New R. Scott Bakker interview

Here it is, folks! The new Q&A with R. Scott Bakker!

With The Judging Eye (Canada, USA, Europe) now appearing in bookstores across Canada and the UK (only a few more days to go for those of you who have yet to see it), the time was just right.

My partners in crime for this one were Adam ( and Larry ( Without their participation, this interview would have been a lot less interesting, I'm sure.


- Are you satisfied with the way THE JUDGING EYE has been received thus far?

Gauging critical reactions to your work is a tricky thing, primarily because we all–me and you included–regularly confabulate reasons when trying to explain our judgments. It’s a terrifying fact, actually, but the research suggests that we should be exceedingly sceptical of the rationalizations we use to explain our likes and dislikes. We seem to just make things up. So when a reviewer tries to explain why this or that worked or didn’t work for them, chances are they’re just confabulating. (This doesn’t mean that reviewers should give up rationalizing their judgments, only that they should be sceptical of them. Sometimes you hate a book simply because your dog took a dump on the carpet).

So as it stands I’m obviously pleased that so many online reviewers are so enthusiastic about the book, and my own cognitive vanity makes me want to say these are most intelligent and good-looking reviewers to have ever walked a planet so benighted as Earth, but I always remind myself that it’s the readers I’m writing for, and that so long as the series continues its slow growth I’m doing something right.

- Are there any upcoming appearances to promote THE JUDGING EYE you'd like your fans to know about?

I’ll be launching the book in Toronto at North York Central Library on Saturday, February 21st, thanks to Peter Halasz and the excellent folks with the USS Hudson’s Bay. I’ll be at Ad Astra in Toronto this spring, of course. I’ll also be the Guest of Honour at SFERA in Zagreb, Croatia this April.

- Overlook recently elected to go with the UK cover art instead of the cover they had originally selected. Were you consulted on this? What are your thoughts pertaining to the covers of both THE JUDGING EYE and all three volumes of the Prince of Nothing series?

I get the odd query and image sent to me now and again, but unless a cover strikes me as horrible I tend to keep my counsel. Ever since I polled my students asking whether they liked the Canadian or the UK versions of The Darkness that Comes Before, thinking I could use the results to convince Darren Nash, my UK editor, to go with the Canadian covers, I’ve stopped pretending that I know what makes a cover ‘work.’

My students voted for the UK cover by a whopping 2 to 1 margin . . . Bunch of stoners.

- Did the researching and writing for NEUROPATH have any impact on writing or plot decisions made for The Aspect-Emperor trilogy, or indeed the earlier trilogy? I get the impression Kellhus and the Dunyain have a firm belief in The Argument.

When you have soup for brains everything sloshes into everything else. But in point of fact, Kellhus and the Dunyain would strenuously object to the Argument as it’s found in Neuropath. For one, the Dunyain make an ideological fetish of control, which Neil argues is a perspectival illusion. Neil is actually a far more radical character than Kellhus in this philosophical respect.

The Dunyain only seem like nihilists because for them all value is extrinsically determined. Everything and everyone is a kind of tool for the Dunyain, valuable only insofar as they facilitate this or that particular end. Since we generally think that people and things are valuable in and of themselves–which is to say, intrinsically–this makes them appear nihilistic.

- THE JUDGING EYE seems to be a notably less standalone work than even the individual novels in the Prince of Nothing, which whilst part of a greater tapestry did seem to have more resolution to each book. Was this a deliberate decision or more of a natural evolution given the story requirements for the sequel series?

When you try to tell a story as big as The Second Apocalypse, you have to go with what local resolutions you can get. This is even more complicated when your story slowly weaves together three narrative lines, as is the case with The Aspect-Emperor. What gives The Darkness that Comes Before a greater sense of closure, I think, is that it concludes with the various narrative lines coming together in the Holy War. Since I have no interest in manufacturing closure simply for the sake of closure, I had to settle for the one point where the development of the three threads of The Judging Eye lined up dramatically...

Then snip.

- Some have observed in the past that one of the hallmarks of epic fantasy is its tendency to make metaphors into actualized, concrete representations. To what degree, if any, is this true of your writing?

