The OF Blog: Thoughts on two recent R. Scott Bakker short stories

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thoughts on two recent R. Scott Bakker short stories

I recently was made aware that Scott Bakker has been writing short fictions, two of which are set in his Eärwa fantasy world, "The Four Revelations of Cinial'jin" and "The False Sun."  If one has read only his fantasy works, one might be surprised to learn that he has written short fictions, considering the depth and breadth of semantic exploration that takes place in a milieu where a de Saussurian examination of the relationships between the Signifiers and the Signified seems to lie near the heart of the mechanics of his setting's metaphysics.  Yet what intrigues me more than just the length of the stories told are the forms that he utilizes to tell two very complex "slice of life" narratives.

The first, "The Four Revelations of Cinial'jin," is told from the perspective of a Non-man Erratic.  Those who have read all five of Bakker's fantasy novels should be familiarized with their tragic fates, but those who have not read those works will quickly be lost, as the quoted sample below should illustrate:

They raise him upon a pole, pile sheaves of bracken about his feet. He has wondered whether death would be beautiful. He has wondered how the end of memory would appear at memory’s end. He has wondered what it means to so outrun glory as to become blind to disgrace. It seems proper that these screeching animals show him.

He watches them tip the amphorae, sees the oil pulse white in the sun. They are all there, Tinnirin, Rama, Par’sigiccas, sheeted in the blood of obscenities, their warcries cracked into gasps of effort, grunts of desperation. As the Men stand milling in the sunlight, filthy, bestial for hair, their brows dark so their eyes seem fires in angry caves. Rama’s head tips back like a bust on an unbalanced pedestal, painting witless shoulders in blood, as a plummeting shadow blots him, an Inchoroi monstrosity, decked in the corpse of some luckier brother. And he sorts them with his gaze, his frail captors, glimpsing dog-teeth, gloating for all the faces he will remember, for shame if not for torment. 

Stream of consciousness writing is tricky enough when the reader is well-acquainted with the setting and s/he has at least a vague conceptualization of how this narrative technique is being employed.  Bakker uses this technique in a setting that is not intimately familiar to neophyte readers; they cannot "ground" the narrative in a pre-conceived locale.  Nor can they relate to what the titular character, Cinial'jin, is (re)living.  It is very risky trying to show what is "under the hood" in a character that is literally inhuman.  When Dan Simmons did something similar (albeit on a much lesser scale) with his UI in The Fall of Hyperion, that character had to be "remote" and yet paradoxically "close" to those enmeshed in its sphere, with communication that seemed strange and stilted due to the UI's alien thoughts.  Here in "The Four Revelations of Cinial'jin," Bakker tries to do something similar, albeit on a much larger scale.  Cinial'jin is reliving the traumas of his past while experiencing the torturous end of his own present (and future). 

While these sorts of flashbacks have been done before (see Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury), what makes this particular scene intriguing is that Bakker aims to conflate the past and present into a loop of trauma and bruised memory to illustrate the tragic nature of the Erratics loss of full identity.  Yet in doing so, he has "ungrounded" the narrative; only glimpses of the narrative "present" can be identified with certainty (and only by a careful reading by those who are very familiar with the novels).  Although Bakker should be commended for attempting to tell a snippet of an epic fantasy through the use of stream of consciousness, the nature of the character serves to weaken the efficacy of that particular narrative technique.  Because Cinial'jin is "ungrounded" from typical divisions of "past" and "present," the story paradoxically becomes more dependent upon reader awareness of the fictional milieu.  Without that awareness to serve as a proxy grounding point, this narrative feels much less like a full, complete narrative and more like an interesting fragment that, if placed within the context of a larger story, would be much more effective than by itself.

The second story, "The False Sun," is told in a more conventional  third-person point of view.  Set around 3000 years before the events in The Darkness That Comes Before, "The False Sun" details some of the origins of the dreaded Consult, namely through the Mangaecca sorceror Shaeönanra's discovery of the remaining Inchoroi and the Inverse Fire that they possess.  What strikes me most about this story is how Bakker manages to strike a balance between a fabulistic "and in the days of yore, great deeds were done..." and a fatalistic "...before their works were undone, leaving behind only empty husks that belied the promise of those mighty deeds."  Below the first paragraph is quoted.  Note the use of detail to underscore the character's cynical point of view:

Like many great and dangerous Men, Shaeönanra was despised for many things, his penchant for mongering spies not the least of them. The rules that bound the Norsirai were unforgiving in those days. Trysë, the Holy Mother of Cities, was little more than a village huddling behind ruined walls of stone. The God-Kings of Imperial Umerau stared blindly from overthrown stone, moss-covered and almost forgotten. The Cond ruled the cities of the River Aumris, an empire they called the Great All, and few people were so proud or so headstrong. They divided the Ground between the Feal and the Wirg–the weak and the glorious. They adhered to a simplicity that was at once a fanaticism. And they judged the way all Men were prone to judge in those Far Antique days, without patience or mercy.

