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A Conversation With R. Scott Bakker
An interview with Victoria Strauss
September 2004

R. Scott Bakker
R. Scott Bakker is a student of literature, history, philosophy, and ancient languages and is a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA) and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). He divides his time between writing philosophy and fantasy, though he often has difficulty distinguishing between them. He lives in London, Ontario.

R. Scott Bakker's Website
ISFDB Bibliography SF Site Review: The Darkness that Comes Before
Article: Why Fantasy and Why Now?

The Warrior-Prophet
The Darkness That Comes Before
The Warrior-Prophet
The Darkness That Comes Before

R. Scott Bakker is a student of literature, history, philosophy, and ancient languages and is a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA) and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). He divides his time between writing philosophy and fantasy, though he often has difficulty distinguishing between them. He lives in London, Ontario. His fantasy series, The Prince of Nothing began with The Darkness that Comes Before, and continues in The Warrior-Prophet.

Some fantasy writers begin with story, some with worlds. I understand that for you the world building came first. What was the inspiration for the world of Eärwa? Was it always planned as a home for novels, or was it more an intellectual exercise, at least initially?

Middle-Earth was definitely my inspiration: I was a world-junkie from the first day Mrs. Martin began reading The Hobbit to my grade five class. Then there was D&D, which provided the initial incentive to work (and work and work) on Eärwa. I wanted my players to believe they adventured in a real place. That way, when their characters died (yes, I was one of those dungeonmasters), it would really, really hurt.

Kind of like George R.R. Martin...

What prompted you to begin writing fiction in this world?
There were a couple of different motives. In D&D, I was always the dungeonmaster. Since I loathed pre-made adventure modules (which I always thought were too 'Monty-Hall'), I made my own instead. This meant I did an inordinate amount of prep for our adventures. I remember quite distinctly wanting to 'make good' on all that labour, especially after I abandoned D&D for sex and drugs.

At the same time, I found myself growing more dissatisfied with the epic fantasy then being marketed. At some point, I thought why not write the story (the idea then was to combine the grandeur and authenticity of The Lord of the Rings with the grit and intrigue of Dune) that I wanted to read. That was the original spark back around 1985, anyway.

Eärwa is a creation of extraordinary depth, with a detailed geography, history, language, literature, religion, and several distinct cultures. Can you give some insight into the process of creating/elaborating all of this?
It's been about twenty years, I think, since I sketched the first map that would eventually grow into Eärwa. There would be months of furious world-building activity, followed by months where I seemed to forget it even existed. I have disorganized reams of material on this or that, and I've likely thrown away more stuff than I've kept.

The big thing, for me, has always been names. I make lists of them, drawn from any number of different sources, so that when the urge to flesh out more of Eärwa hits me, I have this ready reservoir waiting for me. I'm not entirely sure why, but for some reason, when I have the names, the world often seems to build itself. Things just occur to me, then I get bored and move on to 'real life' (though now that I'm making a living doing this, it's actually become real life!).

But you need more than detail to generate the illusion of reality, you also need to know how that detail is organized. Here I think my childhood obsession with historical atlases (in my whole life, the only thing I ever stole was a historical atlas) gave me a good feel for the way 'reality is organized' (which is probably why Eärwa has more a 'historical feel' compared to the 'mythic feel' so brilliantly evoked by Middle-Earth).

And university played a huge role as well, primarily because it forced me to read the ancients themselves, rather than modern interpretations of the ancients. I really think I needed a decade or so of academic osmosis, dabbling in history, languages, and religious studies, to get the organization 'down' in a manner I found satisfactory. It always felt I was taking on too much before.

I understand that the first book of the series, The Darkness that Comes Before, went through multiple rewrites over a considerable period of time. What was the catalyst (Was there a catalyst?) that sparked the final version?
The first catalyst is my good friend Nick Smith, who now teaches philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. We entered the philosophy PhD program at Vanderbilt University the same year, and over the course of our late night discussions of Heidegger and Adorno, I'd periodically mention The Prince of Nothing. While visiting New York, he mentioned it to an old roommate of his, Kyung Cho, who had just become a literary agent -- he described it as 'Nietzsche meets Tolkien,' I think.

