The OF Blog: The wotmania Files: Interview with R. Scott Bakker (6/27/2004)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The wotmania Files: Interview with R. Scott Bakker (6/27/2004)

I decided to break the chronological order of these reposted interviews a bit, mostly because of this semi-related discussion. This was the first interview where I used a multi-round format for asking questions and I think the improvement is quite obvious.
Scott Bakker is author of the Prince of Nothing series, whose first volume, The Darkness That Comes Before, was just released in the US on June 1st. This book was a Locus Recommended Read for 2003 and his second book, The Warrior-Prophet, was just released about two weeks ago in Canada. This interview was conducted via email, although many of the questions are inspired by a face-to-face meeting by this interviewer with Bakker at a book signing in Nashville on June 21st.

Thanks Scott for agreeing to do this interview. If you don't mind, could you give us a brief biographical sketch to give us a clearer image of the person behind the pen?

I spent the bulk of my childhood on the north shore of Lake Erie, back in the day when "Be home before dark!" counted as parental supervision. Throughout my youth, my father was either a tobacco sharecropper or farm manager, so I've spent many a long season toiling in hot fields. I have a BA in English and an MA in Critical Theory from the University of Western Ontario, and if I could complete my bloody dissertation, I'd have a PhD in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University. My favourite band is Black Sabbath, and has been since I was fourteen years old. I drink Coke, not Pepsi. I refuse to wear clothing with corporate logos, and am inordinately fond of my cat. I vacuum when I'm told and typically do the dishes without being told. As for the bathroom, well, there's usually an argument. And last but not least, I tend to consume about eight beers a night through the entirety of the NHL playoffs.

What was it, if "it" can be defined, that led you into reading and later writing fantasy?

I'm not sure it can be defined, but it can certainly be named: The Hobbit. When I was ten, my grade five teacher read it from cover to cover for our class. I devoured The Lord of the Rings immediately after - several times - and have never fully recovered. When I think back to my sketchy memories of those times, I recall only a sense of breathless wonder, blue carpet, and chincy wood panelling. Reading Dune as a teenager only made things worse.

Many of our readers have expressed curiosity about philosophy. What works would you recommend for them to read?

This is a hard question, I think because the field seems to resist summary in a way others don't. For those in college, I would urge taking a freshman philosophy course - this was pretty much how I entered the labyrinth. As far as primers go, the most important thing is to find something that will hold your interest long enough to get you some kind of footing in the debate. For me, that was Wil Durant's The Story of Philosophy. Anything or anyone but Ayn Rand, who's left out of philosophical dictionaries and anthologies for a reason. As a friend of mine likes to say, she put the 'pluh' in 'please.'

You've mentioned on your site and in person that you spent a great deal of time writing The Darkness That Comes Before. When did you start writing it and who were some of the people that encouraged you during the process?

I started writing the first draft of the story around seventeen years ago - I actually completed the entire Prince of Nothing trilogy when I was 23, before I knew how to write. The world, Eärwa, is actually some seven years older: the first rudiments date back to when I was fourteen playing D&D with my hairy-palmed buddies. As far as encouragement goes, my brother has been with me since the very beginning - but at first I think he was just trying to ensure his character wouldn't get killed. Flatter the dungeonmaster, just like in the real world... Jokes aside, there really isn't anything major, either in the world or the story, that I haven't discussed at length with Bryan. He possesses an unerring ability to uncover cheese.

I always regarded the whole thing as a pipe-dream, a juvenile fantasy, and as a result I never actively sought publication. I just kept building the world and rewriting small sections of the story, and now, after all this time, I find myself with this absolutely immense amount of material. As far as getting published goes, the decisive person in my life, without a doubt, would be my fiancée Sharron, without whom I'd likely be an addict or one of those irritating people who go on and on about their squandered highschool potential. She gave me the drive to go back to school (which had been touch and go before her: I quit both highschool and university twice).

Then there's Nick, my buddy from Vanderbilt, who talked me into sending the first draft of The Darkness That Comes Before to his old roommate, who at the time was an agent in New York. And there's Michael Schellenberg, an editor from Penguin who somehow saw through the mess of manuscript notes my first agent gave him, and made an offer...