Unlike the first story, "The False Sun" has much more immediate repercussions for the unfolding fantasy series.  This story contains a wealth of details that according to the author are very pertinent to the in-progress The Unholy Consult, the sixth Eärwa novel, and while it does not "spoil" anything related to the plot of that novel, there are certain details provided that foreshadow what apparently will happen in that novel.  Therefore, it was with keen interest that I read "The False Sun."  What I took away from it was that it is a very well-written narrative that combines the use of naturalist techniques (describing the setting as true as possible) with a lyrical approach that is intended to provide a faint echo of older heroic narratives.

For the majority of the time, this combination works well, as Bakker's attention to detail creates a foreboding atmosphere that is heightened by the juxtaposition of Shaeönanra's thoughts with descriptions of the world around him.  Although too much is made of "world building" when certain reviewers try to analyze the epic fantasy that they have read, it does bear noting that Bakker has done a better job here in describing the layout of his created setting, not just in contents of what exists (the cities that the reader knows will be desolate at some point, the sense of the lost arcane knowledge that occurred in the narrative "present," etc.) but in how these elements have an import beyond the story at hand.  There are numerous hints and possible foreshadowing events that several of Bakker's fans will probably want to dissect and analyze before the next novel comes out.  "The False Sun" certainly does lend itself well to being a speculation-generating piece.  However, I think what is best about this story is not what it portends for the series proper, but instead how it demonstrates Bakker's growth as a writer.

In the past, one of my main complaints about Bakker's writing was his tendency to use a narrative sledgehammer to embed certain elements within the story.  At times during my reading of his first series, The Prince of Nothing, a scene would be near-perfect, until a character would try to reinforce something that had already been previously established about the locale, the situation, or the greater stakes than the Holy War plot.  In his latest novel, The White-Luck Warrior, Bakker had toned this down somewhat, letting the action reveal the gravity of the situation rather than relying so heavily upon the characters to repeat almost redundantly what had previously been accepted.  Here in "The False Sun," by having the thoughts of the future Consult leader serve as the main portal through which the reader experiences the action, s/he gets a larger sense behind the motivations of the antagonists without the need for elaboration or repetition.  This adds new layers to not just "The False Sun," but also to the series as a whole.  By being able to see the antagonistic side and to discern the likely source of their motivations, a new perception is generated without Bakker ever needing to have those characters reveal everything behind their machinations.  Shaeönanra is an effective character not because his actions are particularly noteworthy, but because his motivations are plausible and this adds depth to characters that otherwise might have been relegated to two-dimensional cardboard likenesses of actual dynamic characters. 

"The Four Revelations of Cinial'jin" and "The False Sun" both show Bakker expanding his narrative repertoire.  Although "The Four Revelations of Cinial'jin" is weakened by its dependence upon the reader being fully aware of the context in which the stream of consciousness narrative moves, "The False Sun" is perhaps one of Bakker's most accomplished writings to date.  Subtlety in voice and in characterization can go a long way in creating a compelling atmosphere for the narrative to unfold and in "The False Sun," Bakker shows that the progress made in his earlier novels continues.  This bodes well for the upcoming The Unholy Consult and perhaps for future short fictions in the Eärwa setting.


Anonymous said...

Larry, forgive me if I've misread, but is it fair to criticize Bakker than a short story is not an easy entry for the new reader?

Do you think Stream of Consciousness writing is inherently problematic in fictional worlds due to a lack of grounding, or do you think Bakker's writing in this particular story needs work?

beyond my question - great post!


Larry Nolen said...

It's not a criticism to note that some writings require greater reader awareness. As for the use of SoC, it is going to be a great challenge for writings set in constructed, imagined settings. In this particular case, the more I thought about it, the more I decided Bakker accomplished most of his goals in writing this piece, as at first I was skeptical when I saw he had chosen to write in SoC. What it lacks is something that hardly any writer could provide, considering that situation.

Anonymous said...

In my view being awed by how the immediate events of the False Sun suggest depths of history beyond the story at hand depends on exactly the same familiarity with the setting as required for making sense of the Four Revelations. Without seeing the echos and connections that extend into the series as a whole, The False Sun is simply a story of one old man and his freaky monster pal setting up a rock trap for some other old man. There's setting details and hints of wider plots, but who knows what any of that stuff means or if it's of any importance? And furthermore, why should a new reader care?

The False Sun narrative is more straightforward than the Four Revelations, but without the exact same kind of "ground" familiar to readers of the wider series it's no more awe inspiring than a hodgepodge stream of consciousness that makes no sense. The two narratives are separated by degrees. It only seems like a much clear divide because one of them needs more familiarity than the other to begin drawing the same connections.

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