Doubt versus Certainty

Three disparate quotes. First from a recent article by Steven Erikson, then a quick quote from “The Healthy Dead”, and to finish a quote from a blog post by Scott Bakker that just appeared.

A theme is not a position, not a political slant, not an agenda, just as a work of honest fiction is not propaganda, polemic, or didactic diatribe. What theme is, among other things, is an area of exploration. And ‘exploration’ is a journey into the unknown, one that breaks down and discards preconceived notions. Exploration involves courage and determination, often verging on the obsessive; as many historical accounts of past explorers will attest. Your enemy is the unknown; your fear is the unknowable, and the peace that follows – if it follows – only comes when the fear goes away. Note that I do not mention wisdom, since as far as I can tell wisdom is another word for world-weary exhaustion, and every wise word uttered is born from bitter experience, and upon hearing such words, one chooses to either take heed or not. Accordingly, bitter experience breeds anew with every generation.


I have (I think) written about ruthlessness before, the force that must be turned not only upon a work of fiction (or art in general) but also upon oneself: upon one’s own most cherished beliefs. If I haven’t, well, there it is. Agendas that survive their iteration in fiction are, to my mind, evidence of failure; specifically, the author’s failure. They wrote how they want it to be, not how it is.

Emancipor winced, overwhelmed by a flood of guilt. ‘Can there be no second chance, Paladin?’
‘Ah, you are a saint indeed, to voice such sentiment. The answer is no, there cannot. The very notion of fallibility was invented to absolve mortals of responsibility. We can be perfect, and you can see true perfection walking here at your side.’
‘You have achieved perfection?’
‘I have. I am. And to dispute that truth is to reveal your own imperfection.’

Moral ambiguity and confusion are simply a fact of the human condition, one which in no way speaks to the metaphysical truth of morality. In The Second Apocalypse, the big question is simply one of what people make of this situation. Some instrumentalize it. Some flounder. Some perpetually struggle. And some–like Grin and Theo, apparently–think they have seen through the confusion. Just like the real world.

Just as genre fiction tends to offer wish-fulfilment heroes, much of it offers wish-fulfilment moral certainty as well.

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The Tyranny of the Night – Glen Cook

I have the habit of reading some pages of the new books I buy even if they still aren’t part of the reading queue. I started to read this one just to have an idea of what it was about and how it would differ from “The Black Company”, but then it took me more than 60 pages to form that idea, the book was incredibly complex, and so I ended up reading it all. The reason why I made this purchase in the first place is because from what I was reading it was part of a series of four books (The Instrumentalities of the Night) with a dense and intricate tangle of plot, quite ambitious and reminding closely Erikson’s own work. It was interesting to see Glen Cook being inspired by who he himself inspired, and see what came out of that.

Even more so than other Black Company books, it’s not one to mindlessly recommend. I was definitely surprised, almost amazed: Erikson’s first book, Gardens of the Moon, is often criticized because how hard it is to get into it, but Glen Cook here pushed the same to hardcore levels. It doesn’t suck you in easily, it makes a very, very hard and steep climb. This book mocks whoever thought GotM was mildly hard to read. It’s nothing compared to this. Right from the start it buries you under layers of politics, names and a number of factions. You’re caught in a flurry of info all stacked up, and not helped by the terse, to the point of being barren, prose. At the same time, obviously, all this fascinated me and became a reason to trudge on more than a barrier. But that’s how I work, and why I’m not so easily recommending the book to any reader. The overall context is not too complex to grasp, the setting is like historical fiction, almost faithful, infiltrated by sorcery at key points. We have Europe at the time of the crusades against middle-eastern infidels. Cook took (well, sorry for that) a detailed map of medieval Europe and went to change all the historical names with fictional ones. The problem is that he did not annex that map to the book. I’m not one to complain about lack of maps in fantasy books, but believe me (and all other reviewers who will certainly complain) that in this case the lack of map is THE major hurdle you’ll face. Medieval Europe is a mess. Tons of different states, cultures mixed together, and cities. You’ll have constant name dropping of people and places through the whole book. Without a sense of geography and without generous exposition (Glen Cook gets irritated if something requires more than two lines of text to be explained) you’ll end up with an insane number of scattered mental notes and no idea how to pull all of this together. A trip to the wikipedia to link at least some important places to their historical match will definitely help, and after 100-150 pages the vague shape of plot and direction will start to come out. After that, as long you found the challenge intriguing, it gets fun.