I sent Kyung the original manuscript, which then amounted to a monstrous exercise in worldbuilding written in relative seclusion over a period of years -- a mess pretty much, but a mess with promise. "Give me something I can work with," I think he said. After busting my nuts to finish my course work and preliminaries, I moved back to Canada in 2000 and promptly joined something then called the Del Rey Online Writer's Workshop (or DROWW) -- both because it was free, and because of the hope that some editor would 'discover me.' This became a seminal event, not because I was discovered by Del Rey (to my knowledge, no one was, though the workshop produced the likes of Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Caitlin Sweet, and Karin Lowachee), but because I found a community of peers -- Roger Eichorn, in particular -- who taught me how to tell an effective story. University can teach you writing, but only workshops can teach you storytelling. (The DROWW still exists, by the way, though it's now called the Online Writer's Workshop, and I can't recommend it enough).

The final version of The Darkness that Comes Before emerged out of this.

You have a US agent, but you first found publication in Canada. Were US SF/fantasy publishers resistant to such a dense, complex, literary work (and if so, why do you think that was)?
The Darkness that Comes Before bounced through New York twice before my present agent, Chris Lotts (Kyung left to run the family business), found the wonderful people at Overlook. The reason? I know the book's thematic content made some uncomfortable: I was flogging a fantasy that explored the origins of religious violence at a time when sensitivities regarding this subject matter were very high. Even still, I was dismayed and baffled. I thought the book's commercial premise -- as an epic fantasy written for those whose tastes had outgrown the commercial mainstream -- was strong, particularly the way new media (video games in particular) were changing the demographics of reading.

After all the reviews, after the way both books seem to be selling here in Canada, the temptation is to blame the 'corporate editor' -- you know, risk-averse, enslaved by the bean-counters, all that. But when you talk to editors, you realize they don't have this cookie-cutter template in mind, they just know what they like, and they have a series of hunches about what will and will not sell. And it also tends to be the case that the 'higher' you go career-wise, the busier you become. Editorially speaking, New York is the summit of the publishing mountain, and there's very little in the first 200 pages of The Darkness that Comes Before that shouts commercial viability! It's a hard book.

Lucky for me, fantasy readers are unlike any other reader. Think of how many people reread entire series in preparation for the release of a sequel. It really is quite extraordinary.

The Darkness that Comes Before introduces the reader to a hugely complex, multi-layered setting. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating the sheer volume of information that needed to be conveyed?
Stories set here on terra firma take place in a world where all the associations are ready-made. Not so with epic fantasies. Somehow, you have to build a world while telling the story, and it's quite a hard trick, as I'm sure you know! Tolkien overcame this problem by using a couple of very simple and effective mechanisms: he made an 'innocent' his primary protagonist, and he devised a plot that, while referencing an immense amount of detail, avoided turning on too many of those details. This allowed him to gradually reveal Middle-Earth, and to do so in a way that clearly distinguished between details integral to the plot and mere textural details.

Now both the characters and the plot of The Darkness that Comes Before are deeply embedded in Eärwa, and I found myself in a catch-22 as a result: the only way to follow the story was to learn the world, and the only way to learn the world was to follow the story. I adopted a variety of tactics to cope with this problem. I used dialogic reference, passing repetition, dramatic demonstration, and so on, and I can honestly say that in certain respects, I failed. Insofar as none of these tactics come across as contrived or 'potted,' I think I succeeded, but the first 200 pages remain difficult nonetheless. I still think I wrote the book to be read twice.

The Warrior-Prophet contains many intense battle scenes, which you portray not from your characters' individual perspectives, but from an omniscient viewpoint -- an interesting choice of narrative style that really adds to the sense of epic sweep. What prompted you to do this, and what were you trying to achieve thereby?
I spend altogether too much time brooding over these things, so I'll try to outline what I see to be my central concerns and leave it at that. I could clear rooms, trust me!

