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Scott Bakker
Orion paperback £9.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Cosmetically, Neuropath is a psychological thriller exploring the theory that consciousness is an illusion (a variant on the constellation of theories known collectively as eliminative materialism). Going by recent interviews of the author, this seems to be the work that he intended to write; in form it is a nod to his wife who edits his fantasy but prefers psychological thrillers and in content it draws heavily from some of the ideas explored by Bakker during his years as a graduate student. Unfortunately, despite failing for the best possible reasons, Neuropath fails not only as a thriller but also as a presentation of a philosophical treatise.

Neuropath is a cat and mouse tale of Thomas Bible, a psychologist, who is recruited by the FBI in order to help them track down his best friend Neil Cassidy, a neurologist in the employment of the NSA, who has gone rogue and is apparently abducting people and re-wiring their brains as part of an elaborate attempt to demonstrate the illusory nature of the self and much of consciousness.

Bruce Sterling reportedly once said that a thriller is a science fiction novel that features the President of the United States. A less wry definition of the term would doubtless stress the fact that the thriller, much like the romance or the horror story, is a literary form that is all about affect. By this I mean that thrillers are all about eliciting an emotional response from the readers. In the case of horror stories the aim is to produce fear or dread, in the case of romances the aim is a sense of vicarious love or erotic charge, and in the case of thrillers the aim is to excite and thrill. In order to achieve this, a thriller must be written in quite a cynical manner; all its different elements must work together in order to thrill the readers. I call the thriller a literary form, as it is not characterised by tropes as much as it is by this affect-inducing structure.

The actual subject matter of a thriller exists only to drive the plot and help define the characters by fleshing out the world they exist in. Indeed, the subject matter of thrillers is largely interchangeable. For example, Tom Clancy's A Debt Of Honour (1994) uses a fictional US-Japanese war as a backdrop while Thomas Harris' The Silence Of The Lambs (1988) uses the pursuit of serial killer who skins his victims. However, despite the differences in subject matter, the books are structurally very similar. One of the reasons why the thriller has enjoyed a level of mainstream acceptability that has long eluded SF is that the formula seldom changes, and authors therefore have a good deal of room in which to explore their various intellectual agendas, such as serial killer psychology and US military strategy in the above examples. Another example particularly worth considering is the exploration of the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein explored by Philip Kerr in A Philosophical Investigation (1993). Much like Bakker, Kerr uses the psychological thriller genre as a platform for investigating philosophical ideas. However, the resemblance ends there, as Neuropath simply does not function as a thriller.

Most thrillers aim to produce a smooth progression of gears as the writer shifts back and forth between moods; carefully building the book to an emotional climax in which the built-up emotions and suspense are released in one long cathartic exhalation (usually featuring explosions). Unfortunately, Neuropath's gear changes are crunching and awkward as every time the book manages to pick up some kind of tension or dramatic charge, the energy is allowed to ebb away by the book's many info-dumps. These info-dumps are the main vector for the book's philosophical ideas and they usually involve the main protagonist explaining eliminative materialism to a secondary character or possibly the book's antagonist Cassidy delivering them in the shape of a speech (usually with assumed manic laughter). These poorly integrated info-dumps do not merely distract from the book's more affective elements, they are also part of a more systemic problem of emotional inertness that stems as much from the poor structure as from the book's stylistic choices.

Stylistically, Neuropath is undeniably an ambitious piece of work. The book is written in a close third-person perspective centred upon the book's main protagonist Thomas Bible. We are given access not only to what Bible sees and feels, but also the thoughts and raw emotions that flick across his mind.

The sudden, irrational fear that Agent Atta was about to execute him seized Thomas. Gun-gun-real-gun! reeled through his panicked thoughts. [page 85]

Bursting into pounding groins and howling fear-fuck-love-fuck-hate-fuck-horror-joy-jealousy-rage. Canines bared. A million women and a million rapes. Claw-kill-you-fucking-cunt-pussy-cunt-I-willfucking-kill-kill-kill-kill! Aggression. Aggression. [page 284]

The choice of a close third-person narrative is an interesting one as, much like a first-person narrative, it ties the reader down to one character's interpretation of what is going on. What I mean by this is that in normal third-person narratives, the reader is separate from the emotional action. In order to work out what is happening they have to rely upon an ability to understand the psychological forces at work in the plot. They have to read between the lines and interpret by empathising or identifying with the characters. By sticking so closely to the perceptions and feelings of Thomas Bible, Bakker has given his character an emotional authority that renders his emotions as abstract as the other sensorial data that Bible takes in. This has two consequences.

