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The Second Apocalypse: Freedom In An Unfree Universe

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 Unholy Consult

The Unholy Consult (Aspect-Emperor, #4)R. Scott Bakker2017★★★: 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 the theme in. (Criticizing it for being repetitive would be like criticizing “Endless Eight” for repeating the same episode, or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King for being boring.)

  • 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”.

What Does It Mean?

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.

Dune And Bakker

The parallels between Bakker and Herbert go far beyond the obvious stylistic parallels like Bakker’s use of chapter-heading epigraphs/in-universe text quotes—the universes are almost the same. To elaborate on some of the easier analogies between Dune & 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 does not mean simply ‘fake’ or ‘false’ (as I imagine most Bakker readers assume, that “the ‘No’-God is simply a pretender replacement-god which is no god, but just some sort of techno-monster created by the aliens, and it’s a derogatory name given by its enemies who follow the true gods”). What the no-prefix means is that it’s an active negation of another power: in Dune, no-globes/no-ships actively destroy the power of prescient people to look into possible futures by hiding things which can then affect the future. They are blinded to everything involving no-objects: they cannot understand events, and the more they rely on prescience, the more devastating this vulnerability is. In the same way, actions of the No-God are invisible to prescient powers like the gods, and the gods’ only vulnerability.

Time Travel

There are some things no one can bear. I meddled in all the possible futures I could create until, finally, they created me.

Paul Atreides, Dune Messiah

This, I think, may be key to interpretation. If prescience can exist, then that implies time travel and reverse causality. Which kind? In the Dune-verse, the time travel of prescience is usually assumed to be the straightforward implicit iterative kind. I think that a close read of even Dune shows that Frank Herbert was groping towards a more sophisticated one: self-consistent stable time-loops (eg. “All You Zombies”, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, Timecrimes). Dune is, more specifically, a series of nested time-loops.

In the Dune-verse (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 to prescience.

At the first level, many characters have low-level prescience, from use of spice, natural talents from the long-term eugenics programs, tools like the “Dune Tarot” card game, and control tiny regions of space-time. (Such characters include the Guild Navigators, Reverend Mothers, and wild Fremen.)

At the second level, a perfected Kwisatz Haderach exhibits prescience over a lifetime. In Dune/Dune Messiah, Paul Atreides becomes aware that he has been foreseeing & manipulating events on Arrakis from before he has ever consumed large quantities of spice; long before, the Spacing Guild sees a ‘nexus’ blocking their attempts to manipulate events, while 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, so as to override the weaker visions of first-level prescient powers, manipulating them allto act as necessary to bring “Muad’dib” into existence. The prophecy of “Muad’dib” is a self-fulling prophecy, but not merely self-fulfilling: it is self-creating, because he is the stable fixed point. (That is, Jessica did not conceive a male child and created the possibility of a Paul Atreides—the possibility Paul Atreides could exist forced her to conceive a male child and create the actuality of Paul Atreides.) He is trapped by this prescient vision because to deviate from it will destroy him: if his mother bears a daughter, he doesn’t exist; if they do not get sent to Arrakis, the Emperor finds some other way to destroy the rising threat of House Atreides; if he doesn’t escape to live among the wild Fremen, he is killed by the Harkonnen; if he doesn’t lead a rebellion on Arrakis, at some point the Fremen or Harkonnen kill him as an inconvenience or threat; if he doesn’t conquer Arrakis and loses, he and his children will die, etc. Finally, at the end of Dune Messiah, he pre-meditatedly walks into a trap where a bomb will blind him, rendering him unfit for office, and exiled to die in the desert—leaving his children to rule the empire in his stead, and finally escaping the prescient vision, and free to lead his own life (however short that may be).

But this is only the second level of prescience.

In Children of Dune/God-Emperor of Dune, Paul Atreides is, in turn, himself enslaved by his son, Leto II.1 Leto II is an even more powerful prescient being, and manipulates Paul to bring himself into being2 (in addition to the expected daughter), and intervenes (even as a newborn babe) 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.”)

Could there be a fourth level of prescience? Apparently not: because Leto II comes before the Ixian machines, thanks to the Butlerian Jihad, and is able to control events long enough to ensure a permanent escape from prescience via the no-globes/ships/genes, his loop becomes the ‘outer’ loop and controls all inner loops. The Ixian machines or their equivalent do bootstrap into existence eventually, with powers of prescience, as seen at the very end of Chapterhouse: Dune—but they are too late, in both a logical and a temporal sense, to defeat the humans, and are now simply another contending power in the universe. (For more discussion of this idea of contending time-loops resolving to a single fixed point, see my review of Timecrimes.)

And that is what is going on in Dune, and thus, what is going on in The Second Apocalypse.

Liberation: Awakening As Adults

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.”3

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 ‘100’ 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”. (In another Dune borrowing, the White-Luck Warrior is an assassin who is simply so lucky that he can kill anyone, because all events just happen to occur as necessary & foreseen for him to achieve his mission—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.

Escaping Predestination

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. The core Dûnyain doctrine is: “that which comes before determines that which comes after”.

