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Posts Tagged ‘R Scott Bakker’

Truths were carved from the identical wood as were lies – words – and so sank or floated with equal ease. But since truths were carved by the World, they rarely appeased Men and their innumerable vanities. Men had no taste for facts that did not ornament or enrich, and so they wilfully – if not knowingly – panelled their lives with shining and intricate falsehoods.

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This is the second book in The Aspect-Emperor series, which itself is the second trilogy in a projected nine-book sequence called The Second Apocalypse. The first series, The Prince of Nothing was one of the best fantasies of recent years; the first book of the second trilogy, The Judging Eye, was, in some ways, better paced, but, overall, didn’t live up to that standard. The White-Luck Warrior is both a little better and a little worse than its predecessor.

There are three main elements to the story: the northward trek of boy king Sorweel amid the Great Ordeal, the gargantuan army led by Aspect-Emperor Anasûrimbor Kellhus, to do battle with the Unholy Consult at Golgotterath; the near-parallel northward trek of Drusas Achamian, Anasûrimbor Mimara (the Emperor’s step-daughter), and a band of scalpers to the legendary Great Library of Sauglish; and the machinations back at the Imperial capital Momemn involving the Emperor’s wife and regent, Esmenet, her psychotic five-year-old son, Kelmomas, the Empire’s religious leader and half-brother of the Emperor, Maithanet.

This latter area of the plot also includes the introduction of the eponymous White-Luck Warrior, a mysterious figure on a divine mission to kill the Emperor, whom the gods fear and hate. The White-Luck Warrior himself is only a minor character and his origins, nature and destiny remain mysterious throughout the novel – which is not exactly satisfying, given that the book is named for him.

Also, the cosmological underpinnings of the world of the Three Seas are explored in a little more detail than in previous books (or maybe I just thought about it more). It’s still not clear to me exactly what I should believe about this world. This is probably deliberate on the author’s part – this ambiguity is essential to the tension over whether the Emperor is ultimately a force for good or evil. There are apparently one hundred gods (the Hundred), which are fragments of the God of Gods. Yatwer, the Mother, is crucially important to the background of the story, but my sense of her and these other subsidiary deities is still very vague.

This is a longer book than The Judging Eye, and as such it feels more complete and does more. There is more reflection and philosophising present – which is a double-edged sword: it is part of Bakker’s unique style, but it also becomes tedious and is not always easy to understand. A lot of the extra bulk of the story is taken up with travel. The first two plot threads mentioned above basically represent the characters involved getting from A to B. These journeys are enlivened by dramatic confrontations – especially an epic battle between the Men of the Ordeal and limitless hordes of Sranc (although this takes place early on and leaves the narrative with a feeling of having peaked too soon); they are still just long passages of people travelling, however, and not the most edifying read.

The other thing that makes Bakker’s work a cut above the rest is his writing. He writes in an elevated style that recalls Tolkien, but without the naïve nature poetry; small but significant parts of the narrative give you the feel of reading the fictional history of the events described. However, the pleasure of this exercise in quasi-archaic language is compromised by some of the author’s lexical choices – specifically, anachronistic words like ‘okay’ (nineteenth or early twentieth century slang) or phrases like ‘the end of the line’ (a train travel metaphor – not really appropriate for a world in which trains don’t exist).

Additionally there are numerous misuses of language that should have been picked up during editing and proofreading; using ‘trod’ as a present tense verb, ‘loathe’ when ‘loath’ was meant, and ‘breath’ when ‘breathe’ was meant – all of these examples occurred more than once. Extremely annoying and disappointing.

On the other hand, Bakker, like Iain M Banks, has a special genius for inventing names and nomenclature that give his secondary world a unique texture and authenticity. The Aspect-Emperor commands Exalt-Generals and Exalt-Ministers, Believer-Kings and Palatines, Grandees and Satraps, Patridomoses and Chieftain-Generals. The Great Ordeal is populated with Ainoni, Agmundrmen, Kidruhil, Ketyai, Cengemi, Conriyans, Shigeki, Tydonni, Invishi and Nilnameshi. The sheer number of names and terms is pretty bewildering, but it adds something vital to the baroque texture of the work.

