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THE (ALMOST) UNDELETED • View topic - The Gap Cycle, by Stephen Donaldson

The Gap Cycle, by Stephen Donaldson

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The Gap Cycle, by Stephen Donaldson

Postby tanzeelat » Tue Mar 18, 2008 12:25 pm

Stephen Donaldson joined the ranks of bestselling genre writers with the twin trilogies of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever. The first book in this series had been rejected by 42 publishers when, in desperation Donaldson submitted it once again to his first choice of publisher, who had just had a change of editor. They bought it; the rest is history. Donaldson’s huge sales figures gave him such power over his publisher that when he submitted his two-book series, Mordant’s Need, his editor suggested he change the lead character to a man. No one, he said, would buy a genre fantasy with a female lead character. Donaldson refused to make the change; the books became bestsellers. In part, such success explains The Gap Cycle, Donaldson’s try at space opera. The first book in the five-book series is a novella; the characters are so unlikeable — rapists, murderers, pirates, the "scum of the universe" — that no reader can identify with them; yet still the books were published, and still they sold in respectable quantities.

The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story is a novella, padded out to something that appears novel-length by the inclusion of an afterword by Donaldson. In this afterword, Donaldson gives the history and inspirations behind both The Gap Cycle and the novella that spawned it. The Real Story was originally written in 1985 as an exercise in melodrama and character development. The plot concerns three people, Angus Thermopyle, Morn Hyland And Nick Succorso. One is villain, one victim, and one rescuer. As The Real Story progresses, each swaps roles. However, as Donaldson rightly points out, by focusing on the characters, he had failed to properly set the scene for the story. The novella is also unbalanced, spending more prose on one character at the expense of the other two. It wasn’t until Donaldson decided that The Real Story could be the launch-point for a series that this lack of balance and background no longer could be considered a weakness.

But before the novella could be expanded, it needed something more — a plot that could span more than just a novella. Enter Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, the inspiration behind The Gap Cycle.

The first story in The Ring Cycle is Das Rheingold. Wotan, head of the gods, is in trouble. He has contracted with the giants to build Valhalla, and has offered his wife, Freia, source of immortality, in payment. At the same time, Alberich, a dwarf, has managed to forge a ring from the Rhine Gold and now has great power. Wotan doesn’t want to give up Freia, so he offers Alberich’s ring (even though it isn’t his) as an alternative payment. The giants agree. Alberich, however, has no intention of giving up the ring, and thus his power. Wotan tricks it from him. So Alberich curses it: it will bring death to whoever wears it. Now Wotan has another problem: he wants to keep Valhalla, he wants to keep Freia, and he wants to keep the ring. Eventually, he gives up the ring, and narrowly averts war.

This story does not appear in The Real Story. The novella only introduces the central triumvirate of the narrative. However, in The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge, the other players enter the story, and the parallels with The Ring Cycle become evident. This is not fantasy, as the Thomas Covenant books were, but space opera; so there are no gods and goddesses, no giants, and no cursed ring. Instead, we have Warden (Wotan) Dios (deus?), director of the United Mining Companies Police (UMCP). Dios is the law-giver of the universe of The Gap Cycle. And, like Wotan in Das Rheingold, he has made decisions that have given him power at the expense of any real moral authority. The race of giants is the United Mining Companies (UMC), the UMCP’s parent company, in the person of Holt Fasner; Valhalla is both the UMCP Head Office, a space station orbiting Earth, and the UMCP itself. Fasner has "built" the UMCP for Dios. His "price" for this does not become apparent until later in the series.

The representation of the ring is more problematical. In The Real Story, Thermopyle had rescued Hyland after she had initiated self-destruct on the UMCP frigate she was serving on. This need to destroy was a result of the mysterious Gap Sickness from which she suffers—

The Gap is The Gap Cycle’s FTL. Travel is instantaneous between stellar systems — the "Gap" — but averages thirty or forty percent of the speed of light in normal space. Human civilisation has thus become a collection of lacunae within explored space. Donaldson rightly suggests that this has warped humanity’s perception of distance: another star system can be reached in no time, but it still takes days and hours to reach the pockets of civilisation within that star system.

It is the astrography of The Gap Cycle where Donaldson seems most confused. In The Real Story no real concept of the space surrounding Com-Mine Station, where the bulk of the action takes place, is discernible. Nearby, we are told, is Forbidden Space, haunt of pirates and "illegals". It is reachable at sub-light speeds. It is hard to imagine a border drawn across a star system, even if it is only on a map. Surely Forbidden Space would comprise other star systems, reachable only by Gap drive? The Real Story implies a stage that is only a star system-wide, yet The Gap Cycle requires an interstellar backdrop. The two needs work against each other, and result only in reader confusion.

There is only one cure for Hyland’s Gap sickness: a zone implant. This gives her complete control over her own body, allowing her to go for days without sleep, to affect her own mood, to perform actions of superhuman strength and endurance. Zone implants, however, are highly illegal. It was Thermopyle who initially installed the zone implant in Hyland, but when she was "rescued" by Nick Succorso, he handed it to her. The zone implant is not unique, however, and so cannot be the ring. But in its effect on Hyland, it fulfils a similar function. Especially given that Thermopyle initially controlled it, and thus Hyland, and so filled the role of Alberich.

This allusion is not exact. Dios wants Hyland, yes — a fact that becomes clear in The Gap Into Power: A Dark And Hungry God Arises — but Fasner does not.

