Interview: R. Scott Bakker - Author Of The Prince Of Nothing & The Aspect Emperor
The last time I had interviewed R. Scott Bakker it was in reference to his book Neuropath that was due to be released. To say that Neuropath was a departure from his previous books - the epic fantasy trilogy The Prince Of Nothing (The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought) was an understatement, so we had lots to talk about at that time.
However, his latest novel, The Judging Eye is not only a return to epic fantasy, but a return to the world he had created in the previous trilogy. The Judging Eye is the first book in a new trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, that picks up a couple of decades after events described in The Thousandfold Thought. So the questions I e-mailed to Scott to answer focused mainly on the forthcoming series, as well as specifics to do with aspect of the books that piqued my interest in particular.
Like his books, Scott's answers are though provoking and intelligent, so enjoy the read.
Can you describe the evolution of what is now I presume going to be a sextet - the three books that make up The Prince Of Nothing and the new trilogy The Aspect Emperor - Had you always visualized six books, or did it gradually take on a life of its own?
The entire sequence is titled The Second Apocalypse, which in its initial conception way back in the 1980's was to be a trilogy consisting of three books, The Prince Of Nothing, The Aspect-Emperor, and The Book That Shall Not Be Named. The Prince Of Nothing, of course, turned into a trilogy in its own right, as has The Aspect-Emperor. The final book will likely be a standalone or a duology, with the second book containing a massive omnibus.
The amount of detail that you provide your readers when it comes to the world you've created is incredible - the history and the various cultures in particular. Was there any specific time period in our own history that you used as a springboard? What's the overall impression you were going for?
Epic fantasy is unique as a literary genre in that it strives to tickle its readers with a sense of awe. The thing I realized long ago–in my teenage D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) days as a matter of fact–was the importance of believability. From that point, I strove to create the most believable world I could–the world that ultimately evolved into Earwa. It’s literally been twenty-five years in the making.
In The Prince Of Nothing trilogy we witness society, for the most part, through the eyes of four characters who are outsiders; Drusus Achamian - as a schoolman (sorcerer) is considered damned by society, and even among schoolmen he is an outsider because his order believes in something no one else does, Esmenet, a prostitute, Kellus, and Cnaiur the barbarian. Was that a deliberate choice on your part, and what opportunities did it allow you as a writer?
Great observation. I initially chose my characters because of the generic types they represented–the sorcerer, the barbarian, and the whore–not because they were outsiders. The fact that they were outsiders, of course, afforded more than a few dramatic opportunities. If you think about it, The Prince Of Nothing is a kind of ‘rags to riches’ narrative: I had to have rags (disempowerment) to make the rise to riches (power) dramatic. And now, particularly with Esmenet in The Judging Eye, you have the dilemma of someone bred to subservience finding themselves forced to rule.
I've always loved words just for their own sake, the layers of meaning that can be found within just one word, a sentence, or how you can change meanings just by repositioning one or two letters. The system of magic that you introduced us to in the first trilogy, especially as practised by Achamian's school, reminded me of that and I wondered how and why you devised it.
Humans are born essentialists, which is to say, we generally think things and people are what they are by virtue of their intrinsic properties or characteristics–their ‘immutable essence.’ We think that the way things appear to us are what they are fundamentally–and given the invisibility of ignorance, we generally encounter few reasons to think otherwise. No matter how narrow, how stupid or peevish, our perspectives always strike us as exhaustive.
This (combined with the logical function of language) underwrites the intuition that words have ‘essential meanings,’ that a passage of scripture, say, has one fundamental reading (which always magically happens to be our reading). So for the longest time essentialist interpretations of language ruled the theoretical roost.
