Friday, 20 June 2008

‘Neuropath’ – Scott Bakker (Penguin)

Most days I’m one of those people who don’t hang around getting to work. After all, the earlier I get in then the earlier I can leave :o) Not today though… Today I will be staying on a little later because I just had to finish the last one hundred (and a bit) pages of Scott Bakker’s ‘Neuropath’ before I went into the office. It’s possibly the creepiest book I think I’ll read this year (maybe the creepiest book I will ever read)…

Thomas Bible’s life is on a downhill slope. His marriage is over and he hardly gets to see his children anymore, all he has left is a stalled writing career and job teaching bored grad students. Tom’s life is about to change though with the arrival of his old friend Neil Cassidy and his revelation that his university job was a cover for NSA work into cracking open the minds of suspected terrorists. Not only has Neil has gone AWOL from the agency but the FBI approach Tom with evidence that Neil has been using his skills on innocent civilians. Neil is obsessed with the fact that he can control the human brain and will strike at those closest to Tom in an attempt to prove a decades old argument…

This is probably the hardest review I’ve ever had to write, purely because ‘Neuropath’ operates at a number of levels and is one of those books that you could end up talking about far into the night.
At its most basic level ‘Neuropath’ is a storming thriller that rips along at a hell of a pace to an adrenaline fuelled conclusion (and some interesting speculations on the shape our world might take in the very near future). You have to hold on tight otherwise the twists in the plot will throw you right out of the book and leave you gasping for breath. Likewise with the frequent moments of creeping dread (especially the prologue). Everything happens for a reason, although you may not realise it at the time, and it all dovetails together to form a cohesive and action packed tale with an apocalyptic ending. Neil Cassidy is a truly monstrous character and some of what he does is shocking to say the least (you queasy folks had better watch out!).

Or is it?

The Argument, that Bakker hangs his plot over, is that everything humanity does is governed purely by stimulus and resulting neural impulses. We have no choice in our actions and this sheds a whole light on the events of ‘Neuropath’. If we have no free will then is there such a thing as crime? Is Neil a monster or is he the most honest character in the book (accepting himself for what he is without trying to disguise it)? Are his ‘messages’ the sign of a sociopath or merely the result of a course of action governed by a mechanical reaction to outside stimulus? Are all the characters just automatons and, once you ask that question, does that apply to us as well?
I don’t know, I don’t think so but that’s a whole different discussion that should take a place on a completely different blog! All I can say is that, as a reader, I was constantly putting the book down and looking at passers by in a whole new light. Did they actually choose to be doing what they were doing or, like Neil, were they just biological mechanisms governed by reaction? Was my continuing to read, instead of going to work, anything to do with freedom of choice? Any book that gets inside my head like that (and makes me view the world in a different light) is pretty damn special as far as I’m concerned!

That’s not to say it’s perfect though. Bakker makes the philosophical/neuro-scientific elements very accessible to a reader (like me!) who may have never dealt with these concepts before but, on occasion, things got a little heavy going for me. Two professors (Tom and Neil) on top of their game are not going to dumb down a conversation that they’re having but it might have helped me understand more if they had. To be fair though it has to be a fine line between getting your point across and doing it in a plausible manner, I’ll be re-reading this (sometime in the future) and I’m sure I’ll pick up more second time round, it feels like one of those books that will shed a few more secrets every time you back to it.

‘Neuropath’ isn’t an easy read but is rewarding whatever level you decide to read it on. If the Argument holds true then you’ll either read it or not, you won’t have any choice in the matter.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


James Button said...

Something tells me that you rath liked this one....

ThRiNiDiR said...

The most coherent review of Neuropath I read to date (and I believe I've read them all). great job with the closing statement as well!

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Really excellent review -- this has made it for me; I'll have to pick it up now :)

Liking the new gaps between paragraphs, too! ;)

The Book Swede

Anonymous said...

Reading phrases such as, "are all of our thoughts mere illusions", or, "are we only a collection of neurons firing and being affected by outside stimuli" gives me a tension headache. What are we if we aren't made of matter? Your "mind" is a thing your brain does. You ARE your brain. I don't understand people describing this book as disturbing just because it brings up these facts. The book does seem interesting however, and your review is succinct and to the point. Thank you.