The Reading Canary On: The Prince of Nothing

by Arthur B

Arthur sends the bird after the epic fantasy trilogy by R. Scott Bakker.
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The Reading Canary: a Reminder


Series of novels - especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well - have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.

The Prince of Nothing: Bakker's Opening Salvo


Robert Jordan died recently. I (and a good number of other fantasy fans) had made morbid jokes about him dying and leaving The Wheel of Time unfinished even before anybody knew about his life-threatening illness, but now it's happened. I am currently glancing nervously at George R.R. Martin and speculating about his cholesterol level, as he continues to be hilariously incapable of finishing off A Dance of Dragons, a book which he's been working on for seven years and counting.

It is a sad fact that many fantasy series - especially those sold in brick-sized volumes - never quite end up finishing, and it's heartening to see a series actually wrap up. One such recently-concluded epic is The Prince of Nothing, the debut trilogy by R. Scott Bakker. True to the conventions of the genre, it's actually the first part of a significantly longer series, The Second Apocalypse - Bakker is currently working on the next segment, The Aspect-Emperor, which might be another trilogy or a pair of books. Nonetheless, The Prince of Nothing is a complete story in itself, although the individual volumes don't stand alone particularly well. To borrow Gene Wolfe's terminology, it's not so much a series as it is a multi-volume novel: there's a particular plot arc that begins in book one and is finished by the end of book three.

Specifically, the titular "Prince of Nothing" is Anasurimbor Kellhus, a member of a secret monastic order who for millennia have bred and trained themselves to become master manipulators of men; by understanding history and perceiving the factors which have shaped a situation, group or individual, the Dunyain can manipulate the less sophisticated peoples of the world of the Three Seas with ease. Kellhus, therefore, is something like a cross between the Mule and the Second Foundation in Asimov's Foundation series: he has a nigh-telepathic ability to understand the motivations of those he is dealing with, and telling them precisely what they need to hear, and the Probability Trance allows him to predict the course of events much as Asimov's psychohistory allows the Second Foundation to control the destiny of a galaxy.

Like psychohistory, of course, the philosophy of the Dunyain is a heap of shite; people just aren't that predictable. However, Bakker has a background in philosophy, and I suspect he's exaggerating to make a philosophical point: he's saying that without an understanding of history - both national and cultural history and one's own personal history - people and societies are doomed to be puppets of those who do understand such things. History is the Darkness That Comes Before, in effect, which gives the first novel its title.

The Prince of Nothing is the story of how Kellhus the Dunyain is called to the holy city of Shimeh through a telepathic sending from his father, an exile; Kellhus is actually instructed to go and murder his father by the Dunyain authorities, since the dream-sendings are ruled to have violated the absolute isolation from the world the Dunyain require of their headquarters. There's a problem, though: Shimeh is in the hands of the Fanim faith, and the Shriah - the supreme authority in the Inrithi religion - has called for a Holy War to retake it. To find his father Kellhus must join and seize control of the Holy War, and use it for his own purposes. While it is easy to see parallels between the Fanim, the Inrithi and the Holy War and Islam, Christianity, and the First Crusade, Bakker avoids the epic fantasy trap of having those parallels be too exact; he cleverly manages to make these cultures alien and fantastic, with a decidedly different history from that of medieval Europe and the Middle East, but at the same time making them remind the reader (or me, at least) of things from our world.

The Darkness That Comes Before


The opening book of the trilogy has a weighty task before it: introducing us to the world, establishing Kellhus, and setting up a host of additional viewpoint characters besides. Just as important as Kellhus in this book, and significant for the rest of the series, is Drusas Achamian, a Mandate Schoolman. The Mandate is an elite order of wizards, feared by other sorcerers for their mastery of the Gnosis, the most powerful magic of the day, but mocked for their continuing belief in the Second Apocalypse foretold by their founder, Sesathwa, who was a central figure in the Apocalypse that occurred millennia ago. Achamian joins the Holy War for his own reasons - there are suggestions that the Consult (the inventor-summoner-worshippers of the bizarre Non-God which cased the first Apocalypse) - has infiltrated the Holy War. Meanwhile, Kellhus sets off on his quest and successfully joins the Holy War, along with Cnaiur, a Conan ripoff, and the two of them help the Holy War extract concessions from the powerful ruler of the Nansur Empire, a nominally Inrithi nation which seeks to manipulate the Holy War for its own ends.

You might have got the impression from the previous paragraph that this is a somewhat convoluted book, and you'd be right. Bakker hits us full in the face with names, places, and concepts, many with fantasy-soup names. Although a glossary is provided I personally can't be bothered to refer to such things while I'm reading - if I have to constantly flip back and forth in a book to understand what's happening, the author isn't doing his or her job. Bakker's prose is reasonable, and reminds me a little of Steven Erikson's or George R.R. Martin's: it's not especially artistic or fancy, but it maintains the reader's interest and keeps those pages turning. Bakker does, however, have a terrible habit - which he never quite manages to kick - of slightly overexplaining things, especially relating to what characters are thinking and feeling at any particular time. Yes, Scott, we understand that Cnaiur constantly mistrusts Kellhus because of his previous encounter with Kellhus's father. Really, we get it. You don't need to remind us of the fact every time Cnaiur appears.

The other flaw that I noticed quite early on was the apparent inconsistency of the world. Specifically, I got the impression that Bakker has been working on his fantasy world for a long time - since, say, he was 17 and running Dungeons & Dragons games for his friends or something - and while many concepts, such as the religions of Fanimry and Inrithism, the byzantine politics of the Nansur Empire, and the philosophy behind the Dunyain are quite interesting and flavourful, and other things such as the bizarre biotechnological products of the Consult's technology are striking and different and unexpected for high fantasy, still other elements of the book - such as the Conan ripoff Cnaiur, and the orclike Sranc, and the epic tale of the First Apocalypse - seem much more typical for a high fantasy world. It's as if Bakker has been learning and developing as he's developed the world, and so the latter additions are original and creative and interesting, but he doesn't want to junk elements he added to the world at earlier stages of its development even when they are unoriginal and not especially interesting, even though we the readers will never know that those elements were missing if he had removed them.

The Warrior-Prophet


The same problems persist in The Warrior-Prophet. The Holy War, having set off at the end of The Darkness That Comes Before, fights through Fanim territory and thousands of people on both sides die. Then they go through a desert, and more people die. Die, die, die, die, die. There's lots of death in this one. Meanwhile, Kellhus begins to take over the Holy War by carefully setting himself up as a messiah figure - the Warrior-Prophet of the title.

Here I have to give Bakker his dues: throughout the entire novel Bakker toys with the reader, and left me completely unsure whether I should be rooting for Kellhus or praying for his downfall. Cnaiur's viewpoint segments crop up at regular intervals, reminding us - when we're about to fall under Kellhus's spell ourselves - that the man is a master manipulator with his own agenda. Kellhus's viewpoint segments, meanwhile, gradually decrease, so we are less and less sure of what he's really thinking at any particular time. This is in stark contrast to the likes of, say, Terry Goodkind, who'll make it very clear that we're meant to be cheering for the hero of the Sword of Truth saga, even when he's kicking 8-year-old girls in the face and butchering unarmed peace protesters (I'm not kidding - this site exhaustively documents the madness of Terry Goodkind for those of us who don't want to waste time reading the man's books). In fact, we find out later in the series that the word "Dunyain" means "Truth", and Kellhus's sword is named Certainty - perhaps a dig at Goodkind?

