Richard Scott Bakker (born February 2, 1967, Simcoe, Ontario) is a Canadian fantasy author and frequent lecturer in the South Western Ontario university community. He grew up on a tobacco farm in the Simcoe area. In 1986 he attended the University of Western Ontario to pursue a degree in literature and later an MA in theory and criticism. Since the late 1990s, he has been attempting to elucidate theories of media bubbles and the intellectual alienation of the working class. After all but dissertation in a PhD in philosophy at Vanderbilt University he returned to London, Ontario where he now lives with his wife and daughter. He spends his time writing split between his fiction and his ongoing philosophic inquiry.
The Second Apocalypse
R. Scott Bakker's work is dominated by a sprawling series informally known as The Second Apocalypse which he began developing while in college in the 1980s. The series was originally planned as a trilogy with the first two books entitled The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor. The third book has been referred to as The Book That Shall Not Be Named by Bakker, since the title of this book is considered to be a spoiler for the preceding volumes.
When Bakker began writing the series in the early 2000s, however, he found it necessary to split each of the three novels into its own sub-series to incorporate all of the characters, themes and ideas he wished to explore. Bakker originally conceived of seven books: a trilogy and two duologies. This later shifted to two trilogies and one duology, with the acknowledgment that the third series may also expand to a trilogy.
The Prince of Nothing trilogy was published between 2003 and 2006. It depicts the story of the Holy War launched by the Inrithi kingdoms against the heathen Fanim of the south to recover the holy city of Shimeh for the faithful. During the war, a man named Anasûrimbor Kellhus emerges from obscurity to become an exceptionally powerful and influential figure, and it is discovered that the Consult, an ancient alliance of forces united in their worship of the legendary No-God, a nihilistic force of destruction, are manipulating events to pave the way for the No-God's return to the mortal world, a Second Apocalypse to succeed the First.
The sequel series, the Aspect-Emperor quartet, picks up the story twenty years later with Kellhus leading the united Zaudunyani kingdoms in directly seeking out and confronting the Consult. The first novel in this new series, The Judging Eye, was published in January 2009 and the fourth, The Unholy Consult, was published in July 2017.
Science Fiction, Thrillers, Mystery, and Other Works
While working on the Prince of Nothing series, Bakker was prompted by a crux of events to write a thriller dealing with the cognitive sciences. He produced a near future science fiction novel involving a serial killer whose knowledge allows them to influence and control the human brain. This book is called Neuropath and was published in 2008.
The Disciple of the Dog
Shortly before The Aspect-Emperor's second book, The White-Luck Warrior, was published, Bakker released a second novel outside of his main fantasy series. Titled Disciple of the Dog, it features the private investigator, Disciple Manning, who suffers from a condition reminiscent of Hyperthymesia. The story revolves around Disciple's recounting of a case involving a missing girl, a cult, and the small-town drama of Ruddick. It was published in November 2010. Bakker has planned a number of follow up novels to Disciple of the Dog, including The Enlightened Dead, but due to the first novel's poor reception and very few reviews the sequels have not been pursued.
Bakker also has a number of unreleased works in progress, aside his fantasy opus, most notably Light, Time, and Gravity as well as an eventual anthology of short stories, Atrocity Tales, set within The Second Apocalypse fantasy narrative. A draft of Light, Time, and Gravity was released serially on Bakker's blog, Three Pound Brain, but has since been removed. It is described by a defunct Amazon.ca link as a "novel told from the perspective of a suicidal English professor, recalling his experiences as a seventeen-year-old working on a Southwestern Ontario tobacco farm in the summer of 1984. Part essay, part narrative, part present, part history, Light, Time, and Gravity is a kind of Notes from the Canadian Underground, a portrait of our culture’s abject failure to create a genuine Canadian identity, as well as a stinging indictment of Canada’s literary and intellectual elites."
Two other unreleased works of fiction in progress include the SF novellas Semantica and The Lollipop Factory. The former has been referenced by Bakker a number of times on his blog and is described by fans as a "rumoured title set in a world where nootropic and neurocosmetic techniques have created a class division between those with enhancements and those without, where superhuman Tweakers rebel and are hunted like animals by an oppressive government." The latter, The Lollipop Factory, has only been mentioned once by Bakker in a Reddit r/Fantasy AMA in 2017. Aside that it is a "short SF novel," nothing is yet known about this title.
