One of my favorite modern writers of fantasy is R. Scott Bakker. His PRINCE OF NOTHING trilogy absolutely blew my skull a few years back, and his latest book in that continuing saga is THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR, due to be released in Spring 2011.
I’ve been singing the praises of Bakker’s fantasy work for awhile now. His is a fantasy on the scale of Tolkien without stealing any of the usual tropes that go with that scale. His work is brilliant, illuminating, and challenging. In short, it is literary fantasy…i.e. fantasy with literary qualities. “What exactly does that mean?” I hear somebody asking. Well, here’s what I tell my students on the first day of any literature class: Literature is a written work of art that explores what it means to be human.
Literature allows us to view human nature, i.e. the human condition, through the lens of the written word. And the real magic is that good literature transcends time and space. Shakespeare, for instance, is still shedding light on the human condition even though he wrote 500 years ago. But literature is not just for the glimmering “elite” in their ivy-grown universities and ivory towers. Bakker’s fantasies do exactly what great literature does, while remaining tremendously entertaining.
This is something I strive for in my own writing (not always succeeding, I’ll admit). I want to reach inside my readers’ heads and challenge them, make them THINK, make them see the world or themselves in a new way. In short, I believe truly great fiction (of any genre) should provide some kind of enlightenment, some elevation of consciousness. Does that mean I see no place for purely “fun” fiction? Not at all. But when I write fantasy, or horror, or science fiction, it is with a literary intent.
Entertainment is great, but it is not the be-all-end-all of fiction. Nor should it be. How many books have ever changed your life? How many stories? How many books have challenged your own interpretations of reality and made you see the world in exciting new ways?
After I read Robert Heinlein’s classic STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND in a college sci-fi class, I could never see reality the same way again. It hit on too many of the absolute truths behind quantum physics and metaphysical spirituality. Like a tab of LSD on the tongue, it made me re-evaluate human existence. There are other books and stories I could talk about, but this post is about Bakker’s work…
So, skip forward twenty years or so, and Bakker’s trilogy did the same thing for me in a fantasy context. The three books in his PRINCE OF NOTHING series, The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought were consciousness-elevating works of epic fantasy.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the crux of the trilogy:
“This trilogy details the emergence of Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a brilliant monastic warrior, as he takes control of a holy war and the hearts and minds of its leaders. Kellhus exhibits incredible powers of prediction and persuasion, which are derived from deep knowledge of rationality, cognitive biases, and causality, as discovered by the Dûnyain, a secret monastic sect. As Kellhus goes from military leader to divine prophet, Drusas Achamian, the sorcerer who mentored Kellhus, comes to realize that his student may well be the harbinger of the Second Apocalypse.”
This summary only scratches the surface of this epic and complex adventure. Monks, Sorcerers, Barbarians, Holy Wars, Ancient Aliens, and world-shattering magic. These are a few of Bakker’s tools, and he uses them brilliantly.
There is a great “manifesto” on Bakker’s blog (http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/) that puts forth his philosophy of literature in a pop-culture context. I wholeheartedly agree with it. Here are a few excerpts from that page:
My fiction uses pulp genre as a vehicle for literary themes, styles, and concerns – a formula which seems to alienate some readers as much as it excites others…
Socially conscientious writers need to reach out to people with differing values, not to specialized cliques of likeminded fools. To turn your back on popular culture is to become an entertainer who simply pretends to challenge the assumptions of readers – to abandon literature, in effect, while festooning yourself in its colours…
I think I’ve accomplished my first two goals:
1) to prove that there is in fact no intrinsic antithesis between pulp genre and literary conventions; and
2) to prove that consumers of popular culture actually have a hunger for fiction that challenges.
This is a philosophy of “pulp literature” that I can really get behind. Personally, I want more than entertainment when I read a great piece of fiction. I want enlightenment, even if it’s only some kind of personal epiphany or emotional revelation. Good fiction (of any kind) should MOVE you. Ideally, it should CHANGE you. In a good way.
Wisdom is the goal of literary endeavor, and it should be present in every genre. I’ve found it in the works of Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Ken Kesey, Thomas Ligotti, Tanith Lee, Erich Maria Remarque, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, J.D. Salinger, Robert Heinlein, Darrell Schweitzer, William Shakespeare, and the list goes on and on…
You’ll find it in Bakker’s work, if you’re up for the challenge…and the adventure.