Bakker’s Second Apocalypse vs Frank Herbert’s Dune: time loops and finding freedom in an unfree universe. In Dune, humanity is liberated by growth and development and escaping the predeterminism of prescience; in Bakker, they are destroyed by it, and liberation is achieved only by death and reunification with a deeper underlying block-universe/monistic reality.
Review of SF/F author R. Scott Bakker’s long-running Second Apocalypse series, which finished in 2017. The series, a loose retelling of the Crusades, set in a fallen-SF fantasy environment, has drawn attention for its ambitious scope and obscure philosophical message centering around determinism, free will, moral nihilism, eliminativism of cognitive states, and the interaction of technology and ethics (which Bakker terms the ‘Semantic Apocalypse’). In this series, the protagonist attempts to stop the apocalypse and ultimately accidentally causes it.
I highlight that Frank Herbert’s Dune universe is far more influential on Bakker than reviewers of Bakker have appreciated: countless elements are reflected in Bakker, and the very name of the primary antagonist, the ‘No-God’, uses a naming pattern from Dune and operates similarly. Further, both Dune and the Second Apocalypse are deeply concerned with the nature of time and temporal loops controlling ‘free’ behavior.
Where they diverge is in what is to be done about the human lack of freedom and manipulability by external environments, and have radically different views about what is desirable: in Dune, humanity gradually grows up and achieves freedom from the time loops by the creation of a large time loop whose stable fixed point is the destruction of all time loops, ensuring that humanity will go on existing in some form forever; in the Second Apocalypse, liberation is achieved only through death.
: The conclusion to the Second Apocalypse’s “The Aspect-Emperor” tetralogy, an extended double-book of The Great Ordeal/The Unholy Consult.
After thousands of pages exhausting the reader in a ‘slog of slogs’, the two threads of the plot, the wizard and the crusade, finally converge at Golgotterath for the epic battle at the ultimate stronghold of the Consult, which consumes the majority of the book and harks back to Lord of the Rings and WoT’s A Memory of Light. The end of the battle sees a stack of revelations unfold, including at least two that could be called literal deus ex machinas, the failure of the Great Crusade and the second resurrection of the No-God. (I would worry about spoilers here but seriously, you are reading R. Scott Bakker’s fiction, you didn’t actually think the Crusade was going to succeed and defeat the Consult and prevent the No-God’s resurrection and not go horribly wrong somehow, did you?) This sets the stage for, presumably, another trilogy covering the fight against the No-God and Achamian re-enacting the First Apocalypse (although Bakker insists that the resurrection of the No-God is in fact the planned culmination, the final meaning of the series, which “ends the Thousandfold Thought”, with the rest being “fuzzy” appendix, so we should not try to interpret it as merely a cliffhanger and prologue to the ‘real’ ending).
Bakker remains Bakker: technology like nuclear bombs and lasers are quietly slipped into the fantasy setting, the sex remains disturbingly weird, the influence of Frank Herbert remains profound and probably missed by most readers (I was particularly struck by “No-God”—literally there in the name, yet I missed its meaning for several books). What is good:
- I found The Great Ordeal to be more compelling in several ways; in particular, I was interested in the description of the Crusade’s logistical struggles across the plains and their slow brutal moral & mental degradation and degeneration from eating Sranc meat and Kellhus’s manipulations of the Crusade to get it to Golgotterath such as a nifty exegesis of Girardian mimesis (including, in a signature Bakker ‘WTF’, a sudden homosexual rape out of nowhere). While the writing here got repetitive, I think it was necessary to drum things in.
- the Non-men, a dark twist on Tolkienesque elves, receive extensive coverage as long passages are set in the last Non-men city of Ishterebinth; while with worldbuilding and alien species, familiarity all too often breeds contempt, Bakker manages to make the Non-men even more interesting than they were when we had mostly hints.
- a lot of world-building and backstory gets filled in
- the final battle is worth the journey it took to get there
ending is a huge question mark: abrupt, several of the revelations, as mentioned, feel like deus ex machinas and not in a good way. Thinking about it made some of it make a little more sense, but most of it remains unsatisfying and awaiting better justification in the sequels.
Kelmomas, as both a character and plot arc, continues to feel arbitrary and poorly written; I hated and was bored every page he was in except the last. (Bakker wrote a narcissistic psychopath child without any effort to make him sympathetic or interesting, whose chapters vastly slow down the main plot—the parts which we are interested in—for reasons which remains deeply opaque even after you finish the book. )
This made several arcs appear totally pointless, particularly Sorweel: I loved seeing Ishterebinth, but was all of that really nothing but setup for Kelmomas to interfere at the last second?
considerably less quotable; prose can be described as overwrought to the point of making it hard to understand what is going on at all; certain words, such as ‘licentious’, are vastly overused by Bakker (where was the editor?) and he should write a little shell script to flag them in his drafts. I must, however, defend Bakker against the review which called it 450 pages of “various descriptions of each and every character’s turgid member”, however—many of those members were flaccid, not ‘turgid’. They are opposites.
