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The wotmania Files: A Conversation with R. Scott Bakker
(November 1, 2005)

    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.

Interview with Scott Bakker, Author Of The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy and Neuropath
(June 12, 2008)

A couple of years ago I stumbled across an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) of a book called The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker in a used book store. I picked it up and was immediately hooked by the author's use of language, and his willingness to go deeper into his characters' feelings and motivations than the majority of writers I'd read, let alone writers of Epic Fantasy. So far there have been two other books in the series called The Prince Of Nothing: The Warrior Prophet and The Thousandthfold Thought, and the epilogue to part three gave an impression of more to come.

So when I received a letter from Mr. Bakker back in late February, early March, asking if I would like an ARC of his forthcoming book, Neuropath, I assumed it would be somehow associated with the previous three books. When I wrote back that I would be thrilled to receive an ARC, I mentioned how much I had appreciated the first three books of the trilogy, and was looking forward to more of the same. He replied with the warning that Neuropath had nothing to do with the previous books, and was in fact somewhat of a major departure from it.

Bakker wasn't kidding about the departure bit, as Neuropath is a very intense crime thriller that explores aspects of human psychology that are very disturbing. Especially in regards to what he postulates is possible with surgery to control human brain functions to eliminate our control over what we believe we are feeling. The ability to surgically alter our synapses so that we will inflict pain on ourselves in the mistaken believe that we are experiencing pleasure has implications that are too frightening to even consider.

After I had read Neuropath, its release date has been pushed back to nearer the end of June 2008, so don't expect a review until probably the third week of this month. I contacted Scott and asked him if he would consider answering a few questions about his work and Neuropath specifically. He very generously agreed, so I sent him off a list of questions by e-mail and the answers you're reading here are verbatim copies of what he wrote in reply. We were both careful to avoid giving away anything that would spoil Neuropath for readers, so you can read the interview safe in the knowledge that it won't give the story away.

I'd like to thank Scott Bakker for taking the time to do this interview, and I hope you find what he has to says about his work as interesting as I did.

Richard Marcus: I always like to find out why it is people do what they do, so how about you? Where does the creative impulse come from for you – why writing, and what do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

Scott Bakker: I have no clue. I was the kid who debated the reality of Santa Claus in grade two and three, then the reality of God in grade five and six, then the reality of meaning and morality in grade nine and ten. No joke. I was an irritating, pompous, inquisitive little bugger – and perhaps not surprisingly, I grew up to be an irritating, pompous, opinionated big bugger! Novels just seemed to be the most natural way of expressing those facets of my character.

Writing is one of the few careers where you can get paid for being an asshole. Reviewing is another.

If you didn't answer this already – why fantasy and science fiction?

Because they were what captured my imagination in my youth. I discovered D&D, Penthouse, Black Sabbath, and Mary Jane at the tender age of fourteen – a potent cocktail as I'm sure you know! Our brains don't finish coating neurons in the myelin sheaths that so accelerate signal speed until our mid-twenties. The reason for this, they think, is that the pre-myelinated brain is much more plastic, which is to say, much easier to program. This could be why our youthful hobbies and fascinations leave such an enduring stamp on our adult imaginations.

I'm not sure if I've ever escaped 14. I really need to trade in my wardrobe though. Nothing worse than male camel toe.

Both the Prince Of Nothing trilogy and Neuropath have a lot to do with brain functions – in the former it's the way in which people reason and the latter the technical way that process works. Where did this interest in how and why we think come from?

Well, brains don't come up much at all in The Prince of Nothing. In fact, you won't even find the word 'mind' anywhere in the books. It's all about souls, as it should be, given that the setting is pre-scientific. What both share in common is the question of autonomy, or freedom. The Prince of Nothing explores the relationship between beliefs and manipulation, and the way the 'feeling of freedom' seems entirely disconnected from the fact of freedom. I'm actually amazed by the number of people who think the characters that Kellhus manipulates are fools – I always want to pop into the conversation and quiz them on their own beliefs! What makes ideological manipulation so insidious is the way it bypasses our sense of autonomy. It's always the other guy who's 'so obviously' been duped. The fact is we're all manipulated all the time. You. Me. Everybody. Simply by virtue of those beliefs we inherit without question.

Neuropath, on the other hand, primarily explores the relationship between the brain and the question of autonomy.

Do you see any relationship between the methods used by Kellhus in the Prince Of Nothing series and Neil in Neuropath?

There's actually quite a sharp distinction between the two if you think about it. They seem similar insofar as they both defect from conventional morality, but Neil is by far the more radical of the two. There's a 'good' for Kellhus, which is simply what most effectively allows him to achieve his goals. He is the perfect practitioner of 'the end justifies the means' rationality, or what philosophers call instrumental rationality. For Kellhus, the only thing that makes acts good or bad are their consequences. Since we seem to be hardwired, and are definitely socialized, to think that certain acts are good or bad regardless of their consequences, this makes him seem ruthless and unscrupulous in the extreme – nihilistic.

Neil, on the other hand, has done away with good and bad altogether. He literally exists beyond good and evil.

There's quite a difference in style and form between Neuropath and your previous work – from Epic Fantasy to Hard Science. What kind of challenges did that present you with when it came to writing the new work?

Nothing really in particular. I found Neuropath both easier and more difficult to write simply because of my preferences as a writer. There's just something about creating a world whole cloth, as opposed to writing across a world that already exists. I think I'll always be a fantasy writer first and foremost for this reason.

With Neuropath, the challenge I set myself was to create a story that could carry a substantial amount of information without sacrificing narrative momentum, and to write in a style that was as kinetic as an airport thriller without sacrificing the kinds of multiple subtexts I love layering into my prose. A tall order, I know, but then I think I got some kind of aesthetic death-wish thing going. It's a good thing I don't live in a dictatorship.

Electric Shock treatments and aversion therapy have been used as means of behaviour modification in the past on people. What's the relationship between those methods and the ones described in Neuropath, if any at all?

In principle, none. All behaviour modification comes down to brain modification, and this can be done using electrical shocks, chemicals, training routines, therapy sessions, magnetic fields, radiation, scalpels, or coat-hangers. But then this is the million dollar question, isn't it? What earthly difference should it make, whether we use old-fashioned techniques as opposed to the ones explored in Neuropath?

Think about all the commercials you see. Very few of them provide arguments, which is to say, reasons why it's more rational to sit down with a Whopper than it is a Big Mac. Commercials actually aren't trying to convince you of anything at all. Instead, they're trying to circumvent rational decision making, to condition populations to make them statistically more likely to pick their product. They're literally rewiring your brain, neurologically 'branding' you. And they're enormously successful at it, despite the fact that so many of us like to think ourselves 'immune' to advertising. Since our brain is largely blind to its own processes, we're never actually conscious of what these commercials do to us – they simply seem to fall through us without effect. One after another, an endless train of them. When we do go for a Whopper it's not because anyone forces us to, but because we simply 'feel like it.'

