R. Scott Bakker’s Novels: Brilliant and Deeply Flawed

R. Scott Baker’s grimdark epic fantasy trilogies, The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor, dazzle some readers: Artistically, philosophically, and as genre fiction, they’re in many ways brilliant. I’d go so far as to say that the final book of the latter series, The Unholy Consult, is the book I am most eagerly anticipating this year — more, even, than George R.R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter (which probably won’t come out in 2017); it’s due for release July 4th, 2017.

A handful of SFF books stand out to me in a very specific way: These are the books I remember reading with intense absorption, and, in some cases, I remember exactly where I was, physically, when I read them. Martin’s Game of Thrones falls into this camp (and I read them long before the HBO series, when he was an important writer but not a phenomenon); Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart (which remains perhaps my favorite book of all time, but that’s another blog post); and Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before. In Bakker’s first novel, the opening chapter riveted me because of its uniqueness; has there ever been a character quite like Anasûrimbor Kellhus, with his combination of skills, genetic superiority, and motives? Have there ever been another group of people like the Dûnyain, a group founded on empirical philosophy and the power of the Logos — but also amoral in their pursuit of their goals?

Bakker does so many things incredibly well: His world, Eärwa, rivals any fantasy milieu out there in its depth, complexity, and originality. He weaves in Middle Eastern and African cultural themes, not limiting himself to proto-European cultures. Bakker’s background in academic philosophy pervades the books (some might say too much, though I disagree), playing a key role in the plot and even in magic systems like the Gnosis. His characters often prove memorable; the sorcerer Achamian’s faults and strengths come together vividly. And Bakker’s descriptions of big action scenes offer incredible payoffs, and I’ve taken inspiration in my own writing from his technique in this specific area.

For all these reasons, I’m in turns awed, inspired, influenced, and entertained by Bakker’s work.

But I do so with some very serious reservations.

Why? The treatment of women in his works.

Now, let me be very clear: I’m not remotely the first person to comment on this issue in Bakker’s work. Australian fantasy author, reviewer, poet and blogger Foz Meadows blogged about this in 2012. In her critique, she admonished him:

[I]f you write books specifically for men, in the male gaze, that are devoid of unvictimised female characters, full of pornographically written rape, and which represent a world-view in which women can never succeed – and where, in fact, the best we can hope for is that men learn to like us enough that they repress their terrible, innate desire to hurt us – you shouldn’t be surprised that many people – most of them feminists! – find your work appalling.

She focused both on the content of his work — which she labeled “nihilist” and described as “using sexualised evil commited by men against women” — but also on his own words, taken from a reply Bakker made to one of his own web site’s comments in 2012. She excerpted a great deal of his own words, but these stood out to me:

So yes, women get the short end of the stick in all my books. Why? Because they find themselves caught in predatory systems designed to exploit them.

Bakker’s broad point here and elsewhere is that he depicts violence against women in critique of the systems of power that hold women back and degrade and demean them, and that such depictions don’t constitute an endorsement on his part of those actions. In a blog post in 2014, he defended himself against what he viewed as demonization:

Since depiction is so often confused with endorsement, it should come as no surprise that certain readers would think that, far from critiquing patriarchal social systems, I’m celebrating and promoting the denigration of women.

He also attacks the moral absolutism of feminism, which he likens to religious and environmentalist fundamentalism (including a misguided implicit comparison between feminists and ISIS).

There’s a lot to unpack here. I fully consider myself a feminist, and feminist values come through strongly in my own (hopefully to-be-published) fantasy and sci-fi writings. I’m having trouble with Bakker’s defense because of three main issues:

First, where representation follows highly traditional, misogynistic norms, it’s incumbent upon the author to subvert those tropes if he’s to avoid misogyny himself. In his fantasy series, major female characters are (a) Prostitutes (two major characters — Esmenet and her daughter Mimara); (b) a Crone (Pstama) — two fantasy cliches rooted in disempowerment. Esmenet rises above her station, only to reveal a variety of deep weaknesses; I’m not convinced there’s been much trope subversion at all. In later books, Anasûrimbor Serwa is a powerful sorceress, but lacks the centrality to the plot that Esmenet, Mimara, and even Serwë — a naive and hapless female character — have.