As The Prince of Nothing trilogy was being published circa. 2003-06 and Bakker experienced his initial rise in popularity, he participated frequently with fans at the now read-only Three-Seas forum. During this time Bakker consistently began to formulate and popularize what would eventually became the foundation for his Blind Brain Theory and Heuristic Neglect Theory then focusing on how studies of human cognitive biases generally and eventually on their impact on academic Philosophy and the greater humanities.
Blind Brain Hypothesis
In 2008, Bakker published Neuropath, a near future SF psychothriller which thematically continued Bakker's elucidation of human cognitive biases and their implications regarding human meaning, purpose, and morality, whatever form they may take. While the narrative events of the book make for a compelling thought experiment, Bakker included as an Author Afterward a short essay regarding the blending of factual and fictive premises therein and the eventual advent of the narrative's villain in our own world. The essay marks Bakker first formal mention of his Blind Brain Hypothesis, beyond its use in the narrative proper.
Narrative aside, in the Author Afterword Bakker sources two real world examples concerning illusory consciousness, the inner human experience of temporality and the imperceptible limits of field of vision. In the essay, as in the book via the character Thomas, Bakker argues that the human sense of the "Now," this very moment, might be symptomatic of perceptual thresholds akin to the human inability to perceive beyond the field of vision, certain colours outside within that field, or the perceptual blind spot caused by the lack of receptors in a portion of the back of the eye. Bakker cites the inability of consciousness to experience and perceive but a sliver of all the brain's processing as indicative of consciousness experience being totally illusory, rather than only sometimes in some contexts. As per the world of Neuropath's narrative, Bakker also argues that in time non-invasive brain scanning, via something like the narrative conceit of "low-field fMRI," may result in an entirely new scale of institutional manipulation, moving beyond efforts of associative conditioning given the wealth of data prevalent real-time brain imaging could provide. Finally, central to the essay is Bakker's assertion that the scientific method and its progress would eventually yield unfathomable insights into human behavior and cognition such that the existence of the narrative's villain and his futuristic brain–computer interface are inevitable in real life as well.
The Semantic Apocalypse
Shortly thereafter in 2008, Bakker presented The End of the World As We Know It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse at Western University's Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, which was rebutted by then students Nick Srnicek and Ali McMillan. The title of Bakker's lecture, familiar to readers of Neuropath, references the Semantic Apocalypse, a theory attributed to one of the protagonist's professors.
Bakker begins the talk with a call to writers in the audience to reach beyond the confines of academia and their peers and instead write to challenge audiences who don't share the author's values and attitudes. He then summarizes again the narrative underpinnings of Neuropath's world where the technologies of neuroscience have reached technical and social maturity and prevalence.
The Semantic Apocalypse continues with a number of secondary arguments concerning pessimistic induction and what Bakker calls "Cognitive Closure FAPP." Regarding the former, Bakker explains that in all arenas historically science has replaced "intentional [or folk] explanations of natural phenomena with functional explanations." For Bakker it follows that this will inevitably extend to the brain and human cognition. On the latter, Bakker suggests that human culture and society have continually ignored the facts of our cognitive biases without due consideration of their impact. This gives rise to what Bakker refers to as the "Magical Belief Lottery:" the ignorance of a growing battery of confirmation biases concerning how humans rationalize behaviour and thought leading to conviction in long held intentional or folk explanations of humans and their place in the world.
Building on his elucidations from Neuropath's Author Afterword, Bakker presents the metaphor of the Blind Brain Hypothesis as a magician's coin trick. By Bakker's argument the brain has evolved to process a prodigious amount of perceptual information regarding its local environment tracking natural objects with causal histories. Coin tricks through sleight of hand or misdirection exploit the brain's need for that causal history, confounding the brain's ability to process the coin's causal history. Given the central assumption of Blind Brain Hypothesis, that "information that finds its way to consciousness represents only a small fraction of the brain’s overall information load," humans are likely likewise unable to account for the causal history of thoughts and behaviours. It supposes that our conscious awareness of information processed by the brain is preceded by what Bakker calls here information horizons. Again Bakker draws upon the analogy of the eye's perceptual thresholds, this time highlighting that half of all the retinal nerves process information exclusively from the receptor rich fovea, and also extends that metaphor to speculate about the information horizons of our temporal field and the experience of the "Now."
Finishing his lecture and corresponding transcript, Bakker speaks on the money invested into using the advances in neuroscience to improve marketing techniques. Bakker also uses a metaphor on alien cognition describing beings whose brains and nervous systems had evolved to track their brain's causal history.
