Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Review: Neuropath by Scott Bakker

Scott Bakker’s series, The Prince of Nothing (review), hit the SFF world with critical acclaim and a cerebral approach to epic fantasy. Bakker jumps genre in Neuropath to the realm of psychological and techno-thrillers and the same approach of intellectual depth without sacrificing the entertainment value of reading. Neuropath succeeds at both with its weighty implications of cognitive science and a suspenseful thriller plot.

Thomas Bible and Neil Cassidy have been arguing since college as only the closest of friends can – specifically The Argument that is founded in cognitive science about the root of consciousness and free will itself. Thomas, now a professor at Columbia University, has moved on to a family life complete with an ex-wife and 2 kids. In a drunken evening Neil reveals to Thomas that he has been covertly working for the NSA in neuroscience, making unimaginable leaps in neurosurgery and cognitive understanding without the hindrance of ethical constraints. Thomas is horrified when he realizes that the Neil is essentially a rogue agent elevating The Argument to a new level and now one of the FBI’s most wanted.

For a thriller, Neuropath takes a slower pace – the entire book occurs over the course of about two weeks with only a few bursts of action. The real action occurs internally and in verbal sparring as The Argument is laid out repeatedly and the horrors of Neil’s plan become more visible, if not more clear. The appropriate twists occur along the way, calling the anticipated conclusion into question – and the conclusion itself provides the perfect ending for Bakker’s Argument, if not for a reader’s sense of mind.

Thomas and Neil’s Argument is the point of the book and Bakker’s Argument as well – an Author’s Afterward lifts the veil of fiction to the reality of modern cognitive science. Simply said (and I’m sure not very accurately said), The Argument is that consciousness and all that goes with it (such as free will) is an illusion that our brains trick us into believing. This delusion drives the actions of humanity and its many short-comings. The real kicker is that our brains’ ability to rationalize almost insures that we will never allow ourselves to believe The Argument. Neuropath lays out The Argument, all of its disturbing implications and horrific potential.

Fans of philosophy and deep intellectual debate will eat up The Argument as it consumes them – I lost a bit of sleep and have brought its implications into many a conversation since reading Neuropath. But Bakker suffers some of the flaws of a fire and brimstone preacher relentlessly pounding his point into the reader’s head. This righteous repetition eventually becomes tiresome, further encouraging rationalization of The Argument – of course I think that Bakker in all his efforts to convert the reader to the truth of The Argument is as frightened of its implications as the rest of us.

If you read other reviews and commentary of Neuropath, words like disturbing and horrific abound. The physical act of arguing The Argument does in fact horrify. At no point can I actually say that the book is overtly graphic, but Bakker brings the reader to the brink and lets them imagine the rest – which, at least in my case, does lead to horrifically graphic scenes. The direct assault on common moral code and the human condition drives the reader’s reaction and the truly disturbing horror invoked. However, for those that have followed the building buzz, disappointment may be the result of repeatedly hearing how horrific and disturbing Neuropath is.

With Neuropath Bakker succeeds in having his cake and eating too in this intellectually stimulating techno-thriller. It’s not a book for everyone, but does work on multiple levels and will be a book to talk about. 8/10

24 comments:

Brian said...

But Bakker suffers some of the flaws of a fire and brimstone preacher relentiously pounding his point into the reader’s head. This righteous repetition eventually becomes tiresome,...

I felt the same way. But I've felt the same way since his spat with Vandermeer. In some ways he reminds me of my ex-wife. She once said that the point of an argument was to make the other person give up. She'd get louder and more agressive until you walked away. Then she claimed victory.

One of the biggest problems was the lack of foil for The Argument which caused a distinct lack of exploration of The Argument because there wasn't a contrast. Having each character that was confronted by The Argument basically say 'What about uhhhhhh.........." was feeble at best. I don't think all oppositional view points were reasonably explored. For example, what would a Buddhist have made of The Argument.

But I'm on the verge of a ramble so I will STFU now. :)

I really gotta get my review written.

Neth said...

-Brian

Those are both good points. I've enjoyed following Bakker's debates in the past, but that is because I really didn't have anything vested in them.

As for the lack of a foil to the Argument - I hadn't really thought about it. It seems Bakker is so convinces that he dismisses them outright - just like Professor Bible does in the book, with that perfect academic arrogance.

And yes, you do need to get a review written. Now that Amazon.ca is shipping, I saw no reason to continue holding my review.

realms of speculative fiction said...

Enjoyed the "Questions 5", but the review is even better; I don't think I'm touching the book anytime soon though - I have a lot on my mind lately, and what I need is light and fluffy.

Melissa said...

Ha-ha! Great questions! I'll definately check this book out. Anything sci-fi thriller has been my niche lately. I lean more towards the terrorist plot, but this one looks really enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

Lovely review, Ken. Thank you!

Trust me, if you can write a thriller that contains both the Argument and even one of the innumerable possible counter-arguments - without sacrificing a fatal amount of narrative momentum...