And it was false: that which came after could indeed determine that which came before. (The world had ‘many floors’ indeed, the Survivor realizes.)

Meeting Mimara and seeing the one true god look at him via the Judging Eye, he fixes and completes the Dûnyain doctrine: the world is a block-universe and there is one unconditioned absolute which truly comes before all that which comes either before or after, 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.

An End To Illusions & Causality

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”.

Plot Summary

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.4

Unfortunately for her, because sex+violence is the ultimate addictive drug, overriding all other goals or semantic meaning in life, and she has had all human constraints removed from her, she has doomed herself to an apocalyptic 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. 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; the modification seemed to merely be a mere agnosia, an extreme prosopagnosia that renders the billionaire unable to recognize other humans as human beings (think Capgras delusion or the rubber-hand illusion), but in reality turns him into a serial killer. The friend reasons that as a billionaire, he would have the resources to remain at large indefinitely, usefully distracting law enforcement from the friend’s schemes. Unfortunately for him, his serial killer creation behaved unpredictably—the billionaire allied with the protagonist, and tracked him to the friend’s hideout, and has now struck, snapping the friend’s spinal cord. The billionaire begins raping 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’, revealing the extent to which his agnosia has led to a split between the real person, the ‘soul’ (against which he can commit sins), and the mere ‘meat’ (which is a victimless offense).

The protagonist & ex-wife & children flee in terror. 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 (because Bakker is drawing them from 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 R. Scott Bakker’s view is that there is some true R. Scott Bakker’s soul, out there somewhere, shackled under the hopelessly unreliable, tainted, mutable, causal, dying meat (a meat which is made out of parts and which can be affected by drugs or genes or precisely-aimed electricity), and that he must escape past the fleeting illusions of this meaty life to find the eternal perfect uncaused ideal R. Scott Bakker. And the realization he cannot do that, that every thought he thinks remains stubbornly caused, 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 rotting meat-body, 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—for all the cynicism and lurid sex-violence, at heart, Bakker is something of a disappointed romantic, or to put it more precisely, Bakker is a gnostic. For all his 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—



Neuropath: Gyges

Excerpts from R. Scott Bakker’s Neuropath on the character Gyges revealing an underlying gnosticism:

Thomas [the protagonist] shrugged. “Why? For starters. Don’t you want to know why he did this to you?”

The man [Gyges, a billionaire kidnapped and brainwashed by the antagonist] turned back to the drinks. “Oh, I know why.”

…“You do?”

“But of course. I’m being punished.”

Thomas nodded carefully. For some reason he said, “For your sins . . .”

“Yes. For my sins.”

“And what sins are those?”

Gyges gave the Scotch a curious swirl, as though soaking the ice cubes. “Are you a priest?” he asked as he handed Thomas his drink. For the first time Thomas noticed how assiduously the man avoided looking at either of their faces.

“No”, Thomas replied.

…The billionaire finally looked her full in the face. His eyes reflected a peculiar horror. “Argument? What kind of argument?”

Sam [the FBI agent collaborating with the protagonist to find the antagonist] glanced at Thomas. “That nothing has meaning”, she said. “This might sound hard to believe, but [the anatagonist] Neil Cassidy believes that there’s no such thing as . . . as . . .”

“People”, Thomas finished for her. “He thinks that much of what we believe, things like purpose, meaning, right and wrong, are simply illusions generated by our brains.”

Gyges’s eyes glistened with tears. “Well he’s certainly wrong there, isn’t he?”

“Wrong where?” Thomas asked.

“About none of this having meaning.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Of course not”, he snapped without explanation. He shook his head. “Just what is it you want?”

“Three strangers”, Gyges said with a calm that seemed frightening given the savagery of moments before. “Do you know what it’s like, Dr. Bible, to live nowhere? To look and look and find yourself nowhere?”

In a curious sense, Thomas did, but he wasn’t about to say so. “You’re standing right here, Mr. Gyges.”

“Am I? I’m not so sure.” A contemplative scowl. “But you don’t realize what it’s like, do you? You think I see you, that I know you, that the problem is that every time I look away I forget who you are. But it’s not like that. Not at all. When I stare at you—like this, like I’m staring at you right now—I don’t recognize you from one second to the next. And it’s not like your face becomes something new every moment, something that I’ve never seen before. It’s just unknown. Unknowable . . .”

Gyges turned from the mirror to Thomas.

“When I look into the mirror, Dr. Bible, I’m not there. But the kicker is that you aren’t either. For me, there is no you. Just a voice. A voice from the dark.”

For a moment Thomas could only stare at him. “You’re suffering a brain injury”, he said lamely. “You need to underst—”

“Brain injury?” the bearded man replied. “Brain injury? Is that what you think this is?” Shaking his head, he strode past them and yanked open one of the oak-stained doors.

Thomas turned as he crossed the threshold. “Then what is it?”

“You’re not a priest”, Gyges snapped.

The door pounded shut, swallowed the world before Thomas’s face.

…“Did you notice how he behaved around us? The utter absence of any eye contact. His body language. Almost cringing from our presence.”


Thomas breathed deeply. “So, we were monstrosities to him. Faceless monstrosities.”

“What are you saying?”

