Penguin Books Canada
The SF genre has a long fine tradition of the ‘mad scientist,’ to the point that it has now become a cliché. From Frankenstein to Faust, the idea of science being twisted from a way of improving lives to a perverted monstrosity is not a new one. Entering this fray, Scott Bakker already has gained a respected reputation for his Prince of Nothing trilogy, a high/epic fantasy series that has garnered acclaim from the majority of those who read it. The series was marked by deep thought and violent action; both of which combined with Scott’s great writing made for one of the landmark Fantasy sagas of the early 21st Century.
However it is often the case that it is not the tale but the telling that is the heart of the matter. And so it is here. Many at SFFWorld will know Scott for his complex, thoughtful and lengthy Prince of Nothing fantasy trilogy, if not for his presence in the discussion forums. One might think the qualities a writer brings to the table for Epic Fantasy are untranslatable to the thriller/horror genre. Not so with Scott Bakker. The story is an effective, frightening look at identity and how little control we actually have over ourselves in relation to how much control we think we have.
With Neuropath Scott turns to a contemporary thriller, a CSI-style novel with an SF edge. And from his previous work, as you might expect, it is a stylish, taut, intellectual treatise on the misuse of science and its consequences. As he says in his afterword, (page 302) ‘I wanted Neuropath to be a thriller, one that strives intellectually as well as viscerally disturbing…’
It is also very, very scary.
The story is mainly written from the perspective of Tom Bible, a psychologist and university instructor coping with the divorce from his wife Nora and the pain and difficulty of limited visitations with his children. Much to Tom’s his surprise, his friend Neil Cassidy shows up one night to catch up and reignite their ongoing debate, or rather Argument. This Argument has been a highlight of their friendship for many years and the crux of it is whether or not we have choices in what we do. At the outset, Tom thinks this visit from Neil is just a friendly, if oddly timed, hang-out session. Tom soon learns the meeting is not what he thought it was, a theme that Bakker returns to throughout the novel.
Neil has not, as Tom thought, been teaching neurology in California, but instead has been secretly working for the US government in anti-terrorist techniques, obsessed with the idea that he can manipulate the human brain. Or so he says. Nothing in the text would imply otherwise, but the reliability of the narrator (whether Tom’s third person or Neil’s recounting of the past) and characters early words in the novel come into question in hindsight after later events in the novel unfold.
As if things weren’t trying enough in Tom’s life – coping with a difficult divorce, limited access to a young family and a dull academic life (mainly through alcohol and medication) – Tom receives an even more ominous visit the day after Neil visits. The FBI has questions about Neil: has Tom seen him, what does he know, etc., eventually showing Tom a gruesome video focusing on a woman whose brain is literally rewired and forced to experience emotions contradictory to the physicality of what she is experiencing. This is even more of a shock considering Neil visited Tom and his children the night before. On one hand, this seems something right out of the film Saw but on the other, Bakker’s subtle skills are on display throughout, which makes the story and overall effectiveness much more (pardon the pun) cerebral.
The FBI thinks Neil is the man behind the camera of these violent crimes that ultimately render some of the subjects dead. The experiments Neil conducts involves, literally, rewiring the sensory inputs of people’s brains; switching pain and pleasure, rewiring memory and vision, and removing any kind of personality consciousness/moral inhibitions.
The FBI fully enlists Tom’s aid in trying to find Neil, all the while Tom is reexamining his life and more specifically, what he thought he knew about Neil. Throughout the middle portions of the novel, Tom engages in inner debates about identity, choice and their relationship with the biological aspects of our brain. He also finds himself drawn to FBI agent Samantha (Sam) Logan, a smart and attractive woman who gives Tom some thoughts about Neil as well as serving as a bouncing board for Tom’s own thoughts. The thought process by which Tom debates within himself, and with Sam, in pursuit of Neil is intense, thought provoking and moves the plot and pages along just as well as any action or scenes of suspense.
In the midst of realizing his best friend is an unhinged killer, Tom finds himself ever more attracted to Sam. She seems to be what Tom needs at the moment, as both a sounding board and a romantic interest. This is somewhat predictable plot point, but it comes across in a believable fashion. This romance would be not be a problem if not for Tom’s two kids and his lingering feelings for his ex-wife Nora. Nor would it be a problem, in Sam’s case, if it didn’t violated many of the codes of conduct of the FBI.
