New R. Scott Bakker Q&A

I know, I know. . .

I've been promising this one forever and it was a long time in coming. Shit happens, don't you know, and life got in the way, so Bakker couldn't get back to me for quite a while. Well, better late than never, as they say!:-)

Thanks to all the fans who submitted questions for this interview. As you're about to find out, many details have changed since the questions were forwarded to the author last spring. . .

Hope it was worth the wait!

- 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 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.

12 commentaires:

Larry said...

I really think I'm going to have to bug that former Branch Derridan member soon about that performative/representational divide! I think that bit alone might stir up a greater-than-normal tempest in a teacup, although this one might be more worthy of participation/consideration than many of the other ones in which I've participated!

And interesting book news there as well. Looks like I can get a bound copy of NP this summer at least :D

Anonymous said...

Awesome interview! As always, thanks a lot Pat for following through on this. I don't believe there's a more succinct response to the Harrison thing out there. Can't wait for the next book to come out - more revelations and more Kellhus!

Gunnar said...

Pat, did he not say when the next one is coming out?

Anonymous said...

Bakker is so damn smart and hilarious. I love the guy!

"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!"


Gabriele C. said...

For better or worse, readers without literature degrees tend to hate this stuff.

I have a degree in literature and I still hate that stuff. :)

Richard said...

It's great to see a demolition of Harrison's position coming from the same intellectual high ground his acolytes like to think is exclusively theirs. Too much of the response to the Clomping Foot of Nerdism argument has been very defensive and head-in-the-sand - "I LIKE world-building, I LIKE having a poster of Legolas on my wall, just leave me alone, etc..." What Bakker does here is most valuable for the way it neatly side-steps that plea and instead meticulously exposes the very suspect foundations to Harrison's po mo assumptions. It's elegant, restrained and utterly devastating - beautifully done.

Larry said...

One problem with all of that, Richard - is MJH really a "postmodernist," considering his rejection of so many of its conclusions, as found in his last writing on the "worldbuilding" issue? And this link might be of interest to those who distrust either MJH or Bakker's stances.

richard said...

I wouldn't (and didn't) say that MJH is a post modernist - but his assumptions on this subject are certainly rooted in a po mo approach to fiction. The word "ludic" is the canary in the goldmine.

Truth is, these days, with the broader po mo tendency thoroughly debunked and held up for (thoroughly deserved) ridicule, almost no-one would admit to being a post modernist, even if they once were. But the po mo lit crit tool-kit still hangs around like a bad smell in a carpet that's been vomited on, and it's this, broadly, that MJH deploys in his assault on "world-building".

Larry said...

I dunno if po-mo is completely dead or if its tools need to be trashed, as I've seen quite a bit of good done with them in my field (cultural history), namely in the way of raising questions and challenging assumptions. But I will agree that if the challenging assumptions part has become old hat and isn't accomplishing much, that there ought to be an exploration out there for newer (or in some cases, old and forgotten but still effective) interpretative tools. There is some juice still left to be squeezed out of the Hegelian-Marxist model, for example, as gender/sexuality critics have shown in recent years. Perhaps a "borrowing" of some of their schema might be of use in exploring the Real/Fantasy "divide." Then again, I'm just perhaps too enamored with using material culture as the bedrock for analysis!

richard said...

interesting because I would have said that po mo is characterised by anything BUT the process of challenging assumptions. In the last twenty odd years, post modern thought seems to me to have been largely about a set of very entrenched political and philosophical stances and a "knowingness" (Malcolm Bradbury's word for it, not mine, but I think he was spot on) which if anything tends to preclude any genuine spirit of enquiry. Whatever post modernism began as sixty odd years ago, what it became was a shrill, self referential and restrictive dogma adminstered by a colossally arrogant high priesthood of academic snake-oil vendors. I don't know if po mo is completely dead yet either - but it certainly stinks to high heaven.

Onyxius eXilius said...

Once again (for me), reading Bakker's reply to Harrison's blog made me re-think myself, my own blog, and a few personal obervations... Thank you R. Scott Bakker for your time and insight. You're penetrating awareness and flexible (thus strong) perspective once again is only matched (in my limited experience and opinion) by Wei Wu Wei and no other...

I can't wait to read Neuropath and the new trilogy! ;)

brokenmarrow said...

"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..."

I think if communication is the goal, then whatever works toward that ending, works. That doesn't mean world building is the ideal method or not ideal - it's just a matter of whether it gets through or not.

From my brief experience, world building seems wank. But on the other hand I don't think Tolkeen or Bakker actually do world building - they build things which are moral issues, stacked on top of more moral issues, which tie into big mo fo moral issues.

Everything they make seems like a physical object, but is more like a honed moral knife, seeking to poke and jab and challenge. The make whole worlds of knives.

Perhaps the other author was thinking of the wanky world making, which is, perhaps, detail for the sake of detail.