Working On Focus

Kage Baker had a natural talent for close-in focus. She called it “having fun with your OCD”. She could (and did) turn the little wheels of her inner vision to a tight beam of attention on one problem or detail of an idea – she could force the light of her mind into spiritual coherency, and achieve a mental laser.

Of necessity, it was a narrow vision. But she knew it, and used it deliberately and carefully to achieve depth and clarity on an idea. When she had subjected the object of her study to a detailed analysis, then she could release the focus control and let it all expand again. That was the point where it could be integrated into the wider structure of her ideas, but with all its inner workings known and visible.

She said her mind was a factory, but all the machines and gears and tools were made of glass. And when she concentrated, she could see how they interacted and meshed and behaved all the way down to a molecular level. She could see everything, all the secrets under the surface.

Did any of you, Dear Readers, have those encyclopedias with the layered illustrations? You’d get a picture of a running horse or the Library of Alexandria or a nuclear reactor: but painted, layer by discreet layer, on several sheets of tissue or clear plastic. And you can could flip the tissue paper back and forth to view the picture at different levels.  Man, Kage adored those! That was how she wanted to see the world.

I think it was how she saw most of it, and more of it all the time as she got older. She worked at it. Then there would be those walks and drives and explorations where Kage was narrate all the things that used to be where we were walking or driving; she’d describe the layers under the surface: the fixtures and paint and graffiti and weather stains she knew had been there once, fresh and clear. That were still fresh and clear to her.

Kage’s friends and relations had a hard time, sometimes, believing she was paying attention to them. She’d gaze at you during a conversation with such an unfocussed expression that you simply couldn’t believe she was hearing you. The secret was when you realized that she did indeed hear and see you – today, and last year, and the way you looked when you graduated from college, or held your first child in your arms, or ran downstairs in your pajamas when you were 5 years old on Christmas morning. Kage saw it all, and all at once.

It was probably easier for me, because I lived in that weirdly focused gaze all the time. It didn’t unnerve me, though sometimes I had to stop her in mid-speech and inquire as to the year we were currently discussing. When she brainstormed on Company ideas – whether that was specific plot devices or her Unified Theory of Time Travel – she always fell into the present tense; it was happening right now. And what Kage did was describe out loud what she saw as it happened, even leaping up and acting it out as she paced back and forth across the living room. Wild times, Dear Readers, wild and marvelous times.


Remembering this, Kage’s vision and method and ways – well, I sometimes despair of ever coming close to that kind of close focus. I don’t have the same kind of steel in me, maybe; or perhaps the same kind of impressionable wax. Part of Kage’s mind was lithographic limestone, cousin to the marble of which the immortal gods are carved – mine is pudding stone. I don’t think I have in my head all the tiny sparkling gears and levers she had, the thousand-gemmed movement installed behind her eyes by the Great Watchmaker.

But it’s not a vacuum in my head, either. There’s at least a moderately polished Fresnel lens up there, and at least a double-digit strength telescope function. Sure, the lens fogs up now and then and I can’t seem to crank it tight enough to make the passing light cohere and lase – but I can manage to try. The effort alone will improve the focus.

Or so I figure. I just have to keep cranking. With enough pressure, mud and ash can turn to slate, you know. And slate can take pictures, too.

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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5 Responses to Working On Focus

  1. Tom B. says:

    You are blessed with remarkable descriptive gifts, yourself. You have that – evidently effortless – ability to make bright-colored realities float up off the page. it’s good that you make the effort not to sell yourself short, as much as we admire (present tense) your sister’s mysterious abilities.


    • Kate says:

      Thanks, Tom. I miss the magic that surrounded Kage, though. The world was more imbued with sorcery, with eldritch light and – sacredness, I guess. It makes me very sorry for myself, I’m afraid.



  2. Jan Foley says:

    If you were to write stories of your own, in addition to helping Kage Baker finish hers, what kind of stories would you write? The two of you working together are a formidable duo, but I imagine your own writing would be very different from hers. Maybe not stories so much as essays, observations, evocations, conclusions. Maybe less intellectual and more emotional?

    When I’m reading Kage Baker, I’m turning pages as fast as I can, eager to find out ‘what happens’ and where her remarkably inventive brain is taking me. With your writing, I more or less sit back and enjoy the ride, revelling in recognition of shared experiences or viewpoints, sometimes stopping to re-read passages before I move on. Arrival is less startling, but very satisfying.


  3. mizkizzle says:

    Yes! Those transparencies in encyclopedias were so cool! Do they even make encyclopedias any more, or have they gone the way of the buggy whip?
    Spend enough time in old buildings (I grew up in a very old house with a very odd history) and I can sometimes “see” what used to be there before without being told — the spa that was a pottery studio, that was an underground newspaper, that was a beatnik coffee house, that was a furniture store, that was a speakeasy, and so on, back and back.
    It’s a talent without any practical use, (except to freak people out) but it’s fun to peel back the layers and peek at what’s underneath.
    You may not have Kages focus but you have an extraordinarily wonderful writing style.


  4. Neassa says:

    I think it was always your responsibility to see the wide view – like traffic, rent, and where the rest of the world was. You’ll never have her laser-focus, but you know exactly what you’re looking for/at because she told you in precise detail all those years. Your mind’s-eye is getting the range – with practice, as you say.


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