Three Pound Brain
In May 2010, Bakker began a blog entitled Three Pound Brain, in order to grow his presence online following a period of inactivity after years of engaging on the defunct Three-Seas forum. Over the years, Bakker has billed the blog as "a crossroads between incompatible empires," a crux for disparate ideologies to engage each other. While the content of Bakker's posts has varied greatly over the years, the enduring theme has been the slow and steady digestion of topics through versions of Bakker's Blind Brain Hypothesis, which comes to be called the Blind Brain Theory on his blog over years. Along with blog post content ranging from sociocultural commentary to writing fiction and philosophy, Bakker also uses Three Pound Brain to host paper drafts, copies of his past academic work, speculative pieces, and samples and drafts of his fiction writing. Over time, he has engaged a wide variety of disparate interlocutors and his blog content has become more technical, resembling some of his earlier academic projects, as Bakker increasingly tackled the philosophical work of noteworthy philosophers, historical and contemporary, using the blog as his philosophic workshop.
The Future of Literature In the Age of Information
Blog post from Three Pound Brain, October 2011.
The Last Magic Show
In April 2012, Bakker added to Three Pound Brain a link to a draft of a paper he called The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory for the Appearance of Consciousness.The Last Magic Show was the first cumulative result of Bakker's efforts on Three Pound Brain and consolidated many terms invented or cited and appropriated across the previous two years of philosophic inquiry and analysis. The draft marked the first formal mention of Blind Brain Theory, as evolved from the Blind Brain Hypothesis. In his abstract Bakker describes the paper as addressing "[p]uzzles as profound and persistent as the now, personal identity, conscious unity, and most troubling of all, intentionality, could very well be kinds of illusions foisted on conscious awareness by different versions of the informatic limitation expressed, for instance, in the boundary of your visual field."
The title of Bakker's paper, A Blind Brain Theory for the Appearance of Consciousness, reflects his assertion therein that the Blind Brain Theory serves as a vehicle to describe and distinguish the features of how conscious experience appears to self-reflection rather than the actual specific systems and functioning underlying consciousness. To begin, Bakker imagines an explanatory vehicle he refers to as a Recursive System, the brain architecture which has evolved to track even more the basic architecture of itself, possibly akin to the relationship between the frontal cortex to the rest of the brain. Bakker suggests two parts to a Recursive System, the system "open," all the information processed by the brain, and the system "closed," referring to the information accessible to consciousness. The basic assumption regarding the existence of a Recursive System implies a limit on the information available to the RS-closed, conscious awareness, which Bakker dubs Informatic Asymmetry and its the Asymptotic Limit. As specific examples Bakker refers to the cognitive psychology literature citing change blindness and inattentional bias (cognitive bias), wherein there are clear divergences between the information processed by the brain and information from the self-reports of perception.
As Bakker continues he expands on Informatic Asymmetry and the Asymptotic Limits of different Recursive Systems writing of information horizons, "the boundaries that delimit the recursive neural access that underwrites consciousness." Describing consciousness as encapsulated by the global limit of information horizons, Bakker highlights consciousness' inability to perceive any absence of information, that is processing outside of the RS-closed, as in some anosognosias. The information provided to consciousness is perceived as sufficient because the RS-closed is unable to track the discrepancy of the information processed by the whole brain. Bakker returns to the Coin Trick analogy from Neuropath's Author Afterword, using the magician as an extended explanatory metaphor to further elucidate Asymptotic Limits of specific Recursive Systems and the Asymptotic Complex of encapsulation regarding the experience of persistent global sufficiency, from where the paper almost certainly gets the former part of its title.
As before Bakker builds on previous exposition reframing the experience of "the Now," with a portion of the draft directly referencing an older blog post. Likewise, he again uses the example of the visual field to propose a similar temporal explanation for the conscious experience the Now. Blind Brain Theory, Bakker writes, argues seemingly natural occurring anosognosias but maintains that this becomes ultimately problematic for our experience of identity and intentions.
Further elaborating, Bakker cites the phenomenon in psychophysics known as flicker fusion (or flicker fusion threshold), the point at which consciousness perceives a light as steady. This phenomenon is widely exploited in the modern human environment from light bulbs to screened devices and brings about similar explanatory power akin to Bakker's use of the visual field metaphor.