I'm not saying it can't be done, but it certainly lies outside my abilities! I'm just happy to have gotten away with as much as I have!

Also, just to be clear, I don't believe the Argument - as I mention in the Afterward. I never have, and I likely never will.

The problem is that our weapon against it, philosophy, is largely bunk. Humans are simply horrible when it comes to theoretical claim-making outside the sciences. We can rationalize anything, and we almost always do. The philosophical counter-arguments all tend to be rather involved. Argument, on the other hand, is so obvious that you can freak out a class of freshmen in under 15 minutes. I actually figured it out on my own when I was 14 years old.

That's the dilemma. We can reason away the Argument, no problem, same as we can reason away evolution, a heliocentric solar system, and so on, but we just can't make any of that reasoning stick. 'Comfort reason,' I call it. In the meantime, science simply seems to piling up more and more support for it.

(One of the "future facts" that Thomas cites in the book has already come true: apparently John-Dylan Haynes at Max Planck University has come up with an experiment which allows he and his colleagues to identify their subject's choices seconds before they are conscious of them...)

So I'm not sure where the "righteous" comes in. How can I be righteous about something I disagree with (but don't know how to honestly argue against)?

As for the repetition, mea culpa. This will definitely bug some readers, especially those already familiar with the Argument. But I had too many of my draft readers, those completely unfamiliar with the terrain I was covering, tell me they appreciated it to trim it back. You can't please them all, and since the point was to popularize the dilemma...

What I'm evangelical about is educating people on our cognitive shortcomings, because I think technology is making the world less and less forgiving of our stupidity.

Otherwise, I don't remember any spat with Vandermeer... I used to argue a lot on the web, and not always nicely! But I've never thought the point of argument is winning. Neuropath is actually the product of losing argument after argument while playing poker with a nihilist in Nashville in the late nineties.

scott/

Ken said...

The problem is that our weapon against it, philosophy, is largely bunk.

I love it when someone with a philosophy degree says something like this.


Nineteen Nineties Nashville nihilistic poker sounds tricky :)

Larry said...

Good review, Ken - glad you enjoyed it for the most part.

Scott (in case you're checking back to read this),

Picked up an interesting book a couple of weeks ago that I've been reading a chapter a week. It's called The Parallax View by Slavoj Žižek and I was curious if you had read it yet and if so, what do you think of his arguments in regards to consciousness?

Anonymous said...

No, Zizek isn't high on my list of reading priorities. I've always regarded him as postie hack - at least when he was all the rage back in the late nineties. That said, I'm not unwilling to revisit old bigotries...

Even though I'm agnostic on all metaphysical questions (which is to say I'm a 'who-the-fuck-knowsist' rather than a materialist or an idealist or any of the combinatorial possibilities thereof) I still think that creativity in these kinds of studies is immensely important (as opposed to endlessly rationalizing the old positions this way or that) - so I imagine that good old Slavoj is contributing in this respect.

What's the crazy bastard have to say?

scott/

Larry said...

I still have about 50 more pages to go in The Parallax View, but he pretty much sticks to a Lacanian point of view throughout. He does like Metzinger's theories, but disagrees with Damasio's (all authors I'll have to read more of later to get the full effect). It's rather convoluted (no surprise, huh?), but I get the sense that he's grounding consciousness in a more negative sense, not to being a prime mover, but rather being a fractured grouping of "programs" (my interpretation, not his words) that serves more as a "brake" on Death Drive impulses than anything else.

Of course, I could be completely missing the point, since I've been skimming through parts of this, especially the pop culture kitsch bits. But yet, there is this sense of him being a bit more optimistic about this than you were in our talks related to NP over the years. But "hack" might be a good word for this, although I think "purposely obtuse" comes closer :P

Anonymous said...

I should send Zizek a copy of Neuropath to see what he thinks.

Metzinger (who I would rank as one of the top ten consciousness researchers in the world) loved the book, but was reluctant to give a quote (for the US release) at first, because he literally thought that the public was better off not reading it.

It'll be quite a coup having his warning/endorsement on the US edition when it comes out this winter.

You would need a solid month to give his Being No One the kind of reading it deserves, Larry. He's literally like Heidegger or Hegel in that regard: though his exposition is very clear, the thoroughness and complexity of his arguments demand careful reading and rereading.

Trafford's article on him and Ligotti in the latest Collapse (which China also has an article on, btw) seems to have literary theory-heads quite interested in him.

scott/

Larry said...

Ah, but I have to ask this one simple question: Before attempting that book, would I need to be familiar with other works first? Or would I likely have the necessary background (being strongly influenced by Hegelian/Marxist critiques of history/culture) to digest it (slowly, of course)?

Coolness on the quote/warning. As for Collapse, that is indeed on my target list of things to purchase in the coming days. As for Žižek, sure, why not send him a copy of NP to see what he'll make of it ;)

Neth said...