You could say the concretization of abstractions, whether metaphorical or not, is the hallmark of fiction period, not just epic fantasy. The thing I was most interested in concretizing in The Judging Eye was the abstract, ontological notion of a moral world. Because of our native tendency to anthropomorphize our environments, to interpret complex phenomena in psychological and social terms, our interpretative strategies are thoroughly skewed. This is simply a fact, though it rarely sees the light of day because we are pathologically jealous of our beliefs–to the point of killing one another if need be. (No matter how much lip service we pay to "critical thinking," the sad fact is that we really want no part of it–which is why we teach our children absolutely nothing about all the ways they’re doomed to dupe themselves). In the meantime, we see conspiracies everywhere we look–ghosts, gods, spies, corporations, governments... Pick your poison. No matter what our culture, we posit hidden agencies that have something planned for us, good or ill.

Humans are born drama queens. It’s always all about us.

This is the primary abstraction I try to concretize in The Judging Eye. What would it be like, what would it mean, to live in a world where everything had objective value, where everything was ranked and ordered, so that men actually were ‘spiritually superior’ than women, and so on. The tendency in much fantasy fiction is to cater to readers’ moral expectations, to depict ideologically correct worlds and so avoid all the kinds of trouble I seem to get into with my fiction. In other words, the tendency is to be apologetic rather than critical (and then to be critical of those who refuse to apologize). My interest lies in the glorious ugliness that is a fact of traditional world making. Bigoted worlds. Biased worlds. Human worlds expressed through fantastic idioms.

This is what I’m interested in realizing.

- Power is a theme you explore in several ways, especially in your latest Eärwa novel. In particular, at times it seemed as though you were making the case that power is a form of discourse in which the "willing" and "unwilling" have more active (albeit largely subconscious) roles in creating said structures. Is this observation true, or are there elements to be addressed in the series that will cast a different light on the nature of power and how someone such as Kellhus gains and maintains his power?

Control a person’s beliefs and you control their actions. This is the ancient rule of human civilization.

Since our perspective is always the rule we use to measure the moral and cognitive propriety of other perspectives, we always assume that our particular beliefs, no matter how lunatic, are true. And since the precursors to our acts are usually utterly inaccessible, we generally think of ourselves as initiators rather than products. In other words, we generally don’t think that we’re manipulated at all.

I sometimes think that those people who find Kellhus’s manipulations unconvincing are those who are the most oblivious to all the ways they themselves are controlled. Since they assume they would be immune to Kellhus’s manipulations, they end up thinking all the characters who do are implausibly weak-minded, or they are simply not convinced by the moves Kellhus makes. But the fact is that all humans are weak-minded. We know for a fact that if you put humans in situations like Abu Ghraib that they will do the kinds of things they did in Abu Ghraib–we know that a large fraction of the responsibility belongs to the planners who made Abu Ghraib possible.

So why, then, are the individual ‘bad apples’ in prison while the planners continue drawing huge salaries? Because we all think that if we happened to be working at Abu Ghraib, we would have blown the whistle. We think we would have been the exception, and so blame the weak-minded fools who let their immediate social situation drive them, and not those who manufactured that social situation. We all think this, but the sad fact is that we are almost all wrong. Study after study shows that our counter-to-fact assumptions about how we would react in various situations are often dreadfully out of whack with how in fact we do react in those kinds of situations.

We literally live our lives believing in fantasy selves. We live and die deluded, with only a vague anxiety to point us in the direction of truth. This is one reason, I think, so many of us have so much difficulty identifying with realistic characters.

But I wank. Let me get back to the question. We act as we believe, and our actions interlock to form the vast system of institutions that we call contemporary society. (This is one of the things that makes the present economic crisis so frightening: our actions have become so specialized, and the over-arching social structures so complicated, that we could have crossed some kind of organizational threshold. As far as we know, we may have created a system that has to utterly crash before it can be rebooted. But I wank... still...)