I lack the historical knowledge to know what Glen Cook made up and what is only a slightly twisted, refracted projection of history. There are some climatic changes, such as the incoming ice age that is closing around known civilization, and the fact that the sea is slowly evaporating. This has not a significant role in the plot, at least in this book, but it seems to close the perimeter and focus on the scene, like a spotlight that erases everything outside its sight. I don’t know how much Glen Cook toyed with historical facts and figures but either way it helps giving a representation that feels authentic and believable. The subtlety of magic not disrupting it and being one element that the writer already demonstrated to handle perfectly in the Black Company. The other element that makes this picture so vivid is the usual pragmatism and terseness of prose that one can find in all his books. Here even to an extreme since the context is overly complex, with a tangle of politics that involves various places and various figures fighting each other even inside the same faction. Religious infighting about local heresies, or about grasping the power at the top, winning or fighting support of the King, of the most powerful merchants and families. Temporal power ruling over spiritual one, and all the bigger powers and influences dragging in their plans the lives of everyone else. Glen Cook won’t explain anything twice, sometimes not even once. It’s all there, working flawlessly and expertly woven, but you either sharpen your attention and intuition or most of what goes on will be missed. Glen Cook isn’t ashamed of culling everyone who won’t put an effort to follow this intricate story.

Characterization follows a similar pattern. I am in awe about what he can do, but again characters aren’t described and defined up front. You read about a number of vague shapes, then after a while, magically, you realize they became very strong and sympathetic characters. It’s impossible to know when the transformation took place. There are no changes in style, it all falls in smoothly and naturally, and some of those vague shapes will become quite memorable. The main protagonist, Else Tage, reminds me of Croaker, the main character of the Black Company. He has a similar attitude and philosophy of life, a similar air about him I can’t define exactly. Initially he seems a rather cold and detached character, but it soon develops a certain aura of charisma and competent authority about him, even more deserved because he does absolutely nothing to earn the favor of the reader. The narration sits always impartial, cold and unaffected. I’d say “cynical”, since that is what colors essentially everything Glen Cook writes. Cynical but always honest, never preaching or rhetorical. And if one read what I wrote about other books, for me the lack of rhetoric and hypocrisy is the first and foremost requirement when I read. There’s even a certain philosophical air that reminds closely of Erikson, it fits perfectly with the religious theme and is often truly inspired, but it doesn’t fight for space and often it starts and ends within the same lapidary line. This mixed with a similar deadpan sense of humor or veiled irony that sometimes is so subtle that you can miss it entirely. Glen Cook has a very sharp eye, but as I said he doesn’t overindulge in explanations.

Now that I think about it, there may be a certain symmetry between what happens in the book and the relationship of Glen Cook with his readers (the amusing impression I get is that he doesn’t give a shit). Let’s try to contextualize the plot as briefly as possible: Else Tage is one of the middle-eastern infidels, sent in Europe to infiltrate as a spy and try to go as high in the ranks he can get, and from the vantage of that position stir a mess as big as possible so that the western empires will be too busy fighting each other to launch a crusade on the east. Earlier in the book Grade Drocker, a powerful sorcerer, is established as what looks to be the Big Nasty Foe opposing our hero. Yet soon Else Tage finds himself working, under multiple disguises since he’s a spy, right next or even for his closest and most dangerous enemy, reminding The black Company since right in the first chapter of that book the Company is being hired by the wrong side, the Taken (Soulcatcher precisely). In this position, Else Tage develops a certain unspoken respect, esteem almost, for Grade Drocker. Making that competency and pragmatism a trait they share, that makes them kindred souls in a world filled of inepts. Mirrored by a similar reaction of the reader since Grade Drocker, even if never presented under a favorable light, is always competent and unyielding, above the level of abjection and corruption in the clergy and all the positions of power. Even if not losing any of his nastiness and cruelty. A reader will never completely sympathize or approve him, same as Else Tage since for him he remains a threat, but it will trigger that air of respect (with which Glen Cook will amuse himself toward the end of the book). So the similarity with Glen Cook and his readers is that he won’t try to win your sympathy and be generous with his narration of the story, but if you tag along you end up developing a certain esteem and appreciation. It doesn’t have to be expressed through flourishes, because it’s there and it is sincere.

The story is densely woven around political moves driven by greed, opportunity or convenience. There are a number of fights and bigger wars all sharing a common trait. There’s no heroism at all. The cynical eye cuts entirely the spectacularization and victories are solely a matter of opportunity. Often the results are entirely due to botched logistic or other miserable circumstances. The force that hoards more kills throughout the book is dysentery. The war is shown as ugly and lacking even the slightest trace of romanticism. Take this example of exciting soldier life:

The soldier’s life consisted mainly of waiting, or of marching somewhere in order to wait. Siege work meant concentrated waiting. Else found himself growing impatient. But never so impatient that he lost sight of the fact that impatience was the mother of stupid decisions.