In narrative terms, I wanted the Holy War to become a character, to be something that suffers, survives crises, and develops as a result; and in this sense, I look at those omniscient sections (which I patterned after Harold Lamb's history of the First Crusade, Iron Men and Iron Saints) as a kind of collective third-person centred POV. I also wanted the Holy War to be entirely believable, a collective version of the psychological realism I try to bring to my characters, both for consistency's sake, and because I think believability is a necessary precondition of conjuring awe, or the tickle of it, anyway. I'll get back to this...

In thematic terms, I was interested in referencing ancient verse epics, The Iliad in particular, and the recounting of the epic order of battle. Ancient epics possessed an important encyclopaedic function; in many cases, they were the repositories of knowledge for their societies, and as my answers to your subsequent questions should make clear, this is something I'm very interested in exploring: the fact that, nowadays, the epic has been stripped of its cognitive role (which is why we call it 'fantasy'), yet tries to mimic that role nonetheless -- to make the impossible believable. I find this quite remarkable -- and unique to epic fantasy.

Another thematic motive for the 'historical voice' has to do with the question that animates The Darkness that Comes Before and The Warrior-Prophet from start to finish: What does it mean to belong to something larger than oneself? The statement, 'There's more than me,' has got to be a signature human insight. The 'more' calls on us in innumerable ways, draws us out of the narrow circle of our self-interest and makes us human -- or so we like to think. So just what is this 'more'? Is it a lover? A movement, a faith, history, or people? Is it a God? What happens to our relationships when we embrace any one or combination of these? And what happens when this 'more' becomes a weapon? Only the epic allows you to fully explore these questions, I think. (I want to say 'only epic fantasy,' but it sounds too flattering to be trusted).

Since childhood I've always been attracted to things that dwarf me, that make me feel small. This was what captivated me about Middle-Earth, I think. For whatever reason, there's an eerie sense of beauty to be found in recognizing our frailty as solitary human beings -- a beauty I've always associated with awe. And for me, the sense of awe, whether conjured through the intimation of unseen immensities or the depiction of collective strife, is what transforms 'large-scale stories' into 'epic narratives.'

And lastly, I wanted to explore the collective dimension of belief and desire. All our actions are underwritten by our beliefs and our desires. We do action A rather than action B, because we believe action A will give us what we want. So what about extreme actions, or better yet, extreme collective actions? What kind of beliefs and desires underwrote, for instance, the lunatic extremes -- the unthinkable atrocities committed, the impossible obstacles overcome -- of the First Crusade? One of the reasons I cleave so closely to the actual history of the First Crusade was that I didn't think people would believe the events I attribute to the Holy War otherwise! And all this, I think, comes back to transcendence, to the belief in 'more,' which for some reason seems to breed both the best and the worst in humanity.

In a series filled with vivid, fascinating characters, Kellhus (for me anyway) is the standout -- not least because, unlike some other writers who portray superhumanly intelligent beings, you succeed in making his intellectual superiority completely convincing. What were the challenges of creating such a character?
I've always felt more intelligent when I write than when I speak. Take me away from my computer screen, and I'm lucky if my thoughts attain the clarity of Campbell's Soup. I suppose (and remember, I'm writing this response!) this is because writing allows you to step outside of time, to think a thousand thoughts where the reader encounters only one. And if you think about it, this is pretty much what Kellhus does while speaking. He stands outside the rush of verbal interaction, and so is able to scrutinize and premeditate where others can only reflexively respond.

So in a formal sense, portraying Kellhus's superhuman intelligence was relatively easy. I would start with straight dialogue for Kellhus's scenes, which I would then go over again and again, each time giving Kellhus more in the way of insights and observations. It was the substance of these insights and observations that proved exceedingly difficult to write. But here again, I had the luxury of time: I would work and rework them until I eventually came up with something 'Kellhus worthy.' I took a shotgun approach.

But there were other challenges as well. Surprising ones.

