Sep 29, 2016

Oh Well, Yet Another Hell

Jakob Schmidt on R. Scott Bakker's The Great Ordeal, Third Book in the Aspect-Emperor Series

All of R. Scott Bakker's books have managed to deeply impress and annoy me at the same time. My enthusiasm for the first trilogy in his big-ass epic fantasy series remains strong, and I keep recommending it as a brilliant, philosophical and staggeringly eloquent work of literature that pulls no punches in depicting a completely disturbing vision of an already atrocious pre-modern world sliding into a kind of proto-fascism. However, the elements of the first trilogy that I disliked even on first reading – the rampant sexism that is bak(k)ed into the substance of Bakker's creation, the humor-less, one-note reliance on shocking ideas and imagery – become magnified in the follow-up series The Aspect-Emperor.

The Great Ordeal is the third novel in that second series, supposed to be followed by a fourth and concluding volume, and occasionally, its title seemed to correspond to my reading experience as much of as the ordeal its characters have to go through.

Don't get me wrong: It is a great book and kept me glued to the pages for long stretches. But it also managed to bore the hell out of me and repeatedly made me sigh with exasperation at yet another repetition of the same core motive of dehumanization: Men driven into war like cattle, men turned into savage animals by cannibalism, men as deterministic wet-mechanisms under the thrall of some greater intellect, women as breeding wombs, women in the thrall of gods who don't care for humans except as cattle to breed … It is, on the one hand, one of the truly great philosophical arguments in this series that it keeps reducing all kinds of power to the same principles of dehumanization, but at the same time, it becomes grating that this is seemingly all that there is in this world.

Let's take a step back … Bakker's second series begins twenty years after the end of the first. After mastering the art of magic, Kellhus, master-manipulator, intellectual übermensch, offspring of a perverse breeding program that aims at creating a man who can grasp the Absolute, who will become a self-moving thought, rules a vast empire. Leaving his wife Esmenet and his younger children behind, he deploys the greatest army ever seen to march on Golgotterath, the seat of the Unholy Consult, an abomination that came from the stars (or maybe just a sorcerer who made a pact with that abomination) and wants to shut the world off from the Gods to avoid paying for its sins. Kellhus' goal is to prevent this so-called Second Apocalpyse. The second book of the Aspect-Emperor series, The White-Luck Warrior, made a huge point of the enormous losses this crusade entails and of the brutalization of everyone involved. Book three pretty much carries on, making it hard to see how anything the Consult could unleash on mankind could be worse than what has already been unleashed on it in the form of Kellhus. Still, this is probably by design: while The Great Ordeal assures us that Kellhus probably is the only person who can save the world from the Second Apocalypse, it actually refrains from pushing any moral judgement on the reader. Yes, the Sranc, orc-like servants of the consult, are truly despicable and utterly inhuman, but so are most of the humans in this book (or so they become). So much as that even the merest hint of a possible human trait, such as the Sranc occasionally feeling something like fear, makes it seem like there is no real difference between the powers arrayed against each other here – vast, monstrous intellects moving slimy little pawns over the gaming board.

Of course, there is a strong – maybe absolute – moral perspective within the series: The eponymous Judging Eye in one of its earlier books. It looks from the vantage point of the God(s) and marks the sinner. But there is really no reason to accept its moral code as anything remotely akin to a humanist outlook. In the eyes of the God(s), all sorcerers are sinners, which means that the one character in the series who acts and feels consistently like a human being, the sorcerer Achamian, is irrevocably damned to dwell in hell. Again, we have to ask ourselves if the plan of the Unholy Consult – to shut the world off from the Heavens and the Hells – is really such a bad idea.

The main reason I am sticking to this series is my loyalty to Achamian, the doubting old fool who wields enormous powers but is never quite sure of himself, the Gandalf archetype turned utterly, fragilely, misguidedly human. I can't remember identifying more strongly with any mission other than with Achamian's quest to find out exactly what is behind Kellhus and how to stop him. Achamian and his companion Mimara, who is kind of a daughter-figure to him (oh, by the way, she also carries his child) actually make some headway in the story of this third book, reaching Ishual, the birthplace of Kellhus. Thematically, this is where the series moves forward: other Dunyain, people from the same breeding program as Kellhus, appear and provide an interesting alternative to his perspective.