Nearing the close of The Last Magic Show, Bakker delves into the highly speculative implications of Blind Brain Theory's argument for the appearance of consciousness regarding the use and reference of Intentionality in academic philosophy, as well as, the very underpinnings of humanity's scientific and philosophic endeavours, logic and math, the latter of which might reference an earlier essayistic work posted to Three Pound Brain. He also writes of the "First-person Perspective Show," which almost definitely precedes his draft paper, The Introspective Peep Show. In the footnotes of The Last Magic Show, Bakker mentions that threads of his consideration have found themselves in every novel he's written, but that specifically "[o]nly Neuropath deals with the theory in any sustained manner." Bakker also takes care to distinguish Blind Brain Theory from eliminativism generally, in that, his theory "allows for a systematic diagnosis of the distortions and illusions belonging to the first person perspective."
The Introspective Peepshow
Draft paper posted to Three Pound Brain, January 2013. Reposted as a reworked blog post, April 2013.
Through the Brain Darkly
A proposed anthology of Three Pound Brain's essays and articles named for a fictional book that appears in Neuropath, mentioned on Three Pound Brain in April 2013. Later in September, 2013, Bakker later posted a draft essay possibly serving as the last piece to be included in Through the Brain Darkly.
Back to Square One
An essay published on Scientia Salon, November 2014.
A near future SF short announced on Three Pound Brain, November 2015, and released in Midwest Studies in Philosophy.
The Digital Dionysus
An anthology of essays published in September 2016 examining "the importance of Nietzsche's thought for decoding the vicissitudes of our digital age" (Keith Ansell-Pearson); Bakker contributed a chapter based on the talk that he presented to the annual Nietzsche Workshop @ Western -- a conference which he had regularly attended in London, the final year of which took place at The New School in New York City..
From Scripture to Fantasy
A paper published in Cosmos and History, January 2017.
On Alien Philosophy
While an earlier draft of On Alien Philosophy was published on Three Pound Brain, August 2015, Bakker ultimately published the paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Feb 2017.
The Second Apocalypse
The Prince of Nothing
- The False Sun, Three Pound Brain, published in 2017 in The Unholy Consult
- The Four Revelations of Cinial'jin, Three Pound Brain, published in 2017 in The Unholy Consult
- The Knife of Many Hands, published in two parts in Grimdark Magazine #2 & #3, 2015
- The Carathayan, published in Evil is a Matter of Perspective
- Light, Time, and Gravity, Three Pound Brain
- The Long Held Breath, Three Pound Brain
- Reinstalling Eden, Nature (2013)
- What Was...And What Will Never Be, Three Pound Brain
- Crash Space, Midwest Studies in Philosophy (2015)
- The Dime Spared, Three Pound Brain
Disciple Manning novels
R. Scott Bakker Official, Fan, and Resource sites
Interviews, Articles, Podcasts, and Presentations
- The Skeptical Fantasist: In Defense of an Oxymoron an essay by R. Scott Bakker for Heliotrope Magazine
- early Interview with Jay Tomio, 1 April 2006
- The End of the World As We Know It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse
- Why Fantasy and Why Now?
- Interview with R. Scott Bakker at SFFWorld
- Addendum to the Bakker Interview: The Monkey Question (wotmania.com)
- 1st Q&A on wotmania.com
- 2nd Q&A on wotmania.com
- [permanent dead link] Interview at Blogcritics, 12 June 2008
- Video interview for Fantasy Hrvatska
- Interview with Grimdark Magazine
- Sci-Fi Fan Letter: R. Scott Bakker Interview
- The SF Site: A Conversation With R. Scott Bakker
- SFFWorld: Interview with R. Scott Bakker, March 2008
- SFFWorld: Interview with R. Scott Bakker, December 2005
- Dog to Dog: A Conversation with Scott Bakker and James Sallis
- Pat's Fantasy Hotlist: New R. Scott Bakker Interview, January 2008
- Pat's Fantasy Hotlist: New R. Scott Bakker Interview, April 2008
- Pat's Fantasy Hotlist: New R. Scott Bakker Interview, January 2009
- Pat's Fantasy Hotlist: New R. Scott Bakker Interview (part 1), June 2011
- Pat's Fantasy Hotlist: R. Scott Bakker Interview (part 2) July 2011
- Pat's Fantasy Hotlist: New R. Scott Bakker Interview, June 2016
- Stuff to Blow Your Mind: R. Scott Bakker: On Alien Philosophy and Fantasy
- Stuff to Blow Your Mind: Bonus: R. Scott Bakker, Consciousness & Consult
- Grim Tidings Podcast: Interview with R. Scott Bakker
- CBC Ideas: The Fool's Dilemma
- Quotations related to R. Scott Bakker at Wikiquote
- ^"Scott Bakker - Academia.edu". independent.academia.edu. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"Three Pound Brain". Three Pound Brain. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^Webmaster, Rodger Turner,. "The SF Site: A Conversation With R. Scott Bakker". www.sfsite.com. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"New R. Scott Bakker interview". fantasyhotlist.blogspot.ca. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"T-ZERO". Three Pound Brain. 2011-01-27. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"School's… Out… For Autumn!". Three Pound Brain. 2011-08-23. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^Bakker, R. Scott (2011-10-21). Light, Time, and Gravity. Insomniac Press. ISBN 9781554830343.