Or how an anticipated conquest takes place:

There was no resistance. The Connected and Direcians from Shippen encountered only those complications of conquest posed by distance and numbers. Towns surrendered as fast the invaders could hike.
King Peter was restrained only by the fact that he did not have troops sufficient to garrison all the territories willingly to throw themselves at his feet. He considered enlisting Calzirans but he had no money to pay them.


“Sounds like knives in the dark time.”
“Some of that may be necessary. But murder alienates people. Persuasion, arm-twisting, creation of mutual objectives work better.”

Or this wonderful distillation of political essence:

Svavar wondered who was poking it to whom in the romance between Johannes and the Patriarch.

All this usually set up by some high power nested safely far away, meaning also without the slightest clue of the world outside and so often representing the first threat to the feasibility of their own plans. And so the need to rely on competent fellas, like Else Tage and Grade Drocker, who can make things move even when ensnared by the incompetency and complete blindness of the high powers.

There’s a kind of convergence toward the end of the book, and after a big battle there are enough pages left to make a long epilogue that shows the consequences of all that happened, setting up the context for the following book but also wrapping up rather well all that happened in this one. So I’d say it makes for a satisfying read even if it’s the first on a series of four (three if which already out there). I’m sure there are a number of reviews about this book that criticize how the prose is too fragmented and terse even for its own sake, how it can actively drive readers away, and it is true, a factual observation, but all of his falls within the author’s specific style and it is part of the merits of this book, this razor-sharp, uncompromising narration.

Glen Cook’s own words also define this and his other works:

You just write stuff the way it is instead wishful thinking.

The cocoon of peace

Saving here one of my comments on the Tor reread about Deadhouse Gates.

It touches one of the core themes of the whole series.

The quote from Heboric at the beginning of chapter 14 reminds me of one in Midnight Tides I already brought up.


‘Show me a mortal who is not pursued, and I’ll show you a corpse. Every hunter is hunted, every mind that knows itself has stalkers. We drive and are driven. The unknown pursues the ignorant, the truth assails every scholar wise enough to know his own ignorance, for that is the meaning of unknowable truths.’

Maybe I go off on my own tangent but I interpret that as this quote (from MT) and the “cocoon of peace” discussed on a previous chapter:

‘We are not born innocent, simply unmeasured.’
‘And, presumably, immeasurable as well.’
‘For a few years at least. Until the outside is inflicted upon the inside, then the brutal war begins.’

Consider that the quote above from Heboric starts from “We can’t stay here.” I see the status of “being pursued” like the impossibility of staying still. Not moving equals dying, but moving equals pain. This is the way of living. The “outside inflicted upon the inside”, without being invited in. Without being invited to be born (which is a thing both forced and painful) and grow up (like Felisin, and again can be both forced and painful).

Same for “we drive and are driven”. This line goes directly to Felisin’s part of understanding:

She felt she was close to grasping a profound truth, around which orbited all human endeavour since the very beginning of existence. We do naught but scratch the world, frail and fraught. Every vast drama of civilizations, of peoples with their certainties and gestures, means nothing, affects nothing. Life crawls on, ever on. She wondered if the gift of revelation – of discovering the meaning underlying humanity – offered nothing more than a devastating sense of futility. It’s the ignorant who find a cause and cling to it, for within that is the illusion of significance.

As Amanda pointed out, the series shows this futility, but also the “massive repercussions” of action. And the pains and woes of inaction. So back at “being pursued” and always moving. Always trying even when facing the certainty/inevitability of failure (like Felisin).

This last quote also makes a link to Memories of Ice. Humanity perceived like a thin and temporary “layer” on the surface of the world. And if the world stirs it may well be the extinction of us all (Burn sleeps, we are her dreams).

On narrative linearity (Erikson Vs Bakker & Martin)

Just a passing thought. In this blog post Bakker says he’s currently writing his next, and last in the series, book “The Unholy Consult” and that specifically he’s working and jumping between fifteen chapters without having completed any yet.

This “process” is similar to how George Martin writes. He jumps around and works at the same time on a number of disconnected chapters without following a narrative linearity, which also means that it’s not possible to pinpoint how much of a book is completed since there’s not a linear progress. The writing proceeds sparsely across the whole body of work.