As a newly published writer, what are some of the surprises that you've experienced in the year or so since The Darkness That Comes Before was published?

This writer thing certainly is strange, there's no doubt about that (or as we Canadians would put it, no doot aboot...). The first surprise has been the steady stream of rave reviews, from small webzines to mainstream publications. I always assumed the bulk of reviewers would find the book too dense (in either sense of the term!). The second has been the sales: once I realized I was going to be published, I just assumed The Darkness That Comes Before would at best become a cult success, something that world-junkies - you know, those who've read the Silmarillion more than once - would primarily dig. But for several days now, The Warrior-Prophet (which has just been released here in Canada) has been neck and neck with Stephen King's latest Dark Tower novel on Truth be told, it's messing with my head.

I guess, in short, what's surprised me most is the widespread appeal the books seem to have. I literally feel as though I've been bushwhacked by good fortune, and it makes me very nervous. It just seems, well, inconsistent.

What were some of the historical influences that went into the writing of the Prince of Nothing series?

The original idea way back in 1987 was to write something that combined the depth and grandeur of The Lord of the Rings with the intrigue and thematic sophistication of Dune, through a story modelled on Harold Lamb's narrative history of the First Crusade, Iron Men and Iron Saints. Now many, many things have changed since then, but under the layers the skeleton of this original plan still exists. I stole a lot of licks from Lamb, and I still find myself referencing him.

The other historical influences are more generalized or inchoate: historical readings on the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Indians, Arabs, medieval Europeans - too many to keep track of actually. Then there's the period readings, which seem to stand out as more significant for some reason: Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Aristotle, Plato, Xenophon, Thucydides, Plotinus, Virgil, Tacitus, and bits and pieces of others.

Interesting that you mention Dune as being an influence, because on reflection after reading The Warrior-Prophet, I noticed that there were certain surface similarities to Herbert's story, in particular the way you explore the characters' interactions with their religions and the idea of the effects that a jihad/holy war can have on people. Was this a conscious decision, or one borne of subconscious thoughts?

The similarities are more than superficial, I would say. The skin-spies, for instance, are obviously inspired by Herbert's face-dancers. The way I've developed the various factions, giving them histories and coherent belief systems, is heavily influenced by Dune as well. But the religious themes I would have to attribute to Lamb more than anyone else: reading his Iron Men and Iron Saints as a youth was a seminal experience for me. The story of the First Crusade with all its triumphs and atrocities is nothing short of spectacular. All our actions, save the rare occasions we find ourselves doing the funky chicken, arise from a combination of desire and belief. This is why the only way for us to understand impossible acts, like 9/11 for instance, is to examine the desires and beliefs that gave birth to them - and to do so without lapsing into sentimentalism or flattering rationalizations. Given the right beliefs, we humans seem to be capable of damn near anything, be it demonic or divine. This is one of the things I set out to explore in The Prince of Nothing.

How many books are you planning on writing in the PoN Universe? Also, are there any other writing projects you're considering in the near future?

I'm presently working on The Thousandfold Thought, which concludes The Prince of Nothing. Following this, I have a draft of a near future thriller entitled Neuropath, which I hope to gussy up and shop around before returning to fantasy, which is my first love.

When I originally conceived the whole story (The Second Apocalypse) way back when, it was a trilogy with The Prince of Nothing as the first book, The Aspect-Emperor as the second, and The-Book-that-Shall-Not-Be-Named as the third. But of course The Prince of Nothing has since become a trilogy in its own right, which would seem to suggest that The Second Apocalypse will be nine books long! I honestly have no idea how long it will ultimately be. My best guess is that The Aspect-Emperor and The-Book-that-Shall-Not-Be-Named will both be dualogies - if that's really a word...

All I can say with certainty is this: First, The Prince of Nothing does stand on its own - The Aspect-Emperor picks up approximately twenty years afterward. I look at it as The Hobbit of The Second Apocalypse. Second, all the books in The Second Apocalypse will be written in service of the original story. I've been thrashing and dreaming the thing for twenty damn years, and I'm not about to compromise it for any reason, commercial or otherwise. The grooves are just too deep.