Despite its flaws I enjoyed reading The White-Luck Warrior – just about. It was pretty dry in places and Bakker runs the risk of flogging a dead horse with his characters’ constant navel-gazing. Still, now that most of the characters have arrived at where they want to be, the scene is set for a fascinating and dramatic conclusion to the series in The Unholy Consult.

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Disciple of the Dog is about a private investigator, Disciple Manning, who is hired to look into the disappearance of a beautiful, young middle class woman by her parents. Jennifer joined a cult that believes the world is an illusion, that it is really five billion years older than it appears and that therefore the Earth is shortly to be consumed by the dying Sun. Then, one night, she disappeared.

Disciple is the first person narrator of the story – and is both blessed and cursed with eidetic memory – true total recall. He comes across as a charmingly obnoxious cynic. In his initial interview with Jennifer’s parents, he explains to the reader that, when his clients start to get upset, to cry, the best thing to do is discuss his price. He is also intensely world-weary – he remembers in perfect detail all the worst moments of his life; his phenomenal memory continually sabotages his relationships with women: he simply gets bored with them.

So, when he gets the chance to hook up with a young woman journalist hoping to get a story out of Jennifer’s disappearance, he leaps at the chance to get her into bed. And, while the premise of the case seems straightforward at first, he quickly becomes excited by the anomalies he finds. The cult leader is a jovial and charismatic ex-psychology professor who takes all of Disciple’s barbed comments with ebullient good humour. The police chief is a gentle, youngish man who seems out of his depth. The small town where the cult is based is dominated by the sinister Church of the Third Resurrection. And then Jennifer’s fingers and toes start turning up around the town.

As long as you engage with the charming part of Disciple’s persona and not the obnoxious part (and I did), then Disciple of the Dog is a very entertaining detective story. Although Disciple is pretty full of himself, he’s also engaging and a little tragic. His singular talent enables hims to dispense with taking notes and to go over people’s words, tone and body language at leisure – theoretically making him a formidable detective. On the downside, apart from his personal demons, he has few flaws as a fictional character – his military and prison experience make him hard as nails and seemingly make him impervious to physical danger. And in the end, he has little to do with the resolution of the case – the answer comes at him out of leftfield, and he simultaneously watches events climax on TV in his motel room.

This is a better book than R Scott Bakker’s previous thriller, Neuropath, which I liked a lot. Where that other book was full of rather self-indulgent infodumps about the nature of the brain and consciousness, this one is much more concise. The story moves along at a brisk pace and never gets boring. It’s also quite short – due to its abrupt ending – but I think the length works well. I highly recommend it.

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Or R Scott Bakker, as he’s also known – author of The Prince of Nothing (The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought) and its sequal trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, which began a year or two ago with The Judging Eye.

While the books listed above are high fantasy – extremely good high fantasy, actually – Neuropath is a techno-thriller, a science fiction murder story. Actually, there’s not much mystery involved, as the main character, a psychology professor, is presented with the true identity of the killer when the FBI visit him at work and show him a video of a missing porn star cutting herself with broken glass whilst in the throes of ecstasy. The killer is his best friend.

Many of the crimes described further on in the book are just as disturbing – worse, in fact – and the point is that the killer is simply illustrating that all human emotions and concepts – lust, love, justice, spirituality – are nothing more than functions of the brain’s electro-chemical processes. The killer opens up his victim’s skulls to manipulate these processes directly. It becomes apparent that the killer has a personal mission involving the protagonist and his family.