Second, the inferiority of women in Bakker’s world are portrayed — even when seen through the eyes of female characters — as integral. The following quote — describing female character Mimara’s revelation of the nature of the world using her Judging Eye — made me gasp aloud when I read it:

Between women and men, women possess the lesser soul. Whenever the Eye opens, she glimpses the fact of this, the demand that women yield to the requirements of men, so long as those demands be righteous. To bear sons. To lower her gaze. To provide succor. The place of the woman is to give. [Bakker, R. Scott. The Great Ordeal: The Aspect-Emperor: Book Three (The Aspect-Emperor Trilogy) (Kindle Locations 3266-3268). The Overlook Press. Kindle Edition].

Why the ontology of the world should have to be so completely demeaning to women is beyond me. But that brings us to the next point.

Third, if numerous women readers find this work troubling, then that’s troubling. It suggests that Bakker hasn’t succeeded in his self-proclaimed goal of critiquing patriarchal social systems. A famous female fantasy author — interacting with me on Facebook several years ago — said that “as a woman, I didn’t find much for me in Bakker’s work.” Significant Reddit threads are devoted to this debate. Perhaps it’s too facile to say, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” but if numerous women find the work troubling, shouldn’t we take that concern seriously?

Overall, I’d say that I hold very complicated feelings about my fandom here. I’ve not yet met R. Scott Bakker, though I hope to someday, because of his brilliance — but also (if he’s willing) so that I can engage with him on this issue. Perhaps The Unholy Consult will reveal why he made some of the choices he made and the logic of why his world is so brutal to women. (If so, he will have waited 7 books to explain, which is asking a lot of readers and critics). I certainly hope he will. In the meantime, as much as I enjoy his works, I’ll continue to read them with a very significant asterisk hovering over my enjoyment of them. If he’d chosen to depict racism or homophobia in the same way (which, to be clear, he does not), would I glide over the issue? Surely not, which is why I won’t do so vis-a-vis misogyny, either.

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Comments 15

  1. I just can’t see how writing the series with the judging eye you want me to would do anything but overthrow the whole point of the series, which is to aquaint the reader with their judging eye. After all, the ‘deep flaw’ that you point out is a moral one, isn’t it?

    This is the reason why I see this as a dream review. It’s always troubling to find oneself associated with values you don’t share, but I knew the risks that I was running. Playing with morality is playing with fire.

    People are left with a choice right? Either my artistic decision making actually is morally defective, or I intentionally set out to cue the kind of moral indignation the Holy Bible cues in certain readers. As an explicit theme across so many books, the latter pretty much has to be the case, doesn’t it?

    So what does that do to your deep moral flaws? What does it say that a little bit of fiction was all it took to cue your perception of them?

    They’re sticky, sticky things, our moral intuitions.

    Real subversion, JP, isn’t following a recognizable pattern, it’s being surprised to find yourself on the wrong side of things, even though you’ve always believed yourself right.

    1. Post
      Author

      First, it’s an honor to have you comment on my brand new little blog. I don’t mind you seeing mine as a “dream review” at all. I come at this critique from a position of genuine respect and, despite my concerns, an abiding love for the impressive novels you have written. The reason I wrote this blog post was to express, in my small, personal way, why I face a struggle navigating between “awe-struck fanboy” and “morally uncomfortable feminist critic.” I did NOT write it to make an ad hominem attack, so I’m glad you didn’t take it that way.
      One thing I’m struck by is your continued insistence that taking a moral point of view like feminism is tantamount to the “moral indignation of the Holy Bible.” For certain, there are doctrinaire feminists who have detailed litmus tests. But as with many philosophies, feminism doesn’t have to be that way. Yet there has to be some baseline here, and since I find it morally desirable for a work of art to be in some way feminist, I laid out my three areas in the blog post. Conclusion? Unlike some of your other critics, I’m not labeling you a misogynist; I’m instead saying that maybe some of the intent you have isn’t coming through to all readers in the way that you would like.
      And having written a novel after a very long time (almost 6 years; the book is now on submission), I finally understand *what it means* to criticize you like this. It’s got to be incredibly hard to have some random reader say, “I had moral qualms and found you not completely successful.” (Then again, you’ve been through many battles and are probably thick-skinned). Just know that this same critic isn’t impugning your personal motives, and this same fanboy simply can’t wait for *The Unholy Consult*.
      Thank you for engaging with me. Someday, at a con, I’ll say hello and ask you to sign my copies of your books. best, j. p.