Now you have me being very curious: That book-which-shall-not-be-named, is it because the very title would have major spoilers for the present series?

Ah, yes... The-Question-That-Cannot-Be-Answered.

Let's start with discussing a major hot topic on the fantasy forums these days: China Miéville's comment about Tolkien being "the wen on the arse of fantasy." What were your reactions to that? What did you think about the response that question provoked on the forums that you've visited?

I'm afraid this answer has turned into something of a short essay, so let me apologize in advance.

What were my reactions? I laughed, of course, then I went running to the dictionary to look up the word 'wen' (just to be sure). I can certainly understand why Miéville might say this. The degree to which Tolkien has become the rule for so much fantasy is sure to antagonize those who style themselves 'rule-breakers.' Add to this a socialist bent and the sheer nostalgia of Tolkien's work, and the wen becomes very inflamed indeed.

All fantasy is a response to modernity of some kind, so it seems fair not only to ask what kind of response it is, but whether it's a positive or negative one - especially if you think, like Miéville and Tolkien, that modernity is somehow in crisis. In this respect, I think it's clear that there's something regressive about Tolkien's approach. By yearning for 'simpler times,' you not only risk drawing on the anachronisms and prejudices belonging to those times, you also become less inclined to participate in the present. Pining for the days before a problem is generally not an effective way of resolving it.

So I understand and in many ways sympathize with his complaint. Tolkien - and perhaps more significantly, Tolkienesque fantasy - can be seen as one of many 'social opiates,' a way to cope with social problems that reinforces rather than transforms the dominant institutions behind those problems.

Let me go into some detail, since statements like this can seem alienating in the absence of an explanation. Imagine what life was like for the average person some 400 years ago. They knew who stitched their clothes, who grew their food, who raised their houses, and so on - all the ways they depended upon others simply could not be ignored, and as a result some sense of community and communal responsibility was inescapable. Not anymore. As a result of technological innovation and the concentration of production, pretty much everything we depend on, from our blue jeans to our fried chicken, is provided anonymously. Not only can we ignore our multifarious dependencies, we can even pretend they don't exist. We are in fact the most interdependent generation in the history of the human race, and yet somehow we've come to think of ourselves as the exact opposite, as the most independent - as 'individuals.'

Contemporary consumer culture continually bombards us with images of this: "Everything you need," the commercial tagline runs, "comes from within." Just think of all the ways in which this message is repeated - and no wonder, given the way the media caters to our conceits. SUV's and rugged individualism. Cigarrettes and rebellious individualism. Shampoo for that 'individual look.' Few people make money telling people those things they don't want to hear, like the systematic way wealth often depends on poverty, or how our cars dump their own weight in CO2 into the atmosphere every year, or how we're becoming the greatest extinction event to hit our planet since the comet that took out the dinosaurs.

For people like Miéville, we already live in fantasy worlds - that's the problem - and what we need is a literature that will mitigate rather than aggravate the problem. Think of the way so many men style themselves as a 'rebel' or 'warrior' - I know I did. I remember congratulating myself day after day for being such a badass, even while I shuffled down aisle and queue, thoughtlessly doing what my boss told me to. 'Travel light,' the movie suggested. 'Wherever I lay my head is home,' the song crooned. 'Your future is what you make it,' the teacher insisted. The slogans go on and on. We've even been convinced that embracing these sayings - which are essentially marketing shout-lines - is what it means to be a rebel! Buy this CD and those hair-care products, look after you-know-who and spurn all things cooperative and collective - especially if they're political, which is to say, capable of effecting real change.

But of course this is only pseudo-individualism. In truth you're simply a 'good consumer,' working hard to make other people rich, reminding yourself over and over how unique and special you are while verifying your identity with your credit card, and thinking of all the things you could be, if only you had the time and money... If only... Because afterall, everyone is free to be what they want, aren't they?