Back to Tom’s ex-wife Nora, a great sense of tension is evoked whenever Tom’s wife Nora is brought up in the narrative. Tom’s love for her is a complex thing but it is something he realizes he can no longer have in his life. This frustration is even more evident when Tom sees his kids and even more so as Tom reconsiders how he and Nora got together. At every corner, Tom is forced to reexamine his life for what he thought it was against what he comes to learn. It is a difficult reality for anybody to face, I assume, and Bakker nicely plays the juxtaposition. Through Tom’s thoughts, Bakker does a very good job of building complex character in Tom Bible.
While Tom is clearly the protagonist, the antagonist, conversely, is not “on stage” as much, so we as the readers only have Tom’s recollections to go by, but the picture is still painted pretty well. Neil is a brilliant guy, as is Tom. Tom thought they had a good friendship, but as the novel unfolds, the theme of Tom’s past thoughts not matching up with what he’s learning to be the truth soon comes to be evident. In a sense, a lot of the plot hinges on Tom’s believability and voice; here Scott has succeeded fairly well in drawing a convincing, believable and sympathetic protagonist. The sympathy builds for Tom and as further atrocities occur, he realizes that the target of the horrors Neil is creating is Tom himself and his family, as Neil starts to kidnap and mutilate people with a connection to Tom. As the book progresses, Neil’s ultimate goal is truly horrific.
All of the aforementioned brain rewiring helps Neil present his side of the Argument, which drives much of the plot of the novel. This is where Neuropath veers from the typical thriller novel weaving a great deal of discourse about the idea of free will, identity, and how both are related to the biology of the brain. One might not expect elements of free will and identity, more philosophical aspects, to be such integral aspects of a typical crime thriller, but again, Bakker is not a typical writer. The blend of philosophical ponderings with scientific constructs makes for good mental consumption.
Like the best thriller novels, a great, surprising, curve ball is held until the end of the novel. Initially this plot twist might be hard to swallow, but as the latter portion of the novel progressed it made sense within the context of the story Bakker previously told. The emotional tension goes up to 11 at this point in the novel.
Neuropath seems to be a rare book these days, a thriller that not only chills and thrills but also brings into the spotlight more intellectual issues. Unlike many books of this nature, it deals with big issues – the nature of reality, the ethical issues of technology merging with the brain, the state of the world as we know it, even the idea that soon we may not be able to trust our experiences – within a crime novel.
At times, this can slow things a little, and will make things too glacial for some: the book’s exposition in some places becomes very lecture-y as the key issues are rationalised and counter-argued. Some will feel the need for more action, less talk. However, that is not really the point of the book. The self-analysis throughout is a means of debating key concepts, as this is really a novel concerned with the ideas more than the plot, ideas that will make you think.
Having said that, the plot is not perfect; plot devices don’t always ring true (but to give them here might spoil the book), though generally the characters are relatable and the plot events not too far-fetched. The finale, though, is quite unnerving, and not necessarily the ending the reader requires. It is not a happy ending and there are parts that will make you wince (or at least they did me.)
What works most here is the inner-voice and debate of Thomas, who uses his academic skills to analyse everything. As a psychologist, perhaps the horror is when you realise (despite your academic training) that you’re not in control of what you interpret. What can happen when you can’t trust your own experiences, and when the sum of your existence can be questioned, or at least, mistrusted? When you are part of the machine, an organic construct following behaviours that are predictable and understandable, finding out that you can be manipulated like the rest is perhaps the real horror. To Tom and the reader, this reliability of the past is continually brought into question.
Knowing Bakker’s interest and great knowledge of philosophical issues like those at the forefront of this novel, one wonders how much of Tom is modelled on Scott or if Tom is a mouthpiece for Scott. This is true of any author I suppose.
Everything about this novel points back to Tom – can he trust what has believed his whole life? Was it all a lie? Is any decision he ever mad truly his own? With these questions, and similar questions, as the backbone of the novel, Neuropath is more about the questions than the answers. Bakker doesn’t give answers, he leaves Tom continually questioning, which therefore leaves the reader continually questioning the novel, the characters and more importantly, themselves.
Neuropath is a frightening novel because it hits so close to the bone with questions people aren’t always willing to ask anyone or themselves. This scary novel, filled with the intelligence and depth expected from Scott Bakker, will not only make you question your place in the world, but further analyze your world around you. The probing nature of the novel, combined with the adequate characterization make for an intense, breathtaking read. It is an unsettling look at the near future that really makes you think about just who we are and how much we know ourselves – or how much we don’t know ourselves.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford & Mark Yon/Hobbit