Modern advertising is literally predicated on mass manipulation, on training you the way we train animals, and yet we have no problem whatsoever with this state of affairs. So the problem can't be the fact that we're manipulated, because we are all the time. The problem has to be the way we are manipulated. As it stands, the only manipulations that we don't like are the ones that we can easily see. Who cares if someone's pushing our buttons, so long as we can pretend otherwise?

But if that's our criterion then we're in a whole heap of trouble.

The problem is that our culture spoon feeds us this out-and-out magical notion of who and what we are. So when the ad man cries 'Caveat emptor! Buyer beware!' in self defence, we're inclined to let him off the hook. Why? because it's an appeal to our magical self-conception. Since ignorance is invisible, we assume that all we can see of ourselves is all that there is – or most of it anyway. Everyone says, 'No commercial gets the best of me! I'm a tough-minded, critical adult!' But the truth is, the stuff we can't see composes the better part of us. Which is why the corporations keep ploughing billions into mass associative conditioning, and billions more into what has come to be called 'neuro-marketing.' The day is fast approaching when they stop training us like animals and start tweaking us like mechanisms.

Education, in North America at least, systematically avoids teaching us anything about our myriad weaknesses and limitations as believers and decision-makers – and the results, I would argue, are nothing short of catastrophic. Take drug addiction, for instance. Simply because of my socio-economic background, I happen to know many people whose lives have been destroyed if not snuffed out altogether by drug addiction. And the common thread between all of them is that they assumed they were in control, from the beginning, and in some cases, all the way to the end, when they became little more than crack or meth or alcohol acquisition mechanisms.

And why shouldn't they assume as much, when that was the magical bullshit that was being drummed into their heads from kindergarten and up? You can't have a healthy respect for your weaknesses if you don't know a lick about them. You can't make informed decisions.

(In case you actually do believe in the magical self, then I invite you to argue with the science, not me. On the technical side, I would suggest Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will, or David Dunning's Self-Insight. There's a small explosion of popular books that deal with our cognitive shortcomings, such as Cordelia Fine's A Mind of It's Own, Gary Marcus's Kluge, or Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational.)

How do you see the science described in Neuropath relating to cognitive psychology theories of how the environment we experience as a child shapes our future behaviour? Is it along the lines of recreating the effects of learned behaviour by mucking about with the brain – or is that overly simplistic?

Only in a retail and incidental way. The real link between the cognitive psychology in the book — all the little factoids about how dumb we are — and the consciousness science is the dilemma this puts us into. If even half of what cognitive psychology tells us is true, then we really have no reason to think that any of our philosophical attempts to blunt the obvious implications of the science — that nothing is what we think it is — are anything more than 'comfort reason,' self-preserving rationalizations.

I know it's early yet, but I'm curious as to what people's reactions have been to the claim by one of your characters in Neuropath that humans are nothing more than a series of programable reactions triggered by the stimulation of different parts of the brain? How much basis in fact is there for that claim?

I was immensely pleased to receive an enthusiastic email from Thomas Metzinger, the co-founder of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and the author of the landmark Being No One. When I asked him if he would be willing to blurb the book he declined, both because he found the book so disturbing to read, and because he thought I was covering ground that the bulk of humanity was better off not knowing about! I finally convinced him, though, by jumping up and down and going, "Please! Please! Please!"

Nothing else works with philosophers.

On the other hand, I was dismayed to learn that at least one of the 'future facts' I pose in Neuropath has come true. Apparently, Professor John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute devised an experiment where he and his colleagues were able to determine, via fMRI scans, what their subject's choices would be seconds before they were conscious of them. Freaks me out just writing about it.

There's going to be people who deny this stuff come hell or high water, just as there's people who can't abide evolution or the heliocentric solar system. Truth be told, I'm one of them. I believe there has to be something to my experience of free will, but all the credible evidence is piling up on the other side, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. All I can do is stomp my foot and say, "No! It just can't be."

Because if it is, then nothing fucking matters.

Maybe I'm slow but I can't seem to understand why anyone would find the contention that stuff doesn't happen for any reason it just happens is anything to get so upset about. Or have I misunderstood the premise of the 'Argument' – the great debate between the central characters of Neuropath?

Well, if you're religious you're certainly going to be troubled by it – that is if you don't simply dismiss it. There's actually a running discussion in cognitive science circles about what does or does not trouble different individuals. Some, for instance, really don't care if their will is free or not. Out of the people I know who don't believe there's such a thing as free-will, morality, or meaning, some walk around perpetually bummed, and others just shrug and say, 'pass the joint.'

I actually had an e-mail exchange with Richard Morgan on this topic. He says he's okay with the illusoriness of it all, so long as the illusion functions the way he needs it to function. My answer was that this was like having a wife who sleeps around town, but being okay so long as she goes through the spousal motions at home. For me, the first function of this rich, wondrous, experiential life I lead, is that it be true.

Like you, the absence of objective purpose 'out there' doesn't bother me, so long as I can make my life meaningful. It's this latter that's at stake in Neuropath.

Here's the thing. For about five centuries now science has been scrubbing the world clean of anthropomorphisms, the projection of human psychological categories on the natural world. When the crops fail, only fundamentalists shake their fists at the heavens anymore. During this time, the sheer complexity of our brains rendered us immune to this 'disenchantment,' as Weber puts it. We stood apart as the world's only meaningful thing. Humankind, the great meaning maker – just think of how many narratives you've encountered where you find a protagonist struggling to find meaning in a meaningless world, usually via romantic love (a form I play with in both The Prince of Nothing and Neuropath).

Those happy times are gone. The human brain is finally passing into the province of science and its technical capabilities, and guess what? It's disenchanting us as well. The greatest anthropomorphism of all, it turns out, is ourselves. We are the last of the ancient delusions, soon to be debunked.

'I think, therefore I am' has morphed into 'It thinks, therefore something was.'

Some people are probably going to be disturbed by the graphicness of Neuropath, and I was wondering if you could explain why you thought it necessary?

Because it's a psycho-thriller! And because I've been so desensitized by so many B-horror flicks that I think I've lost the ability to tell what's graphic and what's not. I felt like I was holding back – being coy even.

What's next from you – are you going to go back to the world of The Prince of Nothing, where you left us sort of hanging with the epilogue? Continue on in the vein you started with Neuropath – more hard science? Or something new altogether?

The Judging Eye comes out this winter. I'm presently working on the second book of The Aspect-Emperor, which is tentatively titled The White-Luck Warrior. I'm also working on a second crime thriller entitled The Disciple of the Dog. At the rate I'm going I should have both books completed by next spring.

I'd like to thank Scott Bakker for taking the time in his schedule to answer my questions.