Of course not. We don't live in a meritocracy - not so long as wealth remains more a matter of heredity than wit, grit and determination. The game is rigged - I think everyone understands this at some level. But the winners, the ones who own all the bullhorns, (and thus the only ones who are heard), crow on and on about how 'great' the system is. "I'm living proof!" they cry, conveniently forgetting their trust fund, that someone has to flip the burgers, pump the gas, stitch the clothes, man the assembly line - which is to say that someone has to provide all the goods and services they enjoy. Like all winners, they're convinced the game is fair, and if the game is fair, if everyone regardless of class has the same chance of becoming wealthy (and the facts shout otherwise), then the problem must lie with the players and not the game. Afterall an individual takes responsibility for their play... It's your own damn fault you're poor. You had all this potential...

If I had a nickel.

The systematic roots of our predicament escape us, because the media caters to our weaknesses, flattering us with images of illusory self-empowerment, papering over the complexities of system we live in, and concentrating on the short-term, the short-sighted and the individual. Afterall, each of us is our own person, with fiercely independant product choices to make. We end up living in little consumer bubbles, only dimly aware of the great machinery churning away in the darkness.

Given this dystopic picture, it becomes easy to see how Tolkien could be 'ideologically suspect.' The nostalgia for 'better days,' one might argue, induces complacency. The celebration of individual heroism and the identification with aristocratic values simply reinforces our false sense of empowerment. The provision of alternate worlds gives us yet another excuse to avoid the realities of this one. And so on...

Tolkien, understood in this light, is the return of the repressed, a way to express our disempowerment without having to relinquish our illusions. A wen.

Now I agree with much of this picture (so long as we remember it's an interpretation and not gospel), and yet nevertheless I would argue that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece - a founding work of genius and not a wen. One reason for this is that I take the business of evaluating the value of a work's social role to be simply part of the business of evaluating the value of a work as a whole. The second reason is that a work's social role is always a work in progress, something that can be transformed by the reception of subsequent works. Tolkien - rather obviously it seems to me - stumbled upon something profound, something which, even when bound up in nostalgia and sentimentalism, simply has to be acknowledged. By casting light on the world of Middle-earth, he has thrown into relief a world pressed to the edge - our world. And the problem lies not so much in what he's written, but in how he is read. We determine his social role.

And this is why I'm such an unabashed fan, and why I write Tolkienesque epic fantasy. I want to continue Tolkien's exploration of our world, and to further it if I can. I'm not so interested in 'transcending the genre' as I am in exploring the possibilities within it - and I would argue that these are far more vast and significant than most realize.

So what was my overall reaction to Miéville's comment? Understanding and disappointment.

As for what I've seen of the debate this comment has triggered, I found it both interesting and heartening. As an epic fantasist, I've been stung by the 'laymen' versus 'literati' divide that seems to be forming along the epic and urban fantasy lines - especially regarding the 'new weird.' It's strange how little versions of this hierarchy seem to crop up in every sphere of human cultural production. For my own part, too many people seem convinced of the superiority of their tastes for me to have that much faith in the superiority of my own. All I like to point out to self-professed rule-breakers is that in many cases they're not so much overturning a set of conventions as they are buying into another. Post-modern works, for instance, have their own stable of conventions: hybridity instead of purity, existentially subversive doubles instead of dragons, displaced subjects instead of heroes, and undecidability instead of apocalyptic evil. I try to test the rules I follow, but I'm not convinced that simply swapping one set of commonplace rules for another set of arcane ones counts as 'original.' It's too mechanical. Originality, I suspect, arises between the rules.

Great answer. As I was reading this, I couldn't help but think that the Scylvendi chieftain, Cnaiür, would fit excellently as a badass who is a badass not because he resembles other badasses of his time and place, but even more so because he feels compelled to break with tradition to forge his own path. Did you have in mind this exploding of the badass character myth when you created Cnaiür?

I'm glad you've mentioned Cnaiür. He is indeed the battleground for this question.