So, I thought The Great Ordeal was a considerable success, but The Unholy Consult… I am not sure. As the quip about the French student riots go, “it is too soon to tell”.
One thing the ending does not do is explain what it all meant. Why is the resurrection of the No-God the point of the series? We are told little about what the No-God is, and much about Bakker’s philosophy; what are we supposed to deduce about the two, and what is the system of the Second Apocalypse?
I have not mastered the corpus of fan discussions, only dipped in occasionally while reading the novels, but what struck me is how little commentary discussed the extensive connections between Bakker’s fiction and Frank Herbert’s Dune universe: clearly when Bakker was conceiving the Second Apocalypse as a teenager, Dune weighed heavily on his mind. This suggests a deep connection: the Second Apocalypse is Bakker’s reply to Dune.
To elaborate a bit on some of the easier analogies between Dune and Bakker: qirri : spice; Dunyain : Bene Gesserit+Mentat; Kellhus : Paul; the Breaking of the Houses/Great Crusade : Butlerian/Paul’s Jihad; Kelmomas/No-God : No-ships/No-globes/Siona; Tekne : Family atomics; Dûnyain whale-mothers : Tleilaxu axolotl tanks; Probability Trance : mentat computation; sorcery : prescience; Crusades : Caucasus rebellions; Esmenet : Chani; Leto II : Kelmomas. It would not be going too far to view Bakker as telling the Dune saga in a far more brutal fashion and going far more in depth into the Jihad part than Herbert did. Both are fundamentally concerned with human freedom in a deterministic universe—but reach opposite conclusions about the endpoint of human agency.
The most transparent reference to Dune is the name “No-God”, which follows the same naming pattern as “no-globes” and “no-ships” in the later Dune books. The reason this is important is that the ‘no’ prefix doesn’t mean simply ‘fake’ or ‘false’ (as I imagine most Bakker readers assume, that “the ‘No’-God is simply a fake replacement god which is no god, just a techno-monster, and it’s a derogatory name given by its enemies who follow the true gods”), but it’s an active negation of another power: in Dune, no-globes actively destroy the power of prescient people to look into possible futures by hiding things which can then affect the future.
This, I think, may be key to interpretation. In the Dune-verse, as often missed by readers, prescience doesn’t just work forward but also backward: those who foresee the future enable their future selves to reach back in time and create their futures. Thus, in the Dune novels, many of the characters are slaves.
In Dune, Paul Atreides is manipulating events from before he has ever consumed spice, and indeed, manipulating events before his birth; long before, the Spacing Guild sees a ‘nexus’ and the Bene Gesserit are concerned that a ‘higher-order power’ is taking control of Arrakis and thus the future of the universe, as revealed by anomalies like the Lady Jessica’s betrayal to conceive a son or the seeding of manipulative memes among the Fremen to make them tools of the Bene Gesserit. The move to Arrakis, defeat, the fleeing to the desert, the Jihad—all are caused by Paul’s prescient vision being so strong, as the first Kwisatz Haderach, as to override the weaker visions of spice consumers like the Fremen (aided by tools like the Dune Tarot), the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers, and the Guild Navigators, forcing them to act as necessary to bring Muad’dib into existence. Muad’dib is a self-fulling prophecy, but not merely self-fulfilling: he is the stable fixed point.
