The Aspect-Emperor, vol. I: R. Scott Bakker, The Judging Eye

May 19, 2010 § 3 Comments

I first read the opening volume to The Aspect-Emperor trilogy, The Judging Eye, back in November 2008 and again in January 2009, shortly before the book’s publication worldwide.  This sequel to Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing trilogy, set twenty years after the events of The Thousandfold Thought, was for me Bakker’s most compact and chilling epic fantasy yet.

When I originally read it in November 2008, I made a post about elements of the book that occurred to me at the time.  Instead of writing around these points, I’m going to copy/paste them and elaborate on a few of them, giving my take after completing my third read just now:

1) The writing is more compact than in the PoN trilogy.

The Judging Eye, clocking in around 420 pages of narrative, is the second-shortest of Bakker’s epic fantasy volumes.  However, he manages to compress a fairly strong narrative arc into 1/2 of this book, doing more than just the initial setups that he established in the first PoN volume, The Darkness That Comes Before.  Furthermore, there is a greater emphasis on establishing the consequences of action rather than philosophizing about said actions.

2) The evolution of the characters’ PoVs away from direct focus on Kellhus’s own PoV to him being further and further outside the direct action is a logical progression from the latter half of PoN and something I expected.

This is a very important step in expanding the narrative, as there were times late in PoN, where it seemed virtually all of the action and narrative meaning had collapsed around the character of Kellhus.  While this was important for establishing the centrality of Kellhus in that particular trilogy, in this one, despite it bearing the name of Kellhus’s adopted title, it appears much of the focus will be on those who resist Kellhus’s manipulations and those who are fighting to find a newer sort of meaning, one that is not dominated by the Dûnyain.  Furthermore, by having no Kellhus PoV, those times in which he does appear allows for the reader to see him from the vantage point of the characters who are beholding him in action.

3) The reason behind this book’s title (and the event surrounding this) is either setting up for some very serious metaphysical discussion in the coming novels, or it might be a decried as being an ill-explained departure from the mechanics established in the previous trilogy.

After re-reading this book, I believe it’s more a case of the former rather than the latter.  The metaphysics behind the Chorae are explored in greater detail and how the titular bearer of the Judging Eye reaches through the contradictions embedded in the Chorae actually seemed to be better done on a re-read than I remember it being when I first read this book a year and a half ago.

4) Having three main plot threads for this novel didn’t seem to work as well as it should have, as one of them came to dominate too much of the latter third of the novel. Hard to think of how Bakker could have done it any differently right now, however.

This still appears to be the book’s weakest part, as the Esmenet and Sorweel chapters came across as feeling incomplete and rather sketchy compared to the Akka/Mimara chapters.  This was exacerbated by the Akka chapters dominating the final 170 pages of the novel, leaving the other two subplots undeveloped in comparison.  However, it is hard to say what should have been added to these two subplots, since the Akka chapters did require quite a bit of space to develop its scenes appropriately.

5) Speaking of those plot threads, the one that dominates actually would have made an excellent, dark, scary novel on its own, so it’s not as though it could have been cut any further.

The journey of Akka, Mimara, and the mercenary Sranc hunters, the Skin Hunters, through the apparently-abandoned Nonmen mansion of Cil-Aujas, is perhaps one of the best homages to Tolkien’s Moria scene that I have read.  The combination of stifling atmosphere, alternating slow and quick pacing to the narrative, and the slow unveiling of all of the horrors entombed in this “topos” were done to great effect.  With this most recent re-read, I found myself appreciating more what had been established within these chapters that explains not just a bit of the setting’s “history,” but also the consequences that now face the company as they march through it.

6) The proverbs for this volume are just as cutting and just as cynical about “human nature” as were the PoN ones.

Nothing more to add than my opinion stands.

7) The humor was a little affected at times; this was a dark novel, but a bit more humor could have made the dark scenes all the more effective by highlighting the contrasts more.

Although I did find a slight bit more levity when I re-read this, it is true that one of the knocks on Bakker’s writing is that there is little that breaks the seriousness of the narrative. While there might not be the pontifications that occurred in the earlier trilogy on occasion, there also is not much in the way of imbuing the characters with a full range of human emotions either. This is perhaps the greatest weakness in his writings, even if there has been slow improvement with each succeeding volume to date.

8) For those who knock Bakker’s portrayal of women: I thought he did a pretty good job portraying one main female character (new to the series) and how she developed her attitudes.

Mimara came off well in this re-read.  Her hurt and suspicion were shown well and she seemed to be a more “independent” (well, as far as Kellhus allows any other character to be viewed as “independent” in this series) character than her mother Esmenet has come across in four volumes now.

9) It’s never simple with any of Kellhus’s children. There is much more to be revealed about them. Even the mad have moments of clarity.

Kellhus’ youngest surviving child, Kelmomas, is a real sociopath in this volume. He exudes this sense of danger that belies his young, eight year-old body. The other children felt more like autistic savants of varying degrees, but Kelmomas truly is a monster-in-development and I am curious to see what Bakker will do with him in future volumes.

10) Damnation is a very scary thing indeed.

I’ve already said my piece on Cil-Aujas above, so just read between the lines there.

11) Much is revealed of Eärwa’s past, including some truly sick scenes.

The true horrors of Cil-Aujas involve a most brutal form of enslavement and Bakker presents this in an unflinching fashion, displaying sympathy toward the human victims but not outright condemning through his characters the horrors that took place over a 10,000 year span. This balancing let the reader construct just what horrors were taking place, rather than depending on the author to tell them everything. Nicely done.

12) If I were to go much further right now, Scott likely would have my head, even if he didn’t make me promise to withhold information about this book (all my comments are based strictly on my reading of the ARC Overlook sent me this week).

Well, I went a bit further,but only to give a hint of what I enjoyed.  This novel took several days for me to complete (in part due to much of my reading time being taken up with BAF responsibilities and in part due to a mild sinus/lung infection), but yet it seemed as though I were reading tomes’ worth of material in the span of barely 400 pages.  Bakker has matured as a writer, allowing inference to take the place of exposition in several places and the novel felt stronger as a result.  With nearly a year to wait until the next volume, The White-Luck Warrior, perhaps I can rest a bit before continuing this exhausting and yet enjoyable series.

PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Thousandfold Thought

May 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Out of all the re-read/commentaries done to date, I have always felt that writing one on the third The Prince of Nothing volume, The Thousandfold Thought, would be the most difficult to put into words.  Thankfully, I do not have to give even a pretense of writing an “objective” or “unbiased” review (such things are fairly impossible even in the most distant of conditions), so I will begin with a little story dating nearly a year and a half before I first read this volume in ARC format in October 2005.

Back in the summer of 2004, I had started to post semi-regularly at one of the larger general genre forums, SFF World (I still appear there on occasion under the screen name of Aldarion, named after my favorite Tolkien character of the time, although I’m considering changing that name in the future to some form of my given names).  If memory serves, I became involved in a threads-spanning debate/argument/flame war/mass banning event that involved quite a few people.  It was over what at the time (and to some extent, I still hold the same opinion) was a rather silly discussion on the merits of epic fantasy.  In the middle of one of those discussions appeared an interesting character who had the SN of “No-Dog.”  I blinked at this, having read, of course, Bakker’s first two PoN novels, but I wasn’t for sure for a while.  Then a few comments came up and my suspicions that “No-Dog” was indeed Bakker were confirmed.  Some interesting discussions between us, Gary Wassner, and a few other regulars at that site began to take place during the late summer and autumn of 2004.  One such discussion, that Bakker started about an aborted project of mine (and one of the reasons why I started this blog back in August 2004 was to host this project), can be found here

Several of Bakker’s contributions to these discussions revolved around the semantics involved with the creation of expressions to convey thoughts and emotions.  Looking back at these discussions, it was clear in retrospect that Bakker was in part testing some ideas on Agency and Function to gauge reader response.  Several of these ideas are explored in The Thousandfold Thought and some of the ways they are presented and addressed remind me constantly, whenever I read certain passages, of those SFF World discussions.  It is no accident that I, along with several others active at that time, were listed in the Acknowledgements page of this book, because in a sense, we were a sort of “beta testers” for the arguments Bakker was embedding in this book.

The Thousandfold Thought, therefore, is more than a simple text for me to read and to react.  It is, in many levels, the culmination of a series of arguments that Bakker has engaged in for years, often with some interesting explorations occurring as a result.  It is not as powerful of a novel as its predecessor, The Warrior-Prophet, was for me, since there is not as much evidence of internal and external conflict among the soldiers of the Holy War in this third volume, but it is a sometimes-profound conclusion to an argument, that if accepted at face value, can be rather chilling.  Whenever I read this book, I think foremost on the arguments and secondarily on the plot and characterizations.

But there is much to talk about in how the characters have changed after their souls have been tempered at the forges of the desert, enemy, and disease.  Kellhus, now triumphant, has become ever more distant in the narrative as the Holy War concludes its march to Shimeh.  He is seen much more through the fervor and adulation of his quasi-worshipers than he is seen in internal monologues (until the key final scenes of the novel).  This increased character “distance” and the resulting sense of “coldness” is, I believe, essential to seeing how such a manipulator as Kellhus has risen in a year’s span.  It is not, however, the type of story that’s going to endear this character to those readers who prefer having protagonists with whom they can forge an empathic bond.

