Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book review: The Gap Cycle by Stephen R. Donaldson

[Please note that this is a review of the entire series rather than any individual book within the series.]

Stephen R. Donaldson is primarily known for the dark fantasy work The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which kicked off his career.  The Gap Cycle, however, is a space opera.  The sub-genre space opera is a form of science fiction traditionally characterized by a focus on grand adventure, melodramatic romance, a war of good versus evil, and characters rather than technology.  The setting of outer space tends to be used merely as a backdrop for the action.  The Gap Cycle is a space opera in a more literal sense, too:  The last four books in the series were inspired by Wagner's Ring Cycle.

I should note at this point that the Gap Cycle is a subversive work which viciously tears apart the conventions of formulaic space opera.  Technology, while taking a back seat to the characters, is present as more than just a backdrop and the author makes an attempt at a level of realism that goes beyond traditional space opera.  Grand adventure is replaced by the simple and brutal reality of the difficulty of survival while engaging in interstellar travel and the dangers and widespread influence of politics even on distant regions of space.  The characters, too, are complex.  There is no black and white morality.  The author stated that his intent with the first book in the series "The Real Story" was to display the shifting roles of victim, victimizer and rescuer, and this theme is pervasive throughout.  There is no galaxy-wide battle featuring mankind taking on the evil forces of invading aliens--aliens are present and do have a distaste for mankind but their method of warfare is much more insidious than simply sending ships out to blast stuff--humankind are fragmented and in perpetual conflict, both as a result of human nature and of political conflicts.

The series starts slowly with a focus on three main characters, all of whom are fighting for survival--physiological and psychological--in their own (sometimes despicable) ways, but slowly expands its scope to reveal a much bigger picture.  About half-way through the second one book will see that these people are pawns in a much larger political conflict that is revealed in full later in the series.

Donaldson thrives at subverting genre conventions but his greatest strength is in characterization.  Of the three starting characters and only one should be the least bit sympathetic.  One is nothing short of monstrous and another lies somewhere in the middle, but he is no saint either.  And yet these characters--and those that come later--are fascinating.  Third person limited viewpoint is used throughout the series with the viewpoint switching from character to character in alternating chapters.  The author uses this technique magnificently to peel away layers of lies and distrust and let you peer inside the mind of the main characters and find out who they really are and--more importantly--why.  Much like real life, hardly anyone is evil just for the sake of being evil, or good merely for the sake of goodness, they've all had experiences--good and bad--that make their thoughts and actions inevitable and you will find out why.

Another of the author's great strengths is in writing action scenes.  He generates intelligently written, tense action scenes with a level of skill that most writers couldn't dream of achieving.  His work had me flipping pages like a mad man, staring intensely at the text, terrified of what would happen next--would these people survive?--but needing to find out in spite of myself and and needing to find out immediately.  I must acknowledge that his skill at pacing assists in making the action scenes so engaging.  He knows how to slowly build the story to a climax and feed you just enough details to let you know what might be coming next, but not enough to know how it will play out.  You're left wondering if this chase or that plan will work out, if any of your favorite characters will die and, if so, who.  That his writing generates this dilemma seems quite appropriate given that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is used as an analogy for our inability to determine the outcome of human behavior throughout the series.  The books are also structured well; they get progressively longer as the series continues but at no point did I feel lost or that there was fat that needed to be cut.

Be warned, though, Donaldson is not one to pull punches.  Many people have difficulty getting through the first book in the series--the prelude--because of the violence and sadism contained within that short volume.  Out of darkness comes light, but the series is gritty and a reader will be lost in darkness for a while before they get a glimpse of light.

This series is one of the finest pieces of fiction I've ever had the joy of reading and comes highly recommended, but it is not for the weak of heart or stomach.


  1. I just finished reading this thrilling and intense series. I came upon your review here after googling the series so I could read what others thought of it. I agree with your review 100%--you've done an excellent and thorough job of describing the books, and my reactions to them tracked yours. This was a pleasure to read. Thank you!

  2. I'm halfway the second book of the Gap cycle, and so far it scratches all my sci-fi itches. It's gritty, and quite so. Maybe not for everyone. But I like the level of detail in the description of environment, technology, characters. I can hear the shooosh! of doors, the CLUNK! of a wrench dropping on grate metal floors. I can see the flickering neon signs and I can smell the coffee. It's good! :)

  3. The strengths of Donaldson's writing in this series are well described in the review. There are also difficulties a reader must put up with. In this series, the author propounds long descriptions of each character's inner feelings about what's going on, about past history, and about life in general. Much of this material gets repeated. Every time a character appears, if they are the chapter focus then there are pages of psychological description, and if they are secondary to the chapter, there are still continual indirect references to their emotions. It never stops.

    While it's important to know the motivations of the characters, the endless psychological descriptions add a burdensome weight to the story. Again and again I found myself wishing Donaldson had trimmed some of it, and thinking the whole story could be told in half the length without losing its power.

    I suspect the author deliberately undertook that approach here, perhaps in analogy to Wagner, though it is to some extent also a feature of Donaldson's other work. Some of the psychological verbiage seemed useful: for example, the depiction of the already volatile and desperate Angus gradually becoming angrier and more extreme made him seem like a bomb ticking ever louder, and when he finally exploded it felt awesome. But with many other characters (there are quite a few) I grew weary of reading about their self-doubts instead of reading what they did.

    Overall, I found the series enjoyable and worthy of keeping to reread. However, its great strengths are accompanied by many passages of heavy slogging.

    1. To a point I agree with your statements about the preponderance of psychological descriptions. However, I feel that this is the main point of the series. The Gap Cycle is, in my opinion, an examination of the psychological aspects of the individuals presented. Also, the core of the work is a means of humanizing these individuals who are inhumane, examining the method of absolution of past error, especially errors that create characters that are "nothing short of monstrous." The fact that this occurs in a science fiction setting appears to me to be incidental. If a psychological narrative is not what a reader is looking for, this series is not to be recommended.