In The Prince of Nothing, Kellhus and his father were the parasitic invaders who had to rewrite the established operating system to produce actions consistent with their ends. The authors of the ‘Thousandfold Thought virus.’ In The Aspect-Emperor, Kellhus is the new operating system, continually fending off other upstart viral invaders. And as I’m sure Obama is about to find out, gaining power and maintaining power are two distinct beasts. For Kellhus, the very weak-mindedness that made the former possible is what threatens to make the latter impossible. The more powerful Kellhus becomes, the more removed he is from his followers, the more he has to rely on his flawed worldborn tools to keep the masses in line.

- I have always enjoyed the quotes found at the beginning of every chapter. How do you come up with each, and what amount of research is involved in the process?

Some of them just occur to me. Some I adapt from other sayings–rip off, essentially. But at some point I hunker down with my pipe and take several days to revise and to brainstorm. Then I fiddle and fart and fiddle, all the way to the final proofs. It’s no walk in the park coming up with wise-ass shit.

- In a previous interview you stated that reading George R. R. Martin's A FEAST FOR CROWS forced you to reconsider the number of POVs to use in the writing of THE JUDGING EYE. How then did you select which POV characters would "tell" the story of THE JUDGING EYE?

I actually scrapped my initial attempt at writing The Judging Eye because I realized I was creating characters simply because I was burned out on my original cast. Everyone rationalizes the path of least resistence, but I sometimes think that writers are particularly gifted in this regard.

At the YMCA I frequent there’s an indoor track with arrows that tell you which way you should be running. Since they switch the direction every day and since I’m perpetually distracted, I often find myself going in the wrong direction. When I’m going against the arrow and I pass people going in the right direction I catch myself thinking, "Look at all the sheep! Baa. Baa. Must do what arrow tells me." When I’m going in the right direction and I pass people going in the wrong direction I catch myself thinking, "What? Too cool to follow the arrow are we? What a fucking asshole."

Which makes me either a woolly ass or a stinky sheep.

- Considering that the "darkness" that comes before has been discussed in several ways over the course of your novels, how does prophecy fall along the lines of what comes before and perhaps after?

I once wrote a paper on Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, and the misogyny hidden in the ascription of intuitive knowledge to women and discursive knowledge to men. Cassandra agreed to sleep with the god Apollo in return for the gift of prophecy, only to renege on the deal after receiving the prescient goods. Being the vengeful sort, Apollo cursed her with the doom of not being believed, of living with the knowledge of Troy’s imminent destruction and being utterly helpless to prevent it.

The thing about Cassandra and her curse is that if the Trojans believe her predictions then they act on them, but if they act on them, they change the future, which means that Cassandra is wrong about the future, which means that the Trojans had no business believing her in the first place. So Apollo’s curse is actually a farce, when you think of it. His ‘gift’ was automatically a curse.

Prophecy is a form of cognitive time-travel: information from an otherwise indeterminate future somehow finds its way to the present. As such it suffers the same kind of paradoxes that bedevil the notion of time-travel more generally. That which comes before conditions that which comes after. So if you were to travel back into the past and kill your grandfather, then you will never exist, so you can never travel back into the past and kill your grandfather, so you will exist, so you can travel back into the past... You get the point.

The really weird thing is that the very structure of agency seems implicated in this paradox. Our actions, from an experiential standpoint, are ‘goal directed.’ In other words, from the standpoint of experience, that which comes after determines what we do, and that which comes before is covered over, obscured. This is what allows Kellhus to so effortlessly manipulate the people around him. As marketers have long known, when people don’t believe they have buttons, you can push them at will.

In other words, the ‘darkness that comes before’ and prophecy are quite tightly intertwined, conceptually speaking. And of course I play with all these things at a subtextual level throughout the novels.

- Damnation is a recurring topic among the sorcerers. Will we see any of the mechanisms behind the judgments related to this damnation as the series progresses?

Likely not. The occult and the theological are hopelessly muddled in the real world, so in the interests of realism I intend to keep things the same in Earwa.

Besides, with the possible exception death-row inmates, does anyone ever really know why they’re being burned?

- Will you be able to maintain your long-standing 'Internet silence' in the face of what promises to be many months of intense debate over THE JUDGING EYE, particularly its ambiguous closing chapters?