Cnaiür, Achamian, and Conphas really come into their own as characters in this novel, in large part due to how each is shown to have at least a partial immunity to Kellhus’s charms.  Madness, skepticism, and megalomania – how sobering it is to realize that these weaknesses can form a bulwark against that insidious sense of self-assurance and certainty that one’s core beliefs are “right” and ought to be immutable.  Bakker doesn’t create any happy endings for any of these three, but the chilling meanings behind these characters gives much food for thought.

However, there are some problems with the narrative.  Much of the novel feels as though it was created to host the arguments I’ve mentioned above, rather than the arguments being interwoven into the seams of the narrative.  As the Zaudunyani elements of the Holy War come to prominence, the soldiers feel less “alive” and more like pawns in another game.  Although this trilogy was always meant to be but the opening segment of a three-part, decades-spanning look at the coming Second Apocalypse, there were times that this volume felt anti-climactic because so many of the plot tensions had been addressed in the prior volume, leaving mostly the “purposes” of the narrative to be considered for the majority of the novel.  I did enjoy this element greatly, mind you, but I could see, upon a re-read, where some of the trilogy’s detractors may have a point about how inward-focused this novel (and the series) were compared to some of the promises hinted at with the setting and early character motives.

These shortcomings, however, did not lessen my appreciation for what Bakker accomplished here.  It is rare for a genre work, especially an epic fantasy, to leave me thinking about the meanings behind the narratives as this series has done so far.  Later this weekend, I hope to comment for the first time at length on Bakker’s opener to his second trilogy, The Aspect-Emperor, a shorter book called The Judging Eye.  Should be some interesting revelations (or at least movings of my soul) with that.

PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Warrior-Prophet

May 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

In my previous commentary on the first novel, The Darkness That Comes Before, I mentioned how Bakker’s series was one of the more erudite epic fantasies that I have read.  It was in this sprawling 600 page (tradeback) middle volume where I believe that he best lays out the ideas he wants to explore.

When I first read this volume in June 2004 (I received a review copy from Penguin Canada at Bakker’s request, just a day or two after chatting with him for the first time via email), it quickly became my favorite.  Even after two more volumes set in the Earwä setting, there still is something about The Warrior-Prophet that appeals to me more strongly than anything found in Bakker’s other novels.  After re-reading this novel for the first time since 2006, I think I have a better grasp on what exactly that appeal might be.

The novel follows the Holy War from its first marches until it is near its goal of the Holy City of Shimeh.  Bakker here purposely borrows liberally from the histories of the First Crusade to set up the conflicts he wants to explore.  If I’m not mistaken, some readers on online forums in the past have taken Bakker to task for having such a strict correlation between the historical event and the epic fantasy story.  The more I think about it, the more I believe those detractors may be missing something key.  War, and most especially a religious or Holy War, is a sort of nexus for all sorts of beliefs and events.  People fighting in a war have to be convinced of that war’s necessity.  Patterns of life have to be adjusted to fit the demands of the war.  Belief structures alter, often to binary black/white “forces” that have to clash.  How does one cope with these changes?  Are there many doubts as to the efficacy of war and the veracity behind it?  How are leaders created?

Bakker examines each of these issues in a very harsh, unforgiving desert environment.  Just as the historical Crusaders had to suffer privation in order to become a more cohesive unit, here in The Warrior-Prophet Bakker explores how the various national/regional armies became molded into a single fighting force by the end of the novel.  While certainly the mass starvation, the outbreaks of disease, and the attrition due to near-constant skirmishes are not pleasant matters to discuss at length, Bakker uses these events to explore just how quickly and radically people can change their minds and patterns of life. 

Bakker does this through an interesting mix of the personal and the sweeping narrative.  He uses Kellhus, the now proclaimed Warrior-Prophet of the Holy War, to show how easily manipulated people can be.  But as Kellhus’s influence waxes, Bakker wisely broadens the narrative scope, switching to a more distant narrative so the reader can see the effects of Kellhus’ teachings and manipulations on a broader scale, while simultaneously cutting back on revealing the personal interactions between Kellhus and those closest to the Holy War’s leadership.  While I suppose for many readers, this more distant narrative may be offputting, I found it to be a good solution to how to explore just what effects the war and the travails were having on the participants in the Holy War.  If a more “personal” narrative approach had been adopted, I suspect the novel would have been at least half again its size but with less of a focus on the overall impact.

The prose for the most part is excellent.  Although the dialogues at time become too direct with their philosophical bents (this is especially true for whenever Achamian and Kellhus are conversing with each other), Bakker’s prose is at best when he is outlining just what the Holy War was suffering when he “zooms out” and takes a more panoramic approach toward dealing with the slow march to Shimeh.  Kellhus is simultaneously the most powerful and the least-developed of the major characters in this book.  This is largely on purpose, I suspect, since Kellhus as a manipulator would not be as effective if all his machinations were revealed directly to the reader.  Achamian, with Cnaiür a close second, is the most complex character, whose weaknesses, considerable as they are, make his eventual unveiling as a Mandate Sorcerer of Rank all the more intriguing to read.  If anything, Akka is perhaps the moral center of this novel, as his doubts, fears, and passions strengthen him and eventually allow him to begin to see what is truly unfolding within the Holy War.

Bakker has been criticized by several readers for his treatment of women.  In re-reading this series, I decided to focus more on how women are portrayed here.  Yes, it is a harsh environment where Biblical-like condemnations seem to have a greater power (after all, damnation is real here) and women certainly are treated as though they have “weaker souls” than me.  But it behooves the reader to be careful to make the jump from setting to authorial intent.  I surmise that what Bakker is doing here is confronting modern readers with ugly, nasty scriptural views of gender (and other social/moral matters) in an attempt to make his women more sympathetic.  Esmenet in particular, whore that she is, embodies this clash between ancient strictures and modern sensibilities.  By any standard, she is an extremely intelligent and perceptive character, easily more clear-headed than any of the male characters, with the exception of Kellhus.  Yet she is held down and is illiterate until Kellhus begins to teach her how to read.  Why is this?  What portents does this have for future volumes?

The Warrior-Prophet concludes with two interesting events:  the ritual punishment of Kellhus by the Orthodox faction of the Holy War and the Battle of Caraskand.  Fear of the unknown is often the fear of the partially known and the twisting of that partial awareness.  Kellhus’ binding in the Circumfex represents the mounting fears associated with the crumbling of certainty.  It is, in many respects, the other side of the faith/certainty coin.  Bakker does a good job in showing just how divided people can become in a mass movement such as the Holy War.  The parallels with Jesus, however, might be a bit too direct for some.  The subsequent Battle, led by a freed Kellhus, serves as a metaphor for conviction.  The Holy War, now purged by privation and by witnessing a presumed “miracle” at the Circumfex, triumphs against the Fanim forces, despite suffering from dehydration, starvation, and the ravages of disease.  It is their conviction that they are “right” which gives them the strength to fight on and to prevail.  While some readers may find this final scene to be a bit much, it is largely based on the historical Battle of Antioch and the Crusaders’ “will to win” there.

Although The Warrior-Prophet is not a perfect novel (it is a bit too didactic at times), it was an even more enjoyable re-read this time than it was during any of the three previous re-reads I had between 2004 and 2006.  While Kellhus as an idea is a bit too disconcerting to read at times, on the whole, I found the characters to be more interesting and less “stiff” than I had previously remembered them.  Now onto the final volume in the PoN trilogy, The Thousandfold Thought.  Should be finished with that either tonight or tomorrow.

PoN Review Series: R. Scott Bakker, The Prince of Nothing

May 10, 2010 § 9 Comments

Ever since I first read The Darkness That Comes Before in May 2004 (I first imported the paperback from Canada, then bought a hardcover when the US release occurred a month later), The Prince of Nothing trilogy and the sequel trilogy opener, The Judging Eye, have been some of the more erudite epic fantasies that I have read.  However, I never really have written much in the way of commentaries or reviews (outside of two very short and spoiler-free pieces on wotmania, since lost when that website shut down last year).  Part of the reason why is because I got to meet Bakker at a Nashville booksigning in June 2004 and we began a very long and enjoyable email exchange/friendship (which tends to put a damper on the critical front, which is why I hesitate before commenting on certain others’ books, until I have worked things through in my head) and part is due to trying to figure out a way of discussing the book without revealing too many possible thematic spoilers.  I think I have an idea now about how to go about doing this without being too certain of my claims (a point that I suspect the author, if he were to read this, would chuckle over).

Unlike my other commentaries, where I had very little to no interaction with the authors prior to reading/commenting on their series, much of what I have to say will be informed by some of the discussions and email debates that Bakker and I had over a few years’ span.  This is not to say that I will be claiming what I say is in any shape or form “definitive”, but rather these are takes derived from about 4-5 re-reads and some of the interviews and Q&As I arranged with Bakker (as seen in the links to the right under Interviews).  But enough with the justifications, now on to analyzing certain aspects of this novel (and some will be held back for the other volumes) that occurred to me while re-reading this book yesterday.

Examine the book’s title:  The Darkness That Comes Before.  What can this possibly mean?  Is it a reference to an external EVIL force, or to something much more insidious and amorphous?  Or is it a combination of both, perhaps with the result (if not “intent”) to draw readers into the story and then to rip away some of their assumptions about what the book may “be about”? 