I hope what we talked about has intrigued you enough to make you want to pick up a copy of Neuropath when it is released in your part of the world. In Canada that will be sometime later this month — June 2008 — and you can check the Penguin Canada web site for the exact release date as I'm sure they'll be letting us all know soon enough when it is for sale. If you're in the States, and don't want to pay the shipping cost, it looks like you'll have to wait until winter of 2008 to pick up a copy.

With The Judging Eye, the first part of The Aspect Emperor, a new trilogy picking up the characters from The Prince Of Nothing trilogy twenty years later, due out this winter, and its sequel scheduled to be finished the Spring of 2009, we won't be lacking for new work by Scott Bakker, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is a good thing. No matter what anyone else might think or say, I don't think you can ever have enough of a good thing.

Interview with R. Scott Bakker, english version
(June 24, 2006)

Here in France, we are awaiting the release of "The Warrior-Prophet". On which project are you currently working on?

    The first book of The Aspect Emperor, which picks up the tale of the Second Apocalypse some twenty years following the conclusion to The Prince of Nothing. And though I worry I might need therapy, it feels good - very good.
The immensity and scale of your world is impressive. Even for a methodical and orderly person as you are, there must be some difficult passages to negociate as the story is coming along.

    The creepy thing is that I'm neither methodical nor orderly! I'm married, which means I'm pretty good at faking it from time to time, but usually I'm just a squadron of nuts and bolts flying in loose formation. The only thing that lets me generate the illusion of order is the disjunction between the time it takes to write a book and the time it takes to read one. Your twelve hour reading experience is the condensation of thousands of hours of writing...

    Sheesh, suddenly I feel tired.

By the way, have you ever been consulted regarding the translation of your works?

    Several times by several different translators for several different languages. I'm mostly contacted by Slavic translators asking about various names, particularly those pertaining to battles. I was contacted by Jacques Collin subsequent to the French translation of The Darkness that Comes Before, primarily because he was interested in discussing the book. Cool dude.
What is the most difficult facet involved in writing epic fantasy? Weaving the different plot threads? Keeping the character's souls burning with enthusiasm? Or knowing that you will spend several more years in front of your computer?

    The most difficult facet of writing fantasy, I find, is also the facet that makes writing fantasy so addictive: the sheer creative bandwidth. I mean, fantasy is fiction all the way down. In writing something like Neuropath, the psychothriller I recently completed, I found myself chafing at the constraints of the real world, even though I was spared the labour of creating everything from the ground up.

    The idea of spending several more years in front of the computer is at once both daunting and encouraging. After spending about 20 or so years parked in front of one, it now feels like my third lung - or testicle, as the case might be. No one likes being separated from their testicles for very long. Not in my experience, anyway.

History and philosophy are significant features of your books. For example, you show how History can be dodged by time and memories......Is the fantasy genre a good one to discourse on this?

    I'd have to say yes and no. In a certain sense, epic fantasy is an ideal as a narrative platform for explicit philosophical reflection. In the modern world, philosophy is largely a 'fallen' form of cognition: compared to the successes of science, there's little to recommend the kinds of theoretical claims made by philosophers. Epic fantasy worlds, however, are fantasy worlds because they are prescientific, which is to say, they represent an age when philosophical claims were the cutting edge of theoretical cognition. This means you can get away with a lot which would sound fatuous or lugubrious in a modern setting.

    The difficulty has to do with the fantasy readership, which (unlike literary fiction) is all over the map in terms of expectations, religious and political orientation, education, and so on. Don't get me wrong: this diverse readership is one of the primary reasons I think literature needs to migrate to genre if it wants to remain worthy of the name. But it does mean that if you inject real philosophical reflection (as opposed to platitudes), you're bound to alienate many of your readers. All of us suffer the unfortunate habit of disparaging things we don't understand. If I read a work I don't get, then the tendency is not only to dislike the work, but to blame the work. If I don't get something, then the 'something' is always to blame, not the 'I.'

    This is the way it's always been. This is the way it'll always be. But then taking risks is what it's all about, isn't it?

Your female characters are really strong, something not very usual in the wonderful testosterone-driven world of Fantasy. Is this something deliberate since the beginning, or has it arisen through the elaboration of your universe?

    Well I'm glad someone out there thinks as much! As you probably know, I take quite a bit of heat on this issue. This was deliberate from the outset. Since I'm not one for sentimental idealizations, I wanted to create a premodern world with all the ugliness and brutality of the real thing. And as a point of fact, people do not see past the limitations of their context - which they can scarcely thematize, let alone critique. So rather than planting female genitalia on a male character, I wanted to portray female characters you could reasonably expect in a premodern army - camp followers - and chronicle their apparent rise to power via Kellhus, who is of course a cipher for modernity.

    The question with Esmenet in particular is, Does he raise her out of oppression, or does he simply lead her into a more sophisticated cage? And this is the question of gender equality in our own day and age.

But, in the end, who is your favourite character?

    None of them stand alone for me: they form a circuit. Achamian and Esmenet stand nearest my heart. Cnaiur, I sometimes think, is too cool for school. Kellhus, though, was the breakthrough character: the sun/blackhole about which all the others orbit.

How would you define your relation with fans? Can their expectations sometimes weigh you down?

    For me the problem is one of focus. Too much feedback, I'm discovering, can hobble the creative process. So unfortunately, I've been more inclined to be withdrawn of late. Ultimately, I think my fans are far more interested in reading the stories I create than listening to me explicate or pontificate! It feels like the former suffers when I do too much of the latter.
Are you influenced by book reviews, or do you seek to write something that satisfies you in the first place?

    I think the temptation to write for your reviewers is a peril that every author faces. Since reviewers are not typical readers, succumbing to this temptation means writing for people with very specialized expectations. I actually think this is a very profound cultural disease, one which has lead to the degradation of spectacle as a literary category, and thus to the effective segregation of thoughtfulness and mass appeal. Here in North America at least, literary culture trains those with the desire to challenge readers to talk amongst themselves - or in other words, to write for people who have the least to gain from being challenged. They pilfer all the talent, then call popular culture dreck. Then, rather than acknowledge their own institutional role, they blame it all on the evil corporations, even though the human fascination for spectacle predates General Electric by the length of recorded history. After all, something must be preventing the masses from coming to them and to their status-preserving preference for the mundane.

    I believe that writing is communication, and that communication is always about meeting people in the middle (and so pissing everyone off!). It's when you can speak to someone totally unlike yourself that you've created something deep - something literary. Praise from the like-minded may feel good, but it's rarely significant.

    In some ways, humans are too predictable. Always drawing self-congratulatory circles. Me heaven; you hell. Me smart; you stupid. Never vice versa. I sometimes think writing for reviewers or for yourself are simply ways to draw more of those circles. Writing to communicate, on the other hand, is a way to erase them.

