Though better known for his ongoing epic fantasy series, THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, THE UNBELIEVER, Stephen Donaldson has also taken a foray into science fiction. The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story is the first in THE GAP CYCLE and a very difficult read if it is not understood that the book is mere stage setting for the four books which follow. Essentially the exploits of a sadistic psychopath and his victim, the novel will (rightfully) not win sympathy from many readers, but must instead be approached with a view to the larger framework of character development Donaldson imagines the series to be. Criminal and victim may be the assigned roles now, but what of the future?
The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story is unique in science fiction for a handful of reasons. Another example of Donaldson’s proclivity for anti-heroes, the three main roles are filled by characters not particularly nice, to say the least. One is Angus Thermopyle, a space pirate with a malicious, vindictive temperament the likes sci-fi rarely sees. Space opera is generally the story of heroes, so Thermopyle’s evil upon evil (and also his victim’s concernedly passive acceptance of his abuse), defies everything the sub-genre is famous for. Much like Thomas Covenant in Lord Foul’s Bane, readers should not expect a warm and fuzzy champion in Thermopyle, rather a raping madman filled with anxiety.
Narrative structure is also extremely atypical. The complete story is briefly summarized in the opening chapter, then it’s unpacked in relevant detail until the end, so readers will find few surprises at the book’s conclusion. The journey is of more value to Donaldson than the climax; readers should not expect a book written in standard novel format, i.e. plot building to a climax. Character development is key and plot is merely the framework in which the characters present themselves.
Given this strange approach to science fiction and the seeming focus on sadistic behavior, what then is Donaldson’s aim in the book? Setting the stage for later events, The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story is a benchmark by which the characters can later be judged. Their evolution is of portent, and the novel is to be dealt with patiently, that is, if you can swallow Thermopyle’s psychosis.
At 150 pages, the storyline of the novel — a novella, in fact — is simple. Events are set on a deep space mining base. The ore mining operation of utmost value to Earth, pirates are a natural parasite creeping into the scene and, as a result, so is the police force managed by the mining coalition. FTL (called gap jumping) is needed to reach the deep space mines from Earth and it’s not without its risks. A small percentage of people lose their mental faculties after experiencing the jump in time. Some of this insanity is harmless, hurting only the victim, while at other times the sickness manifests itself in psychotic behavior wherein the victim goes crazy and attempts to kill all those on board their ship, either through sabotage or straight-forward violence. Zone implants, a sort of human zombie-fier, have been invented that when implanted, give another person complete control over the implantee. An obvious solution to curb gap-sickness, these devices are illegal if a person forces one upon a citizen in ordinary circumstances. Thermopyle and his rival Succorso, who are caught up in a battle of animus, space battles, zone implants, and a woman’s fate, shape the narrative.
Donaldson’s story telling is reminiscent of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. A similar sense of urgency plagues both Gully Foyle and Angus Thermopyle, so action and plot development move briskly despite their juxtaposition of intent. Donaldson’s style is more similar to that of Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny or Dan Simmons, however. Wagner’s The Ring is a background influence and Donaldson uses the tropes and plot structure of classic stories in telling his contemporary story, the mythic parallel not unlike The High Crusade, Lord of Light, Hyperion, or otherwise.
In the end, The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story is not a book that will be to everyone’s tastes. The series, that’s another story. Terrible violations to human autonomy occur in the story (but thankfully not in graphic detail) as Donaldson introduces his cast of generally unlikeable, often despicable characters, in outlining his thematic goals for the four books to come. If you are a person who prefers warm, approachable protagonists in your novels, do not buy this book. However, if you are able to look past the malice and are interested in ruminating upon an author’s goals for the larger story, this book sets such a stage. Loosely paralleling Wagner’s opera The Ring (emphasis on loosely), story presentation is generally mythic/operatic. Only as many details as are needed describe the sci-fi aspects; the majority of content is focused on character orientation and the socio-political scene at hand.
The Gap Cycle — (1990-1996) Publisher: Author of The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, one of the most acclaimed fantasy series of all time, master storyteller Stephen R. Donaldson retums with this exciting and long-awaited new series that takes us into a stunningly imagined future to tell a timeless story of adventure and the implacable conflict of good and evil within each of us. Angus Thermopyle was an ore pirate and a murderer; even the most disreputable asteroid pilots of Delta Sector stayed locked out of his way. Those who didn’t ended up in the lockup — or dead. But when Thermopyle arrived at Mallory’s Bar & Sleep with a gorgeous woman by his side the regulars had to take notice. Her name was Morn Hyland, and she had been a police officer — until she met up with Thermopyle. But one person in Mallorys Bar wasn’t intimidated. Nick Succorso had his own reputation as a bold pirate and he had a sleek frigate fitted for deep space. Everyone knew that Thermopyle and Succorso were on a collision course. What nobody expected was how quickly it would be over — or how devastating victory would be. It was common enough example of rivalry and revenge — or so everyone thought. The REAL story was something entirely different. In The Real Story, Stephen R. Donaldson takes us to a remarkably detailed world of faster-than-light travel, politics, betrayal, and a shadowy presence just outside our view to tell the fiercest, most profound story he has ever written.