In Dune Messiah/Children of Dune/God-Emperor of Dune, Paul Atreides is, in turn, himself enslaved by his son, Leto II, who is an even more powerful prescient being, and manipulates Paul from the future to bring himself and his sister into being, and intervenes as necessary to defeat Scytale etc. Leto II’s ‘Golden Path’ creates no-globes/no-ships, the human equivalent of no-globes (Siona & descendants), and built-up pressures yielding the Scattering across the multiverse of Siona-descendants in no-ships. The no-ships and Sionas guarantee that no prescient vision, no matter how powerful, will ever again be able to see (and control) all of humanity, and the Scattering ensures that no single political polity or military or civilization can ever physically track and destroy all of humanity. Why is the Golden Path so critical and the core of Leto’s entire story? Because Leto’s actions in creating the Golden Path also make him the final all-prescient being and a fixed point: Leto’s prescient visions exploring all the possible futures showed him that there were still further distant futures in which Ixian hunter-kill prescient machines (the primitive prototypes of which replaced Guild Navigators) surpassed human beings, and thus, could create the past in their image—except that the Golden Path blocked their retrocausal influence by crippling prescience millennia before, taking much of the universe out of prescient control. Otherwise, the possibility of superhumanly prescient machines would have been another self-fulfilling stable point, manipulating human history to bring them into existence. (As is entirely possible, as machines are not limited by human limits, and can be superior to humans; the evil of the machines is that they do not share human values, and can be abused by other humans. ‘“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”’)
The self-proclaimed goal of the Bene Gesserit is to create ‘adults’, by breeding and every other method: humans who are self-controlled, who have all possible abilities (from martial arts to rhetoric to prescience to ancestral memory access), who can adapt to all circumstances and embrace change, who are ‘awake’ one might say. As the Dune saga develops, humans grow ever more capable: the revived swordmaster Duncan Idaho is told he is literally slower and an obsolete model by a distant descendant who even as an old man can defeat Idaho. Norman Spinrad remarks that the libertarian Herbert once told him that he’d like to conclude the saga by eventually developing the universe into a democracy, shedding the elitist aristocracies and gerontocracies and tyrannies and theocracies and secret societies which dominate the Dune universe; this would be the logical endpoint of the growth and maturation of humanity.
You are a contradiction, my friend. You choose. You decide. You hold responsible and are held responsible. But at the same time, you’re a machine, something that can be conditioned, repaired, turned on or off, piloted with greater ease than a drone—so long as you remain convinced that you choose and decide.
“The Dûnyain, have surrendered themselves to the Logos, to what you would call reason and intellect. We seek absolute awareness, the self-moving thought. The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before? Only the Logos allows one to mitigate that slavery. Only knowing the sources of thought and action allows us to own our thoughts and our actions, to throw off the yoke of circumstance. And only the Dûnyain possess this knowledge, plainsman. The world slumbers, enslaved by its ignorance. Only the Dûnyain are awake.”1
In Bakker’s terms, the goals of the Dûnyain / Bene Gesserit are the same: they seek to liberate mankind from “the darkness that comes before”. All men are slaves when they walk ‘conditioned ground’, bound by the shackles of causality. In particular, they are manipulated by the gods who wish to feast on their souls in the afterlife, and, to ensure a steady supply of fodder, intervene in worldly affairs by manipulating probability and the future using prescience, creating entities like the “White-Luck Warrior”, an assassin who is simply so lucky that he can kill anyone, because all events just happen to occur as necessary & foreseen (akin to Paul Atreides after being blinded in Dune Messiah).
Whether men are manipulated by Dûnyain or by gods or by material conditions prior to that moment, what difference does that make? One must be free.
But what of prescience? Normally, “that which comes before determines that which comes after”, but with prescience and retro-causation, “that which comes after determines that which comes before”. Bakker appears to be borrowing this heavily in discussing how the No-God overwrites the timeline of the gods in the past before it exists to bring itself into existence: “that which comes after determines that which comes before”. The gods see only that which comes before, and are blind to the No-God or a select few individuals like Kelmomas. They cannot see it except indirectly, and cannot prevent it or react to it. It provides freedom from the darkness that comes before. The Dûnyain are natural allies of the Inchoroi and No-God once they learn they were mistaken about the existence of sorcery, gods, and afterlife/Hell: the gods are their enemies, claims to be the font of ‘morality’ laughable, & the afterlife a fate far worse than death. Their sight must be blinded, and the world closed against Hell.
…Or so the captive Dûnyain think. The key to the saga is Koringhus, ‘The Survivor’, greatest of the Dûnyain (The Great Ordeal, ch8/14), self shattered by the ordeal of the destruction of the Dûnyain. Emerging into the world, Koringhus realizes the error of the Dûnyain: they had deceived themselves, that which came after could indeed determine that which came before, and the world has many floors indeed. Meeting Mimara and seeing the one true god look at him via the Judging Eye, he completes the Dûnyain doctrine: the world is a block-universe and there is an unconditioned absolute which truly comes before all that which comes either before or father, and the past is determined by the future just as much as vice-versa. This absolute block-universe is the one true God, the ‘Zero that is One’. And, seeing the ‘semantic apocalypse’, enlightened into eliminativism, and forgiven by the Judging Eye, Koringhus leaps to his death: the Shortest Path to the Absolute, the Logo, the only source of all movement and darkness and wakefulness.
A third SF perspective is the Zen of “Story Of Your Life”: the enlightened is one with causation, neither free nor unfree.