By the end of the book Kellhus has convinced almost all of the Holy War that he is a new Inrithi prophet, and effectively establishes his own religion - at the same time, grasping a concept known as the Thousandfold Thought. At the same time, after a gruelling seige, the last fortress guarding the road to Shimeh has fallen to the Holy War. This sets the stage for the final book.

The Thousandfold Thought


This final book is alternatingly maddening and entertaining. I'll tackle the bad before the good: this book has more repetitive "this is what this character is thinking" filler than any previous volume in the series, and often the big revelations either fall flat or don't materialise at all. Especially silly is the bit where we are told that the secret forces behind the Consult are a bunch of alien bodysnatching BDSM enthusiasts whose ship crashed way off to the north millennia ago, especially since we find this out in a sequence where one of these aliens possesses a female character and makes her masturbate in front of Kellhus. Especially frustrating is the way that the Thousandfold Thought is never actually explained in this book; if I read between the lines, it seems to be "the only way mankind can beat the Consult is if we come up with a new religion to unite everyone", but for all I know it's "bitches ain't shit but hos and tricks".

On the other hand, occasionally the revelations are exciting. The depiction of life within the Holy War once Kellhus has taken command reminds me of first-hand accounts of the Branch Davidians, with its mixture of terrifying authoritarianism and beguiling, ecstatic religious fervour. The revelation that the Apocalypse was an attempt by the Consult to cut the world off from the greater spiritual realities outside reality, because they were more willing to destroy any hope of anyone reaching any kind of afterlife than they were to change their ways, is kind of cool. But the big revelation are those about Kellhus himself: ultimately, it is in this volume that we finally get the answer as to whether Kellhus is good or evil, and it's through Achamian's eyes that we finally see clearly. I am left full of hope and foreboding for The Aspect-Emperor. Those who simply can't wait for the sequel series will be delighted by the massive Encyclopedic Glossary at the end, which takes up about a fifth of the book and explains all sorts of things.

The Canary Says


This is a genuinely interesting and original epic fantasy that falls down occasionally due to Bakker's inexperience as a writer. Hopefully he will improve - he needs to concentrate more on his storytelling and less on his philosophy, which isn't as interesting or original as he thinks it is - but at the same time The Prince of Nowhere isn't a bad start, and he manages to maintain a reasonable level of quality throughout. Check out the first book: if you like it, you'll enjoy the rest (although you might find some aspects of The Thousandfold Thought disappointing), if you hate it you needn't bother reading on.
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Comments (go to latest)
Dan H at 23:40 on 2007-09-20
Somehow I don't think I could take a series seriously knowing that the archvillains were "alien bodysnatching BDSM enthusiasts".
empink at 02:08 on 2007-09-21
@Daniel "alien bodysnatching BDSM enthusiasts"
ROFL, Jesus. Thank god I gave up on this series while I was still halfway sane- Kellhus irritated me no end. I knew he was supposed to, and still I found myself gnashing my teeth at him anyway.

Especially frustrating is the way that the Thousandfold Thought is never actually explained in this book; if I read between the lines, it seems to be "the only way mankind can beat the Consult is if we come up with a new religion to unite everyone", but for all I know it's "bitches ain't shit but hos and tricks".

*rofls some more* Thank god I'm not the only one. Or, at least, I'm going to purposely read the bitches-are-hos line that way. I don't know if I was just being oversensitive, but the representation of the female characters in the first book drove me round the fucking bend. I don't know what was more irritating, being introduced to yet another weak whore or watching people on Bakker's forum complain that the series wasn't being read by women. Well, duh. I would also say that he could surely have found a less tasteless way of introducing his, ahem, BDSM-loving archvillains, but...BDSM-loving ALIEN archvillains. I'm surprised he didn't have the woman masturbate in the street for everyone to see.

Lastly, I think I'm just going to pretend that GRRM will never finish the series. That way, if it actually happens before he croaks, it'll be a pleasant surprise.
Arthur B at 09:16 on 2007-09-21
@Dan: It's a particularly irritating revelation. It's established way back in the first book that the replicants that the BDSM aliens make to act as their spies are seriously turned on by death and violence, but I'd rationalised that as a kind of control mechanism that their creators had hardwired into them. When it turned out that the secret masters of the Consult were just as boner-crazed as their underlings I couldn't pretend that any more.

Also, the bit where they're aliens and the Dread Fortress of Golgotterath is actually their crashed ship. Talk about your kitchen-sink fantasy world...

@empink: The standard fantasy fan defence for the portrayal of women is "but that's how women were treated in HISTORY!" The reasoned response is "You're not writing about real-world history, you're writing about an invented world, and as its inventor you bear sole responsibility for its contents." I am willing to give Bakker the benefit of the doubt and assume that the societies of the Three Seas are massively misogynistic - the crunch test will be to see whether he ever lets us meet a Dunyain woman. If the Dunyain are holding to their philosophy consistently, they should be just as capable as the men, because they've been breeding themselves for uber-ness for millennia; if that's not the case, then I'd probably agree with you that Bakker's got problems.

Re: Kellhus: I think he's infuriating in precisely the way that Protagonists That Are Always Right are in fantasy series, which makes me believe that he's a giant satire of them. He isn't the Chosen One - not necessarily - he's just a manipulative shit who manages to take over the Holy War through ridiculous platitudes. The question is, of course, whether we actually need to read 1500 pages to learn that manipulative people don't actually have our best interests at heart.

Lastly, on GRRM, I've actually found the series works better if you assume it ended with Storm of Swords. We can all pretty much guess how the rest of the series will go, from that point. At this point in time, I feel no compelling need to follow it all the way to the end.
empink at 12:13 on 2007-09-21
Gargh, this page ate my comment. Ah well, here's the tl;dr summary of it:

@ArthurB, RE Standard Fantasy Fan Defense
Bullshit. Sure, women were treated badly throughout history, but that doesn't mean some of them rose above their treatment and had more influence on what happened to them personally, and what happened to others. Add this to the fact that bloody BDSM aliens are included in this series, and you get one seriously unimpressed female reader. Surely Bakker could have taken valuable time away from his aliens and dropped a real, possibly influential woman in his series?

RE: Re Kellhus
Well, ain't that a shame. I suppose I thought of the question of reading a whole series to learn that manipulative people suck and answered it with a 'no'. No, I don't; I read for entertainment, not lessons on psychology. And unfortunately, the Prince of Nothing was more of a painful, annoying read than an entertaining one. None of the characters really held me, and since I only wanted to see Kellhus crash and burn spectacularly or perhaps develop into a real, feeling human being, it's only a good thing that I let the series go.

RE GRRM
Good for you. Hope our calm acceptance doesn't disintegrate too badly in the face of new entrants to the series :P
Wardog at 12:46 on 2007-09-21
I have to say your summation seems peculiarly positive for a book that stoops to BDSM aliens :)

I hate master manipulator characters. I think the increasing front-lining of Littlefinger was when ASOIAF started the inevitable downhill slide. It just strikes me as an excuse sloppy plotting and an opportunity for the writer to masturbate a little bit, you know "oh this character, right, he's like me because as he manipulates those around him so I do manipulate the characters in my book ... d'ya see ..."

