Interview: Scott Bakker: Author of Neuropath & The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy
A couple of years ago I stumbled across an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) of a book called The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker in a used book store. I picked it up and was immediately hooked by the author's use of language, and his willingness to go deeper into his character's feelings and motivations than the majority of writer's I'd read, let alone writers of Epic Fantasy. So far there have been two other books in the series called The Prince Of Nothing - The Warrior Prophet and The Thousandth Fold Thought, and the epilogue to part three gave an impression of more to come.
So when I received a letter from Mr. Bakker back in late February, early March, asking if I would like an ARC of his forthcoming book, Neuropath, I assumed it would be somehow associated with the previous three books. When I wrote back that I would be thrilled to receive an ARC I mentioned how much I had appreciated the first three books of the trilogy, and was looking forward to more of the same, he replied with the warning that Neuropath had nothing to do with the previous books, and was in fact somewhat of a major departure from it.
He wasn't kidding about the departure bit, as Neuropath is a very intense crime thriller that explores aspects of human psychology that are very disturbing. Especially in regards to what he postulates is possible with surgery to control human brain functions to eliminate our control over what we believe we are feeling. The ability to surgically alter our synapses so that we will inflict pain on ourselves in the mistaken believe that we are experiencing pleasure has implications that are too frightening to even consider.
After I had read Neuropath, its release date has been pushed back to nearer the end of June/08, so don't expect a review until probably the third week of this month, I contacted Scott and asked him if he would consider answering a few questions about his work and Neuropath specifically. He very generously agreed, so I sent him off a list of questions by e-mail and the answers you're reading here are verbatim copies of what he wrote in reply. We were both careful to avoid giving away anything that would spoil Neuropath for readers, so you can read the interview safe in the knowledge that it won't give the story away.
I'd like to thank Scott Bakker for taking the time to do this interview, and I hope you find what he has to says about his work as interesting as I did.
I always like to find out why it is people do what they do, so how about you. Where does the creative impulse come from for you, why writing, and what do you hope to accomplish with your writing?
I have no clue. I was the kid who debated the reality of Santa Claus in grade two and three, then the reality of God in grade five and six, then the reality of meaning and morality in grade nine and ten. No joke. I was an irritating, pompous, inquisitive little bugger - and perhaps not surprisingly, I grew up to be an irritating, pompous, opinionated big bugger! Novels just seemed to be the most natural way of expressing those facets of my character.
Writing is one of the few careers where you can get paid for being an asshole. Reviewing is another.
If you didn't answer this already - why fantasy and science fiction?
Because they were what captured my imagination in my youth. I discovered D&D, Penthouse, Black Sabbath, and Mary Jane at the tender age of fourteen - a potent cocktail as I'm sure you know! Our brains don't finish coating neurons in the myelin sheaths that so accelerate signal speed until our mid-twenties. The reason for this, they think, is that the pre-myelinated brain is much more plastic, which is to say, much easier to program. This could be why our youthful hobbies and fascinations leave such an enduring stamp on our adult imaginations.
I'm not sure if I've ever escaped 14. I really need to trade in my wardrobe though. Nothing worse than male camel toe.
Both the Prince Of Nothing trilogy and Neuropath have a lot to do with brain functions - In the former it's the way in which people reason and the latter the technical way that process works. Where did this interest in how and why we think come from?
Well, brains don't come up much at all in The Prince of Nothing. In fact, you won't even find the word 'mind' anywhere in the books. It's all about souls, as it should be, given that the setting is pre-scientific. What both share in common is the question of autonomy, or freedom. The Prince of Nothing explores the relationship between beliefs and manipulation, and the way the "feeling of freedom" seems entirely disconnected from the fact of freedom. I'm actually amazed by the number of people who think the characters that Kellhus manipulates are fools - I always want to pop into the conversation and quiz them on their own beliefs! What makes ideological manipulation so insidious is the way it bypasses our sense of autonomy. It's always the other guy who's 'so obviously' been duped. The fact is we're all manipulated all the time. You. Me. Everybody. Simply by virtue of those beliefs we inherit without question.
Neuropath, on the other hand, primarily explores the relationship between the brain and the question of autonomy.
Do you see any relationship between the methods used by Kellhus in the Prince Of Nothing series and Neil in Neuropath?
There's actually quite a sharp distinction between the two if you think about it. They seem similar insofar as they both defect from conventional morality, but Neil is by far the more radical of the two. There's a 'good' for Kellhus, which is simply what most effectively allows him to achieve his goals. He is the perfect practitioner of 'the end justifies the means' rationality, or what philosophers call instrumental rationality. For Kellhus, the only thing that makes acts good or bad are their consequences. Since we seem to be hardwired, and are definitely socialized, to think that certain acts are good or bad regardless of their consequences, this makes him seem ruthless and unscrupulous in the extreme - nihilistic.