In Earwa, however, essentialism is true, words have pure meanings, significations unpolluted by the contextual vicissitudes of circumstance. The idea is that if you can speak from the all-seeing perspective of the God, then you can literally rewrite the world. The different Schools of sorcery are based on the way in which these essences are mined. In the Anagogis, concrete metaphor is the primary mechanism. In the Gnosis, conceptual abstraction is the royal road to sorcerous power. (Both of these are what I call discursive magics in that they are linguistic and compositional, and as such quite distinct from intuitive magics like the Psuke).
Why did I design the world this way? Because I think epic fantasy has to be believable to succeed (and the fact that my fantasy theory of magic has interested a few real occultists (!!) suggests I succeeded). I’m certainly not an essentialist myself. I’m actually starting to think that language as we experience it doesn’t exist, that it’s a kind of epiphenomenal smoke. But the fact is no one knows what the hell language is...
You've allowed nearly twenty years to pass in the world of the books before continuing with the story - while this allowed certain things to be established - Kellus as Aspect Emperor over all the world of The Three Seas - it also left large holes in your reader's knowledge of events leaving them to pick up the information through second hand sources rather than being first hand observers and making them sift through a variety of perceptions to form their impression of the state of the world. What was your intent with disseminating information in that manner?
Since history in the real world is interpretative and fragmentary, I think this approach actually makes the world more believable. This isn’t a license to be lazy–quite the contrary–since you have to continually gauge the way each fact (and I introduce more than a few contradictions) you give will contribute to the reader’s sense of the whole. When you get this right, you can generate and sustain not only some cool atmospherics, a real sense of epic gravitas, but quite a few message board debates as well!
In the first books Kellus was an active character who we saw the world through, but in The Judging Eye he is no longer a character, merely somebody we see through other people's eyes. Why did you make that change?
The original plan was to have Kellhus progressively disappear as a viewpoint character as he gained power throughout The Prince of Nothing. The problem, it turned out, was that all my draft readers began to believe him, rather than continually conditioning everything he said and did with what they had learned from their initial glimpses into his manipulative psyche. So I was forced to go back and to add several viewpoint sections to remind them what Kellhus was up to.
The reader is on their own in The Aspect-Emperor, I’m afraid. This is a lesson I learned from Hawthorne: if you want to create the intimation of power and transcendence, it’s far better to draw down the veil than to lift the skirts. I presume this is why all the ways the Bush Administration has saved America from further terrorist attacks seem to be ‘classified.’
The Judging Eye of the title can be seen as referring to a talent that one of the characters introduced in this book, Mimara - Esmenet's daughter from when she was a whore- possesses, the ability to see a person's nature - evil or good. Yet in spite of her ability to see these absolutes you've still left a certain amount of ambiguity when it comes to good and evil in the book, why?
The thing about fantasy worlds–what makes them fantasy worlds, you might say–is that good and evil are more than projections of human self-interest. But think about a world where good and evil not only exist, but can be intuitively apprehended by everyone. Almost all conflict–and by extension, all narrative–turns on our inability to resolve our incompatible moral claims. If Earwa didn’t share the same problem, it would be so conceptually alien as to be unrecognizable. A hard place to tell interesting stories about, for sure!
I've often wondered why people who claim to be the reincarnation of somebody or other always say they are princes and kings but never somebody mundane like a slave. So I find it interesting that in Achamian's dreams that it's when he starts reliving mundane details of his forerunner's life that he realizes an important change is occurring. Did you have any particular intent with making the mundane and personal memories that come to Achamian in his dreams important, or is it just because they were different from the world changing events he and other sorcerers of his school normally experience in their dreams?
The relationship between the epic and the mundane is something that I’m deeply interested in, which is why I explore it throughout The Prince Of Nothing as well. Academics and literary writers generally regard spectacle with suspicion or outright derision–unless it happens to be more than a century old. I just finished reading a piece by Russell Smith in The Globe and Mail (Canadian Newspaper), where he describes how unbearable he found The Dark Night–because of the spectacle, it turns out. I’m sure that for him his disdain feels entirely obvious and natural, and that given time he could cook up numerous aesthetic rationalizations for why he dislikes spectacle.
