Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker

December 5, 2009 at 7:38 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Like it or not, one thing is certain: Neuropath is a book about Big Issues.  And not the usual ones.  If the idea of a novel whose plot and emotional center are both grounded in the latest research in the neurological basis of consciousness sounds exciting, then you should probably ignore the rest of this review and read the book.  If it sounds like I’m being sarcastic, I’m not.  It sounded exciting to me and I read it for that reason.  So if you’re interested, go ahead, because novels about consciousness are pretty thin on the ground.  I almost feel obligated to support the book, just to encourage more writers to have the courage to tackle interesting (and very difficult) issues.

Unfortunately while as I’ve just made clear I admire the book a great deal, I also feel obligated to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it and suspect most potential readers won’t either.  What went wrong?

From the beginning, Neuropath is playing defense.  Before the book begins there’s an author’s note saying that although it is fiction, the novel is “based on actual trends and discoveries in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science”.   Obviously this was included because Bakker or his editor felt that much of the actual science in the book will not be recognized as such.  This is an unusual problem for a science fiction novel.  Instead of the usual suspension of disbelief, Bakker is trying to achieve something else, uh, I guess an animation of belief?

I’m guessing that, for this material at least, it’s going to be a lot harder for the reader to be lead towards belief instead of away from disbelief.  I can’t say for sure: I came into the book at least somewhat familiar with the research that Bakker based it on so I didn’t really need any hand-holding.  But throughout the novel I could see the author straining to be convincing, walking the reader through this or that difficult element of modern cognitive science and trying to anticipate and then address objections.

If you’re read very much science fiction you probably think I’m saying there’s a lot of infodumps, since they are an ever-presence scourge particular to science fiction and fantasy.  And yes, info gets dumped.  But normally books just dump the info and move on, and as long as it is kept within reasonable limits most of us have learned to deal with it.  Here, because as I’ve said the author assumes (correctly I think) that the info he’s dumping isn’t likely to be believed, you end up with these Socratic dialogue infodumps where The Layperson goes back and forth with the Scientific Authority, slowly being led to question their assumptions and glimpse the truth.  Bakker does the best he can to smoothly place these within his narrative, but these exchanges feel utterly out of place in a thriller.

I haven’t mentioned until now that this is a thriller, because it’s not.  Oh, it wants to be.  See, the book is about a neurosurgeon-turned-serial-killer who is old friends with the protagonist, a psychology professor, and…well, mileage varies, but I found it all fairly derivative.  After Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, etc. I’m pretty burned out on serial killers.  But really, this just isn’t a thriller.  I don’t know anything about how Bakker came to write this book, and certainly I could be totally wrong, but my impression is that for Bakker the science came before the story.  He wanted to write a novel that contained the science, so he pieced together a thriller story as best he could around the Socratic exposition he’d need to explain the facts.  And the thriller is not very good.  For one thing, it is crowded out by the science, which gets the lion’s share of the book’s emphasis, so there’s just not a lot of space to develop either the plot or the characters.  For another, the expository nature of the scientific sections undermines the tension and sympathy the thriller needs to work well.  And finally (but this is the least important issue) the nature of the science itself tends to undermine sympathy with the protagonist.

I don’t really blame Bakker for this, or rather, having set out on this course I don’t know if there was much he could have done differently.  Science fiction is great for showing the implications of science, but I don’t think it’s a very good vehicle for science itself.  Non-experts must judge scientific claims based on the authority of the one making the claim, and fiction writers, to put it bluntly, are professional liars.  Even though Bakker has twisted the story into contortions for the benefit of the science, much to story’s detriment, he’s still working in a literary tradition in which the usual practice is to twist the science into contortions for the benefit of the story, much to the science’s detriment.

Still, Bakker should be saluted for aiming high here, and the maybe some will find the result more enjoyable than I did.  For people interested in what modern neuroscience is learning about the mind, I recommend V. S. Ramachandran’s surprisingly readable non-fiction book Phantoms in the Brain, which I suspect was a major source for Bakker.  As time goes on hopefully the readership will get to the point where SF novels incorporating this kind of work can be novels first.

Prince of Nothing Trilogy by R Scott Bakker

May 13, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments

R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing trilogy has to be one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve ever given a rating of just three stars. There is a great deal to like about the books, but while I found them engrossing, particularly the first book, ultimately I enjoyed them much less than I hoped. First, a brief warning, although I only read completed series, by many definitions this series is not over. Much is left open at the end. This didn’t bother me too much, as my no-unfinished-series policy is less about avoiding cliffhangers and more about saving time by not having to reread books to get back up to speed when sequels come out. If the second and third books are any indication of the shape of future books in the series, there will be ample “What Has Come Before” material to catch up with.

So these are fantasy books, but what sort of fantasy books? Bakker seems very interested in several things: world-building, realism, intrigue, and philosophy. By realism, I mean this is one of those series where there might be magic, but the story is told without leaving out any of the grit and grime of love and war in a medieval setting. Bakker’s done his research and his gritty details are convincing. I found the political intrigue to be very good, which was fortunate since most of the first book is spent on it. The world building seems standard at first but has some very interesting wrinkles to it, but alas these are left firmly in the background for this trilogy. Unfortunately, while it is clear Bakker has an enormous amount of work into the setting, throughout the trilogy there is such a deluge of proper nouns that some readers will bounce off entirely and many more, like myself, will find it ultimately a distancing feature. And the philosophy, well, more on that in a minute. While we’re talking about what Bakker does well, I felt that the battle scenes were particularly well done. If you are a fan of intrigue stories and epic fantasy, this is definitely worth a try.