      1. Sorry, long comment. TL;DR: My compliments to the author, and why even the most adamant defense won’t change the mind of stolid critics.

        Mr. Bakker,

        First of all, let me also say that a comment from me comes from a place of utter respect. I read your work, The Darkness That Comes Before, at a young age. I was roughly 19. I had just graduated high school. JP, I too remember where I was while I was reading this. It left a lasting impression on me and changed the way I see and read fantasy. Up until then, I had been reading RA Salvatore and Piers Anthony and the like. I had no idea what GrimDark was. Your work helped me get past that, and your action scenes, I hope, had some influence on my own. However, I did have problems with the way women were treated in the novel, but at the time I could never have described to you or anyone else what those problems were.

        I’ve since read much, much more, and I’ve been through intense gender studies classes where we looked both at traditional female tropes and deconstructive fiction. I am not calling you a misogynist. Milo Yiannopolous is a misogynist. Donald Trump is a misogynist. You are an author caught in the middle of a fierce battle, even among peers. I’d bring up Cat Valente, but her militant ideals blind her sometimes. Some days she’s a feminist, and some days she’s a one-woman witch hunt. You said yourself you had to make a choice. However wrong we may feel that choice was, it was not a moral choice. No one died as a result of your work. However, I think it’s important that we be able to talk about that choice and what it does to the conversation of subversive female tropes in fantasy fiction is vital not only to your work but to future works of fiction, including my own (if I ever finish them). I too may find myself on the wrong side of history. I too have a choice to make about how I treat female characters and how I treat people of color in a story about human trafficking set in the South Carolina and Georgia during Jim Crow and the Vietnam War. I’m sorry to say that what you say about your work is not as important as what the work says to them about you. And unfortunately, very few people will look at your defense with an objective eye compared to what they are reading in the text. It’s something fans of Lovecraft are dealing with now. How do we love his work without condemning him as a racist? How do we pay him homage while we also deconstruct him? How do we adore your own writing even though we cannot stomach your portrayal of women? How can J. K. Rowling not portray Native Americans in her American-based story? If she does, she’s culturally appropriating their image. If she doesn’t, she’s an Imperialist for not acknowledging the British colonized Native Americans. It’s all in the portrayal.

        I also agree with JP. The actions speak louder than the words. You cannot, in fact, subvert patriarchal systems by using them. That’s Gender Studies 101. They are tools of the people like Yiannopolous, and they have rules for their use. Subversive work does not begin by picking up the misogynists’ toys and playing by their rules. History will not remember you as anything to the contrary. You have to outline the system, then break it. Just one character is enough. Just one male character who treats women with respect. Just one female character with agency is enough to break the cycle. After that, then you can say you exploited the system. I criticized Gail Z. Martin for it several times. She was subverting her strong female characters with a cast of agonizingly submissive female characters. She was borderline phobic with characters that are historically homoerotic (vampires). She was undermining her own agenda, and she did not even know it.

        Her tone and treatment in recent novels is as much a mark of her response to feedback as it is a level of personal growth. Responding to feedback in your writing, and in public, is a way to let your readers know you are listening. Continuing to write the way you do, knowing your critics and readers have found fault and given you feedback (no matter what form it takes), does not help you. JP says that in seven books you have not changed your tactic with regards to women. You may feel deep in your bones that what you are doing is right and still be doing it wrong.

        Deconstruction does not begin by playing by the rules of the status quo. The desire to diversify is there, but the work you would do to deconstruct Western magic systems is undermined by the traditional western roles of submissive women in fantasy. Portraying women as objects or crones in a story without a character to balance that does the exact opposite of what you hope for. This comes from years and years of training as a deconstructive critic, reading both traditional fantasy and deconstructive fantasy, and of being female in a male-dominated world.

