The Great Ordeal's Outside Context Problem


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Warning, this article discusses major spoilers for "The Great Ordeal," the sixth book in R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse saga. Read at your own risk, Chigra…

R. Scott Bakker's ongoing Second Apocalypse saga continues to deliver mind-rending moments of revelation. Sometimes it’s a tidbit about the ever-expanding mythos of Eärwa or some deep truth about a character's psyche that resonates just a little too close to home inside your own skull. Other times, it’s the detonation of a nuclear weapon in the midst of a medieval battle.

What Came Before

If you're reading this, you probably know the scenario: Aspect Emperor Anasûrimbor Kellhus has led the armies of the Great Ordeal into the ruins and wilds just beyond the domain of the unholy Consult, that cabal of death-cheating sorcerers and alien beings who scheme to unshackle the world from divine judgement through mass-extermination of soul-bearing lifeforms.

As the armies of the Ordeal take the ruined fortress of Dagliash, the Consult launches a deception within a deception: A legion of inhuman sranc and bashrag surge up from the caverns below -- and while Kellhus makes short work of the ambushers, he quickly discovers they bear a gift: a dark coffer he immediately recognizes as an artifact of the Tekne (or old science) of the alien Inchoroi. He teleports away just before the device detonates in a nuclear explosion.

The devastating blast cracks the heavens. The ensuing fireball devastates humans and sranc alike, inflicting horrifying wounds and bouts of radiation sickness on others. A mushroom cloud ascends into the sky. It's a horrifying scene and one of the most surprising moments in the book. We know the Consult wielded technological relics such as "weapons of light" in ancient times, and they continue to weaponize biology through the use of the Tekne, but there's no precedent for such dread weapons of mass destruction. Luckily, Kellhus recognizes that the polluted ground is to be avoided and that the sick and dying must be abandoned to their fate.

But how and why does Kellhus know this much about radiation sickness? It's an excellent question that Second-Apocalypse.com user JerakoKayne brought up in a discussion thread:

"They clearly had to have more than one, and to have used them in the antique wars. Even with his ubermensch deductive reasoning, Kellhus' knowledge of the effects of the weapon, had to come from somewhere. Especially detailed knowledge of things like radiation sickness among the survivors, implies that much at least. Predicting the effects of a technology that otherwise doesn't exist in the world really stretches suspension of disbelief, even for Kell. He has to know what came before to know what comes after."

The first and most likely possibility is that, yes, accounts of the ancient wars contain mention of such weapons and their effects -- we just haven't been privy to those historical details in the books. Kellhus simply recognized the weapon for what it was.

But what if Kellhus -- a denizen of a magical, medieval world -- truly had no preconceived notion of what the foreboding coffer might be or do? His encounter with the weapon would surely constitute what the late author Iain M. Banks termed an "outside context problem."

Outside Context Problem

As you might recall from his Culture books (or our podcast episode), an outside context problem (OCP) occurs when a society or civilization encounters something that they have no context to prepare for or perhaps even effectively deal with. An historic example would be a colonial warship arriving on the shores of a primitive society. An OCP is often fatal. Most societies/civilizations only ever encounter one of them.

The atomic Inchori device is very much an OCP -- as was the Inchori's original fiery decent into the world of Eärwa. For all of Kellhus' cognitive and thaumaturgic powers, the Consult's OCP inflicts grievous losses on his army and very nearly does him in as well.

Yet, if the weapon was truly without precedent, I wouldn't be so quick to judge the encounter as unbelievable. If the Aspect Emperor's godlike intellect is enough to fathom the shortest path, unify nations and threaten the might of Golgotterath, then perhaps he could identify the device as an explosive or infectious weapon -- and from there even gauge its aftereffects.

But of course a proper understanding of radiation sickness might be difficult since naturally-occurring sites of radioactivity (such as Ramsar, Iran) don't produce anything near the high-level doses required. For prior knowledge of that, your culture would have need to have experienced an atomic detonation or nuclear industrial accident -- though perhaps the Ark Fall presented such a reality to the ancient nonmen who first encountered it and recorded the many disastrous ramifications of its arrival.

As with so many aspects of Bakker's writings, it's something to ponder and discuss -- all while we await the next book in the series.

Robert Lamb is a senior writer and host at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind. An avid science enthusiast, he boasts a deep love for monsters and a hankering for electronic music.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.