I actually think this attitude is not only self-serving and pious, but socially pernicious as well. It’s no coincidence that literary specialists only came to regard spectacle as a kind of ‘opiate for the masses’ around the same time literacy rates boomed in Europe and North America. Humans have a hardwired yen for the spectacular, so if you want to distinguish your tastes from the general public, all you gotta do is turn your nose up at it. The next thing you know we have a literary culture a la Russell Smith, where our brightest, most socially and psychologically penetrating writers waste all their creative output on people who already share their values–become high-end entertainers in effect.
And where the masses harbour a defensive contempt of the mundane. (It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which the media ignored the fact that Obama’s single biggest liability wasn’t his race but his intellectualism).
From the very beginning, I’ve looked at The Second Apocalypse as an experiment in bringing criticism, writing that actually challenges, back to mass commercial culture. I see myself as part of larger sea change, one which integrates rather than segregates criticism and community. The Russell Smiths of the world need to be disabused of the self-congratulatory illusion that they are doing something critical with their artistic output, as opposed to simply confirming the educated assumptions of the educated classes. The so-called ‘literary mainstream’ is simply where we lock up our cultural rabble rousers where they can do the least amount of damage. The fact that they write books that would curl an evangelical Christian’s toes if they were to read it means nothing. Challenging is as challenging does. I’m no more clear on the ‘essence of literature’ than the next guy, but it strikes me as painfully obvious that literature–real literature–reaches out rather than in, that it bridges differences rather than reinforcing them.
And I can think of no better way of reaching out than with genre and spectacle.
You first introduced the ancient race of beings, the Nomen, in the books of the first trilogy, mainly through Achamian's knowledge of history and his dreams/memories, but Kellus also briefly met one in the first book. In the The Judging Eye not only does Achamian take one for his companion, but he enters into the ruins of one of their former retreats deep within the ground. Where did you draw your inspiration for the creation of the Nomen from?
Tolkien’s Elves have always exercised an almost totemic power over my imagination, and the Nonmen are simply my way of exploring that fascination. Psychologists will tell you that we are inclined to see individuals as belonging to moral orders, to see some as essentially better than us, and others as essentially worse than us. The tradition in epic fantasy is to concretize this with various races.
But where the Elves of Middle-earth have dwindled, the Nonmen of Earwa have fallen, the idea being that the very things that once made them better have reduced them to depravity over the ages. The result, I hope, is an associational palate quite distinct from the one you find in Tolkien, a sense of something glorious that has become ingrown and dark–something halfway between ruined and rotted.
As I hope The Judging Eye makes clear, the Nonmen will figure large in the events to follow.
I've been trying to avoid mentioning any particulars of the events in The Judging Eye, but I have to ask about Cil-Aujas, the ancient retreat of the Nomen. The journey through it reminded me of a cross between Dante's Inferno and the trip through The Mines of Moria in The Fellowship Of The Ring. If neither of those, what did inspire your descriptions of those events and the environment?
I reread both several times in the course of writing the Cil-Aujas chapters. There’s the ‘journey through the underworld’ component to be sure–which is a classic saw of the ancient epic. But there’s also a concretization of the past involved as well. In Cil-Aujas, you actually pass through the layering of history, plunging deeper into the atavistic bowels of Earwa’s past. But the bottom line is that I’m an just old, dope-addled D&D addict. Dungeons, man! Dungeons! Like many writers, I’ve had a life-long love affair with my fear of the dark.
R. Scott Bakker's fantasy isn't quite like anybody else's that you'll ever read, and I hope that you were able to catch a glimpse of what makes him so special through this interview. I didn't bother asking him what he had planned for the future as its pretty obvious he has his work cut out for him over the next little while. I'd like to thank Scott for taking the time to answer these questions, and encourage you to start reading his work. It's an adventure you'll not soon forget.