I’ve gone back and combined my interview with R. Scott Bakker with some thoughts I had with his The Thousandfold Thought below it. On a lot of these posts I’ve been adding commentary to these newly combined posts and I have not much to say here but I’ll just say this: Around this time I found and really loved Scott’s work, got a chance to interview him, we occasionally swapped emails, I very much enjoyed the first three books but haven’t read anything since.
I hope you enjoy this window back into turn of the century epic fantasy happenings!
We like to try to cover all sub-genres in Fantasy and today we have one of the best regardless of category today. The author of what is in my opinion what is thus far one of the best series being written currently The Prince of Nothing. The author is, of course, R. Scott Bakker, an author who is unapologetic in writing 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.
Jay — Let’s talk Prince of Nothing. All those that have read The Darkness that Comes Before and its sequel The Warrior-Prophet know it’s one of the best 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 — 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?
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 — 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 Apocalypse. 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — I would like to thank you for dropping by, 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 -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”
Fans of epic fantasy love debuts, and even if not true debuts, the introduction to a new sequence by an established author. We enjoy; fresh, new material blazing a trail, that continue us down the path that is our reading experience.
This path is not a long one, however, nor complex to navigate; a path well traveled, as up until a few years ago, we would continually retrace our steps searching for the familiar, a hobbit print by a mushroom grove, a black rider. Our joy with one worthy trek, our nostalgia of walking this path caused us to stop traveling all together. Instead we stagnated, amused by depthless echoes, by charlatans performing in the name of paying homage, but they did so with our coin.
It’s one of the few mediums where they don’t even attempt to lie to us and advertise promising progression — “better than before”, “the next step” — instead it is always promising us something ‘in the mold of’ we have already read. We love debuts and opening installments of series, it gives fortuity an opportunity, allows us for a moment to expect the unexpected, offering the possibility of a path not taken, the first few pages a instance where wonder is still truly part of any book.
Why? We have been disappointed too many times, finding ourselves retracing our own steps as soon as the opening chapter in some cases, and are accustomed to a tradition of spiraling quality in latter installments. It’s Hobb’s first series that she is best regarded for; we read Eddings’ first series for two decades just under different titles; Robert Jordan through 3 books was ambitious, fourteen years later, the notion of a conclusion to the series seems semi-mythical, if Goodkind ever was bearable it was with his first book, we liked JV Jones, but until recently she has become something like a Martin Hanford creation. Le Guin, while excellent, took decades off to write my favorites part of her Earth Sea sequence, and we no longer are able to look forward to the magic of Vance.
Recently, some have been straying from the path — their own paths — that are creating a stir from those of us who haven’t abandoned the path altogether, and excitement is no show of mummery, and even more exciting is one of these authors, R. Scott Bakker, has put to conclusion the first trilogy, The Prince of Nothing, the opening arc into a larger sequence that will also include the forthcoming Aspect Emperor.
The Thousandfold Thought represents the end of what is simply the single most satisfying sequence I have ever read in epic fantasy, and not only that, it represents a promise kept, one that was given to me during my correspondence with Bakker early last year:
“Love it or hate it, people will not soon forget reading this motherfo”
In a review I did of the first installment, The Darkness that Comes Before, I noted how much I was anticipating Bakker bringing to an end the series, which chronicles a Holy War, and the man who had both usurped and inspired it, in search of his father, and along the way the way has cemented his status as an iconic figure in epic fantasy. Bakker has created a character that troubles some so greatly — serving as an anathema to the moral sensibilities of some –- that they openly despise the character but yet cannot avert themselves from reading on, as Kellhus, the prince of nothing, the warrior prophet, assimilates everything in sapho-addicted mentat like fashion, at once both seemingly divine, yet still growing in stature, at such a rate where awe almost always supercedes where discretion and reasonable fear should reside, as Kellhus illustrates his complete understanding that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order — -and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order*:
“The ‘Third Phrase’ was a thing of myth in Gnostic sorcery, a story handed down to Men during the Nonman Tutelage: the legend of Su’juroit, the great Cunuroi Witch-King. But for some reason, Achamian found himself loath to relate the tale. “No,” he lied. ‘It’s impossible.”