Do you have any book recommendations for our readers, fantasy or otherwise?

    Since I primarily read nonfiction, I'm going to lay a couple of egghead titles on you, both of which are very accessible, and I think valuable (though I'm not sure whether they've been translated into French). The first is David Dunning's Self-Insight, which is a treasure-house of psychological research results showing how (despite the obligatory happy-face Dunning attempts to put on it) we humans are pretty much self-serving brats who continually bullshit ourselves to feel better. We all do it all the time, and of course we're taught nothing about any of it in school, public and private (can't have Junior pointing out how silly Mummy and Daddy's beliefs are!). Meanwhile, we're fast approaching the time when these shenanigans will see us in our graves.

    The second is Jay Ingram's Theatre of the Mind, which does a fantastic job summarizing the bizarre and unnerving conclusions coming out of consciousness research.

    Both underscore an age-old axiom of human nature: the more we think we know ourselves, the greater the chance we're completely deluded.

    I'm so tempted to name names, here!

Last but not least, is there anything you wish to share with your French fans?

    Ah, a chance to preach preach! So here's the pitch:

    We're ringed round with apocalypse, my friends, and our greatest enemy is ourselves - as it's been throughout history. I'm not just talking about nuclear holocaust or environmental armageddon; even if the optimists are right, and we're able to innovate our way past these pickles, this, whatever life you happen to be enjoying or enduring at this very moment, has an expiry date. There's a series of scientific revolutions right around the corner which are going to transform things so fundamentally, it's not even clear we could be called human in their aftermath. Our brains are going to cut out the middle-man, stop trying to dominate their environments, and go directly to the source. And once we start re-engineering consciousness, it truly is game over. Most will argue that it's heaven come to earth, but don't be fooled. It is the end of the experiential frame of reference that makes our past intelligible, our literature great, and our hearts human.

    Whatever the case, we're going to need all the wit and flexibility we can muster. This means recognizing that we humans are believing machines, that we have a hardwired tendency to believe without basis and to do so absolutely. This is simply a matter of psychological fact - as is the fact that everyone reading this will think themselves the exception! Our greatest enemy is literally our own overpowering sense of conviction.


On the Spot at BSC – R. Scott Bakker interview
(May 30, 2005)

BSC continues its streak of absolute luck being able to get yet another supremely talented author to visit us ‘On the Spot’. We like to try to cover all sub-genres in Fantasy and we have one of the best regardless of category today. Author of what is in my opinion what is thus far one of the elite series being written currently The Prince of Nothing. The author is of course R. Scott Bakker an author who unapologetically writes epic fantasy, and does so in a manner that not only doesn’t require one but provides a stern challenge to those to deny the quality of his work as it pushes the boundaries to not just limits, which only implies change but not necessarily positive growth, but also helped push the ceiling of the epic genre to a new level that where he, George R.R. Martin, and Steven Erikson have a nice view as they survey the rest of epic fantasy landscape from above. Mr. Bakker has enjoyed early success and everyone should be on the lookout in the US, as Overlook is releasing the trade paperback of ’The Darkness that Comes Before’ May 31st, The Warrior- Prophet August 31st, with mass market versions of both coming out next year. In the UK, Orbit is releasing the mass market paperback of The Darkness that Comes Before June 2nd, and the trade paperback of The Warrior-Prophet on July 1st. The conclusion of the trilogy, The Thousandfold Thought, is tentatively scheduled to be simultaneously released January 14th, 2006 in Canada and the US, and May 1st, 2006 in the UK. So far both The Darkness that Comes Before and The Warrior-Prophet have received widespread critical acclaim. Publisher’s Weekly recently named The Darkness that Comes Before as one of the ‘Best Books of 2004′ – not bad, given the critical bias against Big Fat Fantasy! BSC is happy for the opportunity to present R. Scott Bakker:

Jay Tomio – Greetings Mr. Bakker, thanks for accepting the invitation to be ‘On the Spot’. Lets talk Prince of Nothing. All those that have read, The Darkness that Comes Before and it’s sequel The Warrior-Prophet know it’s one of the elite current fantasy series being written today, however, too many people remain unaware of this fact. On the many interviews I have read of yours, you definitely exhibit you have incredible ability to intelligently get your points across, but rarely do I get to see you get the opportunity to tell us at length about your work. So, for the first question please tell them what Prince of Nothing is, what trip are you offering to the reader, what can they expect, and who do you think is going to enjoy this work?

R. Scott Bakker – Thanks, Jason, both for the invitation and the hearty endorsement!

How would I describe The Prince of Nothing? In a sentence it’s the story of a holy war waged across exotic lands, and the man who for reasons unknown uses his godlike intellect to enslave it.

I think what makes fantasy truly ‘epic’ is its ability to evoke the tickle of awe (which is a strange and suggestive aesthetic goal if you think about it). Tolkien’s lesson is that believability can make that tickle resonate. So I literally spent twenty years tinkering with the world and the story, trying to write an out-and-out epic fantasy – with sorcery, dragons and dark lords – that would read like historical fiction, and hopefully, maybe even literature. I made realism my general rule. Since we humans generally develop emotional pathologies in response to sustained stress, my characters tend to be pretty demented. Since pre-modern societies tend to have authoritarian value systems, my world is patriarchal and bigoted. And so on.

I want to take my readers on the same epic fantasy trip, only in a way that makes it seem entirely new. Something darker, dirtier, deeper.

Jay Tomio – The next book in the series is entitled The Thousandfold Thought and is scheduled to be released this October. What can you tell your loyal fans about this installment? Any FBS Exclusive material?

R. Scott Bakker – I would give you some exclusives, but I would be promptly lynched by certain members of my fansite (you know who you are, White Lord)! What I can say is that my greatest fear writing ‘The Thousandfold Thought’ was that it would fall short of the ‘thousandfold expectation’ set up by ‘The Darkness that Comes Before’ and ‘The Warrior-Prophet’. Though I’m not confident about any of my work – I’m too close to have any real perspective – I am exceedingly happy with the way things have turned out. I recently finished reading The Darkness that Comes Before and The Warrior-Prophet back to back (checking facts for the Encyclopaedic Glossary which will be in the appendices of The Thousandfold Thought), and I was struck by how different each book is, and by just how bloody BIG the fricken story is! I must have been out of my mind. Say what you will, the books are Epic with a capital ‘e.’

Jay Tomio – I read an interview where you mentioned a couple of other works. One related to The Prince of Nothing setting and one not. The former is to take place during the time of the Second Apocalypse, and the first book detailing it you have dubbed The Aspect Emperor, the latter Neuropath, a sci-fi thriller. How does work go on these projects and do you have any new information on either?

