The Prince of Nothing – R. Scott Bakker Interview

r scott bakker

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 Tomio — 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 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?

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 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 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 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 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”