        Whether you believe you are in the wrong or not, the time to respond to feedback is well passed. You cannot possibly hope to defend your work if you don’t change it. If you feel you are in the right, then say nothing and do what you do. Nothing you say will convince your hard critics that you did what you felt was right. If you want to truly defend yourself, show your fans you are listening to feedback. As a fan and a female, I will not think any less of you for it, and I’ll be in line with your other fans, waiting for the next book. Lovecraft wrote at a time when no one would think to criticize works based on race or gender. Writers do now have to take these things into account, and be prepared for the backlash should they

        It’s good for us as a community to be able to talk like this. Thanks for writing the review, JP, and thank you, Mr. Bakker, for responding.

          1. Post
            Author

            Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting comments, Ashley! Good luck on your writing, too! j. p.

        1. Hi Ashley, I can’t find the right word for how I feel about your comments. “Disturbed” sounds too serious and “curious” doesn’t sound intense enough. Just take my comment as a sincere question and as playful intellectual discussion: Do you really want to tell authors how and what to write? Wouldn’t you rather be surprised? Authors don’t have any responsibility to respond to feedback; it seems like you’re patting Gail Martin on the back for listening to people and “getting better” in some respect. The author’s responsibility is to tell good stories, and yielding a satisfying experience for the reader means they have to subvert reader expectations, not cultural paradigms that some people find objectionable. I bet you and I find plenty of the same stuff objectionable, but what I also find objectionable is authors not having the freedom to tell stories in a way that blows readers’ minds. Without the revelations allowed by stories, where would any of us be? Telling authors that they should get better about how they portray particular people is not much better than telling Patrick Rothfuss that he damned well better finish book 3 this year.

  2. First, I have held off on these books (or put them lower down on my list) and this review doesn’t help me decide whether to raise or lower them on the list! I was hoping it would :). Though I can handle misogyny as a literary theme — I’m comfortable supplying the necessary internal critique, something I had to learn reading John Irving novels long ago — I am actually rather squeamish on the topic of rape (ironic, given my reference to Irving, though maybe it’s his fault). I can’t really read it. It hurts too much. If it’s a necessary plot element as it sometimes is, I prefer to skim it, but even then I feel darkened by it.
    Second, I love that you were able to present your thoughts cogently enough to warrant a response from the author. Your critique and his reply represent the kind of intellectual dialogue that one wishes we had more of in our public conversations. Can’t wait to read your soon-to-be-published novel!

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you, James! (My agent still needs to find a publisher for my novel — and that’s still a big step that’s as yet unknown, with no guarantees!)
      These books are enviably well-written, intellectually engaging, and flat-out exciting. You might try the first book (The Darkness that Comes Before) and see what you think. As I said in the post, it’s one of those few books that I simply couldn’t put down or ignore. The fact that Bakker could create something so dark and nihilistic that’s also epic and heroic is quite a feat. I’d be curious as to your thoughts, should you invest the time in reading it. In some ways, he’s writing on a level that very few in SFF could even begin to rival.

  3. I haven’t read Bakker’s books, buy now I’m a little more interested. If these books can enthrall you as readers despite your reservations (I have many reservations about Kushiel’s Dart but they don’t change my enjoyment of it at all), then they are probably very well done.

    The perspective I add to the conversation, and I hesitate to call it a perspective because I know I’m right, is the importance of enjoyment. The point of stories is not to “subvert paradigms,” or deconstruct, or even to correct any problem other than that there’s a person out there who needs a good story. J.P. is talking about his reservations about these books, and I think that’s an interesting aspect of the psychology of reading. But it hinges on enjoyment. We need good stories, and deconstructionism (in almost every sense) discourages enjoyment. BAD. MESS YOU UP. STAY AWAY.

    1. Post
      Author

      I can buy your assertion to a certain extent. But I do think it’s tremendously important to bring some sense of morality to our reading: If someone wrote a series of fantasy novels set in a world in which black people were inherently inferior, would that be okay? Or Jews? Or white people? Maybe… but only if, like in the original Planet of the Apes movies — where humans are inherently inferior to apes — the humans prove through their actions that they are subverting the predicament that the setting has created. Otherwise? Well, absent that subversion, it’s just a book that’s racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, or homophobic. So subversion is pretty key in this instance, I believe — particularly for an author who steadfastly maintains that he’s engaged in a form of meta-subversion, which many readers do not experience while reading them.