R. Scott Bakker – Many moons ago, I had conceived The Prince of Nothing as the first book in a greater trilogy called ‘The Second Apocalyps’e. It quickly became apparent that it needed to be a trilogy itself – and given the fact that some twenty years pass between it and the events of The Aspect-Emperor, it stands quite well on its own, I think. I still don’t have a clear idea just how long the story of The Aspect-Emperor will be, so I’m not sure whether it will turn out to be a trilogy in its own right, or a dualogy.

In the meantime, I’m rewriting my draft of ‘Neuropath’, which as you mention is a SF thriller. The idea here is to write something as philosophically troubling as it is psychologically frightening, a demented ‘psycho-thriller’ that explores the nihilistic implications of neuroscience. I’m hoping to have Neuropath finished before the end of the year. I should have a better idea as to the shape, size, and schedule of ‘The Aspect-Emperor’ by then.

Jay Tomio - Besides Prince of Nothing being a quintessential example of a great series, it’s chief character Kellhus is one of my favorite characters being written about in epic fantasy. The only other character that interests me more is George R.R. Martin’s Tyrion. Is Kellhus a truly original creation, and if not what influences inspired the creation of such a profound character?

R. Scott Bakker - The question of Kellhus’s origin comes up frequently, and for some time now I’ve been trying to resuscitate those few memories that managed to survive the intervening twenty or so years of psycho-social trauma and substance abuse. What I’ve come up with is this. Reading Dune was a watershed event in my life. I grew up in a poor, backcountry household, where reading and education were not held in high esteem (though argumentation was – likely because my father is Dutch). What struck me most in Dune was the way disciplined thought – and I’m thinking of the Bene Gesserit in particular here – reliably translated into political and interpersonal advantage. I found myself loving anything that combined subtlety and intrigue. Then, when I was about nineteen or twenty, I read Douglas Hoftstadter’s Metamagical Themas, a collection of his essays for Scientific American, which included a piece on ‘memes.’

Without getting too technical, memes are simply beliefs conceived functionally. All of us have individual beliefs, but very few us consider either the social functions of those beliefs, or the ways in which they evolve and spread over time. Belief is a foundation of action. Just think of paper money: the only reason people are willing to exchange organs and stereos for those paper slips is they believe that others will also exchange organs and stereos for them as well. What gives money its power is our collective belief in ways others will act in response to it. Since all this is implicit in our daily routines, we just think of it as ‘the way things are.’

When you look at beliefs as memes, you look at them as something analogous to genes: the better ‘adapted’ a belief is, the more likely it is to reproduce. This move from looking at beliefs as something like little paintings that either did or did not capture the world to semi-autonomous things that coordinated and commanded our collective actions literally blew my mind at the time. For the first time I realized that most of what we believe has far more to do with conserving existing social hierarchies than with accuracy or truth. And I remember at the time thinking of a character who was a ‘meme-master,’ someone who could dominate all those around him by revising and rewriting the memes that underwrote all their actions. Kellhus.

That was where the original idea for the ‘Kellhus meme’ came from – I think. The next step in his evolution came with my readings of Theodor Adorno. The dominant tradition in mainstream literature is to depict protagonists stranded in a potentially meaningless world trying to find some kind of compensatory meaning – usually through some conception of ‘love.’ You’ve literally seen this pattern countless times. Kellhus offered me an opportunity to turn this model on its head. What makes fantasy distinct is that the worlds depicted tend to be indisputably meaningful – in a sense that’s what makes them fantastic! I thought to myself, what would a story of a protagonist stranded in a meaningful world struggling to hold onto meaninglessness look like?

Thus the ‘Prince of Nothing’ was born. Now he’s spreading, reproducing…

Jay Tomio - Mr. Bakker, in your article ‘Why Fantasy, Why Now’, which I know was written by you some years ago, you made a few interesting statements. One of them was “If so many religious groups are up in arms about Harry Potter, it is because they see in it a competitor–and rightly so. Fantasy novels can be construed as necessary supplements to the Holy Bible. In a culture antagonistic to meaning, the bald assertion that life is meaningful is not enough. We crave examples.” I was wondering if you could expound on that statement focusing on the “Fantasy novels can be construed as necessary supplements to the Holy Bible”, as I find your inclusion of “necessary” very interesting.

R. Scott Bakker – It just turns out that in the absence of any real methodological or empirical constraints, we humans tend to construct fanciful world-views. We take the schemes we use to understand other people – motives, purposes, passions, and morals – and apply them to the world. We anthropomorphize. Without exception, all prescientific worldviews are anthropomorphic. Our ancient ancestors lived in worlds that listened, that judged, that punished or rewarded, and so on. We have an innate tendency to interpret the world in these human terms, which is why scientific understanding must always swim against the tide when it comes to the general public, even though one could scarce imagine demonstrations more convincing or spectacular as computers or thermonuclear explosions. It’s in our hardwiring. Who we are makes these worlds necessary.

Nowadays anthropomorphic worldviews survive in at least two cultural incarnations: religion and fantasy. Biblical Israel, Narnia, Vedic India, and Middle-earth are all anthropomorphic. The difference is that the religious incarnation preserves the ancient commitments as well: despite science and its miraculous demonstrations, some people think these anthropomorphic worldviews are true. The fantastic incarnation dispenses with those commitments. In fact, it’s the anthropomorphic structure of these worlds that make them fantastic, as opposed to merely alternate. In both cases, I think its clear that we’re responding to something profound. Some people need to live in these anthropomorphic worlds, whereas others need to lose themselves in them from time to time. There’s precious little ‘anthropos’ in the world revealed by science.

Which is why science terrifies me so.

Presently, $1000 can buy you a computer with the processing power of an average insect brain. If the historical rate holds true, that same $1000 will buy you a computer with the processing power of a human brain within twenty years. Now keeping in mind that all technological change translates into social change, and that societies, like all supercomplex systems, can only accommodate so much change before falling out of equilibrium, then we are in for quite a ride over the next few decades.

We have no idea what we’re getting ourselves into. It’s no surprise, I think, that people are drawn to representations of pre-scientific worlds, be they scriptural or fantastic.

Jay Tomio – Mr. Bakker, as I have noted in the introduction to this interview your Prince of Nothing series is not the typical variety in regards to either the standard perception of what fantasy is to those that are not regular readers of the genre, or to those that are in the community that have perceived notions regarding epic or high fantasy. Your writing has a sense of purpose, a personality that obviously is indicative of the author. The Prince of Nothing is not only challenging what has become the mundane status quo in epic fantasy, it seems to be doing so on purpose, in regards to plot, your choice of narrative, and you stressing the personal viewpoints and experiences of your characters. Are you writing to challenge the genre? Writing to challenge the reader? Or both? Personally I feel both need it. This question is especially intriguing as I have seen you say about this series “I still think I wrote the book to be read twice”.

