We got to handle the Chinese pottery found in Drake’s Bay in Northern California, the broken blue and white ware that is believed to have actually been used by Drake and his brave mariners when they careened their ships for maintenance on those stony beaches. This was before the present museum was built – Kage just looked at the Park Ranger in the information center in Inverness, and said wistfully, “Oh, I’d love to see those!” And the guy said “Okay,” and handed her a shoe box, wherein there was much crumbled paper and several pieces of 500-year old Chinese pottery. I thought Kage’s hair would catch fire.

We talked a student aide in the UC Santa Barbara Library into letting us see their copy of the 16th Century Matthew Bible. (We had no standing or ID there.) Or almost – her supervisor came back from lunch as she was about to hand it over the counter, and summarily chased us away. I think the unfortunate student aide was maybe a physical education  major …

When she was 16, she laid one intemperate and incredibly fortunate fingertip on a Van Gogh. It was a more innocent time, and security was in its infancy; no way could a teen-aged girl  manage to pet The Sunflowers in these modern time, and somehow not get caught. The canvas would not even be uncovered, probably. But for Kage – the art was naked, all the other shuffling patrons were blind, security had drunk soma for lunch: she touched immortality. She claimed to be horrified at her behaviour in later life: but I think she was lying.

For myself – I must say, the joys of research are vast and intriguing. Today I discovered that someone has managed to make an aerogel out of diamonds, and I know just what I want to do with that factoid. Kage never decided what vizio was made of, but I think I know now.

Though, fun as it is know that insulation can be made out of foamy micro-diamonds, and that today in 922, after much hardship, Abbasid envoy Ahmad ibn Fadlan arrived in the lands of  the Volga Bulgars … I would rather be racing through the Crossroads of the World off Sunset Boulevard, looking for a one-way alley next to a taco stand run by a man with a red moustache. That was a damned good research hunt.

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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2 Responses to Strange Doings

  1. Margaret says:

    Touching the chinaware from The Golden Hind in its native shoebox?! – oooh the envy! Surely there’s a clang of psychic resonance in that.

    I’m re-reading The Empress od Mars in honor of the new story, and wondering how I could possibly have forgotten the Barsoom Day scene with Uncle Tars Tarkas when it makes me laugh so much.

  2. Kate says:

    Margaret – I look back at that moment in memory, and cannot for an instant figure out why the Park Ranger did that. My only conclusion was that Kage wanted him to. Amazing.

    I love the Uncle Tars Tarkas scene, too. Kage was a ritual-maker herself, so she assumed other people were , too.

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