Dispatches from Kage World

Kage Baker didn’t have a formal background in science. Some science fiction writers, do; some do not. What they do have is an interest in ‘What if?” questions; an urgent desire to know the answer to “Why?”  and “How?” It’s the same sort of interest that drives scientific research – that urge to find answers to the questions posed by the world in general.

Kage used to worry, though, that her own background in things like history and literature wouldn’t be taken seriously by her audience. And it’s a fact that there is a contingent among science fiction fans who only seem to respect writers whose non-authorial skills run to mathematics, engineering, physics and other “hard” sciences. I’ve never seen this attitude among writers, mind you – only readers. Kage never got an outraged letter from a single fellow-writer complaining about the science – speculative or actual – in any of her stories.

She got a lot of them from fans, though. Letters that complained there was too much “soft plotting” in her stories, for instance – though those could be chalked up to literary taste (or lack of it). There is a loud and long-standing tendency in science fiction readers to object to stories with humour or romance. Kage called them the “No girls allowed club”, and shrugged her shoulders. Sometimes she asked them why they were reading her stuff in the first place, to which query she got a few stiff and earnest responses that her basic ideas were cool if only she could restrain her impulse to write about … well,  people.

The general subtext was a pretty clear one of cooties.

She couldn’t restrain that impulse. But  even those folks didn’t bother her as much as the ones who complained that the science was wrong. Not the real science (about which Kage was scrupulous in her research). No, it was the invented tech of which these folks complained. They didn’t want antigravity or time travel or immortality.They didn’t like Mendoza’s old-fashioned corn-breeding hobbies.  They didn’t want water on Mars. They objected to Arean vulcanism.  And they wrote to Kage all the time to complain that these things did not exist.

To which Kage replied, “Are you aware I’m writing science FICTION?” A few of the braver ones actually did respond to that, answering that yes, they knew that, but her ideas were so weird … one assumes they wrote to other authors to complain of extraterrestrials, FTL drives and universal translators. Or maybe not; anything that shows up in the movies tends to be regarded as holy writ.

However, Kage stuck to her guns and insisted on pursuing the idea that the frontiers of science might expand in the near future. And – especially on the Matter of Mars – more and more of her speculations have proven true as the years have gone by … there is water ice on Mars, just as she and many, many other science fiction writers proposed. There are growing hints that the heart of Mars is not yet completely cold. There are signs of recent vulcanism, and occasional floods, and frost erosion, and lots of other astonishing things that were not “true” when all the yearning stories about Mars were written. That doesn’t make Kage or anyone else prophetic: it just means they did a lot of research and then – for reasons that their stories required – guessed right.

It’s science fiction. Sometimes it guesses right.

Now Kage’s (and Mendoza’s) preoccupation with corn is showing some fertile cultivars: joke most definitely intended. The first link below is basically just for pretties: the corn described is flat-out gorgeous, and is most precisely what Kage had in mind when she had Mendoza breed corn like gemstones.


And, by the way, the stuff is real. And edible. And tastes quite good. Kage herself grew it for several years and we joyously ate it. Humans digest it pretty well, and Amazon parrots just adore it.

As for Mendoza’s breeding techniques – Kage herself had some doubts about GMO plants. She didn’t think they were intrinsically dangerous, nor that eating them would transform us into pathetic slaves of some sentient vegetable overlords. There is no rational reason to believe that genetically frost-resistant tomatoes will cause cancer or autism or Communism … but the gene insertion techniques were too catholic for Kage’s sense of caution. She figured they could spread those desirable resistance traits just as easily to weeds as to beans – and in fact that is precisely what is happening now.

And monocultures made her nervous. And so did deliberately sterile food crops whose seed sources were held by giant corporations.  So Mendoza bred her corn the old-fashioned way, and ultimately gave it free to the world: no patents, no copyrights, no Monsanto.

The second link here is about a guy who is doing that with several food crops – especially the grains that feed the world. He’s breeding them the old way, he’s stock-piling seeds, and he’s passing them out to anyone who needs them.


These cultivars work. They feed more people, better. And they are no more GMO than Luther Burbank’s. Or Mendoza’s. Kage figured there was more than one way to write the future of agriculture. There was the way where someone got a lot of money and everyone else got nutritional diseases. And then there was a way that would work.

It’s all science fiction, after all. But you know what science fiction really, really hope for in their stories?

That they will turn out to come true.

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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16 Responses to Dispatches from Kage World

  1. Jan Foley says:

    I have loved Kage Baker’s writing ever since encountering it in the short story Mother Aegypt, which was quickly followed by In the Garden of Iden …and onwards. I always felt her stories were ‘what-if’ stories, brought about by a sudden (and totally inspired and original) idea, rather than a desire to create real possible-science stories. I appreciate hard sci-fi written by scientists, but Kage is primarily a GREAT storyteller. As long as the ‘science’ underpinning the stories makes sense within itself, I’m happy. Storytelling is one of the world’s great arts — possibly appreciated more in times past than now — and Kage is a master of this art. None better. Thank you so much for these blogs of yours (which I’ve just discovered) which are keeping her wonderful personality, as well as her writings, alive.

    • Kate says:

      Jan – you’re right, Kage’s first concern was always the story, and the process of telling it. But, good researcher that she was, she wanted to get any reality-rooted details correct: authenticity was a huge concern for her. She worked out even her imaginary technologies to a depth of detail that doesn’t show in the books: but was there to give her a solid platform on which to stand. Even her magic, in the fantasy stories, is based on logic and mathematics.

