Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Neuropath - a review

R. Scott Bakker is a Canadian writer who has penned what is in my humble opinion the greatest fantasy series ever (I will probably write about this at some point in the future), the 'Prince of Nothing' series.

Drunk with having completed the 5th book (The White Luck Warrior), I went to my local library and took out the only novel he has completed that isn't part of the series, a near future science fiction/horror novel called 'Neuropath'.

Quite frankly it is the most disturbing novel I have ever read.

However much I was bothered by it, it was not for all the reasons people might normally be disturbed that you might think. It does have a serial killer (or two), several violent deaths that are both strange and unnerving, and even the hoary old trope of putting kids and pets into danger makes an appearance. But none of these explain why the novel was so upsetting for me.

A little background is probably in order. My university education included a philosophy degree - one that came with a lot of study in epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge), philosophy of science, evolutionary cladistics, and a variety of political philosophies and history.

One takeaway from all this liberal arts education is that I know that as faulty as science is at revealing the world, it is still the best and perhaps only method for uncovering what is really going on.

Another more specific takeaway would be that the nature of human consciousness is derived from our reality as biological beings, and that things like 'the mind', and 'free will', are illusions generated by our brains that are difficult to shrug off precisely because of how we are wired to view the universe.

The plot of Neuropath takes these very conclusions as their starting point - and then proceeds to drive them off a cliff into violence and nihlism.

Just as it is the people who you love the most that can hurt you the worst, it is always the people who understand and share your perspective of the world who can shake it the hardest.

In the novel the protagonist is a professor, who is sought after by national security powers to help catch a friend of his from his university days. A friend accused of, among other things, operating on helpless victims in gruesome and horrifyng ways. The evidence presented is in a series of compact disk recordings of the murders.

Among the examples given to our protagonist is a woman who's pain and pleasure centers have been rewired so that whenever she cuts herself with broken glass she achieves an unearthly orgasm. She is unable to stop herself - more accurately, she is unwilling to stop herself from carving her body to pieces. Another is of a preacher who's brain has been meddled with so that the killer himself appears to him to be God. A third (and fourth) victim is a congressman who is well known for bloviating about free-will and responsibility - in his video he continues this line of banter while nevertheless being incapable of recognizing that he is holding the dead body of a child and eating flesh from it.

Our protagonist (with the improbable name of Tom Bible), is forced to conclude that his friend is indeed behind these killings as they echo facets of 'The Argument' they had when both were in College together. An argument about the nature of human consciousness, and our illusions about it. An argument that suggests the experiments and videos are actually meant to be a message to the protagonist himself.

The novel's creepiness is unrelenting, and includes skin crawling first person accounts of a serial killer at the beginning of each chapter. The narrative is propulsive and quick paced, but does stop for some (occasionally repetitive) digressions where Bible explains the modern scientific understanding of some particular brain function or process.

In the end though what was so totally unnerving for me wasn't the gore, violence, or even the first person serial killer perspective (you can get all of that by renting 'Henry- Portrait of a Serial Killer. Not that I recommend you do though) - no what was disturbing was that Bakker had plumbed my own understanding of human nature and the world and then showed me how easily it lead to nihlism.

Neuropath may be the first philosophical horror novel I am aware of (though perhaps Shelley's 'Frankenstein' counts too).

Bakker asks us; without our illusions of free-will, or of our own consciousness and morality - what are we? Then to answer that question Bakker strips his villain of all these things, these false, but human traits, and in doing so creates a monster so terrible I won't soon forget him.

It is one thing to live with knowledge that these things are illusions, it is quite another to see what living without those illusions is actually like.

Nietzsche said that 'if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you', and finishing this novel felt very much like the abyss was gazing back at me.

In short, I highly recommend it - especially if you have any background in philosophy (though you don't need one), and or/a strong stomach for horror.


  1. Let me know when you post the review of the Prince of Nothing. I'll be right there with a rebuttal. :-)

  2. Sounds fascinating - That being said I'm a sucker for anything which combines science fiction and/or horror with philosophy! Will have to pick it up for vacation reading... Any other suggestions in a similar vein? (And no, I don't mean Prince of Nothing, or cyberpunk or Richard Morgan etc - Sci Fi that makes you question morality and illusions of perception and existence will do just fine!)