Analysis, Reading, Reviews

The Darkness that Comes Before

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”

But someone else (who I have been unable to Google) pointed out that thoughts arise of their own accord. Anyone who has meditated or otherwise sat with themselves in silence can attest to this. Thoughts happen. Sometimes they can be tracked back to sensory input or memories or plans or worries, but how these thoughts come to the forefront is a mystery.

There are a couple issues raised by the haphazard appearance of thoughts that ought to worry Descartes.

First, what worth is an existence based in the foundation of thoughts that arise from void? If we don’t control our thoughts then what are we?

Second, there is the troubling problem of freewill. If we don’t control our thoughts then what moves us?

In The Great Ordeal by Scott R Bakker (as well as all the preceding books), these philosophical issues are transported to a fantasy setting in which they have implications both mystical and mundane. A race of men known as Dunyain have dedicated themselves to logic and reason, which they call the Logos. Their goal is to “grasp the absolute” and become “truly self-moving souls”.

In other words, they seek to master the place from which thoughts arise. They believe this to be the only path to freewill. They name the unseen source of thoughts “the darkness that comes before,” which is also the title of another book in the series.

Through their study, the Dunyain have become masters of self control. Not only that, but they are also able to influence the desires and whims of normal men to bend them to their will. Non-Dunyain have no grasp on where their thoughts and desires come from. The Dunyain are practically mind readers by comparison and they can use words, gestures, and expressions to gain enormous influence.

A Dunyain claims, “I can name the Mission you call your mission, and I can name the Mission you know not at all.” (Which is also a neat way of distinguishing between what a character wants and what a character needs.)

All of this is quite fascinating, heady fair, but The Great Ordeal kicks it up a notch when it confronts the troubling contradiction in this world Bakker has constructed: Magic is real.

The existence of magic throws a wrench in the Dunyain’s logical world view. In their view effects follow causes and reaction is proportional to action. Magic exposes the truth that cause and effect are bound in a more complicated manner and reaction can be wildly disproportionate to action.

A Dunyain realizes the weakness of their vaunted rationality and says, “Reason was a skulking beggar, too timid to wander, to leap, and so doomed to scavenge the midden-heap of what had come before.”

It’s as if the battles between rationalist philosophers and modernist philosophers were waged not just with words, but also with swords and sorcery. I’ve got to keep reading just to see where Bakker is going with all of this. He’s crafted a wild thought experiment wrapped up in a deep, rich fantasy world, but here’s the part where I explain why I can’t recommend these books to more people.

Let me put it as a question to the author: Bakker, my dude, how come so many people in your writing get literal erections for violence and murder? Does that really enhance your story? Is that necessary?

Bakker’s work is regularly described as “grimdark” fantasy. Honestly, I don’t exactly know what that means. The only other thing I’ve heard described as grimdark is the Warhammer 40K universe. Again, my experience is limited, but Warhammer seems to have a somewhat tongue-in-cheek perspective on war that borders on satire (or is outright satire?). Warhammer seems akin to the movie Starship Troopers in which the audience is encouraged to enjoy their ultra-violence and harshly judge its cruel stupidity at the same time. It’s like the way celebrity gossip magazines let the reader indulge their envy while feeling superior, we enjoy the thrill of battle while denouncing it. That’s fun.

There is no sense of satire in The Great Ordeal or any of the other Bakker books. Not everything has to be satire, true, but in my humble opinion, the grimdark aspects of these Bakker books are the worst parts. I don’t want to have to tell friends and readers that “if you can’t handle blood, guts, feces, rape, or murder then you won’t like these books” but there it is. If you can’t handle even one of those things, you won’t like these books.

And that’s a shame because there is so much that is worthwhile here. (I haven’t even mentioned Bakker’s poetical, descriptive flare, which is astounding!)

Since this is a writing blog I’ll end with a piece of writing advice, based on the fact that when I read Bakker’s acknowledgements section I found that none of his beta readers were women, which made me wonder how such oversight might have influenced his writing.

Dear writers, people, folks, friends, please try to get some diversity among your beta readers. It’s the year 2020. The world is a big place. We all need practice seeing through other people’s perspectives. We all need to delve a little bit into the hidden biases, the ingrained and unacknowledged ‘isms’, in the darkness that comes before our own thoughts and actions. Open your minds and seek to become truly self-moving souls.


2 thoughts on “The Darkness that Comes Before”

  1. First of all, I found something very much like the quote you were looking for (using Bing, so there!). Thomas Payne said it in Age of Reason, Part First, Section 11:
    Any person who has made observations on the state and progress of the human mind, by observing his own, cannot but have observed that there are two distinct classes of what are called thoughts — those that we produce in ourselves by reflection and the act of thinking, and those that bolt into the mind of their own accord.
    Bakker’s work sounds very interesting, but if it’s anything like the writings of the authors of Warhammer 40k, I’ll pass. I’ve actually read as much of it as I can stand over the years. It’s not satire, but written with all the grim earnestness of ultradorks who write about violence without ever having picked up a weapon in their lives. The Warhammer universe is super depressing, humanity is a dictatorship empire ruled by the spirit of a long dead superhuman emperor and defended by legions of fanatical armor encased space marines and secret inquisitors who ruthlessly stamp out heresy. They are opposed by the horrible legions of undead traitor space marines, the followers of the gods of chaos, war orcs, robots, and a ton of other nasty things. It’s war war war unending.
    This kind of fiction seems to be increasingly popular. Game of Thrones, of course, is the big leader here, but also Psychotic superhero shows like The Boys, all the torture porn films like Saw, Hellraiser, etc. ad nauseum. In some ways I think my book is a reaction to all of that.
    Keep the blog up! I like it a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

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