I remember reading somewhere that 19th Century literary scholars had a difficult time dealing with Homer's Achilles, primarily because of the way he weeps to his mother after Agamemnon seizes his concubine. Here's Achilles, the most martial of all men, crying like a baby... How could this be?

But this is the thing: our present concept of what it means to be a 'man' is largely a historical artefact - and a very troubling one at that. Think of all the terms we use to impeach someone's manliness: pansy, bitch, queer, fag, girly-boy, pommy pufter, and so on. Almost all of them are accusations of femininity, which would suggest that the worst thing for a man to be is... a woman! Which is to say, soft, weak, passive, and emotional... Huh? This, I think, is an absurd and destructive way for men to value themselves. Strength is found by owning and understanding one's weaknesses, not by displacing and denying them. Think of all the supposed badass warriors out there, checking people in at hotels, clearing tables, posturing in front of mirrors, bragging to sceptical significant others about how lucky so-and-so is because... We live in strange times.

Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but there seems to be an implied statement that we humans find it necessary to create our own rules and hierarchies to meet our needs. Could it be said that fantasy is in one sense our attempt to experiment with the rules to see what we can make of it?

Are rules and hierarchies inescapable? Certainly. Cooperative action would be impossible otherwise. All societies are made up of human beings doing things in concert - the repetition of interrelated actions. That's what we do when we go to work everyday: we repeat actions that fit a greater network of repeated actions. Rules and hierarchies serve to regulate individual actions to ensure that they meet the requirements of the greater system. Since beliefs and desires are the bases of action, any given system requires the proper beliefs and desires in order to function. Imagine, for instance, if we all stopped believing in property or pointless consumption. Our whole system would come crashing down.

Nowadays we belong to a vast 'global machine,' one with six billion parts. Make no mistake, all the numbers you carry with you in your wallet perform the same function that the numbers serve in a car parts warehouse. They keep track of you, define your position relative to the whole.

The problem is that we evolved living in small systems where the people we knew were also the people we depended on to survive. Suddenly we find ourselves living in this immense system where we rarely depend on the people we know, at least not in any immediate material sense. For the first time in our history it is quite possible to survive without knowing anyone - this is extraordinary if you think about it. The 'shut-in' is a recent historical development. What this means is that we're living in social environments that cut across our evolutionary grain in what are likely profound ways. It's no accident that the feeling of alienation or 'not belonging' is the malaise of the modern world. And this is the reason, I think, why nostalgia rather than experimentation characterizes what one finds in epic fantasy: fantasy worlds tend to be places where individuals have an unambiguous social role, where they can clearly see where they fit, not only in the cosmic order of things, but in the social order as well. If we have to look to the past to find those orders, then it's because they no longer seem to exist.

Recently, many people (Margaret Atwood being one) have begun to shun the title of "sci-fi" or "fantasy" writer for the catch-all term of "speculative fiction." You had an interesting response to this at the signing. Would you please elaborate for the readers who were not present?

Did we do an inordinate amount of drinking afterward? Because I'm not sure that I recall...

In all fairness, I've been told that Margaret Atwood has since recanted many of her earlier comments regarding Oryx and Crake - though long after the media spotlight had moved onto to bigger things. Back when I was in grad school and The Prince of Nothing was simply a shameful little hobby, I used to describe what I wrote as 'speculative fiction.' Nary a label passes through our heads without some kind of value judgment attached to it. Anyone who's ever felt a pang of shame when telling another their occupation knows exactly what I'm talking about. We are social animals, wired to be exquisitely sensitive to estimations of status. I think it's obvious, particularly now that she's reconsidered her position, that Atwood was simply positioning her novel in the marketplace. To the general ear, 'literature' sounds much more impressive than 'SF.'

Unfortunately, 'epic fantasy' has even less cache than 'SF' - I would guess it's presently somewhere between 'porn mag' and 'harlequin romance.' Perhaps this will change, and 'epic fantasy' will gain something of the camp cache presently being enjoyed by, for instance, 'space opera' - afterall, the rehabilitation of the marginal and devalued is a very postmodern thing to do. Either way, the thing, it seems to me, is to be wary of the implicit judgments in the terms we use. I find it amusing that the people most likely to complain that SF&F is a 'literary ghetto' are often those most likely to devalue other regions of the barrio, particularly when it's as commercially successful as Jordan's work. It's cool to be an iconoclast, I guess. It makes us feel oh-so individual, when in fact we're simply being aristocratic.