- ^"What is the Semantic Apocalypse?". Three Pound Brain. 2011-06-21. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"Semantica". Three Pound Brain. 2011-10-31. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"Tell Me Another One". Three Pound Brain. 2012-05-16. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"R. Scott Bakker on Fantasy, Philosophy, and Dooooom • r/Fantasy". reddit. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"Neuropath". Goodreads. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^N (2008-11-27). "The Semantic Apocalypse". Speculative Heresy. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"May | 2010 | Three Pound Brain". rsbakker.wordpress.com. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"The Future of Literature in the Age of Information". Three Pound Brain. 2011-09-29. Retrieved 2017-10-03.
- ^"The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness". Three Pound Brain. 2012-04-12. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^Bakker, Scott. "The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness".
- ^"T-Zero". Three Pound Brain. 2011-11-17. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"Mathematics and the Russian Doll Structure of, Like, the Whole Universe". Three Pound Brain. 2011-08-17. Retrieved 2017-07-10.
- ^"The Introspective Peepshow: Consciousness and the 'Dreaded Unknown Unknowns'". Three Pound Brain. 2013-01-18. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^"The Introspective Peepshow: Consciousness and the 'Dreaded Unknown Unknowns'". Three Pound Brain. 2013-04-23. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^"The Crux". Three Pound Brain. 2013-04-29. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^"Cognition Obscura". Three Pound Brain. 2013-09-24. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^"Back to Square One: toward a post-intentional future". Scientia Salon. 2014-11-05. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^Bakker, Scott. "Back to Square One: Toward a Post-Intentional Future".
- ^"On Ordeals, Great and Small, and Their Crashing". Three Pound Brain. 2015-11-22. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^Bakker, R. Scott (2015-09-01). "Crash Space". Midwest Studies In Philosophy. 39 (1): 186–204. doi:10.1111/misp.12034. ISSN 1475-4975.
- ^Scott, Bakker Richard (2017). "From Scripture to Fantasy: Adrian Johnston and the Problem of Continental Fundamentalism". Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy. 13 (1): 522–551.
- ^"Alien Philosophy". Three Pound Brain. 2015-08-09. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^Scott Bakker, R. (2017-01-01). "On Alien Philosophy". Journal of Consciousness Studies. 24 (1-2): 31–52.
- ^""On Alien Philosophy"". Three Pound Brain. 2017-02-01. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^Bakker, R. Scott (2016-07-05). The Great Ordeal: Book Three. The Overlook Press. ISBN 9781468301694.
- ^"On Ordeals, Great and Small, and Their Crashing". Three Pound Brain. Retrieved 2015-11-22.
- ^Grimdark Magazine Issue #2
- ^Grimdark Magazine Issue #3
- ^"Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists". Kickstarter. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
- ^Tchaikovsky, Adrian; Schafer, Courtney; Fletcher, Michael R.; Williams, Mazarkis; Marshall, Alex; Salyards, Jeff; Speakman, Shawn; Staveley, Brian; Frohock, Teresa (2017-06-16). Collins, Adrian; Myers, Mike, eds. Evil Is a Matter of Perspective. Grimdark Magazine. ISBN 9780648010579.
- ^"On Ordeals, Great and Small, and Their Crashing". Three Pound Brain. Retrieved 2015-11-23.
Why do people read fantasy?
The typical answer is that people are searching for ‘escape.’ Fantasy represents, many would say, a retreat from the harsh world of competition and commerce. Another answer is that fantasy provides, like much fiction, a specific kind of wish-fulfillment. Fantasy allows us, for a time, to be the all-conquering warrior or the all-wise sorcerer. The problem is that neither of these answers in any way distinguishes fantasy from other genres of literature. Fantasy, I would like to suggest, offers a very specific kind of escape and wish-fulfillment, one connected, moreover, to its profound role in the great machine which we call contemporary culture.