In Zen, acceptance and freedom in the moment; in Herbert, human development culminates in an endless jazz jam session across an infinitely undulating multiverse of provisional phenomena (dubbed ‘illusions’ by the pessimistic)—“If you must label the absolute, use its proper name: ‘Temporary’”; in Bakker, human development culminates in the shattering of all illusion, and the greatest illusion, that of the self—and embrace of the absolute in death.
The Second Apocalypse is easier to understand if we look at Bakker’s best known work outside it, the 2008 serial-killer thriller Neuropath. It functions as something of a ‘skeleton key’ to the Second Apocalypse: because it was written in between the Prince of Nothing trilogy and the Aspect-Emperor, and it is one the bluntest statements of his views (perhaps because it was written up based on college classes he was teaching at the time).
It is best read in conjunction with his intellectual-autobiography 2011 essay “Outing the It that Thinks: The Collapse of an Intellectual Ecosystem” and his summing-up 2012 essay “The Last Magic Show: A Blind Brain Theory of the Appearance of Consciousness”.
Neuropath is set in a near-future dystopia where unchecked terrorism and global warming are not so subtly destroying the world, while closer to home, society is decaying and terrified by pathologies—most recently, a mysterious serial killer somehow evading the panopticon surveillance state. The protagonist (a bitter, disillusioned psychology professor ie. Bakker) is recruited by the FBI to investigate an entirely different set of gory serial killings, ones involving horrifying neurological modifications of the victims.
He soon realizes that the killings are in fact a message to him personally: they are intended to demonstrate that free will is a sham and his arguments to the contrary are a flimsy farce, and the continuation of a long-standing debate (dubbed “The Argument”, which the real Bakker apparently calls “The Bulls—t”) with his old college friend. While at college, an old professor taught a course on apocalypses, capping it with one he invented called “the Semantic Apocalypse”. The Semantic Apocalypse is when technological control over mental states, such as pleasure or pain, reveal to everyone that nihilistic claims like hard determinism are all true, achieving the complete obliteration of all human value: worse than an atomic bomb, the Semantic Apocalypse reduces everything to atoms. The Debate is simply whether the underlying view is correct. The protagonist initially argued the pro position, but eventually recanted as he became an adult and embarked on an academic career.
The college friend, meanwhile, has joined top-secret military research programs, and has become convinced that not merely free will but all ‘folk psychology’ constructs (like personality, love, or values), have no intrinsic existence beyond mere neurological operations (see eliminative materialism), and thus, are completely manipulable through technological means (specifically, a souped-up transcranial magnetic stimulation). He himself has used the machine to achieve a kind of enlightenment or derealization where he ceases to have any sense of consciousness, identity, planning, or morality, but instead, has only burning desire to win the Argument by modifying victims the protagonist knew into horrifying deaths, such as inverting pleasure & pain so the victim orgasmically cuts herself to death or feels the constant presence of God & collapses under the stress.
As the protagonist patiently explains to a friendly FBI agent the relevant neuroscientific & psychological research that each victim exemplifies, and is forced to argue for them in order to explain them to the laymen, his self-protective arguments collapse—he can no longer convince himself that he is ‘really’ real or that he ‘really’ loves his children etc. Considering the sheer level of exposition/infodumping in Neuropath, it is handled reasonably well, perhaps because the murders are so lurid that the reader doesn’t mind an escape into abstraction; after all, not many serial killer novels, even, would be willing to make a politician cannibalize a living child on-screen, or revel so much in claiming an intrinsic connection between sex & violence, and that sex+violence is the ultimate drug. (While the near-future dystopia is already eye-roll-inducing and hopelessly 2000s, Bakker’s scientific grounding holds up much better: only a few items jumped out at me as having been debunked by the Replication Crisis, like the estrogen/ovulation claims; I believe the Libet free-will experiments are also considered dubious but the protagonist does acknowledge that the situation there is complicated.)
Eventually, after more deaths and kidnappings and car chases, he tracks down his college friend to his lair, desperate to force him to cure his son, who has been neurologically modified to experience an endless loop of fear/terror as yet another demonstration. The FBI agent betrays them, revealing she is actually a NSA agent assigned to assassinate him, and, ironically, his greatest research triumph: the culmination of a project for neurologically editing out all human self-delusions & morals to create the perfect psychopath, lacking any remorse or guilt or emotion while seeing human beings as mere objects or computers to manipulate emotionally—which she has successfully done. (The reader, of course, has always known there was something up with her, as she was too perfect, but I think there are too few clues to figure out exactly what is going on with her.)