Each time that I re-read this series, I find myself thinking more about this book’s title and especially the key thematic point of “what comes before determines what comes after.”  And once that occurs, I “know” that I am no longer in a “safe” setting, where I can be a passive reader content to read the adventures of Kellhus, Achamian, Esmenet, Proyas, Conphas, and others.  No, I am now actively engaged with the text, wondering what content buried within the narrative could apply to me.  While this engagement certainly is nothing unique to this series, I believe (a very dangerous word in this milieu) that Bakker, more so than any other current epic fantasy writer, depends upon the reader being willing to take an “active” role in “participating” with the narrative, questioning assumptions and challenging assertions, for the unfolding story to have a strong impact.

The basic structure of the novel is deceptively simple.  Kellhus, a descendant of a lost-lost royal dynasty, is the product of nearly two thousand years of breeding and training by a secluded monastic sect called the Dûnyain.  Imagine some of the opening scenes from Kung-Fu or Enter the Dragon and some of the aspects of Kellhus’ training can be understood more quickly.  He receives word of a dream message sent by his father, Moënghus, calling him out to the southern city of Shimeh.  The Ruling Council, the Pragma, sends him forth and then, contaminated, as they see it, by the Outside, commit mass seppuku. 

Kellhus has grown up in a “conditioned” environment, where virtually all aspects of life, from emotions to muscular twitches to judging how a leaf will fall, have been controlled and analyzed to the point where the Dûnyain have heightened responses and the ability to master their environments.  It is a wonder to Kellhus when he encounters the unconditioned world and he quickly grasps how easy it is to master it, and its people.

Against this is a setting of oncoming holy war.  Some have criticized Bakker for following the major aspects of the First Crusade closely, but I suspect this is a deliberate similarity done in order to make several points about that world and our own.  In the novel, several characters think or say that “war is intellect.”  But beneath it, there is something stronger.  There is the sense that war is certainty made concrete.  This is especially true for religious faith, which depends upon certainty for its bedrock.  And what happens when an individual schooled in the ways of mastering environments encounters those who are “certain” of their causes?

In re-reading this novel, I was struck by just how different in tone and feel Kellhus’s scenes were with those of the leaders of the Holy War.  He is, for good or for evil, or rather, beyond good and evil, a Nietzschian übermensch in a world populated by unquestioning, non-skeptical humans.  The manipulations that Kellhus begins to manifest in this novel seem at first to be a bit much, but is it really different from the Bene Gesserit “Voice” used in the Dune Chronicles

Several readers have found Kellhus’s character to be repulsive and question why anyone would want to read a series full of “unlikeable” characters.  I have always wondered if in part the unspoken question is “Why would anyone want to read a story that makes me – and perhaps you – uncomfortable?”  There is much, of course, that is unsettling about this novel and its setting.  Take for instance, the way women are portrayed in this series.  They are seen as objectively “inferior” to men, with lesser souls, and it is evident within the text.  This runs so counter to modern perceptions of gender roles as to make several legitimately question as to why Bakker would create such a misogynistic society. 

The answer I would posit is more unsettling than the possibility that Bakker himself sees women as being inferior (I don’t believe so for a moment).  In a world (imagine the late movie trailer guy reading this aloud) where Faith is True and Evident, where Scriptures come to life, this happens.  But consider our own religious faiths and how women, slaves, people of “other” descent are portrayed.  Is what is shown to be “true” in an imagined setting more unsettling because it is grounded upon certain core beliefs of this world’s major religious faiths?  I believe that it is.  What “darkness” comes before our belief of what will come after?

The prose is at worst serviceable and at times is well-written.  As hinted above, sometimes the dialogues feel a bit stilted due to the shifts back and forth from Kellhus’s more “modern” perspective and those of the other characters.  The characterizations I found to be well-drawn, although Kellhus certainly can be hard to swallow at times due to how “alien” he is compared to the others.  Although there is little more than scene-setting and character introductions in this nearly-600 page novel, Bakker does a good job in establishing just how dangerous of a character Kellhus is and here, more so than in the latter novels, the direct impact of his manipulations can be seen.  There are also elements of mysteries, in particular about the nature(s) of the enemy, the Consult, and of the other sentient species living on the planet, the Non-men. 

On the whole, The Darkness That Came Before was an enjoyable re-read, my first in over three years.  It still has the power to make me stop and question what I might believe to be “true” about the setting and its characters.  While there are times where the prose did not live up to the quality of its themes (as I said, it was serviceable at times and not spectacular), overall this was an enjoyable re-read.  Much more to say when I finish The Warrior-Prophet in the next couple of days.

Serbian cover art for two of Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing Books

March 28, 2010 § 13 Comments

When did Darrell Sweet start doing covert art consultation for the Serbian fantasy market?

Anyone remember this scene in The Thousandfold Thought?  I guess Kellhus likes to blast enemies as a post-coital exercise…

The wotmania Files: Q&A with Scott Bakker Part II (Nov. 2004)

March 28, 2009 § 5 Comments

Due to all sorts of things happening the past few weeks, forgot about editing/posting more of the Q&A session Bakker did with wotmania back in November 2004. Here it is for those curious to know more about the author and his works.

You have given some hints that this world was at least discovered by off worlders. Are we going to see more of that? Are the No-men meerly a technologically advanced people from another world? I guess I am asking if they are a different species from the people we see.

Also, thanks tons for doing this.

Good questions… The problem is that I see the unveiling of the world (which is HUGE) as part of the reader’s adventure. All these issues come to play decisive roles in the story. I wish I could give you a better answer…

Otherwise, I’d like to thank YOU ALL, and especially Larry, for giving me the opportunity to do this. This MB is very, very cool.

Robert Jordan is a lucky man!

I mean, you are popular because you’re good, so much so, that we have a little fan club in El Salvador, Central America, where I am from. Larry adviced me to tell you here so I am doing it now. But the point is, your storytelling is great, why would a great writter not become successful,or if he does, why be surprised by that?

Thanks, dark gholam. Be sure to say hi to everyone!

Well, two things, I guess. First, I’m painfully aware of the many ways we humans like to delude ourselves, particularly when it comes to flattery. Do you remember the coverage of Ronald Reagan’s passing a few months back? The one thing all the American news organizations kept saying more than anything else was that Reagan ‘reminded us of how great they were.’ Somehow they managed to turn this poor guy’s death into an orgy of self-congratulation. They did this because they’re selling a product in a competitive market, and they knew that people want to be flattered more than they want to be informed. Just think of how awkward those words “Tell me what you really think” can be!

When you receive attention the way I’ve been, it pays-pays-pays to be suspicious, especially since it’s so HARD to gain perspective on one’s own perspective. I can actually understand what happened to Goodkind, I think.

Secondly, I had a hard youth in some ways. I grew up poor, working all the time, and profoundly suspicious of good fortune. Those kind of emotional habits are hard to shake.

My mind is a bit random so I hope you can excuse that these questions are a bit random.

Do polar bears wear sunglasses were you live?

Nope. But they DO drink Coca-Cola.

Were would you recommend someone that is interested in philosophy to start?

Hard question. I’m not sure there’s any one book that I would recommend: the best place, really, is a freshman philosophy course. There’s also a philosophy discussion section on The Three Seas Forum, where you can debate and ask questions to your heart’s delight. So far it seems remarkably flameproof, despite the charged subject matter.

Do you ever drink soft drinks? If you do what are your favourite?

I compulsively drink caffiene-free Coke Classic. Tastes the same as the regular, but doesn’t keep you up all night pondering the imminent destruction of the world. I like to feel rested when I ponder such things…

Do you prefer to write in the day or during the night?

I’m a lark when it comes to writing, which is a pain because all the years I spent working midnights transformed me into an owl.

How many books do you think you will write in your lifetime?

That depends. How long do I got to live?

Is death the beginning or the end?

Death lies beyond beginnings and ends.

Do you think you will some day be as popular as J.R.R. Tolkien?

Good lord, no! First off, I think the first 200 pages of TDTCB will ward off many readers, as will the general complexity of the world and the names. Kind of like St. Peter… Then there’s the dark and violent themes I tackle, which I’m sure will convince many, like poor Dorothy from Curved Lake, Ontario, that my books should be burned. Then there’s the fact that Tolkien is the God of epic fantasy, and as such, tends to be a jealous God, and will tolerate no others, and you know, blah, blah, blah, blah…

Do you see any parts of yourself in every character you create?

Only the well-endowed ones…

Couldn’t resist! What can I say? I grew up on a tobacco farm. The first time someone mentioned “Touched by an Angel” I thought they were talking about a porno. I like to think of my humour as ‘earthy’ rather than ‘dirty.’

Insofar as I put myself in their headspace, you could say that all of my characters are expressions of the possible headspaces I can occupy. I know this unnerves my wife, who now and again asks me to sleep on the couch after proofing a chapter.

Thank you for the great books and for taking time to answer questions from us lowly readers.


Thank you, Dark Matter!

I live in Australia and that leads me to my first question, I had a hard time getting your book down here, and it took so long to get here I have only read the first quarter. I think I have a British published copy, getting to the questions:

1. Are there going to be Australian editions or am I going to have to pay for international postage on ‘The Warrior Prophet’.

Simon & Schuster UK handle worldwide distribution in English (outside of the US and UK). I’ll ask my editor there about it. Thanks for the tip, I Am.

2. The cover art (on the edition I have) is very evocative and I know most authors have no control over cover art. Do you like the images on the covers and what they suggest about the book/story?