So now I stubbornly say 'epic fantasy' whenever anyone asks me what I write. I am officially out, and resigned to never being reviewed in The Globe & Mail.

Excellent points about the subjectiveness of labels, especially as it applies to genre writings. So in other words, 'epic fantasy' is still a dirty phrase in many circles, but there seems to be some positive progression toward acceptability?

Not any way that I can detect. It's a hope more than anything else. I feel like a poser for saying this, but this is one of the things I was hoping to do with The Prince of Nothing - not to make epic fantasy 'respectable,' because I think it already is to those who matter most, but to prove that it hasn't exhausted its resources.

You wrote a piece on SFF World recently giving your take on fantasy, focusing on the reader's perceived need to find "meaning" in a world that's been stripped of most meaning. Can you list some of the books/authors that have provided the most "meaning" for you?

Actually, it was back in 1999 when I submitted that piece, and though I largely stand by it, I think I would retreat from the strident tone I take. Society and culture are super-complex systems, which means that all theories regarding it are doomed to be underdetermined by the facts - to be interpretations.

In my writing, Tolkien obviously looms large, followed closely by Herbert. If it weren't for Dune, I sometimes think I would have never gone to university. In my life different writers, mostly philosophers, have been important at different times - the kind of stuff you might expect from an egghead. Derrida in the early days - I spent several years as a 'branch Derridean,' irritating professors and classmates alike with my clever deconstructive turns of thought. Then came Heidegger, and to a lesser extent, Nietzsche and Hegel. Then came Wittgenstein and Adorno. But lately, everything seems to be dominated by Kellhus...

Kellhus indeed is an unnerving character, so much so that he has made me consider how I order my thoughts, at least during those times that I dwell on what he's saying and doing. Very unique character, as I said in my review.

As for a final question, I thought I would invert this question/answer order and give you an opportunity to ask questions to us. Are there any questions that you as an author want us readers to consider?

One question: "What makes me right and other people wrong?" If you think about it, there's something almost embarrassing about assuming oneself to be 'in the know.' For one, it's extremely improbable that out of billions, one person called 'me' could monopolize the truth - especially when we take into account of all the ways (such as confirmation bias, social-proof bias, deprivation bias, and so on) we humans are inclined to delude ourselves. For another, it seems fairly certain that thousands of years hence our descendants will think us as deluded as we think our ancient ancestors were deluded. The fact of the matter is that we know so very little - it's just the invisibility of ignorance that makes this so hard to see. All we need do is own up to that fact. With the suspension of judgment comes learning, tolerance, and openness to the new.

If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

I would have to go with monkeys, because dwarves are no longer cool in fantasy. One I'd name Clint, and I'd train him to chew cigars and watch the saloon doors with a steely gaze. The second I'd call Terry, and I'd forbid him from making things up about philosophers he's never read, and I'd try not to look at him, for fear he might be masturbating. Another I'd call Shakespeare, and I'd turn questions regarding his sexual orientation into a morbid fascination. Then there would be Gwynneth, whom I would woo with critcisms of Troy, shaving cream, and very, very dim lights. I'd call one Bush, and when he got a rash, I'd call him 'burning' and listen with awe and reverence to what he had to say. The last one I would call Nietzsche, and I would teach him to repeat, as well as he could, these words of wisdom: 'There is no one smarter than Jack Handey. There is no one smarter than Jack Handey.'

Thanks again Scott, for taking the time to reply at length to these questions. I really appreciate the effort and thought put into these and I believe the readers will as well. It's been a pleasure conducting this interview and best of wishes with the series.

I must say, I've immensely enjoyed this!


1 comment:

Charlie said...

Fantastic, so glad I found/took the time.

Every day is a struggle while The Second Apocalypse remains unfinished.

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