However, in between there are long stretches of stuff we already know too well. It is powerful, yes, stylistically and in terms of ideas. But much of it has been repeated in so many ways that it starts to feel like a banality. Consequently, some of these terrible revelations become less breath-taking and more groan-inducing. This is especially a problem in the chapters dealing with Ishterebint, the last surviving city of the non-men (think Tolkien's Noldor, only harrowed by the madness their immortality would imply in a world of terrors like Bakker's). I was delighted that I would finally find out more about the non-men first-hand, and there are some truly inspiring ideas regarding them in this book – I love, for example, the concept of „the Tall“, giants among the non-men, who truly embody their deranged mythical feel. However, when one of the secondary protagonists who is taken there and journeys to a succession of hellish set-pieces, screames out at some point: “You delivered me to yet another hell!” I caught myself thinking: Oh well, yet another hell …
I think the core flaw of this second series of books in general, a flaw that makes all its other problems stand out, is that there is very little meaningful interaction between characters. As opposed to the Prince of Nothing books, in The Great Ordeal, most of the protagonists know about the way Kellhus sees through people and wields them as instruments to some degree (even though much is made of the fact that no one truly gets how a Dunyain mind works). This instrumental view of others infects the whole series and all its characters; consequently, they all feel fundamentally alone, caught in an agonic struggle against everyone else to make them their tools. I feel that this was different in the first trilogy, where we had real and complex character dynamics between the major protagonists.

Another big gripe I have with the Aspect-Emperor series is the way Kellhus's wife Esmenet is treated; she felt like a complex, flawed character in the first books and now is pretty much reduced to her motherly instincts. It is interesting that her love as a mother is not idealized (quite in line with the mythology of the book, where Yatwer, the goddess of fertility is rightfully called the Dread Mother of Birth). On the contrary, it feels like something convulsive, an illness, directed at an object that couldn't be less deserving. But that also means that Esmenet is undermined and debased even more as a character. And while it is often mentioned that the other major female character in the book, Achamians companion Mimara, is actually the stronger of the two, she is so only because she is the vessel for the Judging Eye of the God, and maybe also because she is pregnant. Women remain relevant only as vessels, as receptacles throughout the whole series, and since we have reached book six, I'd dare say that if Bakker wrote these characters to formulate some kind critique of this as yet another form of dehumanization, it should have become graspable by now. Instead, we are treated to Bakker's increasing obsession with characterizing nearly everything – voices, ideas, types of relationships – as masculine or feminine.

This, of course, fits quite well with the violent apodictical force that makes Bakker's prose so powerful, so however strongly I might disagree with his depiction of women, at least it pulls its weight in painting the vivid (if monochrome) picture of an atrociously patriarchal world. In other moments, however, the sexism in The Great Ordeal seems like nothing more than a symptom of writerly laziness. Take for example the high-priestess who is a minor female character. She is the embodiment of the holy whore, and her main contribution to these books is to lecherously hiss “Yesssss!” Such overreliance on italics and stretched sonorants mark the moments where Bakker's extremely powerful prose falters and his intensity begins to feel ridiculous. These moments are few, but they are grating in this book, to the degree where I felt a reluctance to read on every time that particular character came into play.
This all sounds pretty negative. So let me stress that Bakker's prose really is impressive. I am also still fascinated by some of the concepts encapsulated in his books; I especially like how in The Great Ordeal, the notion is explored that the great project of the Dunyain, achieving the self-moving thought, might be so fundamentally flawed by the paradoxes of determinism that it has to rely on an actually existing God to make any sense at all; or that it can end only in self-annihilation. I'm becoming more and more convinced that there is some secret relationship of identity between Kellhus, who is strikingly described as a non-entity by his own son, and the very same No-God he fights against.

Also, in terms of world-building and atmosphere, Bakker continues to make great use of well-known elements of fantasy literature, combining them with biblical motives and then turning all of it into a narrative of existential horror that rivals Thomas Ligotti in its bleakness and Clive Barker in its deeply disturbing sexual chargedness. At the same time, the series keeps hinting that its mythology has a science fictional core – let's not even talk about the crashed starship at Golgotterath. Instead, take the mysterious White-Luck Warrior, who takes the path to his goal as if in a dream, and who, as a concept, is obviously inspired by quantum theory (maybe even by Greg Egan's excellent first novel Quarantine that explores the same idea in more depth). Another science fictional element is introduced at the end of the book, when a terrible and very familiar technological device from our modern world is deployed. The fact that we (as opposed to the characters in the book) know what it is, know what terrible fate has befallen them, renders the silent, sickly aftermath of the climatic catastrophe of The Great Ordeal so much more haunting – for the first time in this series, I felt the enormous loss of life depicted on an emotional level.

Even a lot of the things that bug me are probably elements without which these books simply wouldn't work. Maybe this series has to be one-note and humorless to drive home the notion of the utter inhumanity of the universe once you scratch its surface. Maybe it has to be repetitive to a torturous degree to create its hypnotic pull. It still has me in its thrall, that much is true – I will certainly read the next volume, I'm even eagerly awaiting it. However, part of me feels that if you really scratch the surface of these books, they might turn out nothing more than a very eloquent, very drawn-out articulation of “manpain”. I've just stopped liking them, and I guess they have become an addiction for me, with all the negative overtones of that word that are usually not implied when talking about books.

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