But what went wrong for me? For starters, the animating philosophical principles for the books (despite a lot of name dropping from other sources) seem to be Nietzsche and Dawkins’ ideas about memes. In the end, I didn’t find this particularly satisfying. The basic framework from the story is taken from the Crusades and I know enough history that I don’t need three long fantasy books to remind me how pointless, wasteful, cynical, etc. they were. That’s not to say no one can write a great book about clashing religions: Guy Gavriel Kay, an enormously different writer than Bakker, wrote a brilliant book a while back with Lions of Al-Rassan. What made Lions great was its focus on the characters ensnared in the prejudices and grand movements of their time. The Prince of Nothing books also cover this ground, but the way the characters are treated is the opposite of Kay, who in all his books asks the reader to accept the idea that his main characters have modern, progressive attitudes despite being surrounded by realistically bigoted and small-minded countrymen. Bakker takes things in the opposite direction: pretty much no one demonstrates the ability to lift their head above the muck long enough to see what is going on, and so his characters spend their time getting ground up within the wheels of the machine. There’s a sort of tragedy in that, but it’s also very predictable, and in my opinion is not worth three books to get the reader there.

Of course, one character, the eponymous Prince of Nothing, is indeed capable of seeing everything for what it is. Kellhus, the Nietzschean ubermensch, comes from a monastery where he has been rigorously schooled in a hand waving philosophy that combines analytical thought with Buddhist meditation toward enlightenment. Also, he’s the product of a couple thousand years of breeding. This combination of husbandry and philosophy has given him some very useful abilities. He’s a perfect actor, capable of completely separating his outside self from whatever he really is feeling inside and further perfectly projecting whatever thoughts, attitudes, and emotions he wants using his expression, mannerisms, and speech. Additionally, he doesn’t really feel anything, because his philosophy has made him into some sort of Vulcan. On top of that, he can read other people’s faces and achieve results indistinguishable from telepathy. Oh, and did I mention he’s got the “body control” to be the equal of thirty men in combat, see a crossbow bolt fired directly at him and pluck it out of the air, and generally be a complete martial arts badass.

Bakker says in the introduction to one of the books that he worked on the first book, The Darkness that Comes Before, for about fifteen years. Unlike Kellhus I can’t read minds, but if I had to guess I would think Kellhus and his abilities are some of the earliest elements to the story, because frankly they sound more like the ideas of an adolescent than those of a talented author like Bakker has become. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe Bakker could read the previous paragraph tomorrow and not feel at least slightly embarrassed, but that’s how I see it. Don’t get me wrong: he’s too smart to make Kellhus utterly perfect. Occasionally Kellhus makes mistakes, although this is generally for lack of sufficient data rather than genuine miscalculation. However, as readers we only hear about these mistakes when the narrative is from Kellhus’ perspective, so most of the time we have no indication of it.

Now I’m not arguing that the idea of a combination of Professor X, Spock, and a stock Jet Li character is impossible. When you are waving your hands and talking about long breeding programs, I’m forced to grant a lot things as possible. After all, Frank Herbert did the same thing to produce someone who could see the future and I was fine with it. No, the problem is in addition to having a silly array of abilities, Kellhus is a dramatic black hole. Because he’s the perfect manipulator, there’s virtually no dramatic tension unless the reader is artificially kept in the dark as to what Kellhus is trying to achieve. His character cannot develop, because he actually has no character, he’s a much more fully realized Vulcan than Star Trek ever managed in that respect. Any “development” isn’t so much a change as a crack. Given that he is a parody of Nietzsche (who would not have agreed with Kellhus that freedom from society’s strictures implies amorality) he is extremely unlikable, and it is pretty frustrating to watch the likeable characters of the story sit in his clutches and know that given the powers assigned to Kellhus they are incapable of breaking free without it seeming like a cheat.

It doesn’t help there aren’t many likeable characters to begin with. Curiously, despite centering his story on a virtually perfect character, Bakker makes sure to populate the rest of his characters with a healthy number of flaws. And of course, in what has become de rigueur for “gritty” fantasy these days, the likeable characters that we are supposed to be rooting for are subjected to all manner of indignities. I mean that literally, because I think all the bases are covered when it comes to awful things that can happen to someone. Now, I don’t mind bad things happening to characters, but it helps if there’s some emotional payoff at the end of it. In this case, not really. So at least give me something I can hold on to: Iain Banks at his bleakest (Against a Dark Background) still compensates with moments of humor and wit. That is also mostly absent here.

Finally, it must be mentioned that just about every character, likeable or not, has strange sexual hang-ups of some sort. That’s not so uncommon in fantasy these days either, but in an unusual move Bakker basically defines the capital-B Bad Guys, the ones who do a lot of lurking so they can presumably become important in later books, by their carnal appetites. This is a very shallow sort of bad guy, if you ask me. I expected more from someone of Bakker’s interest in philosophy, and sure enough towards the end we find out they do actually have some interesting beliefs and convictions. That makes their, ah, cravings all the more pointless if you ask me.

This is a long review, which is very much a compliment. There’s a lot going on in these books and the reader is presented a lot to think about. I just can’t strongly recommend them because I think so many people, including myself, will find them unpleasant or unsatisfying. I’ve got high hopes that in the future Bakker will hit his stride and write fiction that is both thought provoking and effective. Until then, consider reading these but pass if they don’t sound like the sort of books you really enjoy.

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