Most people don't know that the average per second cost of a primetime commercial is greater than the per second cost of a major summer blockbuster. In fact, you could argue that commercials are the most premeditated form of communication in history. Now this is pretty scary when you realize they're primarily designed to condition viewers, rather than rationally convince them. Most commercials are intent on branding, on connecting a product or corporation to a certain set of positive associations. The point isn't to provide the details you need to make a informed decision between competing products -- this is the amateur model of advertising that started disappearing after World War II -- the point, rather, is to literally train you, to transform your automatic response when you next encounter their products. (I irritate my wife to no end by adding 'honest taglines' to pretty much every other commercial we see. With the Olympics on CBC, for instance, my favourite has been, "Another American corporation, pretending to root for the Canadian team.")

Advertisers use these tactics because they work so damn well. It just so happens that conditioning us with associations is a much more reliable sales generating mechanism than engaging us rationally. And yet ask anyone if they're regularly manipulated by commercials and the answer will be an emphatic no. 'I make up my own mind, dammit!'

(Of course 'tough-minded individualism' happens to be one of the primary associations utilized by advertisers. Flattering us with images of personal agency and independence is a good way to exploit us as an impersonal 'market' -- which in the end, is pretty much all we can be to a corporation.)

And this is the point. We humans tend to be a credulous of everything save our credulity -- something I forgot while writing the first draft of The Warrior-Prophet. Originally, my idea was to slowly 'externalize' Kellhus, to move away from his POV and show more and more of his manipulation from the outside. I'd have a wicked gleam in my eye as I wrote, thinking 'What a sneaky bastard!' But my readers kept coming back to me with things like, 'I'm so relieved Kellhus is coming around!' It turned out that Kellhus was duping them as thoroughly as he was duping the characters! They knew he wasn't trustworthy, just as we all know commercials aren't trustworthy, and yet the instinct to think 'Ah, it's OK,' is just so strong (which is why advertisers continue using the tactics they do).

This was perhaps the second greatest difficulty I had writing Kellhus: depicting him in such a way that my readers would always have a sense of the distance between his claims and his intentions. I'm still not happy with the way I resolved this problem.

And I still find myself checking out Nikes at the shoe store...

In addition to a very complex plot, you're unfolding a meta-story in this series, whose outlines, at the end of The Warrior-Prophet, are only just beginning to emerge. Obviously you know where you're going -- but how detailed is your advance planning, both book by book and for the series as a whole?
On the one hand, I want to say my plans are very advanced because I've been living with this story for such a long time (so much so I'm pretty much screwed if I get Alzheimer's). On the other hand, I want to say my plans aren't detailed at all, because aside from brief synoptic sketches, I don't have that much down on paper, and it just never feels real until you 'get it down' for some reason.

Your author bio on The Warrior-Prophet says something I found intriguing: "He divides his time between writing philosophy and fantasy, though he often has difficulty distinguishing between them." The influence of your academic expertise is certainly clear in your novels -- but has your immersion in fantasy affected your study of philosophy?
If you think introducing yourself as a 'fantasy writer' to strangers elicits skepticism, try introducing yourself as a 'philosopher'! And the affinities go far deeper than this...

Imagine you have two friends, one named Theo who tends to tell you what you want to hear -- old and flattering stories that makes things simple and certain -- and one called Phil who tends to tell new stories without quite the same regard for what you want to hear. Now for the longest time, it seems to make no practical difference just who you listen to, so you tend to favour Theo, perhaps because your parents swear by him, or perhaps because you happen to like his wondrous worldview.

Then one day Phil introduces you to his younger and equally innovative sibling, Nat. Now at first, you find Nat rather irritating. Not only does he avoid answering the interesting questions, he seems to make things pointless and unnecessarily complicated. But to your astonishment, you discover that his explanations make a real practical difference. In one breath he says, 'humans are but one animal among many,' and in the next breath he tells you how to track and avoid cholera epidemics. And as time passes, he starts talking more and more, and the things he makes possible become more and more remarkable: supercomputers, MRI's, thermonuclear devices -- things that entirely transform your life.

As this happens, you can't help but look somewhat askance at Theo and Phil -- after all, Nat has inadvertently provided you with a pretty imposing yardstick. You still like what the duo have to say -- even more, you realize they're saying things you need to hear to make sense of your life, especially in the indifferent world of blind processes revealed by Nat (the 'disenchanted world'). And yet, they just don't seem to measure up. Their claims still don't make any practical difference, and they remain utterly incapable of resolving any of their debates -- certainly not the way Nat the wunderkind can.