I’m happy with the S&S cover, but I haven’t the foggiest as to WHO that is staring out at you. I had thought that the Canadian cover was just so obviously superior, more ‘eye catching,’ so to prove myself right I took the book to one of my pop culture classes and put both covers up on the VDP, and without letting anyone know which I preferred, I asked my student which one they liked best.

They voted for the S&S cover by a 2 to 1 margin.

Which explains why publishers always reserve the right to put whatever they want on the covers. Though we authors fancy ourselves creative geniuses, the bottomline is that we haven’t a clue as what sells books. In this case, I’m told that it’s the face. Our brains have powerful face-recognition circuits, which often makes covers with faces more engaging.

I STILL prefer the Canadian covers though (as does my US publisher, thank Gawd).

3. Where does you interest in religion come from?

I’ve had a strange personal odyssey when it comes to religion. When I was young, I was ‘born again,’ but then around 14 or so I started asking questions, lots of them, and troubling enough to convince my mother to have the pastor over for dinner a couple nights. It had dawned on me that if everything had a cause, and those causes themselves had causes, then my thoughts, which were part of ‘everything,’ were themselves caused, and that there could be no such thing as free will…

I was the guy who you DID NOT want to talk to on acid or mushrooms.

So I spent my teens as an athiest and a nihilist, filled with moral outrage at the fact that morality did not exist, and yet everyone pretended it did.

Then I went to university, and somehow ended up reading Heidegger, the German father of what Sartre would later turn into existentialism. The intellectual ins and outs of my transformation are too complicated to relate here, but I ended up being an agnostic, firmly convinced of the reality of things like meaning and morality.

Then while doing my Philosophy PhD at Vanderbilt, I started playing poker on a regular basis with some classmates, one of whom was an avowed nihilist. I argued and argued and argued, and got my ass kicked. And I realized that if you were honest and only committed yourself to warranted claims, then nihilism was inescapable.

But nihilism, of course, simply HAS to be wrong. There’s gotta be more than function, process, and mechanism…

And this is the central thematic question of The Prince of Nothing: What is this ‘more’? What are the shapes we give it, and how do these shapes affect the way we see the world and each other? Is it real, or is it all a gigantic racket?

Could it be both?

I have no answers to any of these questions. All I know is that if you set aside your hope, your childhood upbringing, and stick only to what we know, the picture looks pretty grim.

Why epic fantasy? What is it about this form of communication that appeals not just to you as your chosen medium of writing, but to those of us here who love to read it?

*ducks the probable withering stare for turning the tables here*

No ducking necessary, you ducker. I think it’s an excellent question!

I should start with a caveat, though. Everyone knows that there’s a variety of ‘worldviews’ out there, and despite the fact that everyone is convinced that their’s happens to be the true one, everyone remains convinced that their’s happens to be the true – primarily because it just ‘feels’ right.

First: If it ‘feels’ right, then odds are it’s wrong. Despite what the movie hero or the commercial says, our ‘gut instincts’ are miserable when it comes to getting things right. Since collective beliefs underwrite collective actions, and since the repetition of collective actions is what makes societies possible, only those societies that successfully manage the beliefs of their constituent members survive. Ronald Reagan didn’t cause the collapse of the Soviet system: a collective crisis of faith did.

This is just a fact. If you were socialized in the traditional manner, your possess the belief system that your social system needs you to have in order to function as it functions. Our society is no different than any other in this regard, though most of us are convinced that we’ve monopolized the truth, just as most everyone in most every society has been convinced. In our society we call this requisite belief system ‘Individualism.’

One of the things I find so fascinating about epic fantasy is the way fetishizes a certain type of world-view – specifically, the pre-scientific one.

More than anything else, science is a kind of discipline, a set of methods and techniques that prevent us from duping ourselves in the quest to answer questions of fact. This is the reason so much science is so alienating for so many people: we’re hard-wired to prefer flattering, simplistic, and purposive answers. Evolution is the classic example here.

The world-views one finds in epic fantasy are examples of the world-views our ancestors developed in the absence of scientific discipline. This makes epic fantasy horribly important in at least two respects, First, those ancient worlds were the worlds enshrined in scripture. It’s no accident that Banker’s novelization of the Ramayana is shelved in the fantasy section. Fantasy worlds are versions of scriptural worlds. This is why poor Harry Potter has enjoyed all the controversy he has. For fundamentalists who still believe in the scriptural world of the Bible, being a ‘young wizard’ is as odious as being a ‘young gunslinger’ would be to secular readers. Second, since those ancient worlds arose without the ‘benefit’ of scientific discipline, they are bound to reflect a whole host of human foibles and human needs. They are pictures of the world as we want it to be.

The wotmania Files: First part of a Q&A with R. Scott Bakker (Nov. 2004)

March 5, 2009 § 2 Comments

This is the first of at least two and maybe three parts of the Q&A Bakker did with wotmania back in November 2004. For the most part, I’ve tried to preserve questions, silly and serious alike, with the exception of a couple of my own time-specific silly questions on hockey. Since this will be rather lengthy, I’m going to break it up into 2000-2500 word chunks and will try to post the entire thing over the course of the next few days. There ought to be a few matters of discussion for people reading this over four years later, including a comment on Esmenet being a “moral” argument for gender equality.

Since I just dropped my opinion about this in the book discussion below, I am curious. What are your views about gender roles in the world you created, how they are portrayed in the two books (not necessarily the same) and how they relate to our world?

With the recent elections, do you think a woman will ever be elected president of the US? Who would be your choice?

Great questions. Without a doubt I think this is the topic I take the most heat on, something which I see as ironic given that my initial concern was that I was being too overtly feminist!

Epic fantasy worlds are almost exclusively pre-scientific worlds, which is to say they’re worlds where traditional authority, rather than public debate or scientific method, tells us what’s true or false, right or wrong. What I wanted was an unsanitized epic fantasy world, one that was true to the brutalities and beauties of our own world before the Enlightenment. I thought the most honest way to explore our fascination with these worlds would be to look at them as they would really be. The culture of the Three Seas, as a result, is as misogynistic as western culture once was. Women are often treated as a sexual and reproductive resource. As Kellhus points out in TWP, when men cannot control their desires, they try to control the objects of their desires.

The reason I think I take so much heat on this issue is that some confuse representing such a world with endorsing it – which believe me certainly isn’t the case! The idea, rather, is to explore the psychological consequences of such a culture on my female characters. We keep returning to these worlds (as fantasy readers), I think, because they represent something we’re missing, but it’s a mixed bag – very mixed.

A female US President? It’ll take some time, I think, but with the way women are out-performing men in school, we’re about to witness an immense gender role reversal. Things are going to look a lot different in 20 years time. And it’ll all be blamed on video games.

I think I can see your point. Did you try to move away from the type of women portrayed in early fantasy works? Let’s face it, Tolkien portrays women as almost holy in a way. He has a very Victorian attitude. This is not surprising given his time period. However, many people have shown women in the role of objects of desire, but not very bright. Were you concerned that readers would not buy that Esmenet was smarter than the men who used her? Or that we would be offended? Since we started down this path, it seems she does a total reversal by the end of The Warrior Prophet. Is this just another example of how well Kellhus manipulates those around him?

For me, the Kellhus/Esmenet dyad is one of the thematic cornerstones of the book. My big concern, and I think it’s been borne out, has been that I’m simply being overly subtle.

One of the questions I’m interested in is, What happens to truths when they become instruments of manipulation? Kellhus enslaves Esmenet by emancipating her, by showing the ‘truth’ of the misogynistic culture she lives and breathes. In effect, he makes her modern. I have no idea how to answer this question, but it seems to me to be an important one.

If you believe that all values are simply social artifacts (which I don’t, because I think this is tantamount to nihilism), then what we call ‘women’s rights’ is simply an expression of changing technological and economic conditions. Given the way that technology increases productivity, the ‘base economic units’ of society become smaller and smaller. Just a few centuries back it was the village, then it became the extended family, then it became the nuclear family, and now it’s becoming the individual. Every society in history rationalizes its economic organization in its belief-system, and our society is no different. So as the possibilities of female economic independence expanded, the more and more ‘oppressive’ the standing beliefs in the auxilary, familial role of females came to seem, and so the ‘women’s rights’ movement was born. It’s not that women are in FACT equal to men and always have been, it’s just that their labour has recently become equally useful. There’s no moral fact of the matter: just a social system spontaneously adapting its belief-system to better exploit its resources.

I see Esmenet, who is through and through the product of a society that subordinates women to men, as embodying this question. Is there a moral fact of her station, or is it simply the result of an arbitrary, socially grounded belief-system? How do here own decisions feed into this question? And how does the manipulation of Kellhus bear on the whole?

Her native intelligence, I think, is itself a powerful moral argument. It demonstrates her equality in fact.

Enjoy sci-fi?

Or are you solely a fantasy kind of guy?

I’ll read anything, so long as it’s good. Fantasy just happens to be my fave. My big problem is finding time to read what I want to read. I find that if I like reading something, it always makes me write, which is good for the writing, but bad for the reading.

What was Nietzsche’s beef with Wagner?

I’m not sure. Holstein? Texas Longhorn?

Explain the meaning of life.

To stumble about without a bloody clue, convinced that you pretty much know everything you need to know. At least that had BETTER be the meaning of life, otherwise I’m screwed.

Over the course of TDTCB and TWP, we learn that the magic employed by the Schoolmen are based on semantical understandings and that the Chorae unravel these. Will we be learning more about the underpinnings of this conflict in TTT?