With regard to the women-in-fantasy debate, I think Arthur was saying that writers use historical precedent as a way to lend validity to their essentially adolescent conceptions of women and female sexuality. Which I think it is a fair assessment of the situation but I'm them I'm massively down on the fantasy genre at the moment. But, yes, it's a bullshit argument on the part of the writers.

empink, did you ever brush up against JV Jones? I read The Baker's Boy which was absolutely chronic for its constantly raped and rape-threatened women. I was genuinely shocked to discover the writer was a woman.
Arthur B at 14:10 on 2007-09-21
I am, perhaps, being overgenerous with regards to the BDSM aliens, but the thing is the Consult is genuinely scary and terrifying in the first two books. I really, really wish that Bakker hadn't felt the need to say "Oh, by the way, the leaders of the Consult are aliens who get turned on by killing people," partially because a) any motivation that you come up with for a conspiracy to bring about the end of the world is going to look silly in the cold light of day and b) what the fuck, BDSM aliens?

As for women-in-fantasy, you've basically summed up my position much better than I did: while yes, historically speaking, women have tended to have secondary roles in society, it's simply not true that historically speaking they were all sluts and rape-bait.

George R.R. Martin almost gets it right, but not quite. Catelin Stark manages to be a powerful female character in a society with reasonably historically accurate misogyny, and she does it without a) whoring herself out for fun and profit or b) becoming a kickass warrior woman. Sansa looks like she'll follow in her footsteps - if she avoids the attentions of Littlefinger. Arya's looking to become a slightly mad assassin, but it's a step up from whores in chainmail bikinis. That doesn't mean that I'm not left with a bad taste in my mouth when, say, Daenerys gets married off to a violent barbarian and has to perform in the bedroom, or that random bint whose name I forget gets literally raped stupid by a crowd; I can just about convince myself that Martin doesn't write his scenes for his own titillation, but only just.

It's infuriating. It's as if once your novel hits 600 pages a switch gets flipped in your brain and you have to add a rape scene in somewhere, just because.
empink at 18:57 on 2007-09-21
@Kyra I have to say your summation seems peculiarly positive for a book that stoops to BDSM aliens
That's likely because Bakker's books are very well written. Some elements (cough, aliens, cough) may be bizarre or out of place, or just not handled well, but overall, he writes a damn good story. As Arthur says above, the Consult is genuinely terrifying at first. Which is why I'm so happy I didn't stay on; I was definitely expecting a far better conclusion re their identity than what was provided, and that's one of the things that made it hard to let go.

It's infuriating. It's as if once your novel hits 600 pages a switch gets flipped in your brain and you have to add a rape scene in somewhere, just because.
I kind of understand from a factual point of view, because even adding for error and so on, that 1-in-3 statistic is, well, one in three. And it's now, when big chunks of the world have become 'civilised'. It's not hard to extend that and say rape might have been more prevalent back in the day. Add in a war or three, and there you go. When you think of it that way, *not* including rape in any way in a book set in the usual ye-olden-days kind of thing doesn't make sense. I think where the annoyance comes in is idiots who can't seem to stop describing it or sticking in graphic scenes that don't fit in with the plot or the time period or just don't make any kind of sense. Or when women do not appear save to be raped, to be saved from rape or to have sex in some way.
Dan H at 20:50 on 2007-09-21
Sidetracking a little:

My problems with the "but it's historically accurate!" defense of the Obligatory Fantasy Rape Scene are twofold.

Firstly: It almost certainly isn't. There's just no way you can get accurate information about how common rape was in the thirteenth century. It's not like there's detailed crime statistics about sexually related violence in the Kingdom of Mercia during the third quarter of the 834.

Secondly: While it obviously sucked to be a woman in the middle ages, it sucked to be a man too, but all of the troubles men had to put up with are automatically waived for the Fantasy hero. Yes, if a woman in the middle ages was captured by brigands, she'd probably wind up being raped. If a man was captured by brigands he'd probably wind up being killed. Curiously, however few fantasy novels ever include a scene in which their male protagonist is randomly murdered (or dies of a trivial and easily cured infection) in the name of historical accuracy.
lessofthat at 23:03 on 2007-09-21
The standard fantasy fan Arthur mentions (the one they keep in a sealed vault as a paradigmatic measurement) is an idiot, but the historical accuracy argument has some legs. "You're not writing about real-world history, you're writing about an invented world": true as far as it goes, but you'd carp if his characters used jarring C21 concepts or comically anachronistic technology or other inconsistencies.

"It's not like there's detailed crime statistics about sexually related violence in the Kingdom of Mercia during the third quarter of[...] 834." Well no, we don't have detailed statistics about anything much in 834, but that's why we invented history. Rape tends to be a besetting evil where the rule of law is limited and you've got large gangs of delinquent men (as do theft and violence, and indeed fantasy isn't short of those).

And sure dysentery, mud, poor dentistry and forty-year lifespans are also features of preindustrial societies, and though mud's enjoying a renaissance the others generally don't feature, as Dan points out. But more interesting stories are written about rape than dysentery, even if you're Nabokov, let alone if you're writing swordfighting fantasy with BDSM aliens.

None of this makes gratuitous exploitative rape scenes anything but gratuitous and exploitative, and I don't find the thought of GRRM frotting on his keyboard appealing either. But there's something else here that makes me uneasy. How many fantasy novels and games include rousing blow-by-blow accounts of battles or graphic accounts of torture? I can name a dozen without breaking a sweat. I'd have a hard time naming a dozen novels with an equally colourful account of rape.

I'm not saying there should be more rape scenes (God forbid). I'm saying we should probably be as disgusted by any kind of fetishisation of violence, whether it's sexual violence or not. Even if the mud, blood, mutilation and complicated ninja weapons are historically accurate.
Arthur B at 00:06 on 2007-09-22
Two question I usually ask myself if I'm reading a particularly graphic scene in a fantasy novel - whether it's rape, torture, or horrible degrading violence, are as follows: firstly, is the author getting an erection from writing this stuff, and does he (or she) expect me to get one from reading it? Secondly, is the author trying to impress me with how wonderfully his or her descriptions of terrible things can make me feel?

If the answer to both questions is "no", then it will usually follow that the rape, torture, or other nastiness is in there for a good reason, and (if the author if halfway competent) is going to be handled in a suitably sensitive and thoughtful manner.

If the answer to the first question is "yes", it's going to be pretty obvious from the text - the details the writer lingers on and so forth tend to be big hints - then the author's a rape fantasist and I'm probably not the target audience (that being other rape fantasists).

If the answer to the second question is yes then the author's being dumb and juvenile and will hopefully grow out of this bad habit. It's a mark against them, but it's not unforgivable; lots of us made this mistake when we were 17 and edgy.

If the answer to both questions is "yes", I'm uncharacteristically reading a John Norman Gor novel for some reason.

For what it's worth, I think Bakker lives in the "dumb and juvenile" category as opposed to the "rape fantasist" category.
lessofthat at 00:34 on 2007-09-22
>is the author getting an erection from writing this stuff,

I can't tell whether this is shorthand for actually means 'is aroused by this stuff' or 'is enjoying this stuff'. If the former, then is it OK to include gratuitous violence (sexual or not) if it doesn't give you a stiffie? If the latter, it excludes rather a lot of blood-and-glory fantasy, then most high and nearly all low fantasy is in the dock.

>for a good reason,

what good reasons did you have in mind that are precluded by your two conditions (and apply in the absence of those conditions)?
Dan H at 00:55 on 2007-09-22
Rape tends to be a besetting evil where the rule of law is limited and you've got large gangs of delinquent men (as do theft and violence, and indeed fantasy isn't short of those).