Because of the extraordinary successes of scientific naturalism (Nat), both religion (Theo) and philosophy (Phil) have become fallen forms of cognition, or knowing, in contemporary society. Our culture is filled with curious phenomena that attest to this 'fall.' Religious belief, for instance, has become a matter of 'personal preference.' Traditional prohibitions, like working on the Sabbath or viewing pornography, and traditional biases, like those against women or homosexuality, have either fallen or are presently falling by the wayside. Epic fantasy, I think, likewise attests to the way Nat has changed our world.

For instance, take the ancient Middle-East as described in the Bible. If you were to redraw the shorelines, rivers, and mountain ranges, and to rename the various peoples, nations, and cities -- to change everything, that is, except its fundamental form -- what would you have? A prescientific world where magic and prophecy are possible, where divinity is certain, where individuals have an indisputable place in a cosmic order, and where the end of the world is imminent.

What you would have, in other words, is something very similar to Eärwa or Middle-Earth! And this is my point: if you change the details and leave the fundamentals intact, scriptural worlds become fantasy worlds.

Personally, I find this fact extraordinary. It explains, for instance, why so many Biblical literalists have so much difficulty with Harry Potter. If you think the world as described in the Bible is the world, then Harry's world is no longer 'harmless fantasy' -- he might as well be a gunslinger! And it also explains, I think, something of epic fantasy's mass appeal.

Scientific method is a hodgepodge of techniques and procedures that enable (albeit in a messy and retail manner) the world rather than our fears and biases to determine our conclusions. It's a kind of discipline, a 'cognitive kung-fu,' and it's utterly transformed our lives as a result. Before science, however, we were able to interpret the world pretty much anyway we pleased. We had no procedural discipline, no way to avoid our hardwired tendency to anthropomorphize or to guard against our hardwired weakness for flattery, oversimplification, and blind certainty. So we tried to understand the world the way we understood each other, as a something possessing purpose and motive. We saw the world as something personal rather than an aggregate of blind and indifferent processes. Existence, we thought, was a kind of extended family, where pleas (prayers) or demands (incantations) were often heard and answered. Before science, in other words, we still saw ourselves as fundamental participants in the world -- as helpless as we were! We knew nothing, and yet things made sense.

So, to finally answer your question (I told you I spent way too much time mulling these things over!). Thanks to science, fantasy worlds are worlds where philosophy and religion still command the heights of cognition. In other words, any world where philosophical discourse remains entirely credible is a fantasy world -- which is why I think fantasy is ideally suited to be a 'literature of ideas.' To write the one, I've found, is to inevitably beg the other. I started using my philosophy to understand my fantasy, only to find my understanding of philosophy transformed as well.

You have some strong views on the disdain manifested by the self-styled speculative fiction literati toward anything labeled "epic fantasy" (a disdain that to my mind interestingly mirrors the prejudice many non-fantasy readers exhibit toward the genre as a whole). Please feel free to air them here.
This is what I think is going on.

For simplicity's sake, lets say this debate is between two well-defined groups (which it isn't), the 'literati' and the 'laymen,' with the former impugning epic fantasy, and the latter defending it.

Training and socialization are the backbones of appreciation. When architects look at a building, they see far more than laymen see. When musicians listen to a composition, they hear far more than laymen hear. And likewise, when critics read a novel, they comprehend far more than laymen comprehend.

This just underscores an obvious fact: in many cases, how much one knows conditions what one can and cannot appreciate. Take sentimentalism, for instance. Once you come to understand the baffling complexities and ambiguities of human emotion, then emotional clichés like 'love conquers all,''be true to who you are,' and so on, start looking hackneyed and cartoonish. Listening to Britney Spears is no longer an option (looking, on the other hand...). You've outgrown sentimentalism, and certain things no longer ring true.