Fantasy, I will argue, is the primary literary response to what is often called the ‘contemporary crisis of meaning.’ And as such, fantasy represents a privileged locus from which one might understand what is going in our culture in general.
What is the crisis of meaning? Since the Enlighenment a few centuries ago, we have witnessed a dramatic shift in our culture, a signature characteristic of which is the rise of science. Science as a socio-historical phenomenon is related to the crisis of meaning in a least two ways: 1) the disenchantment of the world; and 2) the monopolization of rationality.
Since the Enlightenment, science has quickly replaced all of our prior ‘intentional’ explanations of the world. Events are no longer the results of some spiritual agency, where thunder, for instance, might equal the ‘anger of the gods,’ but rather the result of indifferent causal processes. To say that the world is disenchanted is to say that it is indifferent to human concerns. Where our ancestors saw the world as extended family, as more cryptic members of the tribe, we see the world as arbitrary and inhuman, utterly disconnected from the puny tribe of human agency.
It is the power of science to explain, and the technological dividends those explanations have reaped, which has led to science’s monopolization of rationality. The only socially legitimate truth claims that remain to us are scientific truth claims. To be rational in our society, is to be ‘scientifically minded,’ to reserve our judgement on the truth or falsity of various claims pending ‘hard evidence.’
The problem, however, is that science does not provide value, does not tell us what is good or bad, right or wrong. And so we find ourlselves in a curious quandry: the only socially legitimate means we have to make truth claims has become divorced from questions of value. Certainly there are some very reasonable sounding moral philosophers and theologians out there with innumerable claims to the truth of this or that moral principle, but the fact that they can never agree on anything demonstrates to us the futility of their rationalizations. Only the evolutionary biologist can give us a scientific theory of morality: morality is an illusion which generates the requisite social cohesion necessary for the successful rearing of offspring. There is no ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ not really, only the successful transmission of genetic material.
The power of science to monopolize rationality has reached such an extent that one can no longer ask the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and still be ‘rational.’ Since there is no scientific answer to this question, and since science is the paradigm of rationality, the question becomes irrational, silly, the subject matter of Monty Python spoofs.
Thus the crisis of meaning. The world we live in has been revealed by science to be indifferent and arbitrary. Where we once lived in a world steeped in moral significance, now we live in a world where things simply happen. Where once the meaningfulness of life was an unquestioned certainty, the very foundation of rationality, now we must continually struggle to ‘make our lives meaningful,’ and do so, moreover, without the sanction of rationality. Questions of the meaningfulness of life have retreated into the fractured realm of competing faiths and the ‘New Age’ section of the bookstore. In our day in age, the truth claim, ‘My life has meaning,’ is as much an act of faith (which is to say, a belief without rational legitimation) as the truth claim, ‘There is a God.’
It is no accident that fantasy is preoccupied with our pre-Enlightenment, pre-crisis past. The contemporary world is a nihilistic world, where all signs point to the illusory status of love, beauty, goodness and so on. This is not to say that they are in fact illusory, only that at a fundamental level our culture is antagonistic to the claim that they are real. Nihilism is a fever in the bones of contemporary culture, afflicting all our assertions of meaningfulness with the ache that they are wrong.
Fantasy is the celebration of what we no longer are: individuals certain of our meaningfulness in a meaningful world. The wish-fulfillment that distinguishes fantasy from other genres is not to be the all-conquering hero, but to live in a meaningful world. The fact that such worlds are enchanted worlds, worlds steeped in magic, simply demonstrates the severity of our contemporary crisis. ‘Magic’ is a degraded category in our society; if you believe in magic in this world, you are an irrational flake. And yet magic is all we have in our attempt to recover some vicarious sense of meaningfulness. If fantasy primarily looks back, primarily celebrates those values rendered irrelevant by post-industrial society, it is because our future only holds the promise of a more trenchant nihilism. One may have faith otherwise, but by definition such faith is not rational. Faith, remember, is belief without reasons.
Reading fantasy represents the attempt to give meaning to one’s life by forgetting, for a time, the world that one lives in. In the escape offered by fantasy one glimpses the profound dimensions of our modern dilemma. Fantasy is the primary expression of a terrible socio-historical truth: the fundamental implication of our scientific culture is that life is meaningless.
If so many religious groups are up in arms about Harry Potter, it is because they see in it a competitor–and rightly so. Fantasy novels can be construed as necessary supplements to the Holy Bible. In a culture antagonistic to meaning, the bald assertion that life is meaningful is not enough. We crave examples.
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 R. Scott Bakker, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.
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