Quite a bit actually. I’m overweeningly proud of my world as it is, but I see sorcery as the jewel of Earwa.

I’m still waiting to learn more about the bathing habits of the Scylvendi. Anything to reveal in regards to that?

The memorialists tell harrowing tales of the legendary ‘Loincloth of War,’ but not much more than that…

Silk or cotton, boxers or briefs, this loincloth?

Rancid wolfskin… As if you didn’t already know, Larry!

Ah, so the old and comfortable choice, huh? None of that effeminate silkworm refuse for them, yeah?

By the way, doesn’t Rancid Wolfskin sound like a great name for a band?


Hi Scott. I loved TDTCB and I’m looking forward to TWP and future books. I imagine with the success of your books comes change. What has been the biggest change in your life (for better or worse) since you were published? How have you indulged yourself? Fantasy is your favorite genre, do you have any favorite authors? Favorite books? Are you reading any books now? If I think of anything else, I’ll ask later. Thanks for taking time to do this and the other things you do like book contests, etc. It’s very cool of you, and much appreciated!

Well, I’m still driving my 1991 Golf diesel… The big thing, though, is that I no longer have to work for a living – and after working midnights at a grocery store for 14 years while going to school, that makes me a happy duck indeed! I’m not sure my books are accessible enough to have any hope of making real money.

My favourite fantasy author at the moment has got to be Martin, followed closely by Erikson. My favourite author in general is Cormac McCarthy. Right now I’m reading Mieville’s The Scar and Vassanj’s The In Between World of Vikram Lall.

What is your name? What is your quest? WHAT…is your favorite brand beer? Any favorite movies? Do you play video games (#1 reason for decreased male average intellect)? Do you play chess? Favorite music/musicians? Any bad habits? Whats the one thing you’d like to change about yourself?

Holy moly, Moncul! Let me see…

My full given name is Richard Scott Bakker, and my ‘quest,’ if I get your meaning, is to always be a better man than I was yesterday, and to convince the world that they shouldn’t be convinced by ANYTHING. Beerwise, I enjoy IPA’s, but I’m not fussy – I think warm Bud is just fine. My favourite flick is A LION IN WINTER. Presently, I don’t play video games, but only because I’m too broke to buy a computer capable of playing anything interesting. Bad habits? I fart in the morning and scratch my nuts in the afternoon. Those few times I’ve had a good computer, I’ve turned into a video game addict. I tend to drink and toke too much, though as it happens, toking is the one thing I’m trying to quit.

Makes me stupid. Drinking likely makes me stupid too, but I feel smarter…

Why does paper beat rock?

Because Rock is a bad boy who just won’t listen!

Hey there. Cool of you to do this; we loves our authors, we does.

I’m partway through your first book in the series, and I quite enjoy it, but I won’t ask any questions about it because any I would have at this point will surely be answered if only I read on, brave soldier, read on. However, I do have some other questions, which I believe are of some importance in the scheme of things.

1. Which of the four Ninja Turtles do you most identify with?

The one with the shell.

2. What sort of writing schedule are you used to, if indeed there is a schedule?

I try to plunk my ass in front of the computer every morning at 5AM. I try to write as consistently as possible until 5 PM, but…

Let’s just say I have a very clean nose.

3. Do you write longhand first drafts, or do you type from the get-go?

I rarely, if ever, write anything in longhand, despite the enormous length of my index fingers.

4. You have twenty-four hours to save the last six living penguins from the attack of a giant killer giraffe who has waded through the ocean to Antarctica. How do you do it?

Hire Karl Rove.

5. Is it just me, or does Larry taste funny?

OBJECTION! The prosecution is leading the witness, your honour. No matter how he answers the question, Larry will be tasted, and the jury will be duly disgusted.

*tries to think of something witty*

*gives up*

What are you reading nowdays?

At the moment I’m reading THE SCAR and THE IN-BETWEEN WORLD OF VIKRAM LALL – loving both of them.

Do you ever find yourself reading something or watching a movie and thinking, “That plot twist should have been handled differently.” or “Sloppy exposition.”

Sometimes that’s ALL I do. It drives my wife bonkers. When you’re writing, you always encounter the ‘How do I get there from here?’ problem. The one thing I’ve learned is that you can get between any two points in a plausible fashion, so long as your prepared to take the time to think things through. That’s what makes me gnash my teeth more than anything else when I encountering a huge plot hole while reading or watching: I know it’s more a matter of laziness than anything else.

How’s Thousandfold Thought coming along?

Awesome, at the moment, anyway. I’m pretty neurotic when it comes to my writing, which is just another way of saying that I’m not sure it’s ME who’s writing at all. Half the time it feels like I’m just watching my fingers dance.

What is yourPhD work about? When can I read it? After reading TDTCB, I became vastly interested in whatever you’re cooking up. Is Prince of Nothing in any way related to or reflective of your academic work? What’s the best IPA and who brews it?

Quit tokin’….still drinking…

Crackpot stuff. I think the various metaphors used to illustrate basic fundamental positions, such as the ‘picture’ for representationalism, or the ‘game’ for contextualism, actually play a powerful ‘inferential’ and explanatory role, and that by simply playing with these metaphors it’s possible to develop novel approaches to a large number of philosophical problems.

I have nothing approaching a readable manuscript, I’m afraid, though I’m hellbent on completing the thing as soon as I can scrounge together a few fiction-free months. Are you studying philosophy, Anasurimbor?

Actually, a few things surface here and there. In TTT, one of these ‘metaphors’ actually finds a prominent place vis a vis sorcery…

Currently, my favourite IPA is ‘Keiths,’ though as I think I mentioned, I’m not really all that fussy. So long as I have a headache in the morning…

Revision. How much do you tend to revise? How long does it take you? Do you find yourself taking only a bit of what you wrote, and essentially rewriting it, or do you lean more towards doing the work the first time, and just tidying it up later? Finally, being an author. Fun, or not worth the effort? Thanks for dropping by!

Good question. Revision is the heart and soul of writing for me, but I know people who would say the exact opposite. It’s different all the time, though I still think one of the most important skills I learned was what we used to call ‘killing our babies’ on the Online Writers Workshop. You need to be absolutely merciless when it comes to killing words (especially modifiers), phrases, passages, and even entire chapters – anything that isn’t pulling it’s weight.

To give you an example of just how much I revise, I would bet my next advance that there isn’t a single sentence that survived from my initial draft of TDTCB. But then not only did I cut my teeth writing that book, I had tremendous difficulty reworking it to make those infamous first 200 pages more accessible. I think several sentences survived from the TWP, but even then, they know I’m looking, and that sooner or later…

Is writing fun? I love it. I still can’t believe it. I still find myself expecting a bus or a dumptruck to take me out at some intersection. I always wanted to be a writer, but I never really pursued it because I thought it was a pipe-dream. Now I find myself feeling guilty for some reason – probably because I started working in the fields when I was ten.

People are supposed to work for a living.

The wotmania Files: A Conversation with R. Scott Bakker (11/1/2005)

February 12, 2009 § 2 Comments

Scott Bakker is one of only a handful of authors that I have interviewed more than once. Since I posted the 2004 interview on Tuesday, I thought I would go ahead and post the second solo interview I did with him (there are two other interviews from 2008 in which I supplied a few questions that were posted on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, but I’ll have to search for those URLs later, as I’m actually writing this several hours before this is posted and I plan on being asleep when this goes live). There are two Q&As with Bakker that I believe will be posted by Ken on his blog, Neth Space, in the near future, once we figure out how best to showcase the questions/answers. Oh, and for those few who’ve ever heard me refer to Bakker as the missing member of the 80s band Air Supply, the joke is based on this photo, which appeared on the galley proof for the Penguin Canada edition of his third book, The Thousandfold Thought. Agree or disagree with my assessment of the photo? Anyways, here’s the interview:

For the past week, Scott Bakker and I have been emailing back and forth over issues pertaining not just to the thematic elements of his books, but also on matters of society and the relationship that literature, particularly fantasy, has with it. Since Bakker has to leave this morning for the World Fantasy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin (Nov. 3-6), we agreed to split this conversational interview into two parts, resuming after he returns. Of course, if you have more questions that you’d like to see Bakker answer, feel free to reply here and we’ll see if some of them can be worked into the interview. But it is our hope that this conversational piece addresses much of what readers have wanted to know about the Prince of Nothing‘s author, its genesis, and other miscellaneous questions.

When we last sat down at our computers and begun the the interview process, you were a new author who had just seen his first work, The Darkness That Comes Before, published in the United States. What were some of the reactions that you received from the ‘mainstream’ press and authors about your work?

Well not much from the mainstream press ( I am a loser fantasy writer, you know), but what I did receive was more positive than I dared hope. Both Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal gave The Darkness that Comes Before starred reviews. Publisher’s Weekly then went on to choose it for their ‘Best Books of 2004’ list, and for their ‘Overlooked Books of 2004’ list, which made my American publisher, Overlook, very, very happy – as you might imagine. The Guardian continues to be kind to me in the UK. In fact, their review of The Warrior-Prophet has given me my new favourite quip: “The Warrior-Prophet is a good book: with more stringent editing it could have brilliant.”

But other than that, I haven’t received much interest or attention anywhere other than fantasy circles.