Granted, but a remarkable number of people - not all of them Byron Hall - will trot out ludicrous statistics claiming that X out of N women during Y period of history would be raped at some point in their lives, while P out of Q men participated in organized rape gangs. I'm not denying that rape was a part of life in medieval Europe (just like it's a part of life now), I'm denying that (as at least one poster seems to have suggested) it's a necessary part of a "realistic" story in a pseudomedieval setting.

The point is that the "rape" aspect of your large gangs of delinquent men is often played realistically while the "theft and violence" angle is played romantically. A fight, more often than not, is supposed to be exciting rather than horrifying. Sword cuts sting for a while but ultimately heal without complications (or leaving funky-looking scars to show that the character in question has Seen Battle).

The upshot of all of this is that your male characters and your female characters wind up living in different worlds, with different sets of assumptions. Your women are dealing with a historically, socially, and emotionally realistic pseudomedieval society with widespread lawlessness and violence. Your men are living in a rollicking adventure yarn.

Or to put it another way: fantasy authors are entirely willing to rob a female character of her dignity, self-possession and virginity, but balk at the idea of depriving a male character of his ability to fight with swords.

George RR Martin actually does fairly well here: most of his rapists also do other horrible things to people (like cutting off their sword hands and violently beating them to death), so it's not just the women that get a historically accurate shafting (if you'll pardon the choice of words). When Jaime and Brienne get captured by Vargo Hoat and his men, it's Jaime that comes off the worst.
Arthur B at 00:57 on 2007-09-22
I'd say that the answer is "is enjoying this stuff", but with the proviso that I think fight scenes are a different thing from rape scenes and torture scenes. Specifically, there's two different ways you can enjoy a fight scene: you can enjoy it for people dying and killing, being horribly wounded or wounding others horribly, and get your kicks from people coughing up blood or spilling their guts, which isn't especially admirable (see, for example, the scene in Wizard's First Rule where the protagonist kicks in the face of an 8-year-old girl). Alternately, you can enjoy it as an adrenaline-fuelled struggle on the part of the defenders to preserve their skins, or on the part of the attackers to gain the victory and seize the day. These are, to my mind, distinctly different things; the latter's been part of human storytelling since day one, the former is a bit grim and unpleasant.

As far as reasonable motives for including a gruesome scene, off the top of my head:

- Showing us something about the society or location in which this scene is taking place. (It's gone to shit and bands of desperate men have turned to banditry and rapine/it's run by despots who extract false confessions by torture and care not a whit for the truth/it's a grim place where only the strong survive).
- Showing us something about the characters involved. (The perpetrator's a brute who doesn't care who he hurts/the victims devotion to the cause is such that no torture can make them betray their fellows/the perpetrator, who we've not passed judgement on yet, has crossed a line and won't be the same again after this harrowing experience).
- In the case of kick-ass fight scenes, entertaining us. Again, see my caveat about the different ways to appreciate a fight scene. Conversely, there's little pure entertainment value to be gained from rape or torture, unless perhaps the victim turns the tables on the aggressor in a gratifying manner.
Dan H at 01:04 on 2007-09-22
Showing us something about the society or location in which this scene is taking place. (It's gone to shit and bands of desperate men have turned to banditry and rapine/it's run by despots who extract false confessions by torture and care not a whit for the truth/it's a grim place where only the strong survive).

I'd add a corollary to this to the effect that it only counts if the thing we are being shown with this particular rape/torture/whatever scene is applied consistently. That is to say, if the desperate bandits behave consistently like desperate bandits and don't treat their male captives with grudging respect and wind up letting them escape or making them their leader or something.
Arthur B at 01:11 on 2007-09-22
On this: "You're not writing about real-world history, you're writing about an invented world": true as far as it goes, but you'd carp if his characters used jarring C21 concepts or comically anachronistic technology or other inconsistencies.

It honestly depends on whether the C21 concepts were, in fact, jarring, or whether the anachronistic technology does in fact seem inconsistent. There's nothing inherently wrong with a goofy, light-hearted spaceships-and-sorcery story, if it's the author's intention to write such a thing. If the author throws such things in without especially thinking about them, then that's just sloppy writing.

Similarly, if the author's deliberately decided to write a story about a society or situation where rape is widespread, then we've got to look at why they decided to do that. Did they want to make a serious point about rape, or the sort of social forces that promote it, or the sort of people who commit it, or the people that it happens to, or do they think rape is totally awesome or really edgy? Conversely, if they didn't intend to write about such a setup at all, but there's great stacks of rape in the novel anyhow, then either they've made some kind of horrible mistake or this says something about the author.
Arthur B at 01:17 on 2007-09-22
I'd add a corollary to this to the effect that it only counts if the thing we are being shown with this particular rape/torture/whatever scene is applied consistently. That is to say, if the desperate bandits behave consistently like desperate bandits and don't treat their male captives with grudging respect and wind up letting them escape or making them their leader or something.

Sure, inconsistency in this sort of thing is at best bad writing, and at worst double standards on the part of the author.
lessofthat at 06:06 on 2007-09-22
>It honestly depends on whether the C21 concepts were, in fact, jarring

well obviously. That's why I said 'jarring C21 concepts', not 'C21 concepts'.

>if the author's deliberately decided to write a story about a [...] situation where rape is widespread

If (for instance) a novel features the sack of a city, the absence of rape (or of the measures taken to prevent rape) is rather like the absence of burning buildings.

>if the author's deliberately decided to write a story about a society or situation where rape is widespread, then we've got to look at why they decided to do that. Did they want to make a serious point about rape, or the sort of social forces that promote it, or the sort of people who commit it, or the people that it happens to, or do they think rape is totally awesome or really edgy?

Replace the word 'rape' with the word 'violence' in that sentence for a moment.


>As far as reasonable motives for including a gruesome scene, off the top of my head:

I don't think I can have made my question clear. I asked what good reasons there were for including a gruesome scene *which were precluded by the author apparently enjoying writing about it?* I'm sure John Norman was making illustrative points about his world and his characters. The fact that he's not much of a writer is entirely beside the point. An author's ability to produce decent work has nothing to do with whether he's a disgusting old pervert. Ask Nabokov. Ask Roth. Ask Woody Allen.

>adrenaline-fuelled struggle...kick-ass fight scenes...

This is exactly where my sharp intake of breath begins. Whee! There goes his head, just as if I'd hit a six at cricket! Let's churn up the earth with our hooves and have a jolly good cavalry charge! He's killed ten men with his bare hands, our captain has! Look at our swords flash in the dawn light!

How is this sanitised, cheerful non-sexual violence any different from sanitised, cheerful sexual violence? You suggest there's a moral difference, and there is, but I suggest you've got it the wrong way round. We are not morally sophisticated because we have learnt not to cheer when a woman gets raped. We are *insufficiently* morally sophisticated because although we've learnt not to cheer when a woman gets raped, we still cheer when a man gets cut in half.


Dan said:

>Your women are dealing with a historically, socially, and emotionally realistic pseudomedieval society with widespread lawlessness and violence. Your men are living in a rollicking adventure yarn.

As an attack on a particular kind of book, this may be correct. It may in fact be correct wrt the Prince of Nothing. It sounds like a pretty nasty kind of book. I don't think most mediaeval fantasy particularly resembles it - I generally see high fantasy where rape is never mentioned (Tolkien), low fantasy where rape and combat are both grim (Gentle, Mieville, Hambly,by your own account GRRM) and swashbuckling yarns where combat and rape are both treated cheerily as stuff that happens (Lieber, Vance).