Metzinger (who I would rank as one of the top ten consciousness researchers in the world) loved the book, but was reluctant to give a quote (for the US release) at first, because he literally thought that the public was better off not reading it.

It'll be quite a coup having his warning/endorsement on the US edition when it comes out this winter.


For whatever reason, I find this highly amusing - am I doomed since I've read it?

Larry said...

Yes, Ken, you are doomed. Doomed to the awful fate of having to read all 11 of Goodkind's books and reviewing them, one after another, here. Best to get to work now on that.

Anonymous said...

Depends. Are you stable, Ken?

I think he was thinking that the book could provide borderline personalities with a rationale they would not otherwise have to hurt people.

Having survived a murder attempt already, it worries me too!

Knowing Marx might actually be counter-productive, Larry. You might want to get the Cambridge Handbook to Consciousness before tackling it.

scott/

Neth said...

Depends. Are you stable, Ken?


This is entirely dependent upon how you would choose to define stable.

However, I do believe most would call me such.

Having survived a murder attempt already, it worries me too!

Now this is interesting - aside from the seriousness and trauma I'm sure surrounded it, the use of the word 'already' is rather curious.

Larry said...

I'll try to keep that in mind, Scott, although I think I want to hear more about this murder attempt. It was an Ayn Rand groupie, right? :P

Anonymous said...

After I finished Neuropath and my first readers came back with things like being depressed for two weeks or having to take midnight jogs, I literally considered trashing the manuscript.

(I know it didn't have this effect on you, Ken, and I suspect it won't with the vast majority of readers, but it really seems to get under some people's skin for some reason.)

That is, until a good buddy of mine said, "Eeew, look at Mr. Big Pants, the man whose writing is too dark for the human race!"

But the real reason, I sometimes think, has to do with that incident (which I'd rather not talk about).

Ideas mess certain people up is all I'm saying. What's that book called? The one that has the reputation of inspiring the most murders after the Bible? The Bone-collector or something, isn't it?

scott/

Neth said...

Ideas mess certain people up is all I'm saying. What's that book called? The one that has the reputation of inspiring the most murders after the Bible? The Bone-collector or something, isn't it?

Surely other religous texts such as the Koran or Torah rates higher than some recently published novel.


That is, until a good buddy of mine said, "Eeew, look at Mr. Big Pants, the man whose writing is too dark for the human race!"

Now this represents a nice human truth - it's challenges like this and the double-dog dare that make the world go around.

Anonymous said...

Macalmont just posted a total pan here

http://www.sfdiplomat.net/sf_diplomat/2008/06/review---neuropath-by-scott-bakker-2008.html?cid=118182598

to which I've replied. We've duked it out before, so I thought why not?

This is why I try to avoid the web. It becomes an excuse to avoid work, and it never reflects well. How do you argue someone into liking a book they don't like?

Besides, only Abercrombie can get away with heckling his reviewers...

scott/

Neth said...

I saw the Macalmont review last night and was wondering what you would think of it. While my interactions with him have been cordial, my impressions of him as a reviewer are that he comes from a very different place than I do. I get the impression that he represents the opinions of highly-intelligent, anti-social, middle-aged men who live in their parents' basement. But I could be wrong.

Larry said...

Well, were you thinking of me when you said that bit about those early readers, Scott? :P All I know is that there is something, whether it be a soul, a superego, a version of the Death Drive, or something else, that sometimes acts as a block on the "routines," or sometimes reprograms the "routines," which is my vaguely comforting/probably self-delusional protection from those certain thoughts.

But hey, those other people, they're the wackos, ya know! I mean, I don't get someone else's hot dog out of the workplace fridge, take a single bite, and place it back in, ya know! ;)

As for the McCalmont bit, well...you know that I had a few issues with the pacing of the first half of NP when I re-read it, as it seemed to jar with the usual pace of a thriller, so on that, I can kinda agree with him. As for the rest...nope. Interesting exchange there.

And how did you know about the banter that Abercrombie and I engage in on occasion? Have you been reading my Strange Horizon reviews as well? :P

Anonymous said...

I think I got it from his website, truth be told. He's quite the character!

When did you start contributing to SH, Larry?

scott/

Larry said...

Yes, Joe's quite the character. Just didn't know you knew (of)him, that's all :P

I started contributing last month, with that review of Joe's last book. In a couple of weeks, I'll be submitting a dual review of Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia and Jo Graham's Black Ships. Knew that Latin 254 class on Vergil's epic would come in handy some day ;)

Oh, and there's this book that came out last week that might interest you some: John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Then again, it might be one of those books that only neo-Marxists can enjoy ;)

Anonymous said...

Scottrand Bakker said:
Trafford's article on Metzinger and Ligotti
in the latest
Collapse (in which
China also has an article)
seems to have literary
theory-heads
quite interested in him.

... 'Literary theory-heads', eh?
Which one in particular,
neighbourino?

(Glad you liked Collapse,
in any case!)

... LTH.

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