The novel is perfectly readable, very well written – it moves along at a quick pace and is not especially long. Although it’s set in the near future, there are plenty of references to contemporary popular culture. Much of the story is taken up with the main character explaining to others the facts and implications of recent neurological research – for instance, the fact that free will is an illusion. Experiments have shown – and I’ve seen this on TV – that brain activity spikes shortly before a person makes a conscious decision, indicating that its the brain that actually makes the decision and simply informs the conscious mind of the fact as the decision is put into action. The protagonist – and, indeed, the author – state that consciousness is only a tiny slice of the brain’s full functioning and may, in fact, be completely irrelevant to its efficacy.

While such discussions are fascinating – and I have little doubt as to their truth – they bog the narrative down a little, but, more importantly, they make the main character come across as a mouthpiece for the author’s ideas, and the secondary characters always listen obediently, prompting further didactic spiels with their disbelief.

The conclusion of the story is far from happy, and feels inconclusive – probably quite deliberately so. Neuropath is supposed to be a profoundly disturbing novel, one where the true victim may not be a character on the pages, but the complacent self-regard of the minds reading those pages. As such, I highly recommend this book to anyone honest or brave enough to countenance the idea that their very thoughts, feelings and experiences may be illusionary figments of a mind that is both less and more than it thinks it is. It’s also not too shabby a story.

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I just read an interesting couple of articles. Firstly was a piece on the Guardian website by Edward Docx (possibly named after a Microsoft Word document) decrying the state of literature today and basically saying that genre fiction (fantasy, thriller etc) is bad and literary fiction is good – actually, he doesn’t quite say that, but he does say that good genre fiction cannot be as good as the best literary fiction.

R Scott Bakker, author of The Darkness that Comes Before and other excellent fantasy books as well as a pair of techno-thrillers, posted a response on his Three Pound Brain blog, in which he expounds his view that critics and writers subscribe to the Myth of the Vulgar Cage, which basically amounts to a specious justification literary snobbery towards genre fiction.

To be honest, the Docx article struck a chord for me. It’s great that people are reading, but is it not a problem that people are reading the easy stuff like Harry Potter and Dan Brown in such huge numbers and not reading the challenging stuff, whatever the genre, by authors such as (picking a name completely at random) R Scott Bakker?

Most stuff is crap. I love fantasy, but I wouldn’t touch a Feist or a Goodkind novel with a barge pole. I’m sure most literary fiction is crap, too (I don’t read enough to pick some bad authors). But I think it’s true that it’s easier for publishers to put out badly written genre fiction because it ticks all the boxes or it cashes in on a current fad (Harry Potter rip-off, The Name of the Wind comes to mind). Literary fiction sells so little, that I would guess publishers have to really make sure it’s worth it before risking publishing a new literary author.

I found myself agreeing with both critiques – any worthwhile area of human endeavour or thought is complex enough that it allows multiple contradictory viewpoints, all of which have some validity. All genres have their conventions and limitations, including literary fiction. The job of a conscientious reader is to be aware of them and to read the best, whatever shelf of the bookshop it’s stocked on. The job of a good writer is to work within genre conventions and to transcend them at the same time.

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Skimming Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist today, I found some information on R Scott Bakker’s next book, The White-Luck Warrior, which I eagerly await. Said information was in a post on the author’s own WordPress blog, Three Pound Brain (beloved of zombies everywhere). His post concludes with a list of principles he regards as self-evident, and which resonate strongly with my own opinions. Bakker’s ‘No-Dogma Dogma‘ is:

1) Not all claims are equal.

2) The world is ambiguous because it is supercomplex.

3) Humans are cognitive egoists. We are hardwired to unconsciously game ambiguities to our own advantage – to make scripture out of habit and self-interest.

4) Humans are theoretical morons. We are hardwired for groundless belief in invisible things.

5) The feeling of certainty is a bloody pathological liar.

6) Science is a social cognitive prosthetic, an institution that, when functioning properly, lets us see past our manifold cognitive shortcomings, and produce theoretical knowledge.

7) Contemporary culture, by and large, is bent on concealing the fact of 2, 3, 4, and 5.

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