You said earlier:

>Curiously, however few fantasy novels ever include a scene in which their (male) protagonist is randomly murdered [my parentheses]

There's a reason for that, and it's not actually a bad reason.

But in any case, women also don't suffer 'realistic' fates (and thank God for that). The majority of raped women I've seen in fantasy novels don't fall pregnant, they don't die of syphilis, they don't suffer social ostracism, they're raped by strangers more often than friends, they don't get beaten by their husbands.

Let me clarify my point. I don't think that authors are morally obligated to include graphic rape scenes in their books for reasons of pseudo-historic determinism. I do think that people who claim authors are so obligated, are wankers. But I also think that including a rape scene for convincing local colour is about on a level with including a fairly realistically described hanging scene.

A couple of stray points that occur. One, there's a long-recorded connection between arousal and other forms of excitement. I understand that one of the reasons that rapes (of men as well as women) occurred after battle was because the victors were running on the rags of an adrenaline surge (the same adrenaline that fuels Arthur's healthy adventurous struggle above) and confused several kinds of excitement. Before anyone takes this the wrong way, let me add that as a properly shaven ape I find this repugnant, and I don't have any particular yen to read about it. Still, when a battle features men crying and shitting themselves we praise it for its psychological realism. There's a gap here.


Second, rape fantasies are, I'm told, surprisingly common and popular female fantasies. (I mean it surprised me, but I'm naive that way). If the author getting off on their fantasy of the helpless victim was a woman, would you be similarly contemptuous?
Arthur B at 11:31 on 2007-09-22
How is this sanitised, cheerful non-sexual violence any different from sanitised, cheerful sexual violence? You suggest there's a moral difference, and there is, but I suggest you've got it the wrong way round. We are not morally sophisticated because we have learnt not to cheer when a woman gets raped. We are *insufficiently* morally sophisticated because although we've learnt not to cheer when a woman gets raped, we still cheer when a man gets cut in half.
I think the distinction, in many fight scenes, isn't so much that we're cheering that a dude got cut in half, so much as we're cheering that whoever it is we're rooting for didn't get cut in half, despite the best efforts of the bad guys (and perhaps they looked cool in the process). Alternately, we genuinely are cheering that Brutish McEvil got cut in half, but the sort of character who's built up as a hissingly evil villain in fantasy novels also tends to be the sort of character who initiates violence in the first place*. I can't remember the last heroic fantasy novel I read where, say, the heroes set up a clever ambush and butchered the villains before they could draw their swords.

I think also the distinction between most fantasy fight scenes and most fantasy rape scenes is that most times the people who die in the fight scenes tend not to be folk we care much about; they're unnamed goons who we've never encountered before, and it's genuinely more difficult to feel bad about the death of an unknown than it is to feel bad about the death of someone we've spent 300 pages hanging around with. If a major character actually dies it's usually tremendously sad and there's often wailing about the tragedy of war.

Conversely, in most rape scenes - and I would submit just about all controversial rape scenes the victim is a named character, with a personality and everything. In most of these arguments I normally hear people complain about named, important characters being raped. I can't remember the last time someone complained about a throwaway references to the victorious forces running amok in the conquered city raping and looting. People tend to feel bad if a character they cared about gets raped, especially if it happens on-camera. They tend to feel enraged if they get the impression that the author was enjoying the sequence.

*Incidentally, I think this is part of the reason why so many fantasy bad guys are Nazis with the serial numbers filed off: it's generally accepted that evil empires with a Third Reich flavour aren't amenable to negotiation and reason, so any violence which kicks off feels gloriously justified.
Arthur B at 11:47 on 2007-09-22
Oh, and to keep the focus on Prince of Nothing:

As an attack on a particular kind of book, this may be correct. It may in fact be correct wrt the Prince of Nothing. It sounds like a pretty nasty kind of book. I don't think most mediaeval fantasy particularly resembles it - I generally see high fantasy where rape is never mentioned (Tolkien), low fantasy where rape and combat are both grim (Gentle, Mieville, Hambly,by your own account GRRM) and swashbuckling yarns where combat and rape are both treated cheerily as stuff that happens (Lieber, Vance).

I think Prince of Nothing very much falls into the low fantasy category, although it's set in a world where high fantasy-type stuff does happen. Terrible things happen to all sorts of people, even Kellhus; nobody gets off free. Both men and women end up getting raped at points, but I honestly don't think it actually degenerates into a rape-party at any point. Even the BDSM aliens barely get any onscreen time.

My real concern is his utter lack of strong female characters who aren't whores (either professionally or on an amateur basis), and again I think Bakker's trying to say "history was really misogynistic, doesn't that suck?" - then again, until we finally get a female Dunyain on-camera we won't know for sure either way. The thing about Bakker is that he clearly takes what he's saying very seriously (and injects a lot talk about philosophy to make it clear that we should take it seriously too); I don't get the impression that he writes about rape or torture or thousands of people dying of thirst for shits and giggles, and he doesn't expect the reader to enjoy the elements. Unfortunately, I don't think the enjoyment of the reader is a priority for him at all - he seems to have got it into his head that he's doing Serious Writing and therefore we shouldn't enjoy ourselves too much. The only really fun and exciting fight scenes (as opposed to draining horrors-of-war fight scenes) are the ones where Kellhus is laying the smackdown on someone, and even then entertainment isn't the main purpose of those sequences - they exist so that Bakker can say "look at Kellhus, isn't he better than all those simpletons who don't know as much about history and philosophy as I do?"
Dan H at 14:01 on 2007-09-22
But I also think that including a rape scene for convincing local colour is about on a level with including a fairly realistically described hanging scene.

Okay, then let's put it this way.

If I read a book which includes a "realistically described hanging scene" and I feel that said scene was pointless and gratuitous, my objections to said scene are not remotely addressed by somebody saying "but hanging was common in those days."

If I then read another book in the same genre, which includes *another* pointless, gratuitous hanging scene, and then another, I will become increasingly annoyed with people insisting that "it's historically accurate" is a good excuse for people wasting my time with this dross. To put it another way: capital punishment is common in America but people don't just arbitrarily stick Electric Chair sequences into US-set novels just for "local colour".

Basically I don't object to rape scenes on principle, I object to the idea that there's a blanket justification for the inclusion of a rape scene in any given fantasy novel. A rape scene, like any scene in any halfway competently written book, should stand on its own merits, not on some nebulous consensus about what things were like "back then".
lessofthat at 14:42 on 2007-09-22
I don't disagree with anything you (Dan) say in that last comment, although I rather think that irritation should also apply to fight scenes.

Arthur: >I can't remember the last heroic fantasy novel I read where, say, the heroes set up a clever ambush and butchered the villains before they could draw their swords.

I honestly don't think you mean that, because I'm sure you can think of half-a-dozen if you try. Not counting the three major fantasy franchises of Brust, GRRM and Hobb where a sympathetic protagonist is an actual *assassin*.

>I think also the distinction between most fantasy fight scenes and most fantasy rape scenes is that most times the people who die in the fight scenes tend not to be folk we care much about;

What a ghastly idea. Crowds of dehumanised disposable nobodies in black hats who die and for whom no tears are shed.

>They tend to feel enraged if they get the impression that the author was enjoying the [raping] sequence.

But not if he's writing about a jolly good fight.