R. Scott Bakker – The reason most ‘literary types’ dismiss fantasy out of hand is that they see it as a form of ‘comfort food’ mass produced for consumers looking for repetition and sentimental reaffirmation rather than novelty and critical exploration. It is a fact that we humans find familiarity very comforting – it’s the reason why, for instance, franchising has transformed the North American landscape. Remember those old cartoons where the same backdrop would scroll by over and over when the characters would drive: the same burger joint, the same grocery store, over and over again? Thanks to the comfort we find in familiarity, we now live in those cartoons.

But it’s also a fact that we find novelty and exploration exciting as well. The two are not mutually exclusive – they only seem that way because of the crazy social dynamic we find ourselves in. On the one side you have the pressure to reap the efficiencies provided by standardization, and on the other side you have the pressure to socially differentiate oneself by touting the exclusivity of one’s standards. The marketers insist challenging expectations will not sell, while the literati insist that catering to them precludes artistic value. I couldn’t imagine a better recipe for clearing artists out of popular culture.

I’m trying to have it both ways. I’m trying to challenge generic expectations in the course of slavishly catering to them – to write an epic fantasy that’s at once classic and subversive. I’m under no illusions. I know certain people will absolutely hate my books – one reviewer on Amazon even went so far as to suggest they be burned! I offer no sentimental reaffirmation. I question cherished preconceptions. I explore controversial issues. I depict graphic and troubling events. And there will always be people who want no part of this when unwinding with a book. Downtime is downtime. But I also know many people – far more than the marketer’s credit – will love the books as well. I know this because I know people are as curious by nature as they are comforted by familiarity – especially when things start seeming too familiar, as you might argue is the case with epic fantasy today.

I like to think of this problem in terms of perspectival positions. Things often look quite different, depending on the vantage one happens to occupy. I’ll never forget how two of my musician friends were able to tell me my cassette player was running too fast. I had no clue, and until they played the same song simultaneously on a ghetto-blaster, I refused to believe them! But then they were always hearing and pointing out things that simply did not enter into my awareness, given my uneducated vantage. The same holds true for literature, or just about anything else you could imagine. The books we loved in high school usually seem trite and contrived after finishing a literature PhD.

Given our socialization in a similar culture, we all share a rough baseline vantage. Some of us then go one to transform and elaborate that vantage – to develop a ‘musician’s ear’ for literature. Most of us don’t. The problem is that things that look good from a baseline vantage often look bad from a cultivated vantage, and vice versa. It starts to seem as if the marketers and the literati were right all along, and that what we need are different works for different vantages – a ‘high’ and a ‘low’ literature. I disagree. Differences in perspective doesn’t mean we need different literatures – this leads to segregation. What we need, rather, is a literature that looks good from as many perspectives as possible. A literature that entertains and challenges. I think genre fiction is the venue where the artistically and academically minded can participate in popular culture once again.

So, when I said I wrote the books to be read twice I meant two things. The first is self-critical: there’s so much detail in the books that a second reading is almost required to absorb it all! The second is compositional: I wanted to write an epic fantasy that the reader will never outgrow – that can be read and enjoyed as much at 39 as at 19, if not more. It’s funny how we leave some books behind. I want ‘The Prince of Nothing’ to keep pace with readers… to stick to them.

Like a fungus, maybe.

Jay Tomio – Mr. Bakker you are writing a terrific fantasy series, and have plans on writing Sci-fi thriller. Who are your influences in both genres, and what do you find yourself reading currently?

R. Scott Bakker – I’m just finishing John Kay’s excellent The Truth About Markets, and am about to move onto Gary Wassner’s The Awakening – about which I’ve heard many good things. The primary influences on ‘The Prince of Nothing’ are, perhaps obviously, J. R. R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. For Neuropath, the big, immediate influences are James Patterson and Michael Crichton. I read the former obsessively last summer, looking for the ‘generic hooks’ of the psycho-thriller. The idea is to write something as sleek and cinematic in form, but with content that might be described as literary.

We shall see…

Jay Tomio – I would like to thank Mr. Bakker on behalf of FBS for participating ‘On the Spot’, and hope you will decide to come back and visit us again anytime:)

R. Scott Bakker – Thank you, Jason! Drop me a line, anytime.

Jay Tomio -Everyone be sure to check out the ‘Prince of Nothing’! No matter what type of fantasy you like and how you categorize it, there is something in this series for everyone. If you’re a fan of epic fantasy you should already be in the know, this is one of the superior examples of that genre ever written thus far and Scott has assured me in a conversation I had with him about the forthcoming The Thousandfold Thought, he said:

    “Love it or hate it, people will not soon forget reading this motherfo”

That’s what the I’m talking about! If you gave up on epic fantasy and haven’t found a reason to come back in your quest for more literal fantasy, your search is over. It right here starting with The Darkness that Comes Before and the The Warrior-Prophet. Speculative Fiction at its very best.

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
(January 21, 2008)

- I know you have a visceral fear of spoilers, but you didn't think we'd let you go easy and not ask anything about THE GREAT ORDEAL. We've all read the blurb, of course, but what can you tell us about your upcoming novel?

Where did you get that title? That was just something I cooked up because you need to name the books for the contract. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now. The first book is called, The Judging Eye, that is, unless one of my editors succeeds in arguing me into a different one!

All I’m willing to say is that the story picks up twenty years after the end of The Thousandfold Thought.

- When we spoke at the end of 2005, you were really excited about the prospect of beginning working on The Aspect-Emperor? Has it been a smooth/challenging process thus far?

Writing a book is always challenging, particularly when you’re writing a story across multiple installments, and even more so when you seem constitutively incapable of writing in a straight line like I am. I end up bouncing all over the place rather than sticking to the book at hand. For instance, the last chapter I finished was chapter three - chapter three! WTF...

Also, the fact that this is my career now has really settled in. I had to get my motivational ducks in order for this book - start looking at it as a job, while at the same time preserving my artistic commitments. Easier said than done, at least for me.

- Will we see more of the world -- geographically speaking -- in this new series?

Oh ya...

- In our last interview, you said that you were giddy at the thought of putting the Consult, the Inchoroi, the Nonmen and the Sranc into the narrative spotlight. Do you think fans will be pleased with the results?

I hope so! But it’s literally impossible to tell from the inside of a story what people will think from the outside.

- Are there specific themes you wanted to explore in this second series?

Specifically, I’m interested in what it means to live in a world where value is objective - which is to say, to live in the kind of world our ancestors thought they lived in. Could you imagine, for instance, what it would mean to live in a world where, say, the social and spiritual inferiority of women was a fact like the atomic weight of uranium. Biblical Israel was such as world, as were many others.

We have a hardwired predisposition to "naturalize" our values, to think what we value things is the way things are - it’s one of many liabilities we can chalk up to our stone-age brains. This is why fantasy worlds are our doubles, our psychology writ in geographical stone, and so worth exploring in their own right.

