R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before (Book One of The Prince of Nothing) is a deep meditation on philosophy, religion and the state of our world. At the same time it is a top notch exemplar of the fantasy romance sub-genre.
Bakker’s interest in philosophy becomes apparent from the start. He opens with an epigraph from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and the first character we meet, Anas?rimbor Kellhus, is an embodiment of Nietsche’s ideals. Nietzsche argued, among other things, that independence is for the strong, that ‘There are heights of the soul seen from which even tragedy ceases to be tragic,’ and that the search for truth cannot be done humanely. Bakker’s Kellhus not only shares these views, they are the essential stuff of his character. That such Nietzschean attitudes exert a certain irresistible pull is undeniable, and this accounts for the exquisite darkness Bakker weaves through his story. As Kellhus, raised by the ascetic survivors of the First Apocalypse, the D?nyain, begins his impossible quest, he proves himself a superman of Nietzschean dimensions, with a steely conscience and a heart made of brass. What, Bakker seems to be asking, would happen to a man who is physically and mentally superior when he, as Nietzsche puts it, assumes the displeasure of trafficking with ordinary men?
Yet Kellhus soon finds himself faced with another claimant to the mantle of the superman, the Scylvendi barbarian Cnai?r urs Ski?tha. He, more than Kellhus, represents the Dionysian aspect of the superman Nietzsche dreamed of with great relish-a man for whom all is permitted, as all is permitted in nature. Kellhus gains his superhuman abilities from D?nyain philosophy that attempts to master the deterministic principle of the ?Logos’ and strives for a Schopenhauerian denial of desire that Nietzsche would have frowned upon even as he’d be marvelling at the supermen the D?nyain had become. Cnai?r, on the other hand-as his ‘prize’, the concubine Serw? comes to realize-looks ‘down on all outlanders as though from the summit of some godless mountain.’ Like Kellhus, he is beyond morality, but unlike Kellhus he indulges his ‘bestial appetites.’ Bakker paints a picture of two supermen with divergent philosophical perspectives, and the reader is left to wonder which of these is the more monstrous-the one who is brutal in his appetites, a Dionysian beyond good and evil like a force of nature–or the one who manipulates those around him as if they were chess pieces while single-mindedly pursuing his own goal, committing and permitting acts of cruelty, heartlessly capitalizing on the hopes and fears of the ‘herd’ around him?
While some might wonder what would motivate Bakker to revisit a philosophy of morality which seems to have been thoroughly discredited in the hands of the Nazis, the fact remains that the debate-between those inclined to see a certain rightness in a Nietzschean outlook, in accordance with which the ‘superior’ individual or group of individuals is permitted, nay obligated, to arrogate superior rights to himself or themselves, and those who see morality as derived from maxims such as those set out by Kant (whom Nietzsche vilified), who argued that wishing others well was a human duty whether or not one liked the others-has not been wholly put to rest, particularly in the arena of international politics, the realpolitik.
Bakker, while pondering these Nietzschean supermen, also constructs a fascinating civilization from which such individuals emerge: His sub-created world of E?rwa lurches into Holy War. Maithanet, the Shriah of the Thousand Temples (the linguistic markers of whose name and title suggest Islam), declares what is essentially a Crusade to regain the lost holy city where the Latter Prophet, Inri Sejenus (whose name suggests the crucified Christ), taught. While the Thousand Temples is an attempt to reconcile all religions by declaring all deities ?aspects of the God’, it is the Kianene, whose culture is modelled on that of the pantheistic Hindus, who are the strict monotheists of E?rwa and who reject the teaching of the Latter Prophet (and who also happen to possess the holy city where he taught, Shimeh). Bakker strengthens the identification between the Thousand Temples and the Abrahamic religions with his interchangeable use of the terms ‘holy war’ and ‘jihad’ and by describing the capital of the Thousand Temples in a fashion that evokes Jerusalem. By incorporating Goddess worship and a Germanic tree-worshipping element, Bakker also makes clear that the object of his meditation is not any specific religion, but the religious impulse itself.
Bakker has at least one glove off when he offers an epigraph from Ajencis, an ancient E?rwan philosopher, at the start of Chapter Fifteen: ‘Faith is the truth of passion. Since no passion is more true than another, faith is the truth of nothing.’ In that chapter the sorcerer-spy from the ridiculed Mandate school of sorcery, Drusas Achamian lectures the pious crusader Proyas on the nature of faith: ‘There’s faith that knows itself as faith, Proyas, and there’s faith that confuses itself for knowledge. The first embraces uncertainty, acknowledges the mysteriousness of the God. It begets compassion and tolerance. Who can entirely condemn when they’re not entirely certain they’re in the right? But the second, Proyas, the second embraces certainty and only pays lip service to the God’s mystery. It begets intolerance, hatred, violence….’
In such moments particularly, but throughout the work generally, Bakker demonstrates a fine control over the literary conventions of romance and fantasy. He knows that the romance hero is to be the carrier of the values of the reader, and he plays with the time-honoured rule of creating a hero who is unrecognized nobility, the heir to a lost throne, and, of course, young and handsome. His shifting of the action from Kellhus to the low-born, portly and middle-aged Drusas Achaiman defies conventions associated with romance heroes from Sir Gawain to Luke Skywalker. And, in Cnai?r’s unapologetic carnality (and that of other characters, notably Esmenet and Serw?), Bakker’s fantasy further shows its contemporariness. Yet, despite these aspects to his work, he may yet be out of step with current fantasy audiences.
Guy Haley makes the matter-of-fact assertion in the pages of SFX Magazine that fantasy is more and more becoming female-audience-driven and this accounts for the soap-opera flavour of successes in the genre since the 80s. Bakker does achieve the soap opera effect in giving us characters we want to follow, but he undermines his own effort to reach out to a female audience by making his only three female characters all appear whorish. That there is some element of truth in the depictions of Esmenet, Serw?, and Istriya, grand dam of House Ikurei of the Nansur Empire, that women will be able to connect with is something that Bakker is gambling on.
There is another potential problem with the book: there’s no conclusion. Bakker leaves us hanging in the midst of an action scene and offers an unsatisfying epilogue populated entirely by characters who have never appeared before and who ponder the significance of the book’s final, unfinished events. In this way, Bakker fails to demonstrate the whole of the storyteller’s craft-i.e. the ability to bring a story to a resounding, exhilarating and real conclusion. He makes things even harder on himself because, by buying into the multi-volume format, he places himself at the mercy of editors who will push him relentlessly to produce the next book. If, like Sean Russell in his Swans’ War cycle, Bakker does not significantly shape Book Two, he risks everything. Let’s hope he doesn’t succumb to the pressure and release something beneath both the promise and execution of this excellently written work.
But all this forecasting and foreboding cannot take away from the achievements of this book. Throughout, Bakker not only reveals that he is an expert storyteller, but he touches on deep philosophic issues in such a way that any reader will grasp the fundamental principles being tested against each other. He offers us a dark mirror for our strife-torn world, a mirror in which we think we see God when all the while we are only seeing ourselves.
Patrick R. Burger (Books in Canada)