>They tend to feel enraged if they get the impression that the author was enjoying the sequence.

as above, do they (or you) feel enraged in the same way if it's a rape-fantasy written by a woman? I can't remember ever reading one, but I imagine they exist, given the devious multiplicity of human nature

To some extent I am of course playing devil's advocate. My other half's pointed out that the rape is always, unambiguously wrong: it can't have extenuating circumstances in the way an assassination or a murder, let alone a brawl, can. Still, torture is also unambiguously wrong, and when a hero tortures for revenge they get rather more of a pass then when they rape for revenge.

I think there's also a strong argument that after 8000 years of civilisation we've finally got to a situation where women are the tenuously acknowledged equals of men, but the battle is far from over and it's possibly unwise to depict rape - as a weapon still in the hands of men - as in any way habitual or unimportant. It may be unwise to draw too much attention to the psychosexual elements of violence when we still haven't learnt as a culture to cope with it reliably. That said, the same is true of war and violence, and *particularly* of any form of violence in which the slaughtered enemy are dehumanised crowd-scene non=individuals. Most of the great atrocities of the last twenty years have occurred because the victims can be idealised into a homogenous mass.

So I'm glad there aren't more rape scenes in books, but I think there's something in awry in being sniffy about sexual violence and giving other violence a pass in harmlessly integral to storytelling.
Dan H at 15:55 on 2007-09-22
What a ghastly idea. Crowds of dehumanised disposable nobodies in black hats who die and for whom no tears are shed.

Except it isn't a ghastly idea. It's an integral assumption of a great many books which both you and I have enjoyed reading, a great many films which both you and I have enjoyed watching, and of course a great many computer games which both you and I have enjoyed playing. Heck even chess basically casts you as the general of an army, heartlessly sending your men to die at your command, I don't think its enduring popularity is evidence of the moral turpitude of humanity.

That said, if you've made up your mind about all these things, can I have your copy of Bioshock?
lessofthat at 16:48 on 2007-09-22
>It's an integral assumption of a great many books which both you and I have enjoyed reading,

and will continue to read and enjoy. That's my point. There's an inconsistency between our utter desensitisation to casual non-sexual violence (and indeed the fetishisation of violence) and our unalloyed horror at sexual violence.

>even chess basically casts you as the general of an army, heartlessly sending your men to die at your command

I assume that's hyperbole, since it's abstracted into complete anodynity (and for that matter pieces are captured not killed). Even then, chess pawns are our standard cultural shorthand for the little guy getting fucked.

>That said, if you've made up your mind about all these things, can I have your copy of Bioshock?

FFS don't get me started on the wrench rant again.
Arthur B at 17:35 on 2007-09-22
I think for most people anonymous goons in a swashbuckling adventure story actually occupy the same mental space as chess pieces, at least in this regard: lacking name, personality, and identity, people shed no tears for them. You might argue that this represents a dehumanisation of the poor enlisted soldier or the noble orc, which makes us more accepting of violence against the anonymous in real life. I would argue that most of us, when reading a story or watching a film, are at least semi-aware at the back of our heads that it's only a story or a film, and that the anonymous goons don't really have grieving families, orphaned children, or indeed any importance outside of the context of the story because they're only characters in the book. The really clever psychological trick is when authors convince us to care about their main characters as if they have any kind of flesh-and-blood existence, even though we know full well they don't.

There is an issue we're missing here, which is that a fight is a very different thing to a rape. In most fight scenes, both sides are armed and able to defend themselves, and danger is present for both the aggressor and the defender (if the people being attacked are unarmed and helpless, that's not a fight scene, that's a massacre). Conversely, if someone's being raped or tortured they are passive victims: either they're incapable of fighting back, or too scared to fight back, or they tried to fight back last scene and got beaten down. The dynamic is entirely different.
Dan H at 18:06 on 2007-09-22
I assume that's hyperbole, since it's abstracted into complete anodynity (and for that matter pieces are captured not killed). Even then, chess pawns are our standard cultural shorthand for the little guy getting fucked.

It's hyperbole, but it's hyperbole with a point.

At what point does the "fetishisation of violence" begin? With chess, with Battle Chess, with Bugs Bunny? Is it okay for me to cheer when Buffy stakes a Vampire? How about when Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star or when Eowyn kills the Lord of the Nazgul? What about when I capture an enemy city in Civ IV?

I don't think it's at all inconsistent to view rape differently to other sorts of violence, any more than it's inconsistent to be comfortable watching Tom and Jerry, but uncomfortable watching a man beat a cat to death with a frying pan. "Violence" isn't one homogeneous thing. Running around Castle Wolvenstein blowing away Nazis just isn't remotely comparable running around central London raping members of the general public.
lessofthat at 18:57 on 2007-09-22
I

>At what point does the "fetishisation of violence" begin?

It begins at the point when it's visibly and obviously fetishised, in mediaeval fantasy's long habit of stirring cavalry charges, excitingly pantherine warriors, scarred macho barbarians, loving descriptions of sharp metal clubs used to eviscerate other human beings, cunning assassinations, inventive tortures...

>Running around Castle Wolvenstein blowing away Nazis just isn't remotely comparable running around central London raping members of the general public.

Of course not. Explicit or airbrushed murder and torture in mediaeval fantasy, especially when it's there to quicken the pulse, is directly comparable to explicit or airbrushed sexual violence in mediaeval fantasy, especially when it's there to quicken the pulse. Chess and Bugs Bunny are straw herrings.

lessofthat at 19:20 on 2007-09-22
Arthur:>I think for most people anonymous goons in a swashbuckling adventure story actually occupy the same mental space as chess pieces,

Yes. It's a lamentable habit we've been trained into. It's ultimately the same habit of thought that allows us to "drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area", or regard Arabs, Iranians, Muslims and terrorists as a sort of interchangeable porridgey mush.

Arthur:>semi-aware at the back of our heads[...]that the anonymous goons don't really have grieving families, orphaned children

Yees. 'Semi-aware at the back of our heads' isn't very encouraging.

Arthur:>The really clever psychological trick is when authors convince us to care about their main characters as if they have any kind of flesh-and-blood existence, even though we know full well they don't.

I disagree. Our monkey brains are optimised to spot apparent monkey behaviour and hypothesise actual functioning monkeys. This is why we anthromorpophise weather, harangue unpopular soap actors in the street and *can't quite get* that when the man's dead, he's never going to get up again. Give us a few scraps of half-competent dialogue and we can hardly fail to react as if there's a monkey behind it.

> a fight is a very different thing to a rape

a fight in self-defence is very different from a rape where the victim can't attempt to defend herself, yes: as above, rape is very hard to find extenuating circumstances for, while violence isn't. Murder and torture don't necessarily allow the victim much to wriggle.

By the way, do you want to answer my point about the hypothetical female rape fantasist author? It's not any kind of trap - I'm interested in what you'd have to say.
lessofthat at 19:32 on 2007-09-22
BTW if you guys aren't done, I suggest we take this to email - I don't want to spam the RSS feed
Wardog at 22:54 on 2007-09-22
More the point, oh my verbose brothers, why doesn't one of you spin all this opinion into an article?
Wardog at 23:38 on 2007-09-22
Test.
Wardog at 23:41 on 2007-09-22
(Sorry, I'm having trouble posting here, so my comment is probably going to come in bits)
Wardog at 23:46 on 2007-09-22
I don't why I'm going to jump into this cyclone of testosterone but here I go. I think equating sex and violence is unhelpful, not because the two aren't connected, but because it muddies the field. Unless instituted against a specific person for specific reasons, violence tends to be impersonal. A rape is a direct assault against a woman because she's a woman. Of course men rape men too but not very often in fantasy novels.

