If science fiction and fantasy offer a chance to grapple with the fantastic, why do so few authors really take up the gauntlet? It’s easy enough to write a story with world-shattering magic or beyond-lightspeed transport, but it’s far harder to address what magic and FTL drives really mean, or how human societies would realign themselves around those elements. They would change our philosophies, our economies, even the way we fuck.
Maybe especially the way we fuck. R. Scott Bakker is an author, to paraphrase my friend Chris Braak, who is not afraid of weird shit. In this, he stands almost apart: Most fantasy/SF pays lip service to weirdness without acknowledging its logical ripple effects. The fully-realized societies of Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing trilogy, where sorcerers band together in guilds and a union of polytheistic nations prepares a crusade against an empire that worships a unitary god, face still another threat: alien rape-sorcerers.
The Inchoroi and their fraternity of human-hybrid enchanters, the Consult, are masters of flesh and sexual domination, and have been for thousands of years. Their tortures are sexual — not pain but pleasure is their instrument, and their victims endure orgasmic torment that subverts their will. Imagine seeing your lover horrifically raped by a slithering abomination from some unknowable hell … and enjoying it, involuntarily, to a degree they’ve never enjoyed consensual sex with you. Some genre readers find this kind of icky, but I bet they’ve read and reread those icky passages a few times. Just as I have.
Manipulation of all kinds — sexual, emotional, political — fascinates Bakker. His characters are constantly being broken down by external forces, taught that their reality is a lie, that their mores are built on sand, that the universe is either wholly indifferent or violently opposed to their systems of thought. The Canadian author uses the trappings of genre to investigate larger questions, in the most brutal manner possible. It’s hard-R speculative fiction, and it readily strikes out for unrated, Cronenbergian territory.
In his near-future thriller Neuropath, academic Thomas Bible is drawn into the hunt for a baroque killer, who strips his victim’s neurological wiring until they undertake horrible, self-immolating acts. Trapped himself, the protagonist suffers the sequential disconnection/ stimulation of his brain’s key functions — he screams, he orgasms, he laughs at the pain of his loved ones. It’s dark and sticky on its surface alone, and it changes you as you read. Then you recall that the victim/hero’s name is “Bible,” and see that Bakker is in fact interrogating the whole lineage of Judeo-Christian morality and epistemology. As in the New Testament, love triumphs, but it’s not the kind you’d ever wish for.
Genre is a vehicle; it’s how a writer drives it that matters. R. Scott Bakker guns the engine and steers it toward a precipice. His worldbuilding is Tolkien-level in its detail, and when his heroes battle “darkness,” it’s an existential darkness that underlies all of human psychology. The struggle matters, and it leaves its victors scarred beyond healing. Better them than us.
What else is going on: I filled in recently on the Tales From the Spacepod podcast, a profane investigation into all things paranormal. Our first topic: “The Nazca Lines, or, Coke Rails of the Gods.” I was pedantic as usual, but strangely charming. The next installment, dealing with the Strange Case of Spring-Heeled Jack, streams November 15th. Oh, and I reviewed a Tinker Bell movie … the darkest fantasy of all …