      But: Read “The Darkness that Comes Before” and judge for yourself. I wasn’t kidding when I said these books are brilliant. I wouldn’t have devoted my very first blog post to these works if they weren’t important to me.

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  6. I think the idea of ‘meta-subversion’ is important. In my opinion Bakker’s ontology in the novels is the primary villain. ‘Objective’ morality (the standards of the gods) is the driver behind almost every atrocity, both societal and individual within the books. The hunt for salvation, or at least reprieve from damnation, is the axle on which nearly every evil turns. The books present an interesting challenge: Do we even want to see Earwa ‘saved’? Racism, misogyny, homophobia are not only endemic to the societies of the world, they are etched into the reality of it. Those who challenge those norms are damned. This is the world as presented by the most literal and bloody-minded religious zealots made real. The primary villains are nihilistic horrors that dispute the gods’ right to judge them, the main societies are run by those who benefit from and believe in the capricious standards set by beings none of them can understand. The primary characters are products of that world, damned, exploited, victimized and damaged. The triumvirate that make up the protagonists from my point of view are internally consistent with the world from which they arise. They aren’t good people from a modern sensibility, but they are good within the bounds of what they know.

    I do think that we have become used to fiction that inserts ‘us’ into alien settings, protagonists who hold views that we find acceptable and right. I think one of the things that makes Bakker’s work compelling is that in reading it we are the other, we don’t get a character who represents us. The characters in the novel accept the state of affairs while we rail against it.

    1. Post
      Author

      I see your comment as making a very good point in a sophisticated way. The counters, though, run like this: If readers come to this work and don’t see the meta-subversion, doesn’t that make it ineffective, thereby seemingly promoting the bigoted values that are supposed to be parodied? Also, if the meta-subversion requires a lot of explanation from OUTSIDE the work itself, is that not a possible failing of the novel? And doesn’t reading such a work have unintended cognitive effects on readers — that is, marinating in experiences that are (say) misogynistic can be triggering for some or perverting of the values of others? It’s a tough road to follow. I think the author has every right to pursue this path, but it’s also reasonable to expect a lot of controversy and misunderstanding, if not outright psychological harm, among readers.

      1. Controversy and misunderstanding are absolutely reasonable expectations. However, I distrust the idea that an author should explicitly point out that ideas/behaviours presented in their works are ‘wrong’ (scare quotes because wrong is a wide and deep river that I don’t want to swim in today). I think there is a tendency to judge works of fiction based on a sort of power fantasy idea that has wound itself into our ideas about literature and entertainment.

        We want good guys, many of us want to see progressive values, we want heroes that look and act and feel like we do. Not completely, but enough that we see ourselves in the settings. There are authors doing that explicitly and implicitly throughout various genres. I would say that is a good thing.

        The opinion about meta-subversion I wrote about before was a conclusion I drew from the work on my own. It may or may not be correct. It didn’t require an outside explanation so much as reading the work for itself, absent expectations.

        Others will draw different conclusions for different reasons. That is also a good thing.

        Triggering, perversion and psychological harm is a much harder discussion. I have very conflicted feelings on those topics. I have advantages/disadvantages and experiences others might not, just as they have ones I do not. But I’ll try to give it a shot:

        I’ll take perverting first: I do not think a work of fiction will pervert the views held by someone, though they may quote the work to justify actions or beliefs. Extremists are not perverted by their religion so much as it becomes the language they use to express their perversion. If you are not already inclined to be a misogynist, reading a book that contains misogyny will not make you one.

        Triggering is harder, the work is a high fantasy on the one hand and loaded with biblical tropes and images on the other. I can see a lot in the books that would make someone uncomfortable, even disturb or upset them. The themes of novels hold up a mirror to our world, both the good and the bad can be reflected there. I don’t know that we should go about avoiding the mirrors that show things we don’t like.

        That doesn’t mean that people upset by the content should just ‘push on’ or that they are somehow being unfair to the work by putting it down and walking away. Or criticizing it, or hating it.

        …and I’ll have to leave it there for now as making a living is interrupting the important business of discussing fiction, cognition and implication.

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