I dislike rape in fantasy novels, not for moral reasons, but because it's lazy clumsy writing. It's shorthand for "this bad experience will happen to this female character and she will overcome it to reveal what a strong, admirable person she is. Rape is an unspeakably awful thing to happen to a person; it causes lasting, permanent and, quite frankly, it's probably the foremost fear of most women in the western world. It shouldn't be used as the equivalent to the male hero getting beaten by the local bully. It shouldn't be used to say "look how dark my world is." It shouldn't be the only challenge a female character is capable of overcoming in a fantasy world.

It fucking cheap and it disgusts me.
Wardog at 23:48 on 2007-09-22
I'm sorry I'm playing the "I'm offended as a woman card" but I'm a woman and I'm offended.

Please don't make out that rape is just another kind of violence.

And for the last time, there's nothing wrong with enjoying violence within certain established limits, even consensual sexual violence.
Wardog at 23:57 on 2007-09-22
Furthermore, rape, forced seduction and the exploration of rape fantasy are fairly common in the romance genre which, of course, is primarily written by woman and for women. I think a lot of women take pleasure in the idea that a strong, controlled and intelligent man could desire her beyond reason and beyond morality. In such cases "rape" (and the word barely applies because, of course, the woman really wants it and you may be sure she has an *amazing* time) is an expression of love; yes it sounds ridiculous and nobody really believes it as applied to the real world. But it''s a damn far remove from being gang-banged by a bunch of bandits in a field.
Wardog at 23:58 on 2007-09-22
And if anyone says "I'm not disagreeing with any of this" I might just scream.
lessofthat at 01:33 on 2007-09-23
I disagree with some of this.

Rape isn't "just" another form of violence. No more is torture. No more is premeditated murder. They are all (extreme, repellent) forms of violence. There is no consensus, however, that rape is uniquely qualitatively worse for the victim than any other conceivable form of violence. You can find certified double-X-chromosome carriers who would rather be raped than tortured (though of course with horrific frequency the two are combined). You can rather easily find women who would rather be raped than die.

>It's shorthand for "this bad experience will happen to this female character

At all times and in all places? I can name some self-evident exceptions if you like.

I do also firmly believe in the possibility and indeed the existence of fiction where it's not shorthand but longhand, where the horror is genuinely illustrative powerful or where the account of a woman's survival is genuinely moving or valuable.

All that said, fantasy literature (like most fiction) is full of cliche and lazy writing, and you're quite right that you don't have to look far for adolescently gratuitous accounts of rape. I join y'all in censuring all that, and indeed in being offended, though my Y chromosome may detract from the righteousness of my indignation.

>I'm sorry I'm playing the "I'm offended as a woman card" but I'm a woman and I'm offended.

Why? Why are you offended, I mean - by my remarks, or by the treatment of rape in fantasy - and also why are you sorry?

>In such cases "rape" (and the word barely applies because, of course, the woman really wants it and you may be sure she has an *amazing* time) is an expression of love; yes it sounds ridiculous and nobody really believes it as applied to the real world. But it's a damn far remove from being gang-banged by a bunch of bandits in a field.

So, when I mentioned rape fantasies, I didn't mean bodice-rippers. I was thinking of the more alarming Nancy Friday stuff, or that crazy woman from Suckdog who fantasises about being tied up in a burlap sack, beaten with sticks and gang-raped (http://www.villagevoice.com/people/0549,bussel,70670,24.html). If someone like that writes a gloating account of a rape in a novel that like-minded spirits can enjoy, are we obliged to censure it?

(Can I just add, because I just know this will be found and taken out of context in my next job interview, only the certifiably dysfunctional would confuse real and fantasised rape, and that *actual* rape is rendered no less heinous by the existence of women who fantasise about it).
lessofthat at 01:48 on 2007-09-23
Missed this.

>Unless instituted against a specific person for specific reasons, violence tends to be impersonal.

But...violence is constantly directed against specific people for specific reasons. In fantasy novels as elsewhere.

Some accounts of violence (sexual or other) are offstage or otherwise nonspecific, some are graphic. Some are directed against anonymous ciphers, some against named characters. It makes sense to compare graphic rape of named characters to graphic murder of named characters. It makes rather less sense to compare graphic murder to offscreen rape of anonymous citizens. I've been as guilty of equivocation between these as anyone on this thread. We should all stop that.
Dan H at 12:58 on 2007-09-23
Rape isn't "just" another form of violence.

Except you have, in fact, repeatedly directly and explicitly stated that it is. Most obviously in your suggestion that Arthur could "substitute the word violence for the word rape" in one of his earlier comments. Then there are your repeated references to fight scenes, cavalry charges, descriptions of swords and indeed of attractive looking people who happen to be good at fighting as being morally equivalent to rape scenes.

You have also directly compared rape to capital punishment. You have said that it is "inconsistent" that we treat "sexual violence" (always being careful to avoid using the word "rape") differently to other sorts of violence. Your definition of "murder" clearly extends to any situation in which people wind up dead.

Not only that but you have also compared reading and enjoying battle scenes in a work of fiction to condoning the carpet bombing of Iraq, and come about *this* close to making the good old "Tolkein was a white supremacist" argument. You have also explicitly stated that "local colour" is a sufficient reason to include a rape scene in a fantasy novel.

We get it. Really we do. We've all read that issue of the Invisibles. I personally found it trite, cheap and obvious even then.

I like me a good bit of violence. I enjoy shooting people in the eyes in fallout. I enjoy watching hapless tourists get slaughtered by hicks in slasher movies. And yes, I enjoy a well written or well choreographed fight scene, and I think kung-fu chicks are hot. I also like watching cartoon rabbits inflict pain, injury, and humiliation on cartoon ducks. I do not consider any of these things to be flaws in my moral character. I do not believe that my lack of sympathy for the plight of Bandit #3 makes me more inclined to support the War on Terror.

You are free to disagree all you want, but in that case for fuck's sake stop playing computer games where you beat people to death with wrenches.
Wardog at 13:11 on 2007-09-23
You can rather easily find women who would rather be raped than die.
Don't be cheap; quite frankly I'm starting to feel I'd rather die than continue with this discussion.

At all times and in all places? I can name some self-evident exceptions if you like
I'm confused. I thought we were talking about the appalling depiction/function of rape in bad fantasy novels. If you want to make a list of deep and effective treatments of the subject feel free, but it doesn't seem relevant somehow.

My Y chromosome may detract from the righteousness of my indignation.
Yes, actually, it does.

Why? Why are you offended, I mean - by my remarks, or by the treatment of rape in fantasy - and also why are you sorry?
To coin a phrase, why I'm offended ought to be self-evident. And I'm sorry because I don't like to be confrontational or get into fuckwitted debates when I'm old enough to know better.

If someone like that writes a gloating account of a rape in a novel that like-minded spirits can enjoy, are we obliged to censure it?
I think the key term here is "like-minded." When I read a fantasy novel, I'm not there to see firm young breasts get roughly kneaded by barbarian hands.



Arthur B at 13:14 on 2007-09-23
I would like to point out now that this article has sparked more comments than any previous FerretBrain article so I WIN.

