The Gap Series (1990–96)
Slogging through the five ever larger volumes of this series proved to be a time-consuming, unpleasant experience. It must have been an attack of my silly completist urge or some masochistic trait rubbing off from Donaldson's deranged characters that made me read all the way through.
The series opens with a deceptively slim novel, a novella rather, that turns out to be only an introduction. The subsequent volumes have a much larger, increasing page count. The setting is typical for a space opera. Since the accidental discovery of the FTL gap drive, humanity has set up a small interstellar empire, led by the United Mining Corporation (UMC), a powerful commercial enterprise. There's a private police force, the UMCP, that protects human space, there are pirates, and hostile, incomprehensible aliens, the Amnion. You can tick off the clichés at your fingers.
Primarily known as a writer of fantasy, Donaldson seems to have learned his science from other fiction. He lacks an understanding of orders of magnitude and generally walks the line between impausible and wrong.
The story is foremost character-driven. At the outset, there are three protagonists: Angus Thermopyle, the villain. Notorious space pirate, mad murderer and remarkable sadist, repulsive in body and mind. Morn Hyland, the victim. A beautiful woman, half insane from rape and gap sickness, full of guilt. Nick Succorso, the rescuer. Another pirate, bold and handsome. Everything revolves around this triangle and their mutual relationships. The roles of villain, victim, and rescuer keep changing during the run of the story. In an afterword that brings The Real Story to a publishable page count, the author analyzes the book and points to Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring as the source of inspiration for the subsequent volumes.
The story continues with a cast of insane, demented characters reveling in inflicting mental and physical pain on each other as well as themselves. Everybody is corrupt, the police even more so than the pirates. Behind the scenes, the heads of the UMCP perform their dark machinations. Like Nordic gods Holt Fasner, Warden Dios, Hashi Lebwohl, and Min Donner struggle with destiny, against the Amnion and among themselves over their personal ambitions and the future of humanity.
People are raped and debased to the core of their being. One character is subjected to brain implants that allow total coercion by means of a device similar to a TV remote control. Another character is turned into a cyborg, much controlled by an implanted computer. Donaldson appears obsessed with subjugating people to mind control, leaving them to helplessly stew in their hatred.
By the third volume, there is more treason, treachery, betrayal, and corruption than ever. Everybody has their own hidden agenda. Everybody betrays everybody else. Plots, counter-plots, and treachery keep the situation continually twisting. The story reaches a staggering complexity. The feelings of the protagonists are reduced to mutual, most intense hatred. Hurt, abuse, pain, madness abound.
And it goes on and on. There is ever more of the same. Further plot twists, further levels of betrayal, ongoing brutalization of the characters. The author keeps repeating himself, repeates whole passages of text and dialog, repeates annoying details of characterization, e.g. the protagonists keep sweating like swine, simmer in suppressed hatred, etc.
The final volume at least picks up some speed, if this is at all possible for such bloated writing, and simmers out in a climax whose details have been signaled long before. I had already lost any interest in the story or its characters hundreds of pages earlier. Donaldson himself says that he writes about redemption. Maybe he does. Bored out of my wits I just didn't care.
What remains? A painfully clichéd space opera, unpleasantly memorable for its loathsome characters, lunatics, stark mad, surreal, only living for tormenting others and themselves. And when they finally find a chance to satisfy their deepest desire to kill each other, Donaldson pulls a deus ex machina or reverses their minds in order to be able to go on with the mutual torturing. Midway through the series I was cheering for the Amnion. The "genetic enemies" of mankind were certainly more likable than Donaldson's caricatures of human beings. I'm not sure what bizarre sexual preferences the author caters too, but some aberration seems required to enjoy these depictions.
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