You get jaded, I think. I sometimes feel I’ve pretty much seen it all when it comes to responses to my books, but who knows? Something might outrage me yet. I still see red every once and awhile, usually when I come across someone poo-pooing my books to position themselves in some flattering intellectual light. If I have a public reputation for being a smarty-pants, then taking me down a notch becomes an easy way to assert your own intelligence. (There really is no underestimating the degree to which these kinds of status ploys snake through our aesthetic judgments).

But then I imagine much of what I say strikes others much the same way. Look at that Einstein idiot. Ooooh, my relativity is so special...

- Whilst not trying to give anything away, the end of Akka's storyline in THE JUDGING EYE has been seen by quite a few reviewers as a homage to an iconic Tolkien sequence, although with a very different ending. Was this a conscious decision and if so how did you reach it?

Cil-Aujas was part of the original storyline from way back when–I’m a former D&D geek, remember! Since I was such an idiot back then, I’m really not sure whether the choice was deliberate or not. It certainly became self-conscious at some point. The thing to remember is that Tolkien himself was paying homage to the epic tradition more generally when he conceived his version. Homer, Virgil, and of course, Dante. You always kiss a lot of dead ass when you decide to embrace an established literary form.

- What's the progress report with THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR? In our last interview you seemed confident to be able to release volumes one and two a year apart. Is it still the case?

I’ve actually been working on both The White-Luck Warrior and the sequel, so I’m not as far as I hoped to be at this point. I also have an April deadline for Disciple of the Dog, another thriller. This might sound like I’m hopelessly overloaded, but in point of fact I’ve discovered that I write far more per day when I can swap through multiple projects. It actually feels like I'm going through some kind of creative renaissance or something. Even still, I’ve decided not to take on any new side projects until The Second Apocalypse is completed in its entirety. My goal is to have the entire thing finished in four to five years.

This story... man. I know it’s impossible not to fall in love with ideas you live with for a long time–and I’ve done everything but sign the pre-nup when it comes to The Second Apocalypse. But I’m telling you, people are in for one helluva a ride!

- THE JUDGING EYE is a vast introduction to The Aspect-Emperor series. Is it harder to write THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR, now that you have quite a few marbles in the air?

The Aspect-Emperor is actually proving to be easier to write simply because I have learned (the hard way, you might say!) how to keep a large number of narrative balls in the air. No teacher like experience!

- There seems to be a a complex relationship between the World and the Outside. What are some of the ways in which the World influences the Gods/Outside and will we see more of a metaphysical exploration of what seems to me to be a symbiotic relationship between the two?

If I were to give some definitive metaphysical interpretation of the relation between the Outside and the World, as opposed to the hairy, haphazard, contradictory mass of hints and explanations I’ve given, I think I would actually be doing a disservice to Earwa. The bottom line is that no one really knows... Though, like the real world, there’s no shortage of people who would pop a cap in your ass you for suggesting otherwise.

As much as people hate uncertainty, the best they can do is try to ignore it. Naysayers, on the other hand, can be put to bed permanently.

- What is "blindness" to a divinity? Can the Hundred Gods be fallible, or is this something beyond the ken of the people of Eärwa?

Once again, it depends on who you ask in Earwa. Maithanet says that Yatwer is deceived, whereas Psatma Nannaferi says otherwise.

- Are you baffled by the fact that, though you have pleaded your case several times, some readers continue to interpret your writing style as misogynic?

‘Disappointed’ would probably be a better word than ‘baffled.’ It’s human nature to mistake depiction for endorsement, I think. And I actually think the criticisms of more sophisticated readers, that negative depictions reinforce negative stereotypes, have a valid point to make–one that I would take quite seriously were I writing after-school specials. You know, stories about an Elfen child having difficulty growing up in a Dwarven home.

On the one hand I understand that many readers require overt ideological fidelity to enjoy books–why else would there be religious bookstores? People find agreement agreeable–full stop. On the other hand censoriousness is simply a fact of human nature, no matter where a person falls on the political spectrum. Since we all implicitly understand the power of representations, we often fear them as well. And of course, we all naturalize our values. So you have well-meaning fools like those behind the hate-speech legislation here in Canada, who have no real sense of just how prosperity-dependent democracy is, and so design legal tools to illegalize the public expression of bigotry, all under the daft assumption that those tools will always be used the ways they want them to be used.