Firstly, Bakker attempts to use Bible's relationships with his ex-wife and children as an emotional catalyst for his conclusion, but there is no emotion to be wrung from these relationships. Because of the book's narrative style, we are forced to treat Bible's perceptions and emotions implicitly. This means that Bible's emotional ties to other characters are objective facts about the world on a par with what we know about his world's technology and politics. Because we have complete access to everything Bible thinks and feels and because we experience all characters through that lens, we are not given any space for generating any relationships of our own to these secondary characters. In fact, compared to Bible they feel largely wooden and two-dimensional with the only exception being Bible's cross-dressing neighbour who Bible has no particularly strong emotional ties to (thereby giving us breathing room to fill in the gaps ourselves). So when Bakker attempts to kill or torture these secondary characters, it is genuinely difficult to care. In fact, the book's climax feels more cartoonish and absurd than disturbing or emotionally charged.

Secondly, the exact same problems apply to Bible's other emotions; we trust them implicitly but do not feel them. This is hugely problematic as when the climax arrives and Cassidy plays with Bible's emotions using a piece of advanced technology, we do not reach the conclusion that Bakker seems to want us to reach. Indeed, Bakker seems to want us to reach the conclusion that because these emotions and mental states are machine based, they are somehow untrue or fraudulent. However, up until that moment our entire experience of Neuropath's world has been through the lens of Bible's neurotic emotional state. We have trusted everything else Bible has told us about his world, why would we suddenly leap to the conclusion that it was all a lie? By tying the reader so closely to his main protagonist, Bakker has effectively destroyed any affective impact his ideas might have had. Tellingly, the only moment when this mask of emotional inertness slips is when Bakker shows us Bible's ex-wife undergoing the same emotional manipulation as Bible. Only because it is not someone whose emotions we have learned to trust, we see them as utterly farcical and fake; the target that Bakker was clearly aiming for.

You just have to listen for a minute. Okay Tommy? This is something I have to say. I have to, Tommy, please! I do love you. I don't know why or how, but I can see it now. I can feel it. Oh, Tommy, my heart feels like it's going to explode I love you so much! [page 290]

Bakker's stylistic choices in effect set up a tension between what the book is trying to explain - that consciousness is in a sense unreal - and what it makes us understand - that Bible's perceptions, opinions, emotions and consciousness are not only real but should be trusted implicitly. In theory, this is a technically intriguing exercise as it reinforces the fact that while we may understand the implications of eliminativism as a theory, we can never grasp it emotionally, let alone step outside of the illusion that is our consciousness. However, in practice, and in the context of a thriller, this exercise is a recipe for disaster as the book's emotional thrust is constantly competing with and undermining the book's wider intellectual agenda. The book's emotional problems are further underlined by Bakker's tendency to reach for the affective big guns such as hideous violence, explicit sexuality and mawkish images of children. It is almost as though Bakker realised there was a problem and therefore felt obliged to turn the prose up to eleven in the hope of something getting through, but the result is a book that's dry and cerebral but peppered with ridiculously over the top moments, like a Platonic dialogue with cum-shots.

However, even if we set aside the book's lack of affective traction and treat it solely as an exploration of an idea, Neuropath is still problematic. When I'd read the first 100 pages of the book, I was convinced it was going to be great as 'the argument' had been raised exactly once and it was clear what kind of territory the book was going to be wandering into. However, then Bakker decides to restate the argument. In fact, he does it three or four times, and each restatement not only weakens the argument's impact, it also serves to muddy the waters. It was not until the afterword (which again restates the points that Bakker was trying to get across) that I was close to working out what particular form of eliminativism Bakker was pushing. So not only does Neuropath 'tell' us rather than 'show' us its big ideas, it also suggests that Bakker either lacked confidence in his ability to articulate the Argument, or he lacked confidence in our ability to understand it. Which is arguably worse.

