Month: February 1996

The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die, Stephen R. Donaldson

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 564 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-07180-7

Capsule review: The Gap series offers a collection of riches rarely found elsewhere in SF, but for a very patient -and tolerant!- audience. Forget star ratings: This is Good Stuff.

I originally wanted to make this a review of the fifth and final book of the Gap Series, but reconsidered in favour of reviewing the whole story instead.

This is only fair, after all: This isn’t a series of unplanned, loosely-connected books. As Donaldson makes it perfectly clear in an afterword at the end of the first volume, five volumes were planned in this saga loosely inspired by Wagner’s The Ring opera cycle.

The series starts off “innocently” enough. Well, in a matter of speaking: While the first book is only 200 pages long, it does contain acts of cruelty only matched by the second book of the cycle.

Subsequently, the books get longer, and much more complicated. By the end of the fifth tome, the story is far removed from the original “love” triangle.

Simply put, in the first volume, a woman cop (Morn Hyland) gets captured by a pirate (Angus Thermopyle) and then gets rescued by a valiant hero (Nick Succorso).

“But that, of course, wasn’t the real story.”

The real story is that Angus is really the Victim, Morn the Rescuer and Nick the Villain. But then again, that isn’t the real story…

The Gap series fully moves on three axis: The one most familiar, the axis of action; the one so beloved of literary fans, the axis of (character) development; and finally, the favourite axis of conspiracy nuts, the axis of significance.

In other words, the “What’s Happening”, “Why it’s happening” and “What it really means.”

The “love” triangle has a meaning far, far removed from the three participants. All the way to forces controlling human destiny… but that’s a spoiler.

I still have a few reservations about the length of the series. It would have been possible to compress it into four, or even three very dense books. The reasons lies in Donaldson’s style: Events are seen from the point of view of one character at a time, one chapter by character. Evens often happen three, four times in prose, seen from the POV of different participants.

Donaldson also excels in atmosphere-building. He doesn’t write phrases like “and then he told her what had happened”. He tells it all, pages at a time. The dialogue doesn’t seem hurried: There are a fair number of useless lines. We are there. Characters constantly flashback to bits of phrases said earlier.

While engrossing, this makes the series far longer than some will tolerate. Events don’t happen at a break-neck pace -which will no doubt displease many- but half the pleasure’s in the build-up.

The conclusion is very satisfying, a change from some lacklustre finales we’ve been seeing recently (“Rama” for one). Some people die, some live, some are promoted, some get the retribution they crave…

But nobody will feel cheated by the ending. No gratuitous death. An optimistic outlook. Destinies accomplished.

Classification fans will have a tough time with the Gap series. What is it, exactly?

This isn’t hard SF. Donaldson takes far too many liberties with science, and even goofs up on light-speed delays in communications. Characters are unusually developed. Gadgets are tools, not ends in themselves.

This isn’t science-fantasy space-opera, even if it looks like one and is even inspired by one: The attention to detail displayed by Donaldson, the maturity of the books and the character-driven plot are not usual hallmarks of space-op.

Or if it’s Science-Fantasy SpaceOp, it’s a darn good one.

Characters, as mentioned before, are exceptionally handled. Even if far from sympathetic, they do engage our interest. (I personally found, however, that the “minor” characters -Hashi Lebowl, Min Donner, Koina Hannish, among others- were more interesting that the three stars of the cycle. Go figure…)

After 2,500 character-driven pages, you can’t help knowing them. This is something I wouldn’t mind seeing elsewhere in SF… but not necessarily in other 2,500 pages epics!

One final wish: The story is completed, done and over with. In clear, this means that it’s perfect as it is: No sequel, please.

I’ve mentioned before that this is a very hard-edged story. I mean that: The violence here is explicit and Donaldson doesn’t shy away from extremes. If you can read past the first half of the third book, the rest is less violent.

This isn’t Star Trek: Characters go through extremes that change them. And the extremes are extremes. Not a few casual SF, media SF and fantasy fans will be turned off by the subject matter. But those who can tough it out will find an extraordinary tale of power, abuse of power, betrayal and personal redemption.

I am tempted to liken the Gap series to an exceptionally rough endurance contest: Only the fittest make it to the end. But no one who does will be disappointed by the journey.

Now that the entire series is out (soon in paperback), readers who want to lose themselves in a marvellously textured world, who don’t mind a few lengths and who aren’t afraid of a darker tone will certainly want to read this.