- Which would be closer to the "darkness" that comes before: a symbol, a representation, or the "meaning" of an object, person, or event? Depending on the one chosen, could it be presumed that if one grasps an "essence," that one could gain a semblence of control over how that symbol/representation/meaning is applied in say religious or political affairs in Eärwa?

Like any philosophical concept, ‘the darkness that comes before’ can be used in innumerable ways. In The Prince of Nothing, I primarily use it to refer to the way our ignorance generates the illusion that we are always in control of our actions–an illusion that leverages simplistic notions of things like responsibility and the political intuitions that follow. But I'm just another reader now.

- Anything you wish to add?

Every time you hear some version of the imperative "Believe!" cringe and fear for the future. It is the clearest symptom that we live in a culture of wilful delusion–one that actively encourages billions to think they’ve won the Magical Belief Lottery.

16 commentaires:

Aidan Moher said...

I'm not sure whether an interview that makes my brain hurt is a really good thing, or a really bad thing.

It's about damn time I finally get around to Bakker's first trilogy.

A Dribble of Ink

Anonymous said...

Stellar interview Pat. Really enjoyed the intelligent questions you asked. No "what's your favourite swear word" bollocks you see so often!

Oh, can you give the permalink please?

Larry Nolen said...

If I had only the chance to have asked a follow-up question to Scott's comments on agencies, it probably would have been something like this:

If we are to subscribe some importance (whether or not said importance is misplaced is irrelevant) to the notion of "agencies," could we infer from the word's etymological origins in action and movement that people are but passive pseudo-entities in and of themselves and that we ascribe movement or action to things that we wish to control (if only by slapping a label on it and calling it "ours") but do not? Or is the matter much more complex than that, as it seems at times your (Scott's) brief explanation risks becoming a bit too reductionist, as perhaps there could be the argument that in the creation of a world-view, humans have constructed a situation that goes beyond mere active/passive dualism. Thoughts?

And no, I leave the wanking to Scott here ;)

Larry Nolen said...


Here's the link:

Oh, and I'll take 'credit' for the 'stupid' questions, so Pat and Adam can bask in the praise for the 'intelligent' ones :P

Anonymous said...

Scott's coming to Croatia!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Haven't read the first trilogy yet, been hearing all sorts of it, but had previous engagements (Abercombie, Gaiman :). Gonna surely read, though. Now from apologetic to affirmative: that was one of the most memorable interviews I've read in a very long time. Got my intrigue for the Bakker's work at a high, it did :)

Nick said...

Always one of the most memorable interviewees.

Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

has vanished. :(

Unknown said...

That was a very interesting interview! The voice presented here is very similar to his writing voice. I think he would be one author that I could identify only by his writing style.

His closing line makes me very curious about his 'religious' affiliations. Has he ever made a comment on this? I suppose not every person wants to be public about such things.

Anonymous said...

"You always kiss a lot of dead ass when you decide to embrace an established literary form."

Best. Quote. Ever.

Anonymous said...

Most enjoyable interview! If that's wankery, then wank on.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love Bakker's work and the questions he poses and the way he tells a story. The Prince of Nothing is one of my all time favorite reads, even though I don't agree with half of what he says, it makes you think. I believe he oversimplifies the human mind to make his argument more digestible, even though its core points have great merit. In short, I love his work but I hate his interviews. More me than him I guess.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so very wonderful. Thank you larry. Please please please find a way to convince him he needs to come down to the south to tour for this book. Maybe down to North Carolina? It is so nice to see an intelligent person writing fantasy!

Anonymous said...

The Canadian Penguin edition is already available (in stock) from

I don't know why Patrick only lists the UK hardcover edition, which lists as available from February.

Mine's on its way as I type.

Anonymous said...

anonymus said:

has vanished. :("

Try this

The No-Commenter said...

Great questions, LOL answers and simply one of the best epic fantasy series / premises out there... Such a relief for the brain after the endless schlock / dross / shite which fills so many bookshop fantasy section shelves!