So what you have are individuals with standards arising from specialized training, literati, critiquing works written for individuals with standards arising from their socialization in popular culture, laymen. Since the training of the former builds on the socialization of the latter, the standards of the literati are bound to be more complex, more informed, and more sensitive to nuance -- like the ear of a musician or the eye of an architect.

Given these standards, works written expressly for laymen are bound to seem simplistic and ignorant to the literati, and they say as much in their critiques. Now since ignorance is invisible -- we're typically ignorant of our ignorance -- these critiques are bound to sound 'out of the blue,' or arbitrary, to laymen. And since we tend to be jealous rather than skeptical of our commitments, the initial lay tendency is to accuse the literati of 'reading too much' into the works at issue. 'It's just entertainment!' is a common rejoinder.

Of course the literati know there's no such thing as 'pure entertainment,' that most cultural expression tends to encode and reinforce the prevailing ideology of the society it's expressed within. (As the systematic sum of what we do, societies require the repetition of our actions -- buying, working, and so on -- to maintain structural integrity. Given that beliefs are a primary basis of action, the production of cultural artifacts becomes an important way in which societies regulate the repeated actions that make them possible: this is easily seen when one looks at ancient or exotic societies (think of the social function of medieval beliefs like 'the divine right of kings,' 'life is a veil of tears,' and so on) but becomes progressively more difficult to see the closer one comes to one's own society, where one's beliefs and assumptions seem 'natural.' This is why so much popular culture seems ideologically inert, or 'entertainment pure and simple,' to laymen: because our socialized beliefs frame our perspective, it's difficult to take a perspective on them, and since we can't take a perspective on them, we assume there's nothing to take a perspective on (and comments like this one, strike us as 'out of the blue' or 'just plain wrong').

The tendency of the literati, at this point, is to make some claim to authority -- and this is where everything falls apart. The worst way to ground apparently arbitrary judgments is to claim authority. Not only is authority taken to be 'authority over,' it simply compounds the sense of arbitrariness. The lay response, not surprisingly, is to accuse the literati of arrogance.

And in a sense, they're right, because ultimately the literati have no real authority, at least not in the way neurosurgeons or other technical and scientific specialists have authority in debates involving their subject matter (imagine contradicting these guys on a message board!). The literati themselves may think they have that authority, but authority without recognition is no authority at all. They're no different than priests or philosophers in this regard.

Add the usual bundle of human weaknesses to the mix and this communicative impasse becomes pretty much insurmountable. Debate collapses into name-calling. The literati feel confirmed in their elitism (because it just goes to show), the laymen feel confirmed in their anti-intellectualism (because you can always tell the bad guys by their vocabularies), and as is usually the case in disagreements, both sides go home feeling smug and self-satisfied.

It doesn't matter, I think, what sub-genres you plug into this literati/laymen relationship. Now it just happens to be the 'new weird' on the literati side and 'epic fantasy' on the laymen side. The key to resolving the ruckus, I think, is for the literati to acknowledge their lack of institutional authority, and to concentrate on showing what's 'wrong' with commercial epic fantasy, rather than telling (as authorities do), but this is hard work, and we tend to be lazy. It's far easier to call people stupid. Likewise, laymen should acknowledge the limitations of their appreciation, the fact that there's always more than what meets the eye. The problem here, however, is that this is humbling, and we tend to be conceited. It's far easier to call people pompous.

The irony of all this, of course, is that the epic fantasy condemned by the literati and defended by the laymen generally depicts worlds where value is objective, which is to say, a world where the literati could (like doctors and physicists in our world) have the authority to command consensus from laymen.

We live in strange times.

What are you working on now? How many books will ultimately be set in the world of The Prince of Nothing?
The Prince of Nothing consists of three books, The Darkness that Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought. They tell the story of the crucial events that occur some twenty years before the Second Apocalypse begins. I have outlines (whose original forms, coincidentally, date back some twenty years) that sketch the story of the Second Apocalypse, starting with The Aspect-Emperor and ending with The-Book-that-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Whether these will turn into trilogies like The Prince of Nothing remains to be seen. My guess is that each will be a dualogy.

I'm presently working on The Thousandfold Thought. 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.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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