Other than that, there’s a number of carry-over themes dealing with belief and faith as the levers of action.

- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write The Prince of Nothing? How about The Aspect-Emperor?

I’m more keen on embracing the conventions than breaking them - the twisting seems to happen of its own accord. The biggie, the one that spans The Second Apocalypse in its entirety, is eschatology - no surprise there. What does it mean to live in a world with an objective narrative structure (which is to say, a world with a climax and an end)? And conversely, what does it mean to live in a world that doesn’t? The others, I think, are pretty obvious.

As for The Aspect-Emperor, my particular interest is the quest, and the ways in which the world itself becomes the primary antagonist. I’m also keen on exploring the idea and role of alternate races, be they sub or super human, as well as - brace yourself! - the young dispossessed king.

- Have the plotlines diverged much since you began writing The Prince of Nothing, or did you have the entire plot more or less figured out from the very beginning? Were any characters added or further fleshed out beyond your original intention? Have you made any changes to your initial plans during the course of the writing of the series?

I know when I started working on The Judging Eye, I found myself inventing a whole series of new viewpoint characters. I didn’t realize what I was doing until I started reading A Feast for Crows, at which point I scrubbed them all save one. I told myself I was adding these new viewpoint characters for the reader’s sake, when in actual fact I was doing it for my own - I mean, multiply the time you’ve spent with The Prince of Nothing by a thousand, and you’ll have a rough ballpark sense of how much time I’ve spent with my cast. The urge to "freshen things up" is almost irresistible, as is the attendant assumption that you’re doing it as much for your readers as for yourself. But when you already have a complicated narrative on the go, you really do risk drifting across that fateful line where your story starts to decohere. Whether or not this was what happened with Martin’s last book, I’m not sure - all I know is that it threw what I was doing into perspective, and led me to take an entirely different tack. It took me a while, but I eventually fell back in love with the old fogies.

And I’ve never stopped being ga-ga over the world. I’m downright conceited when it comes to Earwa. My world kicks some major ass, man.

As a result I really feel as though I’ve been able to strike a better balance between the complexity of the story and the richness of the world in The Judging Eye, as compared to any of The Prince of Nothing books. It’ll be interesting to see what people think.

- Any word on a mass market paperback edition of The Prince of Nothing in the USA?

This summer, or so I’m told.

- How will The Aspect-Emperor differ from the Prince of Nothing trilogy?

Well, I can’t say it’ll be a duology anymore, because in the course of writing it ended taking a parallel form: the story breaks into three natural parts. The first book, The Judging Eye, does the same kind of frame-setting work that The Darkness That Comes Before does in The Prince of Nothing - only without the super-steep learning curve! The second, The Shortest Path, will be a travelogue, much like The Warrior-Prophet, and the third... well let’s just say we’ll be a long time cleaning the fan! One difference, I think, is that the relative lengths of the books will be inverted. The Judging Eye will be the shortest, and I anticipate the final book will be far longer than The Thousandfold Thought, which picked up on the doorstep of Shimeh. This could complicate things, since I would like to include an updated Encyclopaedic Glossary. Maybe I’ll have to break down and do a separate omnibus - but that just feels like a cash grab. Cheesy.

There will be some minor differences in style - I’ve tried to gear the lyricism of my prose more to character than to plot. There will also be substantially less narrative navel gazing - I think that was one area where I erred too much on the literary side in The Prince of Nothing. I want this story to crackle!

- Who will be publishing the Canadian edition? Penguin Canada are saying that they do not have the rights to the Canadian edition of this new book.

Well, someone should tell my editor at Penguin about that!

- Again, without giving anything away, what can you tell us about NEUROPATH? The last time we spoke, you told me that things were brewing in both New York and Hollywood.

Unfortunately, brewing doesn’t always mean beer.

It’s followed almost the same path as The Darkness That Comes Before: I’m swapping genres with this, so I should have expected I would have to prove my point all over again - let’s hope Neuropath pulls through the way The Darkness That Comes Before did! As of just a few weeks ago, I signed with Tor’s Forge Imprint for the US rights, and it looks like it will hit American shelves this upcoming September, several months behind the Canadian and UK releases.

Meanwhile, it’s in development in Hollywood, but so few books get made into movies that it’s like bragging about buying a lottery ticket.

- Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?

It would have to be the Serwe/Cnaiur dyad. Something so creepy happened that it almost became poetic, to my mind at least. I still feel surprised whenever I think about it.

- What inspired your decision to completely stop posting on the Internet a year ago? Fans say that three-seas.com has been a sad, quiet place since you went to ground.

Owich. Well, according to Jack Brown, one of the fine fellows who run the board, it’s literally receiving millions of hits per year, so maybe I’m a ‘lurker-magnet’ or something...

As for withdrawing from the web, it was just too much mental clutter, on the one hand, and too much of a distraction from work on the other. Imagine working in a room next to another room filled with people who are both slagging and praising you every day. You would have to get sound-proofing, otherwise the impulse to press your ear against the wall would be overwhelming. So now I work on a laptop with no Internet, and try to avoid using this ol’ beast as much as I can.

I steer clear of cell-phones as well. It makes me feel like a secret agent, being all, like, incognito...

- How hard was/is it to get inside Esmenet's head and portray her? What were/are the main inspirations for her character?

I’m afraid Esmenet is one of those characters whose origins extend so far back I can no longer remember them. She was actually one of the easier characters to write - though now, after having learned more about prostitution, I’m inclined to think I romanticized her way too much. The crazy thing is that if I had made her realistic, I’m pretty sure she would have been almost universally despised, and I would have been even more severely criticized for making her "weak."

- How hard is it to write Kellhus? Given his nature and intellect, I presume it must be challenging to make him "believable."

The strange thing is that to write is to be Kellhus - in an sense. In the same way Kellhus can think a dozen thoughts and assess numerous possibilities where others can only think one, I get to spend hours, even days, cooking up stuff for a Kellhus section that only takes several minutes to read. I just keep thinking and thinking and sooner or later I get lucky and come up with something smart or bad-ass sounding to give to Kellhus. He’s the 1% smart-me 100% of the time - which is why I don’t trust him for a second.

- The genre exhibits a strong (albeit recent) tradition for subverting gender stereotypes by presenting worlds in which strong, independent female characters are plausible or even expected. Yet your world is as patriarchal as the reality that inspired it. I expect that this theme makes up for a good part of the discussions you have about your creation, possibly detracting from what you actually want to talk about. Is it difficult to resist the temptation to put something like a bad-ass tomboy warrior-princess with snappy dialogue and a heart of gold into the books?

First, let me say that I think I should be called out on the carpet on this issue, simply because I cover some pretty troubling ground. I certainly don’t believe in "quota characterization," either to be politically correct or to broaden the "gender appeal" of my books. Leave this for the after-school specials. I also don’t think that depiction automatically equals endorsement. The question that people should be asking, it seems to me, is one of whether I reinforce negative gender stereotypes or problematize them. If the books provide enough grist to argue this question, then the answer, it seems to me, automatically becomes the latter.