And that's all I have to add to the discussion at this point.
lessofthat at 20:43 on 2007-09-23
>>Rape isn't "just" another form of violence.
>Except you have, in fact, repeatedly directly and explicitly stated that it is.

I have *not*. Rape is violence. I reject the 'just'. Rape is *not* equivalent to a slap, a brawl, or a stabbing in self-defence. It's non-controversially in the same class as murder and torture, ie, the most heinous crimes an individual can commit.

I didn't mean that all other forms of violence are precisely or even closely equivalent to rape. If I came across that way, it was unintentional.

>fight scenes, cavalry charges, descriptions of swords and indeed of attractive looking people who happen to be good at fighting as being morally equivalent to rape scenes.

I don't think they're morally equivalent. I think the ways in which they're potentially problematic are similar or related.

>You have also directly compared rape to capital punishment.

I compared *the graphic depiction of rape* to *the graphic depiction of hanging*, and I meant specifically that both are grim things that may be included for local colour. I had Orwell's 'A Hanging', which is a grisly scene used for good reason, in mind. Rereading what I wrote, I think it comes across as downplaying the offensiveness of rape, and I wish I'd hadn't phrased it as I did.

>You have said that it is "inconsistent" that we treat "sexual violence" (always being careful to avoid using the word "rape")

I really haven't been careful to avoid using the word rape. When I've said 'sexual violence' it's either to emphasise that rape is violent, or to draw attention to the fact that there are other forms of sexual violence in fantasy novels besides rape.

>come about *this* close to making the good old "Tolkein was a white supremacist" argument

Tolkien was not a white supremacist, and any argument that he is is fatuous. I can only assume that you read this into my reference to some fantasy authors' enthusiasm for cavalry charges. For what it's worth I think Tolkien's enthusiasm for cavalry charges *is* unhealthy, and that there are specific reasons for it I'll argue about with you another time.

>you have also compared reading and enjoying battle scenes in a work of fiction to condoning the carpet bombing of Iraq

Absolutely not. I've said that exposure to scenes of violence which dehumanise individuals are part of an ongoing moral desensitisation which makes it easier for people to support violence. This is a contentious but not a novel or bizarre assertion.

>You have also explicitly stated that "local colour" is a sufficient reason to include a rape scene in a fantasy novel.

I think it's a reason, but I don't think it's necessarily a "sufficient" reason. That depends on a lot of other things.

>We've all read that issue of the Invisibles.

If I have, I don't remember it.

>I like me a good bit of violence. I enjoy [...]. I do not consider any of these things to be flaws in my moral character

I think they are, and they're flaws in my moral character too, although I think in both our cases they're rather minor flaws.

>I do not believe that my lack of sympathy for the plight of Bandit #3 makes me more inclined to support the War on Terror.

Here we disagree. I think it's an erosive effect that might happen over years, and its effect on you is trivial. I don't think its effect on every individual in the world is trivial.

>You are free to disagree all you want, but in that case for fuck's sake stop playing computer games where you beat people to death with wrenches.

As far as I can tell, the biggest reason you're angry here is that, and I apologise in advance if I misread you, that you think I'm setting myself up as some sort of violence-hating ascetic while condeming vicarious violence utterly. I'm not. I have enjoyed and will enjoy vicarious violence. But I'm increasingly troubled by my and others' enjoyment - troubled only to the point where I think it's an evil like eating meat (which I also do), not an evil like watching kiddie porn.

I should add that I'm gobsmacked by how much we appear to have been having two different conversations. Some or all of the difference is doubtless because I was being rhetorical or incoherent. I'm quite hurt that you think I believe some of these things. I honestly thought you knew me better than this.
lessofthat at 20:43 on 2007-09-23
>y I'm starting to feel I'd rather die than continue with this discussion.

Okay - I'm just here for my right of reply and to apologise.

>>At all times and in all places? I can name some self-evident exceptions if you like
>I'm confused. I thought we were talking about the appalling depiction/function of rape in bad fantasy novels.

At all times and in all places in fantasy novels. I was talking about the depiction of rape in fantasy novels, not just the appalling depictions and not just the bad ones. If you meant only the most repulsive examples of the genres, that probably explains some of our disagreement.

>To coin a phrase, why I'm offended ought to be self-evident. And I'm sorry because I don't like to be confrontational or get into fuckwitted debates when I'm old enough to know better.

If I say that I'm not clear how I've offended you, I'm not being wilfully obtuse, it's really because I'm not clear which parts of my very lengthy responses have offended you. So what follows is necessarily scattershot.

I'd like to apologise for having misread the tone of the debate here. From where I'm sitting it's gone south unpleasantly quickly. I thought that when you said

'And if anyone says "I'm not disagreeing with any of this" I might just scream'

it was an invitation to come back energetically. I'm guessing now it was you indicating you thought the points you made shouldn't need making.

I'd also like to apologise if I've given the impression that rape is trivial, or that people who enjoy swashbuckling fights are would-be vicarious rapists, or that we shouldn't be horrified by rape.

I'd also like to make it clear that I agree that women have a particular perspective on rape that men can't share (though I don't think this disentitles us from holding opinions on rape). For what it's worth I ran what I thought were more contentious points past my partner, but I acknowledge specifically that you, Kyra, have a perspective I can't share.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I don't think there should be more rape scenes, explicit or offstage, in fiction, and because by this point I'm quite nervous about being misread, that personally explicit descriptions of rape in fiction or non-fiction make me physically nauseous.
Wardog at 12:10 on 2007-09-24
Friends, colleagues, passing acquaintances, thank you for coming to the retirement celebration of This Discussion. Now I've been asked to say a few words in acknowledgement of the sterling work its done over the minutes. Now, it's been with us a long time - almost all weekend in fact - but I think I speak for all us when I say it's time to say goodbye. But in honour of its long service to the causes of internet bickering, miscommunication and misunderstanding, it shall not go empty handed. Indeed no, we've had a whip round and we'd like to present it with this virtual imaginary watch. As you can see it has 'Claudoris os scleratus' inscribed on the back.

*polite applause*

Thank you, thank you all. What's that? No, Discussion, you may not make a speech...


Rami at 16:41 on 2007-09-26
For the Latin-challenged among us, what does claudoris os scleratus mean?
empink at 04:44 on 2007-09-27
*guiltily waves goodbye at Discussion* Well, I suppose Bakker's books are good for something.
http://thewaysof.wordpress.com/ at 00:18 on 2009-06-08
Even though it's a couple of years old, I for one be interested in seeing this argument continued. I think lessofthat has some good points, and the questions of rape and violence - what is it ok to enjoy in fantasy? what is it not ok to enjoy in fantasy? - seem particularly pertinent for ferretbrain, which does tend to delve into these issues through cultural deconstruction - an opportunity for ferretbrain-style reviews to deconstruct themselves perhaps?

(first post at 2 in the morning - I'm been a fan since I stumbled across Daniel Hemmens articulating precisely what I despise about Rowling several months ago.)
Arthur B at 01:52 on 2009-06-08
Hello thewaysof!

You might be interested in glancing at the conversation going on in Dan's Dollhouse article, which talks a bit about violence and people's attitudes towards it, namely whether it can ever be justified, which seems relevant to the topic at hand - if you believe, as it's clear that Dan and I do, that violence can ever be justified, then your approach to it in fiction is obviously going to be different to your approach to rape (because nobody with a functioning conscience believes in "justified rape").

On the rape side of things, there's some discussion arising from me accidentally wandering into romance fiction.
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