And why do you think there hasn’t been much interest or attention outside fantasy circles? I’m curious, because it seems like there’s some pre-determined ‘marketing’ labelling that’s going on for all sorts of books. An example would be Jonathan Lethem. Dude writes some interesting, quirky novels that seem imbibed within a healthy spec fic tradition, books that were out there for years, then suddenly, with Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, he’s being proclaimed as a “hot new author” in publications such as Rolling Stone. What are we to make of this? Is there some magical ‘boundary’ that must be passed for an author to go from the SF aisle to the Literature section? Can it go in reverse, can an Umberto Eco or a Jorge Luis Borges have their works appear in the SF section?

Well, the world is a big place and our brain is only three pounds. We constantly economize by placing evaluative labels on things. It is simply a fact that as a label, ‘epic fantasy’ carries a host of negative associations for those into ‘serious’ literature. Why do you think Margaret Atwood initially argued that Oryx and Crake was not a work of science fiction, and then only recanted after the book had established itself in the literary mainstream? The labels we give things always include implicit social coordinates, and as social animals, we tend to be very self-conscious of where we find ourselves in the pecking order.

Literary types don’t read my books for pretty much the same reason they don’t wear white after Labour Day. They’re afraid of being laughed at.

Of course, this begs the question of what IS it about fantasy/speculative fiction that causes such negative associations. It can’t be just the image of geeky adolescent boys reading D&D-style writing – there’s something else that seems to be at play. What is it about the types of literature that the literary mainstream is reading and writing that is portrayed as being so antithetical to fantasy?

Seems to me that there has been a retrenchment of sorts in literature, where people are gathering behind these drawn lines or fortifications and are just digging in, refusing to acknowledge anything counter to their own vision of what consitutes ‘literature.’ In a sense, it’s a negative conviction to me, where people are convinced of their ‘rightness’ to support such-and-such a literary field because the other side must be incorrect. Thoughts on this?

Also, your comments about humans being social animals seems so apt in a world where even our so-called ‘non-conformists’ have their own established pecking orders and customs and dresses to mark those traditions that they have created to counter the ‘mainstream’ culture. How is there hope for something such as Fantasy fiction to create something ‘new’ or vibrant out of this mess of conformity? What would a Kellhus make of this, I suppose I’m asking in passing. Or perhaps a Cnaiür might make for a more apt counterpoint – thoughts?

What would Kellhus think, hmm… Dammit, Larry, you really have to think when you try to think what Kellhus thinks – and I gotta headache. So lemme tell you what I think.

Check out the reviews posted on Amazon. How often do you find a reviewer saying, I’m a bad reader? Never. Absolutely never. Instead you find, This is a bad book – even if the author happens to be Gene Wolfe! The reason for this is obvious: the tendency for all of us is to make our tastes and opinions the absolute yardstick for what counts as good and what counts as bad. Given that our tastes and opinions form our immediate frame-of-reference, we generally labour under the illusion that they are absolute. Education, humility, and imagination are required to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,’ or to relativize our frame-of-reference within another. Since we can’t see what we can’t see, we generally assume we’ve seen everything, and think that it’s the other guy who’s ‘missing the obvious.’ This is a powerful psychological tendency – let’s call it ‘self-centred yardsticking’ – with obvious evolutionary benefits for humans living in stone age communities (but which could end up killing us in today’s world).

It seems obvious to me that literary types are just as susceptible to self-centred yardsticking as anyone else. (Unfortumately, education, humility, and imagination are a rare combination in humans.) In some ways, I think it’s even more pernicious, both because they tend to think they’ve faced and overcome the problem (when it’s a battle that’s never won), and because they occupy the cultural high ground. Literary types will tell you they look down on epic fantasy because ‘it really is crap,’ not because they possess a specialized set of expectations that precludes them from appreciating it.

Since self-centred yardsticking is part of our hardwiring, the best we can hope for is to mitigate it through education. Given the amount of self-deception and conflict it generates, you could argue that it’s not only a powerful social bane, but a major personal one as well. Self-centred yardsticking is among the greatest obstacles any one of us will face.

Then the question becomes, Why aren’t we taught anything about it in public school? It really is flabbergasting – perhaps even criminal – when you think about it. But since parents tend to be quite attached to their absolute frames-of-reference, the last thing they want is their kids telling them it’s a psychological illusion. People might have to start changing their minds and learning things!

I don’t think we’ll see classes on it anytime soon.

Interesting points brought up here, Scott. I still think, in light of what we’re discussing here, that keeping in mind what a Kellhus might make of this would be key, because in one sense, aren’t we addressing something that is played out over the course of your three novels?

You use the term ‘illusion’ to describe how readers (and presumably people in general) create assumptions and viewpoints based almost entire on a self-centered frame of reference. A reference in which everything that is Outside is therefore suspicious and possibly not kosher. But I want to know more about what you mean by how ‘self-centred yardsticking’ might end up killing us?

Kellhus simply manipulates this weakness, the way he manipulates all of our ‘worldborn weaknesses.’ So for instance, the Inrithi take their limited frame-of-reference to be the absolute frame-of-reference; they literally judge the moral worth of everyone against their yardstick. Kellhus masters the particulars of this frame-of-reference, so that the Inrithi believe he’s ‘one of them.’ Then he slowly starts introducing claims that ‘fall off the yardstick’ as it were, that the Inrithi don’t have any habitual or canonical way to measure. As a result, many begin thinking he’s mastered their common frame-of-reference, and so begin to accord him greater status. Then Kellhus starts adding secret knowledge, knowledge that no normal Inrithi could possibly possess, and he does it in such a manner that the Inrithi, given the limitations of their frame-of-reference, can only interpret it in one way. Kellhus, they begin thinking, possesses divine knowledge, prophetic knowledge.

And he owns them.

No frame-of-reference is absolute. It’s only the limitations of our perspective, the fact we have difficulty gaining persepctive on our perspective, that make it seem that way. We have a three pound brain in a universe so immense that much of the starlight we see is as old as the dinosaurs. We’re like plankton trying to make sense of the ocean – less than plankton! No matter what our beliefs happen to be, odds are they’re woefully incomplete, or just plain wrong. The only hope we have is to keep this in mind, and to continually question and revise, question and revise.

Thinking that one’s frame-of-reference is absolute, that one pretty knows the answers to pretty much all the important questions, closes down on the possibility of learning, of expanding one’s frame-of-reference. It’s literally a kind of enforced ignorance. And ignorance, as I think the example of Kellhus proves, is a kind of trust. The more inclined you are to think your frame-of-reference is absolute, the less inclined you are to ask questions, the easier you are to manipulate.

And yet no one, but no one is taught anything about this problem, even as our tools become ever more powerful. You do the math.

Pretty scary math, even if it’s been ages since I’ve done moral calculus! Now there’s something in what you said that piqued my interest – Ignorance as a kind of trust. I remember quite well when I read that quote in The Warrior-Prophet and I meant to ask you about that back then. Trust is such a powerful word, even today. In a sense, in a world where our three pound brains are struggling to make sense of anything from the perfumes we smell on people walking past to issues of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ it seems like so much of what we do and what we are has to be taken on faith. How does faith, or rather Faith, relate to what you are writing in the Prince of Nothing trilogy and elsewhere?

Well, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, there’s known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. If you remember, the media had a field day with this quote – they quite literally thought it was hilarious. I think they found it so funny because, superficially at least, it resembled Clinton’s definitional hairsplitting in the Monica Lewinski imbroglio. ‘Ooooh, you mean sex sex.’ This was the only yardstick they had, and it was a self-centred one at that. Which of course is the irony: since the problem of knowledge Rumsfeld was referring to was, for the media anyway, an unknown unknown, they had precious little way to make sense of it short of ridicule. By laughing at his statement, they were demonstrating the very thing he was referring to!

Let’s call this unknown unknown, the superunknown. What is the superunknown? Well, ask yourself, why didn’t the ancient Egyptians build automobiles? The obvious answer is that they lacked the technology. But if they lacked the technology, why would they waste all that time on pyramids, when they could have built a science research park instead? The obvious answer is that they knew nothing about scientific research. So why not hire some philosophers to figure out the scientific method, and get cracking? I mean, think of what the ancient Egyptians could have achieved with a couple of nukes…

But how could they, when they didn’t even know that they didn’t know? Cars, research parks, and the scientific method simply did not exist for them, not even as an absence! So much of what we now take for granted were unknown unknowns for the ancient Egyptians. They were literally adrift in the superunknown.

And we’re in the exact same boat. It’s a bit roomier, quite abit faster, and probably a whole lot more dangerous, but it bobs like a cork nonetheless. There’s no end to the superunknown. Odds are 5000 years hence we’ll look even more parochial and naive to our descendents than our ancient Egyptian ancestors seem to us now.

In practical terms, what the superunknown means is that we can never be absolutely certain of anything. This is why some kind of faith seems inescapable. No belief is absolutely justified, because no one can possibly account for all the unknown unknowns – by definition.

But note that this understanding of faith stands in stark contrast to the ‘faith’ espoused in traditional religion. The former faith appreciates that knowledge is always a matter of degree, and never absolute. It defines itself in opposition to knowledge. The less we know, the more we take things ‘on faith.’ The faith of traditional religion, on the other hand, defines itself as a kind of knowledge, and in many cases, a kind of absolute knowledge. I think it’s quite obviously the result of self-centred yardsticking, our hardwired tendency to confuse our frame-of-reference for the frame-of-reference. Pretty much every traditional belief system makes self-aggrandizing claims to absolute knowledge. And none of them can seem to agree.

