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.
Please join my Champion’s List here: http://jpgownder.com/community/
Please follow me on Twitter @jgownder