But the fact remains that a lot of people get hung up on my female characters: On the one hand, I self-consciously chose the harlot, the waif, and the harridan for my female characters, yet some seem to think a kind of unconscious moral defect chose them for me. If so, it would be a truly colossal coincidence that I would happen to pick the three misogynic types - I mean, isn’t it obvious that I’m up to something critical? On the other hand, I wanted my fantasy world to be realistic, to temper our yearning for premodern times with a good look at how ugly things got, particularly in times of war. When bad things happen to my female characters, it’s the circumstances that are being criticized, not the characters themselves!

But people get hunches while they read, and once they do, confirmation bias goes to work (and this is simply one among many reasons why we always buy our own bullshit), and the text, I think, possesses more than enough ambiguities for people spin any number of self-validating interpretations. It’s when they insist their interpretation is the only interpretation, or even worse, that it captures what’s really going on in my bean, that I become baffled.

- M. John Harrison recently wrote this post on his blog:

"Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’’s victim, & makes us very afraid."

Needless to say, a multitude of people disagree with Harrison's postulation. What's your take on Harrison's post and the concept of worldbuilding in general?

As a diehard grognardian world-junkie myself, I obviously disagree. But it is a blog, which means that it’s probably written without much forethought. Consider his observation that worldbuilding can never "exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there." Who thinks that the "biggest library ever built" is a goal any writer seriously entertains? You can't do it, the argument seems to be, so why bother trying? But no one outside of characters in Borges stories have ever tried to do this. No one. Ever. He’s just riffing without thinking here.

And he’s also referring to science fiction, where the situation is somewhat different than in fantasy. It makes me wonder what he would think of a work like Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age, where much of the worldbuilding isn’t "technically necessary," and yet necessary all the same. My guess is that it probably boils down to worldbuilding he enjoys reading versus worldbuilding he doesn’t, and his arguments are just ad hoc rationalizations.

The "clomping foot of nerdism" sounds pretty cool. Makes me feel like a bespectacled, buck-toothed Godzilla, building worlds instead of tearing them down. Aaaargh!

What troubles me most though are the unconditional, declarative tone - as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world that worldbuilders are "bad writers" - and the insinuations regarding the psychological type of the worldbuilder.

Worldbuilding either is or is not "necessary" depending on the effects the writer is hoping to achieve. Of course Harrison would say that worldbuilders, such as myself, are trying to achieve the wrong effects. Detailing a world beyond the technical requirements of the story, the implication is, simply turns readers into literary shopkeepers with inventories to keep and no meaningful choices to make. Thus the frightening psychology: apparently the worldbuilder’s goal is to cretinize their readers, keep’em dumb and distracted so that they can be better exploited by the powers that be.

For Harrison, who is an avowed post-modernist, the reader should be continually confronted with the performative as opposed to the representational function of language. They should be reminded (apparently over and over and over) of the power of words to spin realities, to the point where the work becomes a multifarious, promiscuous, meaning event (albeit one that is too often generated by the most mechanical of po-mo tactics, elision). Forcing the reader to draw whole characters out of fragments, narrative arcs out of discordant events - to "fulfill their part of the bargain" - this is the true way to make the reader an active part of the process, and so a critically minded, enlightened citizen.

I don’t know whether to laugh or yawn anymore. For better or worse, readers without literature degrees tend to hate this stuff. They like coherent characters and stories and settings. So when you start screwing with "representational expectations" (in other words, unilaterally rewriting the "bargain") by and large all you end up doing is preaching to the choir, writing for people with literature degrees, which is to say, for people who already share your values. In other words, you simply end up catering to their expectations. You become an "upscale" version of the very commercial entertainers you continually denigrate.

We’re hardwired for this shit, which is why you see the same pattern repeating itself over and over in every sphere of cultural production. Every sphere has a self-styled elite who both identify and flatter themselves via their values, then criticize others for not sharing those values. "Our values are the values and you guys are losers because of this and this and this..."

This pattern bums me out because it swallows so much talent in our society and aims it inward. Harrison really is a prodigious talent, but he can’t seem to see his way past this post-modern crap. This is another universal human pattern: whatever your yardstick happens to be, nothing else seems to measure up - it quickly becomes the yardstick.

Don’t blame the cretinized masses for not reading your stuff. If you really are afraid, if you really are a writer with a social conscience, then go out and meet them. Write something that communicates to them, and not just to those who already share your values. Stop writing for "yourself," or for the "page," or for whatever clever euphemism you use to cover the fact that you’re simply a producer of a kind of a high-end cultural commodity.

Until you do, you’re just another entertainer. Which is okay, so long as you’re not pretending otherwise. Say, "I write for people like me, and I’m not all that interested in making a social difference."

Me, I don’t know what my yardstick is half the time. All I know is that I think its important to write stories that challenge readers, and that if I write "literary stuff" my audience will self-select and I’ll just end up catering to expectations and so not really challenging anybody. What’s the use of pissing in the soup if its made of urine anyway?

When it comes to worldbuilding, I'm simply trying to tell a story that happens in a fantasy world bigger than that story. And there’s meaning-effects aplenty to be explored here, believe you me. Profound ones.

In fact, the very thing worldbuilders are probing is the selfsame power of words to spin realities, a power which is intensified when the writer approaches the world and the story as separate works - when the writer is also a worldbuilder. I personally think this is one of the keys to Tolkien's elusive magic: imagine The Lord of the Rings without a separately crafted Middle-earth! And because it resonates with a broad cross-section of readers, I think epic worldbuilding provides a powerful opportunity to communicate, one which "literary minded" writers are less likely to explore because of incredibly narrow "literary virtues" like those espoused here and elsewhere by Harrison.

But I imagine Harrison would think this power to spin realities, which is the one we regularly confront on the evening news, holds no "real" literary interest for "good" writers. I'm guessing it focuses too much on the pernicious representational aspects of language, and so numbs readers into forgetting all the ways language dupes and deceives - which is why they vote Bush (and why we should be afraid, I'm supposing).

But what if it works the other way? What if the canned experimentalism of post-modernism, by leaving so many readers behind, reinforces the general anti-intellectualism that seems to characterize our culture, and so makes anti-intellectual politicians like Bush more appealing? This only needs to be an open question to throw a rather severe light on the political undertones of Harrison's position. He could be the very scourge he's disparaging.

- Anything else you wish to share with your fans?

One thing: read A Mind of its Own by Cordelia Fine. You are not who you think you are - this is simply a fact. The quicker we as a species come to grips with this, the greater our chances of surviving the technologically mediated madness just over the horizon. Read it, then pass it on.


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