Despite all of these problems, I am not entirely convinced that the problem lies in Neuropath simply being a poorly written book. Indeed, it may well be that it is impossible to write a book about eliminative materialism as the position is in effect calling into question the very things that make it possible to tell stories.

Eliminativism is an approach that has its roots in the central question of the philosophy of mind: the mind-body problem. Originally, this problem concerned how it was that the mind (a spiritual entity) could interact with the body (a physical entity), and as such was anchored in a form of dualism that stretches back throughout the history of philosophy. However, in recent decades, the problem has come to focus upon how it is that mental states relate to physical states. Indeed, while most philosophers and scientists now accept that the mind is a result of purely physical processes, only eliminativists argue that entities such as beliefs, desires and sensations do not in fact exist. As Bakker correctly points out, eliminativism is primarily a semantic theory. Nobody wants to argue that consciousness doesn't exist or that we don't experience, believe and remember things. Rather, these concepts are just linguistic baggage that do not actually relate to any real brain states. Eliminativism is not the idea that the mind does not exist; rather it is the idea that the mind is a profoundly unhelpful way of thinking about human agency.

The problem for writers with eliminativism in mind is that in order to stop drama or fiction from being random lists of words and events, we have to assume that the characters think the same way we do. This collection of assumptions informs all of our interactions with other people and it is referred to as folk psychology. Eliminativism can be understood as the explicit rejection of the usefulness of folk psychology.

For centuries authors have used stories to argue for visions of human existence. For example, both Jean-Paul Sartre's Huis Clos (1944), and Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935), argue for quite disturbing and bleak views of human existence, and they could do so by coming up with folk psychological models that were informed by their views. Even today we see this kind of writing all the time, with writers using aspects of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' model of reaction to grief as the basis for whole character arcs. However, eliminativism is not a theory concerned with what we do, it is a theory about how to go about explaining human behaviour and, in particular, whether the mind plays any role at all in the decision making process. Eliminativism makes no predictions about how we will act; it merely suggests that instead of using folk psychology to talk about behaviour, we should use brain states. It is not easy to show this in a fictional context.

This was a problem also encountered by Peter Watts in his Hugo-nominated Blindsight, which also explored a variant of eliminativism in a fictional context. Watts makes a plot point of this difficulty as he allows a vampire and a ship's computer to cloak their true intentions behind humanity's tendency to project its folk psychological models onto anything with agency. However, when forced to describe the psychology of a non-conscious being or one for whom consciousness is merely an output, Watts chooses to artfully evade the question. Cloaking the book's climax behind a descent into madness. Bakker is similarly evasive and chooses instead to use appropriately qualified folk psychological language.

This is what it's like when the self is shut down [page 293]

This brain loves you, that's why it's gone to all this trouble [page 287]

While Watts' fudging comes at the very climax of the book, Bakker is forced to fudge practically from the beginning, making it more obvious. For example, Bakker uses a bait-and-switch to construct a sense of otherness around a non-conscious character by suggesting he is a serial killer, only to reveal at the last moment that he is nothing of the sort. Watts similarly muddies the waters by presenting a non-conscious character as a psychopath, or presenting a non-conscious race as a race that doesn't understand verbal communication. However, if eliminativism is correct then a lack of consciousness would not result in our doing anything different, because if eliminativism is correct then consciousness is only a meaningless output anyway.

An eliminativist form of fiction would have to avoid using folk psychology and would therefore have to present series of events with cause and effect limited entirely to activation of different parts of the brain. Any arcs or intentionality projected onto the story would have to be done purely by the reader with no input at all from the writer. One could imagine perhaps an experimental short film that might take this approach but fiction without intentionality is difficult to imagine, explaining why neither Watts nor Bakker manage to pull it off.

Neuropath is a book that fails both as a story and as a philosophical argument. The book's stylistic elements are completely at odds with the book's wider narrative drive and the result is a bizarre concoction of unclear but lengthy expository passages and a thriller plot that is lacking in any kind of excitement or emotional charge. While Neuropath's flaws ensure that it is not a 'good book' by any stretch of the imagination, it is undeniably an interesting and challenging book that brushes up against the limits of what the fictional narrative form may be capable of doing. For this magnificent failure alone, I think it is deserving of some credit and consideration.
Neuropath by Scott Bakker

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