In part, The Prince of Nothing is about the dialogue between these two species of faith, the one that identifies itself with doubt and remains open to the superunknown, the other that identifies itself with certainty and remains blind to the superunknown. It shows how empowered, how manipulable, and how dangerous we become when we think we possess an absolute yardstick.

So, in one sense, it comes down to matters of epistemology, yes? It’s not necessarily the ‘what’ we have in terms of knowledge, but the informational systems that we have developed not just to process this knowledge but also that which we use to account for the just plain Unknown? It’s sobering to think of just how far our conceptual systems have developed over the past five centuries, just ‘only’ (in the eyes of many) to illustrate just how little we know! Very interesting how your definition of Faith appears to be so much more Functionalist in nature than the traditional Christian definition of Faith being ” the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Thoughts on this and how it applies to what we are witnessing in Eärwa as the Holy War is progressing?

No matter what our particular beliefs, we assume that a greater part of the human race lives in delusion. Why? Because we assume we’re in the know, and that the billions who disagree with us are not. Everyone can’t be right. And if we go far back enough in history, we have to say that at some point, everyone but everyone lived in delusion, because our beliefs are historically contingent.

Not only only are we committed to saying that humans are inclined to believe falsehoods, we have to acknowledge that they believe those falsehoods with the same conviction, the same depth of passion, as we believe our truths. In Eärwa, for instance, it’s not simply the Inrithi who are willing to murder and die in the name of their beliefs (absolute yardsticks tend to license such things), the Fanim are as well. This amounts to saying that the personal character of our beliefs, the ‘gut feeling’ or the ‘epiphany’ or the whatever it is that makes our beliefs seem uniquely true, are the very same things that other people with entirely incompatible beliefs use to anchor their conviction.

And this just means that convictions are cheap. I know I offend people when I say this, but they really are. It’s a fact that everyone has them, and it’s a fact that very few bother to ask whether they’re justified. Most people simply, well, have them. Even though convictions tend to to differ drastically across households and communities, most simply assume that they somehow won the belief lottery, that the beliefs they just happen to have are more or less true, and that the incompatible beliefs that others happen to have are more or less false.

It’s kind of embarrassing when you think about it.

The best way to avoid this situation is to either accept that you likely live in delusion, or to be relentlessly critical. And the best way to do the latter is to be wary of all the ways we humans dupe ourselves – our matter of fact tendencies to cherrypick, to footstomp, to anthropomorphize, to flatter ourselves, to oversimplify – and to make our commitment to various claims proportional to the evidence.

As it stands, we humans tend to believe first and to cook up reasons after the fact. In other words, we rationalize. We’re rationalizers by nature, and only reasoners by education. Rather than seek to continually expand and revise our beliefs, instead of remaining open to unknown unknowns, we circle the wagons around the beliefs we already have (despite the tremendous odds against us simply ‘lucking’ our way into true beliefs), and we find ourselves in the ludicrous situation described above: everyone brandishing their yardsticks crying, “Mine is absolute! Mine is absolute!”

And the reason for this is implicit in the classic Christian definition of faith you give above: ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for…’ Faith is taking what we want to be true as true. It’s the confusion of hope for knowledge.

And this is precisely what you would expect from a prescientific belief system. Before science was institutionalized, the only constraints on our belief systems were sociological and psychological. Think of all the hypothesizing, the experimentation, the controls, the dreary mathematics, the elaborate procedure, the peer review involved in science. It’s all a form of methodological and institutional discipline that allows us to generate and evaluate claims independent of what we want to believe. As imperfect as it is, it’s the first institution in human history that has been able to do this. And in five short centuries it’s transformed archery into nuclear weaponry.

But still we persist in waving our ancient, absolute yardsticks. This situation is so obviously irrational, that it’s hard to fathom how people could possibly continue to perpetuate it, let alone murder and die for it. It’s almost as if we humans are hardwired for this behaviour. This is the interpretation I flirt with in The Prince of Nothing. But then that’s a different question, and I’ve babbled for far too long as it is! Talk about waving yardsticks!

Nah, I wouldn’t worry too much about babbling here, as I asked a fairly tricky series of questions rolled into one above, yes? Anyways, I had a thought as I was reading your comments about the delusional aspects of confirmation bias and how people in general want to believe that their world-view, their Weltanschauungen as the Germans might say, is the correct and right path that leads to eternal happiness or at least to some positive end. What about the Inchoroi and their Tekne? It seems from reading the books that there is something about them that is meant to be a counterpoint to the Inrithi and the Fanim. Are they meant to represent something about our own lives and views of the world?

You’re intent on prying your way to the heart of the book, aren’t you? Damn good question.

Given my previous response, someone might assume that I’m simply taking science as my absolute yardstick, which is certainly not the case. I simply think that where theoretical claims are concerned, science is the only yardstick we have that actually works. And I also think this is tragic.

Let me tell you what I think has happened since the rise of institutionalized science in our society, and then bring this back to the question of the Inchoroi.

Societies are vast mechanisms that take the repetition of individual actions as their constituent parts. Like any other mechanism, their function depends on the precision and reliability of those parts. Think of the amount of schooling modern society requires: this is simply a function of its complication. Modern society requires literally tens of thousands of different kinds of precise and reliable actions – we call them occupations, pasttimes, habits, careers, and so on. When a human infant is born, it’s field of possible actions is well nigh infinite. But since society requires particular gears, and not fuzzy ones, it spends its life being sculpted to do very specific things: to shop, to repair engines, to parent, to sell, to design rocket engines, and so on. You get the picture.

Now the more productive a society is, the more latitude it allows for ‘discretionary actions’ – for people to ‘do what they want.’ The less productive it is, the less latitude it allows. So for instance, though I’ve been poor all my life, I was lucky enough to live in a society productive enough to afford me the opportunity to write The Prince of Nothing in my spare time. I could indulge my desire. I have science and technology to thank for that.

Ancient societies, however, operated far closer to the brink. As a result, they required much more in the way of precision and reliability from their constituent parts. The pool of possible discretionary actions was far, far smaller, which meant that people simply could not do what they wanted. Desire, in other words, had to be strictly policed.

The primary way societies police desire is through systems of belief. Think of our society and our belief in conspicuous consumption. If we all stopped believing in it, our society would literally collapse. Note that the truth of the beliefs is pretty much irrelevant. It’s their social function that’s important. Our belief systems are literally not meant to be true, only to be taken as such.

Now think of the small paleolithic communities that put the final evolutionary touches on our brains. Here, the margins were even tighter still. These societies required even more precision, which is to say, very strict systems of belief, and even more reliability, which is to say, deep and abiding conviction. Our ancestors not only had to do the right thing, they had to see it through to the end, otherwise the social machine would crunch to a halt. We humans are literally hardwired to believe, and to believe deeply, to enable the tight social coordination required to keep prehistorical communities afloat.

Now along comes science and technology. Since technology changes the characters of our actions, usually by rendering them more productive, it actually transforms the structure of the social machine. This means the faster technological innovations come, the faster society changes. At the same time, we find ourselves with prehistorical brains and, thanks to the invention of writing, a repository of historical belief systems. All you have to do is look at what pundits are calling the ‘culture wars’ in America to see the result. There’s those who want to rewrite the rules to take advantage of all the new discretionary actions afforded by modern technological society, and there’s those who cling to retooled versions of ancient belief systems condemning them.

Now I imagine you’re wondering what the hell this longwinded preamble has to do with the Inchoroi and the Tekne. The thing is, the more productive society becomes, the more it licenses our biological desires. We can do whatever we want (outside of work), so long as we don’t interfere with other people doing what they want (outside of work). This is a cornerstone principle of liberalism, and it sounds great, until you realize that biological desires have no point outside gratification and survival. We are becoming a society of consumption for consumption’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of nothing. The adherents of traditional belief systems are picking up on this, and they are, I think, rightly critical. Their proposed solution, however, amounts to little more than oppression: the universal imposition of a very parochial vision of right and wrong. (Thanks to self-centred yardsticking, however, they literally think they would be doing everyone a favour.)

The Inchoroi are the flip side of the Inrithi and the Fanim. You could read them as a vision of the nihilistic implications of unrestrained desire. They are simply another dead end in the book’s thematic labyrinth.

So let me see if I have this right: The Inrithi and the Fanim represent (in part) a constrained system of Belief and Order, by which the day-to-day functioning of their societies is maintained via a fairly rigid belief in a paradigm (or as you say above, a yardstick) that is absolutist in nature, while the Inchoroi represent the dissolution of this, being nihilistic in their interpretations of the world around and in their actions. But where do the Dûnyain fit into this? In a world that is seemingly berift of ‘saviors,’ how does a Kellhus or a Moënghus relate to these opposing ends of the societal/moral spectrum? Are they beyond these concepts of Good and Evil, or is there something more to them than just that?

I just knew you were going to ask that. Superunknown, my ass…

Aside to add that what you just recapped is simply one way of interpreting what’s going on (I lost control of the trilogy’s meaning a long, long time ago), I’m afraid the most I can say is, no comment.

Ha! I was beginning to wonder when I’d get my first RAFO-type response! Fair enough, but luckily I have a question in reserve that might be a bit more difficult to answer and yet would allow you freedom to roam: We’ve been talking about the differences between prescientific and scientific societies in many of the questions above (not to mention elsewhere outside the realms of this interview). What do you make of this shift of storytelling, where elements such as ghosts, goblins, divine creatures and entities, etc. used to be viewed as being of a ‘religious’ (or is another term more appropriate than that?) but now are relegated to the ‘Fantasy’ section of the bookstore? Where and how did we change, if we did so at all?