Unfortunately for her, because sex+violence is the ultimate drug, and she has had all human constraints removed from her, she has doomed herself to death by hedonism, and the tables are turned on her by the friend. With her out of the way and the protagonist & ex-wife imprisoned in the machine, he proceeds to manipulate their minds, going through extreme states of pleasure, pain, spiritual rapture, love for each other, etc, including stranger states of consciousness involving misattribution of agency or denial of reality (think Capgras delusion or the rubber-hand illusion). The last resistance of the protagonist is shattered, and the Argument is over.
Abruptly, in a final twist, the friend is stabbed in the back and paralyzed: the other serial killer, it turns out, was in fact the friend’s creation, a billionaire he kidnapped and neurologically modified into a serial killer; as a billionaire, he would have the resources to remain at large indefinitely, distracting law enforcement from the friend’s own serial killing. Unfortunately for him, the billionaire has allied with the protagonist, and tracked him to the friend’s hideout, and has now struck. While the billionaire rapes the friend’s paralyzed body, as part of a strange sexual fetish about how he is not committing a sin by only raping ‘the meat’ and not ‘the soul’, the protagonist & ex-wife & children flee in terror while they still can. As they drive home, the daughter begins talking in a strange voice about how she loves them, “very very much, so much it hurts”—and the son begins awakening and preparing to scream forever. The end.
Neuropath is much more explicit in laying out the philosophy of mind & ethics than anything in the Second Apocalypse; the ‘Semantic Apocalypse’ is only hinted out in the background of the alien enemies, but is conveniently explained. In it, we see characters argue against the broad philosophies in a contemporary setting, and they are often the counterarguments or questions a reader would have (doubtless because Bakker is drawing them from the actual comments of his college students). It even ends the same way that the Second Apocalypse series does—with a sudden Frankenstein-like accident of a creator undone by his creation.
In Neuropath, one of the more striking aspects of the protagonist/Bakker’s arguments is how badly he handles any kind of soft determinism/compatibilism. He has much to say about the origins of psychological traits, but then fumbles any explanation why we should care, or want to not want what we want as soon as we identify any cause (including ‘random noise’). Full-blown supernatural-style ‘libertarian free will’ is refuted (to the extent such an ill-defined, and deliberately unfalsifiable, concept can be), certainly, but that was always the most naive (or religious) view. There are many others. His self-insert character is unable to meaningfully respond to characters who listen to his spiel, accept that they are deterministic material entities who believe and do the things they do only because of the atoms in their head being arranged one way and not another—and find nothing wrong with this, but shrug their shoulders and go on.
He is baffled by this. How can they accept that their beliefs and values have, well, causes? And those causes are even material? And they in turn are baffled that he is baffled. Does he expect these things to just drop out of the sky, with no cause? (And even if they did, that would raise the question, why should you regard any uncaused decisions as ‘your’ decisions, or of any moral value, or as desirable in any way whatsoever?) Does he think there is in fact a view from nowhere, that his ‘true self’ is somewhere out there past the edge of the universe, in some atemporal eternal void, that some clever philosophical argument can establish at least exists, even if he can’t easily access it? Apparently so, as his 2011 essay “Outing the It that Thinks” helps illustrate. Apparently Bakker’s view is that there is some true R. Scott Bakker, out there somewhere, shackled under the hopelessly unreliable, tainted, mutable, causal flesh, and that he must escape past the fleeting illusions to find the eternal perfect uncaused ideal Bakker. And the realization he cannot shattered him as a teenager, and led to the Second Apocalypse.
What is the Second Apocalypse, or the ending of Neuropath? The tragedy of almost reaching liberation—and then being trapped here in the flesh, forever, to suffer and be eaten by the Semantic Apocalypse. (If you are frustrated, oppressed, confused, or surprised by the ending of either work: that was the point! To feel Bakker’s suffering as a teenager. That is why they end where and as they do.)
What Neuropath makes clear is something that, like the Dune references, should have been immediately obvious from details like the title of Second Apocalypse (see “Second Apocalypse of James”) or the focus on magicians of the ‘Gnosis’ school—Bakker is a gnostic. For all the acquired scientific plumage, Bakker believes, deep down, in a fallen material world molded by demiurges like Evolution in which humans are trapped in cycles of reincarnation & ignorance, and somewhere outside, there is a higher better world with a single unmoved-mover eternal true God; any cause below that is immoral and to be rejected as merely another snare of the demiurges or archons of the current aeon. The more science disenchants the human mind, the more it dispels the morality of any human values, revealing them as just more material dross; and when it has disenchanted the entire mind, all that is left is disgust.
“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way…”