Monday, June 27, 2011

Holy Moly, Frodo! Something Evil Lurks!

So, obviously, this post is not about the music project. Although, the title could be a Led Zeppelin reference, I suppose. But it isn't.

A while ago I discovered a new fantasy writer, and quickly became in awe of the expanse, detail, and depth of his epic creation. This, I told myself, and others who were in earshot, makes Tolkien look like a beginner.  I stumbled, pretty literally, upon R Scott Bakker's first volume in a bookstore while looking at Lord of the Rings editions. The cover, which was the first edition hardcover published by Penguin Canada, was black with sinister sanskrit-like runes scrawled across it. Pretty interesting, and after reading the synopsis, and the reviews, I invested about $27 dollars into it, deciding this wasn't a Tolkien knock-off, or a lame role-playing novelization, but appeared to be legitimate, and could possibly be groundbreaking. And it turns out I was right, but seemed to be the only one who thought so.

Where Tolkien created things that lived around mankind and had different culture, language, customs, and history, Bakker has created differences between people, painting realistic nations split by culture, religion, proximity, language, much more like George RR Martin. Bakker had not needed to go outside of the species to create scenarios of misunderstanding and distrust for evil to take advantage. Religion and questions of spirituality, theology, philosophy, and metaphysics are at the heart of this epic, more so than Tolkien or Martin ever dared.

Not to say that Bakker has only created a world with the sole inhabitants being human. There are non-men, similar to Tolkien's elves, but twisted by time, driven insane by their immortality. Sranc roam uninhabited wastelands that remind one again of Tolkien's orcs. There are also Wracu (dragons), ciphrang (demons), genetically engineered monsters (Bashrag), and the primary antagonists, the Inchoroi, who appear to be otherworldy (read aliens).

The influences of Tolkien and Martin are unmistakable. But the way the world is created has more of a Greco/Persian eastern influence than western Nordic/Germanic or War of the Roses England. The conflicts depicted in the first trilogy (Prince of Nothing) more resemble crusade-like middle-ages mentality than epic journeys of fortune, which seems to be the driving force behind the second unfinished trilogy, The Aspect Emperor. End times theology seems to play a role as well, as aspects of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic ideas of Anti-Christ and apocalypse flit in and out of the narrative. There are also powerful ideas of feminism, the sacred feminine, gender roles, social impact of warrior culture, mysticism, xenophobia, and the thin boundaries of sanity.

The idea that caught me pretty early on while reading, and truly impressed me the most, however, was that unlike in other epic fantasy mainstays like Lord of the Rings, Conan, Harry Potter, Eragon, Narnia, Wheel of Time, or Song of Ice and Fire, there is no clear boundary between good and evil. In fact, it could be said that there is no true good at all in Bakker's universe, only shades of evil, which manifest through greed, amorality, and entitlement. And at the top (or bottom, I guess) of this evilness scale is the true bad guy of the series, a race of evil beings that make all other characters deeds pale in comparison. Everyone here has faults, impure thoughts, agendas, emotional shortcomings.

Not only is good and evil up for debate here, but also sanity. Multiple characters battle with what it means to be sane and a good many slip over the boundaries, most unable to recover after grasping with realities and concepts of meaning not meant for weak men (and women). There are times when it seems the insane are the only ones who truly know reality.

This isn't meant to say that none of these characters are like-able.  The main characters in the first trilogy and the relationships they have to each other are interesting. The way they interact, use each other, tolerate each other in order to get what they need echo the reality of true human beings. Also, it takes some time to truly appreciate the deviousness of the characters and figure out who is truly betraying whom. No one in this world plays nice, making this series at once epic, and at the same time a horror.

Part of Bakker's world building includes the physics of Magic. Seen by one of the prevailing religions as a sinful abomination, magic is practiced by guild-like institutions called schools. Incantations, songs, are sung that can redefine reality. There are three types of magic, only two are described in detail. Gnostic sorcery reshapes reality through abstractions, and Angagogic sorcery reshapes reality through allusions. Basically, the Gnosis creates  new reality by describing the new reality outright, and the Anagogis alters reality by describing the new reality through metaphors. The physics of magic in this universe is unlike anything I've encountered before in fiction, and probably makes the most realistic sense.

The biggest criticism seems to be from feminists, or more specifically, people arguing that Bakker is a degenerate misogynist and therefore should not be read by anyone. Below are a few links to reviews concerning this. The first one is actually intelligent, from Shattersnipe.

The other two degenerate pretty quickly into name calling and condemnation, one begins the post by saying she only read 5 pages of his first book before making a sweeping judgement. Being able to write a review based on the first five pages of a book is an amazing talent.

I think, in each of these cases, the writers are so quick to condemn anything even remotely offensive, that they miss the point entirely. I've read Bakker's interviews, the Q and A sessions where he addresses these issues. I've read the spin put on these answers. There is nothing in these articles I believe Bakker would disagree with, but yet, he is still lambasted as being misogynist and inherently evil. His nihilistic approach to human nature helped create a realistic male dominated society, and his female characters exist realistically in this system. The entire social system in these books is violent, misogynist and dark, and it's done that way on purpose. 

Also, something must be said about the one-sidedness of these arguments. His female characters might not be "strong" in the way that feminism may want them to be, but then again, none of his male characters are strong either in the typical western ideal of heroes. Perhaps his female characters are lacking in certain ideal feminist traits, but then again, none of his characters are likeable, strong, altruistic characters, male or female. Unless you believe that sociopathic thinking, violence, and abuse are all excellent traits, these books help to define and reveal the philosophical shortcomings inherent in human beings.

I definitely recommend the Prince of Nothing and the Aspect Emperor trilogies. And just think, you won't have to wait years at a time for the next book to hit the shelves, as there are now five volumes available. There are epic battles, doublecrosses, philosophical inquiries, a vast world to become accustomed, mysteries, love, abandonment, corruption, true evil, and a realistic portrayal of war and conflict. These are not easy books, however. Enjoyment of intelligent, thought provoking writing is a must.

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