Neil, on the other hand, has done away with good and bad altogether. He literally exists beyond good and evil.
There's quite a difference in style and form between Neuropath and your previous work - from Epic Fantasy to Hard Science. What kind of challenges did that present you with when it came to writing the new work.
Nothing really in particular. I found Neuropath both easier and more difficult to write simply because of my preferences as a writer. There's just something about creating a world whole cloth, as opposed to writing across a world that already exists. I think I'll always be a fantasy writer first and foremost for this reason.
With Neuropath, the challenge I set myself was to create a story that could carry a substantial amount of information without sacrificing narrative momentum, and to write in a style that was as kinetic as an airport thriller without sacrificing the kinds of multiple subtexts I love layering into my prose. A tall order, I know, but then I think I got some kind of aesthetic death-wish thing going. It's a good thing I don't live in a dictatorship.
Electric Shock treatments and aversion therapy have been used as means of behaviour modification in the past on people. What's the relationship between those methods and the ones described in Neuropath if any at all?
In principle, none. All behaviour modification comes down to brain modification, and this can be done using electrical shocks, chemicals, training routines, therapy sessions, magnetic fields, radiation, scalpels, or coat-hangers. But then this is million dollar question, isn't it? What earthly difference should it make, whether we use old-fashioned techniques as opposed to the ones explored in Neuropath?
Think about all the commercials you see. Very few of them provide arguments, which is to say, reasons why it's more rational to sit down with a Whopper than it is a Big Mac. Commercials actually aren't trying to convince you of anything at all. Instead, they're trying to circumvent rational decision making, to condition populations to make them statistically more likely to pick their product. They're literally rewiring your brain, neurologically 'branding' you. And they're enormously successful at it, despite the fact that so many of us like to think ourselves 'immune' to advertising. Since our brain is largely blind to its own processes, we're never actually conscious of what these commercials do to us - they simply seem to fall through us without effect. One after another, an endless train of them. When we do go for a Whopper it's not because anyone forces us to, but because we simply 'feel like it.'
Modern advertising is literally predicated on mass manipulation, on training you the way we train animals, and yet we have no problem whatsoever with this state of affairs. So the problem can't be the fact that we're manipulated, because we are all the time. The problem has to be the way we are manipulated. As it stands, the only manipulations that we don't like are the ones that we can easily see. Who cares if someone's pushing our buttons, so long as we can pretend otherwise?
But if that's our criterion then we're in a whole heap of trouble.
The problem is that our culture spoon feeds us this out-andout magical notion of who and what we are. So when the ad man cries "Caveat emptor! Buyer beware!" in self defence, we're inclined to let him off the hook. Why? because it's an appeal to our magical self-conception. Since ignorance is invisible, we assume that all we can see of ourselves is all that there is - or most of it anyway. Everyone says, "No commercial gets the best of me! I'm a tough-minded, critical adult!" But the truth is, the stuff we can't see composes the better part of us. Which is why the corporations keep ploughing billions into mass associative conditioning, and billions more into what has come to be called "neuro-marketing." The day is fast approaching when they stop training us like animals and start tweaking us like mechanisms.
Education, in North America at least, systematically avoids teaching us anything about our myriad weaknesses and limitations as believers and decision-makers - and the results, I would argue, are nothing short of catastrophic. Take drug addiction, for instance. Simply because of my socio-economic background, I happen to know many people whose lives have been destroyed if not snuffed out altogether by drug addiction. And the common thread between all of them is that they assumed they were in control, from the beginning, and in some cases, all the way to the end, when they became little more than crack or meth or alcohol acquisition mechanisms.
And why shouldn't they assume as much, when that was the magical bullshit that was being drummed into their heads from kindergarten and up? You can't have a healthy respect for your weaknesses if you don't know a lick about them. You can't make informed decisions.
(In case you actually do believe in the magical self, then I invite you to argue with the science, not me. On the technical side, I would suggest Daniel Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will, or David Dunning's Self-Insight. There's a small explosion of popular books that deal with our cognitive shortcomings, such as Cordelia Fine's A Mind of It's Own, Gary Marcus's Kluge, or Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational.)
How do you see the science described in Neuropath relating to cognitive psychology theories of how the environment we experience as a child shapes our future behaviour? Is it along the lines of recreating the effects of learned behaviour by mucking about with the brain - or is that overly simplistic?
Only in a retail and incidental way. The real link between the cognitive psychology in the book - all the little factoids about how dumb we are - and the consciousness science is the dilemma this puts us into. If even half of what cognitive psychology tells us is true, then we really have no reason to think that any of our philosophical attempts to blunt the obvious implications of the science - that nothing is what we think it is - are anything more than 'comfort reason' - self-preserving rationalizations.
