Holidays seem to be a time when I curl up with fantasy or sci-fi books: in August in France I read Larry Niven’s Protector, and over New Years I read R Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before. (GOTH ALERT – this is part one of a trilogy called The Prince Of Nothing!). These books have something in common, namely a protagonist (or partial protagonist) with superhuman intelligence.

Niven and Bakker are clearly clever sorts but even for them superhuman intelligence is pretty difficult to write. Incredibly intelligent characters crop up a lot in superhero comics, but there the superhumanly clever individual is just cleverer than all the other characters in the comic, which tends not to be difficult. Niven and Bakker take a different route, which is to assume that superhuman intelligence would also imply the suspension of conventional morality – what are individual lives in the incredible calculus of blah blah. Niven handles this a lot better in Protector by giving his super-brain a coherent decision structure, a set of imperatives that makes some sense on its own (and actually suggests that human morality is a mutated version of this created by our lack of the proper alien druqks). For Bakker’s lead character, though, the amorality feels more like an indulgence. Why is there a temptation to yoke immense intelligence and amorality together? From a plotting point-of-view it’s obvious – it makes Bakker’s anti/hero more unpredictable and mysterious. But I guess there’s also a chain which sets intelligence against emotion and links morality to the latter.

In Bakker’s book another duality seems to lurk below this surface – his female characters, even by fantasy standards, are much abused. Well, OK, this is an exploration of a quasi-medieval culture and so a raw deal for women can’t be called unrealistic but when, of your three main female characters, one is a prostitute, one a concubine and the third can’t go a paragraph without being described as “whorish” you sense a pattern emerge. Their perspectives are the clumsiest and their stories the most unpleasant to read though, by the time the heroine has sex with a Nazgul-equivalent and noes his cum is black!!! you’ll either have put the book down or started to laugh.

For all this The Darkness etc. was a good read – more so than Protector, which in typically Nivenish style drops big wodges of made-up science on you every few pages. Bakker is equally in love with his ideas (not a bad thing in an author, obviously!) but also knows how to keep an intricate plot moving quickly. I have to say I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I want to read more. His protagonist has a superpower – zen mastery of body language – which gives him quasi-authorial admin access to every other character’s motivations, so he can manipulate them at will. This struck me as shameless audience service – it makes concrete a nerd’s sense of angry superiority to a social world that seems as basely predictable as it is alien. As an adult reader though I found him a lot less interesting than the other flawed or decadent characters who get a share of centre-stage. There’s a further danger of him becoming a bit of a Mary-Sue character and since Book 2 appears to be him manipulating 600 pages worth of swots and jocks I may well pass – on the other hand there’s a line just about maintained between ‘protagonist’ and ‘hero’: I can handle being expected to regard the big-brain with awe as long as I’m not asked to like him.