Erikson instead is a special case. From one of his recent comments it can be deduced that he writes linearly not simply because of restraints due to deadlines, but because it’s structural to his peculiar process of writing. He writes linearly, page after page, with the scenes following exactly the final order they’ll have on the published book. And he specified that jumping back and forth, rewriting and moving scenes, switching order of chapters and so on, would feel like “cheating”, and that this way of doing allows him to stay true to the characters and context, providing that limited perspective in which he thrives.

My thought was about the result, which is quite odd. Both Martin and Bakker jump all over the place when they are writing, but then the finished book has a strictly linear narrative. The scenes are ordered in chronological order. Erikson on the other side writes linearly, but the final structure delivers the opposite: scenes are scrambled in chronological sequence AND narrative direction. You can read an outcome in book 1 whose “cause” appears in book 5. How can he do this?

It’s like all three of them work by fighting what would come natural: Bakker and Martin have to restore a linearity after they “built” the whole book in a non-linear way, while Erikson has to have his mind jumping around an do the extra work so that he can set up the roots of the narrative complexity that he is going to realize.

Am I the only one finding this curious?

Quotes from Midnight Tides

These are quotes from Midnight Tides I just read, within a few pages. Earlier in the day I followed a Twitter link that asked how the Wheel of Time compares to the Malazan series, and, well, these following quotes are a good example of what you won’t likely find in the WoT.

Ten paces to Seren’s left was Hull Beddict, seated with his forearms on his knees, hands anchoring his head as he stared at the ground. He had neither moved nor spoken in some time, and the mundane inconsequentiality of their exchanged greetings no longer echoed between them, barring a faint flavour of sadness in the mutual silence.

‘Our skin is thick, after all——’
‘Born of our fixation on our so-called infallible destiny,’ she replied. ‘What of it?’
‘I used to think,’ he said, smile fading, ‘that the thickness of our … armour was naught but an illusion. Bluster and self-righteous arrogance disguising deep-seated insecurities. That we lived in perpetual crisis, since self-avowed destinies wear a thousand masks and not one of them truly fits—’

“We are just the fallen. You, me, the ghosts. All of us. We’re the dust swirling around the ankles of the conquerors as they stride on into glory. In time, we may rise in their ceaseless scuffling, and so choke them, but it is a paltry vengeance, don’t you think?”

Fallen. Who tracks our footsteps, I wonder? We who are the forgotten, the discounted and the ignored. When the path is failure, it is never willingly taken. The fallen. Why does my heart weep for them? Not them but us, for most assuredly I am counted among them. Slaves, serfs, nameless peasants and labourers, the blurred faces in the crowd — just a smear on memory, a scuffing of feet down the side passages of history.
Can one stop, can one turn and force one’s eyes to pierce the gloom? And see the fallen? Can one ever see the fallen? And if so, what emotion is born in that moment?

The Acorn

Being still lost in my patterns.

In the Kabbalah there’s this idea of the “collective soul”, which I discover is a Jungian idea. Which leads again to Hillman’s archetypal psychology.

Which is basically Erikson’s fantasy series.

According to Hillman, “polytheistic psychology can give sacred differentiation to our psychic turmoil.…” Hillman states that

“The power of myth, its reality, resides precisely in its power to seize and influence psychic life. The Greeks knew this so well, and so they had no depth psychology and psychopathology such as we have. They had myths.”


They studied how the hierarchy of ancient gods, polytheistic religions, and archetypal ideas found in tales might influence modern life with regard to soul, psyche, dreams and the Self.

Aristotle described an archetype as an original from which derivatives or fragments can be taken. In Jung’s psychology an archetype is an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic imagery derived from the past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious.

And Jung:

“My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”

During the reread of Gardens of the Moon we discussed the significance of the “acorn” that creates the Azath at the end of the book. Erikson commented briefly:

And yes, it’s an acorn, not a stone or marble or jeweled ring; and from tiny acorns mighty trees do grow.

Back to Hillman:

Hillman’s book, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, outlines an “acorn theory of the soul.” His theory states that each individual holds the potential for their unique possibilities inside themselves already, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak, invisible within itself. It argues against the parental fallacy whereby our parents are seen as crucial in determining who we are by supplying us with genetic material and behavioral patterns. Instead the book suggests for a reconnection with what is invisible within us, our daimon or soul or acorn and the acorn’s calling to the wider world of nature.

And back to Bakker’s woes about consciousness:

the ego is but one psychological fantasy within an assemblage of fantasies.

And by the way, the T’lan Imass seem another literal manifestation of the “collective consciousness“:

Collective consciousness was a term coined by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) to refer to the shared beliefs and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society.

Durkheim argued that in traditional/primitive societies (those based around clan, family or tribal relationships) totemic religion played an important role in uniting members through the creation of a common consciousness.