I know it's early yet, but I'm curious as to what people's reactions have been to the claim by one of your characters in Neuropath that humans are nothing more than a series of programable reactions triggered by the stimulation of different parts of the brain? How much basis in fact is there for that claim?
I was immensely pleased to receive an enthusiastic email from Thomas Metzinger, the co-founder of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and the author of the landmark Being No One. When I asked him if he would be willing to blurb the book he declined, both because he found the book so disturbing to read, and because he thought I was covering ground that the bulk of humanity was better off not knowing about! I finally convinced him, though, by jumping up and down and going, "Please! Please! Please!"
Nothing else works with philosophers.
On the other hand, I was dismayed to learn that at least one of the "future facts" I pose in Neuropath has come true. Apparently, Professor John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute devised an experiment where he and his colleagues were able to determine, via fMRI scans, what their subject's choices would be seconds before they were conscious of them. Freaks me out just writing about it.
There's going to be people who deny this stuff come hell or high water, just as there's people who can't abide evolution or the heliocentric solar system. Truth be told, I'm one of them. I believe there has to be something to my experience of free will, but all the credible evidence is piling up on the other side, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. All I can do is stomp my foot and say, "No! It just can't be."
Because if it is, then nothing fucking matters.
Maybe I'm slow but I can't seem to understand why anyone would find the contention that stuff doesn't happen for any reason it just happens is anything to get so upset about. Or I have misunderstood the premise of the "Argument" - the great debate between the central characters of Neuropath?
Well, if you're religious you're certainly going to be troubled by it - that is if you don't simply dismiss it. There's actually a running discussion in cognitive science circles about what does or does not trouble different individuals. Some, for instance, really don't care if their will is free or not. Out of the people I know who don't believe there's such a thing as free-will, morality, or meaning, some walk around perpetually bummed, and others just shrug and say, "Pass the joint."
I actually had an e-mail exchange with Richard Morgan on this topic. He says he's okay with the illusoriness of it all, so long as the illusion functions the way he needs it to function. My answer was that this was like having a wife who sleeps around town, but being okay so long as she goes through the spousal motions at home. For me, the first function of this rich, wondrous, experiential life I lead, is that it be true.
Like you, the absence of objective purpose 'out there' doesn't bother me, so long as I can make my life meaningful. It's this latter that's at stake in Neuropath.
Here's the thing. For about five centuries now science has been scrubbing the world clean of anthropomorphisms, the projection of human psychological categories on the natural world. When the crops fail, only fundamentalists shake their fists at the heavens anymore. During this time, the sheer complexity of our brains rendered us immune to this 'disenchantment,' as Weber puts it. We stood apart as the world's only meaningful thing. Humankind, the great meaning maker - just think of how many narratives you've encountered where you find a protagonist struggling to find meaning in a meaningless world, usually via romantic love (a form I play with in both The Prince of Nothing and Neuropath).
Those happy times are gone. The human brain is finally passing into the province of science and its technical capabilities, and guess what? it's disenchanting us as well. The greatest anthropomorphism of all, it turns out, is ourselves. We are the last the ancient delusions, soon to be debunked.
"I think, therefore I am" has morphed into "It thinks, therefore something was."
Some people are probably going to be disturbed by the graphicness of Neuropath, and I was wondering if you could explain why you thought it necessary?
Because it's a psycho-thriller! And because I've been so desensitized by so many B horror flicks that I think I've lost the ability to tell what's graphic and what's not. I felt like I was holding back - being coy even.
What's next from you - are you going to go back to the world of The Prince of Nothing, where you left us sort of hanging with the epilogue, continue on in the vein you started with Neuropath - more hard science, or something new altogether?
The Judging Eye comes out this winter. I'm presently working on the second book of The Aspect-Emperor, which is tentatively titled The White-Luck Warrior. I'm also working on a second crime thriller entitled The Disciple of the Dog. At the rate I'm going I should have both books completed by next spring.
I'd like to thank Scott Bakker for taking the time in his schedule to answer my questions, and I hope what we talked about has intrigued you enough to make you want to pick up a copy of Neuropath when its released in your part of the world. In Canada that will be sometime latter this month - June/08 - and you can check the Penguin Canada web site for the exact release date as I'm sure they'll be letting us all know soon enough when its for sale. If you're in the States, and don't want to pay the shipping costs, it looks like you'll have to wait until winter of 2008 to pick up a copy.
With The Judging Eye, the first part of The Aspect Emperor, a new trilogy picking up the characters from The Prince Of Nothing trilogy twenty years later, due out this winter, and it's sequel scheduled to be finished Spring of 2009 we won't be lacking for new work by Scott Bakker, and that, as far as I'm concerned, is a good thing. No matter what anyone else might think or say, I don't think you can ever have enough of a good thing.