Thomas found himself looking at his hand, at the missing wedding band on his ring finger, thinking of all the neural machinery churning away underneath, making this experience possible. That was where Neil was striking. Not at the heart, but at the soul.

“That Theodoros Gyges lives in a world of boogeymen.”

…Sam frowned in the exhaust-stained gloom. “I don’t get it.”

“Think. Without recognition, there’s nobody, just like Gyges said. There are no people, only buzzing brains bumping into buzzing brains.”

…He was still screaming when Theodoros Gyges appeared at the very edge of seeing.

…You get your family”, the man said. “Then you leave.”

“I-I do-don—”

“You leave!” Gyges barked. “You do not want to hear . . . to see . . .”

He turned from Thomas, pulled a long knife from a sheath strapped to his left calf. He kneeled, placing his right knee in the small of Neil’s back. He used the knife to scratch an itch on his bearded cheek. Thomas saw dried blood marring its sheen.

He felt no surprise. He lacked the neurotransmitters.

“The spine is the door, the connection . . .” Gyges said, looking at the task before him. He turned to Thomas, his piggish eyes rounding in a kind of wonder. “Cut it and the soul is preserved, kept safe, wrapped in a box . . .

“Don’t you see?” Gyges hissed, staring down his cheeks like some ancient chieftain. “I only f—k the meat.”

Thomas backed away from the madman, knowing there was no reason, no connection . . .

He was just noise. One more senseless output.

“I only f—k the meat!”

Thomas glanced at Neil’s face, saw the brain behind it reaching for him through the pose of facial musculature, clutching with primeval visual cues. He could see it looking, peering through keyhole eyes, buzzing with anguish and information, trapped by the severing of a single cord.

It pulled Neil’s lips into a rueful smile, pinned his face into a pathetic grimace.

Goodbook, it mouthed.

Please . . .

“They can’t feeeeeel what I do”, Gyges gasped with coital intensity. “That means it’s not a sin, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?

Untouched, Thomas turned to free his ex-wife. In his periphery, he could see Gyges hunched over Neil’s broad back. But he dared not look. The billionaire had become a thing of blood and sawing shadows. A monstrous tabloid horror, murmuring as he worked . . .

“I will fill you like a cup . . .”

“Like something holy.”

The false premise in Neil’s argument.

After freeing her, Thomas held Nora’s face to his chest so that she too would not see. “Look at you . . .”

The Chiropractor [media name of the serial villain] brooked no witnesses.

…“Gyges was the Chiropractor”, he whispered to her image in the rearview mirror. “Neil made him . . . A diversion, a way to strangle the resources devoted to finding him.” Not that explanations mattered anymore.

  1. An unclear question is to what extent Herbert intended any of these levels. Stable time-loops are inherently easy for a fiction author to retcon because it is so easy to simply add on an outer loop, which ‘saves the appearances’. Level one/two are just straightforward readings of Dune, including the appendices, tells us.

    But it’s unclear how much level three was planned: there are no hints of it in Dune, and the only real hint in Dune Messiah is Leto II’s intervention as a baby to save himself & Paul’s loss of prescient vision, which could simply be interpreted as another Alia-like bit of precocity or randomness↩︎

  2. Dune Messiah is clear that Paul’s vision fails when a male child (Leto II) is unexpectedly born in addition to a girl (as Herbert put it, “Dune Messiah performs a classic inversion of theme” of _Dune; see Touponce): that is the precise moment that everything goes off the rails, where “this future [that] had reached down to him…chivvied him and herded him into a chasm” ceased to control him and would never come into being. Since Paul did not do that, who did? And what future was now reaching down and chivvying that previous future…?

    …Two babies! The vision had contained but one. Yet, these moments went as the vision went. There was a person here who felt grief and anger. Someone. His own awareness lay in the grip of an awful treadmill, replaying his life from memory. Two babies? Again he stumbled.

    …At some faraway instant in a past which he had shared with others, this future had reached down to him. It had chivvied him and herded him into a chasm whose walls grew narrower and narrower. He could feel them closing in on him. This was the way the vision went. Chani is dead. I should abandon myself to grief. But that was not the way the vision went.

    …Paul felt his soul begging for respite, but still the vision moved him. Just a little farther now, he told himself. Black, visionless dark awaited him just ahead.

    …Was that the way the vision went? He felt abandoned in his blindness. “The children?” Paul asked. “They are here, too, m’Lord,” Idaho said. “You have beautiful twins, Usul,” Harah said, “a boy and a girl. See? We have them here in a creche.” Two children, Paul thought wonderingly. The vision had contained only a daughter.

    …Paul felt himself accepting now the fact that Chani was dead. He had taken his place in a universe he did not want, wearing flesh that did not fit. Every breath he drew bruised his emotions. Two children! He wondered if he had committed himself to a passage where his vision would never return. It seemed unimportant.

  3. Blood Meridian:

    “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…”

  4. The reader, of course, has always known there was something up with her, as she was too perfect, but, on a narrative level, I think Neuropath is somewhat flawed because there are too few clues to figure out exactly what is going on with her, and so the reveal is unsatisfying.↩︎

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