      Which is rather weird, as she was not a mathematical person at all, and used intuition much more than logic …

      • Jan Foley says:

        That’s good to know, actually. I respect authors who ‘bother’ with their details! And the more believable the details, the more believable the story. Mind you, it’s great when you run across an author like Kage, who cares about her details, but tells such a great story as well! Do you know if she ever had to discard story ideas because they wouldn’t work from a scientific point of view? Or did she always find a way in?

        I can’t put my finger on exactly what makes her so special, but there is such an impish sense of fun in even her ‘serious’ stuff. Her intuition about what and how to write was certainly spot-on. I feel the loss of Kage Baker more than most authors who have passed on — because you just KNOW there was so much more. Damn.

      • Kate says:

        Jan – no, she never discarded a story due to technical difficulties. She always said, she’d invented the technology and she could shift it around any way she liked. She just preferred to know how it worked – theoretically, anyway. And she would alter her own “natural” laws to accomodate the plot, rather than abandon a story. Usually, though, she found a work-around and didn’t have to either resort to magic OR abandon a story.

        Sometimes stories changed themselves into something unexpected, though. But she liked that. Kage really enjoyed writing a story that surprised her as well as the reader – and that happened a lot.

        Kathleen kbco.wordpress.com

  2. Kate says:

    Thank you, Jan. Kage was indeed a superb storyteller, and I am privileged to have her notes to work from. And to have lived in her head all our life together, in the worlds she built. But she did try to keep her science as timely and correct as she could – she was a dedicated researcher – and so when I find articles that prove her speculations correct, I like to crow a little for her. I’m proud of her, y’see.

  3. Medrith says:

    1- Are you familiar with the great old animated cartoon show The Tick? I refer you to an episode from Season 1 called “The Tick vs. El Seed”. Just so you know you should worry about our vegetable overlords.
    2-Picture a sturdy little boy, 6 years old, with fair skin, blond hair, and great big blue eyes, my younger grandson Richie. We are eating fast food, and he is blowing air at me through his straw, and I tell him to stop because I don’t want to get his cooties. He blinks the huge blue eyes at me and says “Why? You’re already a girl!”

    • Kate says:

      Medrith – I greatly enjoyed *The Tick*! But I’d forgotten about El Seed …

      Your grandson is picking up subliminal social clues with exemplary primate skill. Now you just need to teach him some philosophy. There is clearly a good deductive mind there!

      Kathleen kbco.wordpress.com

  4. Margaret says:

    That corn is gorgeous! I think I might get too caught up in admiring the colors to eat any. What happens to the colors and transparency after it’s cooked? Good to know that science is catching up with Kage.
    When I hear about some of the follies in Washington, DC, I sometimes think that sentient vegetable overlords might be a distinct improvement.

    • Kate says:

      Frankly, I think we need to try being ruled by non-humans. *Homo sapiens*has reached the limit of its efficiency, I think.

      Re: the corn – the colours fade a little on cooking, and go a little more matte finish. But they don’t disappear! It’s fun stuff, and tastes good too. We had enormous fun growing and eating it.

      Kathleen kbco.wordpress.com

      • Jan Foley says:

        I don’t know if I’d go for a vegetable for President …we’ve already tried that, and it hasn’t worked. What about dolphins? (Any critter with a permanent grin gets my vote. Well, except for Tony Blair…)

        Dolphins can already understand our language; pity we can’t understand theirs, and instead we spend our time with them teaching them stupid, meaningless ‘tricks’ – which they pick up in the blink of an eye and come hurtling back for more. Look at their wee faces. They are just DYING to have a real conversation with us, aren’t they? We need to get over our sense of species superiority and try to communicate with them. Two-way. Communication.

        With just flippers instead of opposable thumbs, they’ve learned to live with what they’ve got, but I have no doubt they’re at least as ‘smart’ as we are, and maybe more. I think they’d be uber-cool rulers.

  5. Margaret says:

    Thanks, Jan – I’d forgotten that we’d already tried Veg-for-Prez, just not a noticeably sentient one. How about a bi-presidential system: a dolphin for domestic purposes and an orca for international ones?

    • Jan Foley says:

      Great plan, Margaret. Mind you, I just saw an article a few months back about a recent study done on orcas, comparing the sounds that different pods make (which we assume is orca language.) According to this study, the orcas of the Antarctic Ocean make different sounds from the ones in other oceans, although the Antarctic Ocean pods “speak” similar sounds to each other. Apparently other groups of pods from different oceans are all different from one another as well. So orcas don’t all speak the same language, apparently — like us, their language depends on where they were raised. International diplomacy might be a challenge even for Orcas!

  6. Kate says:

    I think diplomacy is hard for all dolphins, but especially orcas – they are the big, nasty-tempered ones of the family. They are solicitous of the members of their pods – their clans, I guess – but they’ll eat just about anyone else, given the chance. As for the other dolphins: much better attitudes, but their gender relationships need some serious work, and they clearly have a problem socializing adolescent males. Especially the bottle-nosed dolphin: they seem to be amiable bad boys. Orcas are just bad-asses, but they seem to have a kind of warrior mein that is rather grimly appealing … I would like to be able to talk to them. Humans need to, I think. They are the only aliens we know about so far.

    • Jan Foley says:

      Couldn’t agree more! They ARE the only really intelligent aliens we have access to, at the moment. (Or, at least, as far as we know…)

      • Margaret says:

        When I thought about orcas for international diplomacy, what first came to mind was their impressive teeth. Their smile is so reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt, somehow. That sort of Challenge-me-and-I’ll-eat-you look.

      • Jan Foley says:

        I’m trying to picture an orca with tiny round spectacles and a moustache…

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