As a moderator at wotmania, I imagined you’d be pretty used to it! But to answer that question would be to unravel the secret of existence, to make aircraft from beef, to squeeze OJ out of styrofoam, and the world just isn’t ready yet. Alas.

This question is different story. As you know, it cuts to the heart of why I’m so fascinated by epic fantasy, and why I think it’s perhaps the most significant form of genre fiction – or at least among the most telling, culture-wise. (And yes, I realize this fits the mould of a ‘flattering rationalization’ – I write epic fantasy, therefore it simply has to be the most important form of fiction on the planet!)

One thing that’s puzzled me over recent years is the fact that more hasn’t been made of the Harry Potter controversy. Think about it. How long has it been since a work of fiction inspired organized book burnings? And what does it mean that a fantasy was the target?

It just so happens that humans are hardwired to understand the world anthropomorphically. What this means is that we have a profound tendency to interpret natural things and events in human terms. We think of our pets as little people. We’re disinclined to boast because we fear the world will punish us the way our buddies would. We think natural events happen for reasons, just as human actions do. We humans are social animals, and given that our brains evolved in response to social pressures, it becomes easy to imagine how this kind of systematic category mistake could find its way into our hardwiring. Anytime the brain is confronted by something too complex to understand using its basic cause and effect schemas, it simply switches to its ‘people-schemas.’

Now the world is a very complex place, which means that we relied on our people-schemas to ‘understand’ quite abit. We quite literally sketched worlds where almost all natural phenomena were understood anthropomorphically, by analogy to people. This is why our ancient ancestors thought the world watched and loved and hated and punished and rewarded and so on. It wasn’t until we discovered science, and learned how to extend our cause and effect schemas to ever more complex phenoma, that we were able to see past these illusory ways of interpretating the world.

But note that we had to discover science, whereas our anthropomorphic ways of understanding the world came quite naturally to us. This is one reason why I think that, even after the scientific world-view rendered anthropomorphized worlds ‘fantastic,’ so many of persist in believing in these worlds, whether they be traditional or ‘new age.’ It comes naturally to us. We feel most comfortable in such worlds.

And this is also, I think, one of the reasons why we have fallen in love with fantasy worlds like Earwa or Middle-earth. Like scriptural worlds, they’re also anthropomorphic worlds, which is precisely what makes them fantastic. Think of the parallels between Middle-earth and Biblical Israel or Vedic India or Homeric Greece or Viking Scandinavia. Palpable gods. Real magic. A certain, objective moral order. Apocalyptic retribution. The primary difference is that fantasy worlds have dispensed with the belief that comes part and parcel with scriptural worlds. Fantasy allows us to lose ourselves in anthropomorphic worlds without the burden of belief. In this sense, they’re scriptural worlds that openly acknowledge themselves as fantastic – which is to say honest scriptural worlds.

And this was why Harry Potter was burned.

I could be next, if I don’t shut my yap!

Ooh, you just opened yourself up big-time, ya know! While I’ll eschew fetching the rope and sharpening the stake, I just can’t help but note that there’s a parallel between Fantasy’s relationship with scriptural belief with our current fascination with fast food. Seems like both offer the basics of a quick and tasty ingestion of desirable elements, yet with the potential for being left feeling ‘bloated’ afterwards. How would you counter such a stance? Is there something more to Fantasy than a pale reproduction of a world-view gone-by? What else does it offer besides the change to indulge in guilt-free anthropomorphism without commitments? Why Fantasy and why right now?

Well the answer has got to be yes and no. Pretty much any content whatsoever can be stuffed into the epic fantasy form, from the inane, to the exploitative, to the sensitive, to the profound – and so on.

But the form itself is pregnant with significance, simply because it so starkly reflects who we are and the cultural straits we find ourselves in. Thanks to science, the world has become the earth, and the earth, it turns out, is an alien planet. All the things we thought we recognized, all the human shapes we thought we glimpsed, have been nothing more than our eyes playing tricks on us. Of course, many of us still insist that we see those shapes – as we might expect, given our hardwired tendencies to anthropomorphize (just try and not look at your pet as a little person) – but year after year passes, hundreds of them now, and for some reason these ‘paranormal phenomena’ always evaporate beneath scientific scrutiny, only to be replaced by some new and even more amazing ‘proof,’ equally short-lived. There’s ample grounds to be pessemistic, even if science wasn’t the most powerful instrument of understanding in human history.

And now with neuroscience we find our very souls on the dissection table.

Scripture has become fantasy. I can’t imagine any cultural loss more profound. And I can understand why so many refuse to let go. For most of us, hope alone isn’t enough.

What a sobering thought. One to which I struggle to think of an effective counter at this point, unless maybe it’s through our glamours and illusions that we have managed to stay sane in a world that is much too vast for us to comprehend, much less master. Perhaps this is something else you tend to explore in future writings?

Given that the narrative form is one of our primary ways of making sense of the world, and given that reality seems entirely indifferent to our narrative expectations, you could say that fiction itself is the glamour you’re referring to. In a sense, all fiction writing is an exercise in hope. I play with this idea in my most recently completed work, Neuropath.

As for my future thematic concerns? As Donald Rumsfeld might say, that’s an unknown unknown.

First thoughts regarding R. Scott Bakker’s The Judging Eye

November 16, 2008 § 7 Comments

I finished reading R. Scott Bakker’s first volume in his second Eärwa trilogy, The Judging Eye, about an hour ago. While I don’t plan on having a formal review up until around its mid-January 2009 release date, here are a few thoughts that I need to sort through in the next couple of weeks before I sit down to write out a review draft:

1) The writing is more compact than in the PoN trilogy.

2) The evolution of the characters’ PoVs away from direct focus on Kellhus’s own PoV to him being further and further outside the direct action is a logical progression from the latter half of PoN and something I expected.

3) The reason behind this book’s title (and the event surrounding this) is either setting up for some very serious metaphysical discussion in the coming novels, or it might be a decried as being an ill-explained departure from the mechanics established in the previous trilogy.

4) Having three main plot threads for this novel didn’t seem to work as well as it should have, as one of them came to dominate too much of the latter third of the novel. Hard to think of how Bakker could have done it any differently right now, however.

5) Speaking of those plot threads, the one that dominates actually would have made an excellent, dark, scary novel on its own, so it’s not as though it could have been cut any further.

6) The proverbs for this volume are just as cutting and just as cynical about “human nature” as were the PoN ones.

7) The humor was a little affected at times; this was a dark novel, but a bit more humor could have made the dark scenes all the more effective by highlighting the contrasts more.

8) For those who knock Bakker’s portrayal of women: I thought he did a pretty good job portraying one main female character (new to the series) and how she developed her attitudes.

9) It’s never simple with any of Kellhus’s children. There is much more to be revealed about them. Even the mad have moments of clarity.

10) Damnation is a very scary thing indeed.

11) Much is revealed of Eärwa’s past, including some truly sick scenes.

12) If I were to go much further right now, Scott likely would have my head, even if he didn’t make me promise to withhold information about this book (all my comments are based strictly on my reading of the ARC Overlook sent me this week).

So…any questions?

US cover art for Bakker and Morgan, plus thoughts on a fallacy

August 23, 2008 § 7 Comments

Although I’ve been aware of each of these cover art releases for some time now, I wanted to wait until the weekend, when I would have a bit more free time (or rather, Saturday, since it seems much of Sunday will be taken up with grading/recording). Over the past week or so, the US cover art for R. Scott Bakker’s first volume in The Aspect-Emperor trilogy and Richard K. Morgan’s trilogy opening The Steel Remains have been released, each with early 2009 releases. Below are images of the US cover art for each:

I personally like each of these quite a bit, especially Bakker’s, which I feel keeps a connection with The Prince of Nothing cover art for the Canada/US hardcover releases, with its vellum-like vertical script underlying the author’s name and book title. It is deliberately understated and the color scheme is pleasing to the eye. With Morgan’s cover art, with the reddish-yellow center creating a halo-like effect around the central horseman in the image, the overall effect to me is a mesmerizing one – who is that man (or woman) and what role does s/he play in this story? Nothing too garish or attention-seeking in my opinion.

However, some feel that images such as these are “bland” or that the UK version of the cover art to Morgan’s book is superior. Some have even gone so far as to claim (even after admitting that the US version of Morgan’s book is decent to good) that UK cover art is almost always better than that of its American counterparts. While I cannot deny that there are some travesties that have been released here in the US, I have seen quite a bit of very good cover art that I haven’t seen matched by British counterparts. For example, take the aforementioned Bakker cover art for his previous series, as well as for the upcoming US release of his SF thriller, Neuropath. The art there just was more pleasing to my eyes and apparently to many others. Or how about the cover art that tends to adorn works from authors published by Night Shade or Prime, for example? Those are often very visual and beautiful books, but yet their names never really get mentioned in the occasional forum discussions on cover art. Perhaps it is due to the smaller scale nature of their publications or due to audience reading habits, but if one is going to make the claim that one country is tending to produce “better” cover art than another, I would like to think that more than just a few big-market releases in only one or two subgenres would be cited as evidence. Then again, the people whose opinions I’d rather hear, those of the artists themselves, too often are not consulted whenever such discussions arise.

But what about you? What do you think about these covers or about the points I raised above?

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