He is like an odd combination of a fictionalized Ambrose Bierce and Herbert’s Kwisatz Haderach. While Kellhus remains the at the center of the Bakker’s tale, his continued reestablishment of what had been banal archetypes in the genre, the barbarian, a Prince, a harlot, the sorcerer, as instead of simply allowing us to view the eccentricities and nuances of one central figure through each of their unique perspectives, Bakker gifts them with souls as well.
Whether, the most violent of men on a quest for love; a proud lion let loose; a pious prince; the teacher who sleeps with the truth, while denying it while awake; a whore that glitters, Bakker offers the reader the power of choice, by allowing us to be moved with our knowledge of their internal struggles, as if offering an annotated rendering simultaneously with the story. Bakker’s narrative remains one of the most ambitious in epic fantasy.
I entitled my review of the first installment, Homeric Jihad, a limited observation on my part, but a choice that reflects simply one aspect of the series that really gives the flows of the story a unique quality. While the interpersonal thoughts are offered to us as character studies by other character, the war itself, and the action, scenes make the branding of ‘epic’ apt, as our vantage zooms out as the narrative turns into panoramic description, truly making the prowess of those perhaps only passingly noted before, into feats that will be recorded in future annals, as if Homer was in Shimeh dictating the tale.
This proficiency and willingness to use narratives uncommon to the epic minded is what ultimately makes the work notable, while he doesn’t employ the subtlety of Martin, it’s plainly by choice; where Martin hides his hand and welcomes our speculation, Bakker assumes our conditioned reactions and confronts us with them, making us play stud when we want to draw.
We also learn more of the Consult, an element that although is at the forefront of the backdrop of the saga being told, has been an element that Bakker has kept somewhat in reserve, and how they and especially Mog-Pharau (the No-God), were going to be finally explained, in regards to their integration into what is otherwise a very organic world was of my chief interests going into teh reading.
It is this element, that whispers slightly of Science Fiction, and intertwining of theological and metaphysical salvation, giving the warlords and magi of ages past a believable cause to bring forth the Mandate’s greatest fear, that cemented my appreciation of the layered scope of this sequence. However, even as the depth their machinations are being revealed in all factions, even those who walked and witnessed the No-God himself, approach the warrior prophet with prudence; as even in their memories that span history itself, the Dunyain are an unknown entity to them, and witnessing the potential of the son, causes them to fear the truth of the father he seeks.
The refreshing lack of sentiment continues to the very end and is what will prove Bakker’s aforementioned quote veracious. The final eighty to a hundred pages of The Thousandfold Thought brings individual revelations by taking all of the primary cast to a crossroads, some that offer not but dead ends in all directions, making for one of most compelling conclusions to a sequence in some time. How does the unexpected become the obvious?
The ending of the book, and thus the first arc, is one that will no doubt evoke a strong initial reaction at the moment of completion, but I found my own contemplation of the ending, both the nature of and my own feelings toward it was something I pondered for a couple days afterwards, a ending that Bakker neither seemed forced to succumb to, nor was it expected, yet when reflecting on the series it is the obvious, yet Bakker springs the obvious on us like a Dunyain — as a welcomed revelation.. Some will no doubt feel cheated by the ending, but I suggest that Bakker delivers exactly what he has repeatedly stated that would be encompassed within The Prince of Nothing sequence. He delivers a powerfully compelling conclusion, not one that leaves you stuffed and satisfied, but one that leaves you starved for more.
It is clear however, that opinions on the ending will no doubt be a topic of debate on genre message boards, it is an ending worth pondering and while doing so, one can indulge in what is a wonderfully comprehensive and informative 100+ page glossary of names, events, and places found at the end of the novel. The reading here is worth half the price of the book itself to existing fans of the series, and is more worthwhile than books by lesser authors.
It is said that all good things come to an end, and it is well worth the coin to allow Bakker to guide us through the coming darkness; the one that comes before, shrouding all paths save the shortest — a path only one can traverse — and leads to the apocalypse, the likes of which can only be recounted in nightmares filtered through millennias, and the chaos may cost the sanity of even the most conditioned, and the renouncement of all love.
The austere thematic candor present in The Prince of Nothing makes it the most worthwhile epic sequence I have ever had the pleasure of seeing to conclusion; an epic fantasy that deserves much more than cult status, which may only stumble due to perhaps being guilty of taking a path that leads higher than most or willing to follow.