The plot of The Gap Cycle is further confused by the introduction of other characters from The Ring Cycle at points where they do not appear in the original. In the second part of The Ring Cycle, Die Walküre, Wotan gets himself a son and daughter, Siegmund and Sieglinde, on a human woman. He trains Siegmund to be a fearless warrior and sets him the task of retrieving the ring from a dragon — the sole survivor of the race of giants, who had slaughtered themselves, true to Alberich’s curse. Siegmund, however, meets his estranged sister, and the two fall in love. This attracts the attention of Fricka, goddess of matrimony. She tells Wotan that his plan to use Siegmund to get him the ring is morally flawed. So Wotan asks a Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, to kill Siegmund. She deliberately disobeys him, and is put into an enchanted sleep.

Succorso could be Siegmund. He is an agent of the UMCP, despite being a pirate. Every task they set him, he turns to his own ends.
Also entering into the narrative of The Gap Cycle at this point are the Amnioni, an alien race driven by a genetic imperative to subsume humanity. Forbidden Space, we learn, exists as a neutral zone between the two races. Quite where the Amnioni fit into this story is unclear. They are both the threat that has created the UMCP and that keeps it in its position of strength. They provide certain maguffins that help resolve elements of The Gap Cycle’s plot. They are also the piece’s villains.

Another "ring" has also entered the narrative. The Amnioni’s chief weapon is a mutagen that subsumes all that are given it into the Amnioni. Succorso and Hyland have come into possession of a defence against this. This anti-mutagen was held by the UMCP and knowledge of its existence kept secret.

However, Dios does not suffer from Wotan’s moral dilemma: at no point does he set Succorso a task, only to have it pointed out as morally wrong. Dios’s strength is his moral barometer; and his knowledge of where he has ignored its dictates. Godsen Frick (Fricka), the protocol director of the UMCP, is no more than a mouthpiece for Fasner, who is now identified by the nickname, the Dragon.

The next story of The Ring Cycle is Siegfried. Sieglinde has escaped Wotan’s murder attempt, and has a boy, Siegfried. Siegfried is taught to be absolutely fearless, and later proves this by defeating Wotan himself. Thermopyle could be Siegfried (although Donaldson himself suggests he is Siegmund). After the events of The Real Story, he is turned into a UMCP-controlled cyborg. He is tasked with destroying Thanatos, a successful haunt of pirates in Forbidden Space.

In The Gap Into Madness: Chaos And Order, Min Donner, UMCP Enforcement Division director, is Brünnhilde. She is sent to "contain" Thermopyle on completion of his mission. She does not disobey her instructions from Dios. He gives her the latitude to do what is morally right... although the situation has been engineered such that her decisions follow Dios’s wishes without him categorically having to say so and thus come into conflict with Fasner.

The final part of The Ring Cycle is Götterdammerung. Siegfried gets the ring, Siegfried refuses to give up the ring, it is destroyed, and the gods die.

The final part of The Gap Cycle is The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die. The UMCP is fighting to free itself from the UMC. The principles all head for Earth for a showdown, the Amnioni hot on their trail. There is a showdown.

And yet another "ring" has slipped into the story. In The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge Hyland had had a son. He was force-grown by the Amnioni, and Fasner sees this process as a means to immortality. He wants Hyland’s son. So do the Amnioni. As Hyland’s (Sieglinde’s) son, his obvious role is that of Siegfried. Which would make immortality the true fulcrum around which The Gap Cycle revolves. Yet at no point does the Dragon own Hyland’s son. True, the son’s refusal to give up himself results in the destruction of the UMC — the gods.

Of course, Donaldson’s use of The Ring Cycle is not literal. Wagner’s opera was, after all, the inspiration of The Gap Cycle, not its template. In many areas, the dictates of Donaldson’s plot has forced interpretations on the characters and their actions that has resulted in them drifting from their inspirations. And the characters of the principles too show little or no intersection with the principles of The Ring Cycle. Dios is truest to form. But the remaining cast of The Gap Cycle are mostly unlikeable. Succorso is egomaniacal and vicious; Thermopyle is sociopathic; Hyland has a drifting sense of morality that allows her to put up with some events yet still steer the plot to its resolution. Fasner, the Dragon, is almost a caricature of the all-powerful, yet hungry for more, chief executive. The politicians that rule the human empire are weak, venal, ineffective and corrupt. The Amnioni are implacable enemies. Hyland’s son is more concerned with his own place in the story than he is the story arc. There are no heroes. And this makes The Gap Cycle a harder read than it really should be. Yes, the plot is complex — as the above mapping onto its inspiration should at least demonstrate — but it can be unravelled.

Another flaw is the background. Assorted info-dumps, under the heading "Ancillary Documentation", help fill in some of the gaps; but Donaldson’s conception of his universe does not seem rigorous enough to convince. Destinations are near at the story’s dictates, rather the laws of physics, Gap drive notwithstanding. A future push into space and other star systems dominated by a single corporation is not beyond the bounds of suspension of disbelief. Even the corruption endemic in that corporation is not hard to swallow. However, that such an organisation is perfectly controlled by a single person is difficult to credit. The fact that one person has so much power over the race does not sit well. These are not gods, after all.

The background of The Gap Cycle is a mirror of its focus. The story arc comprises vast blank spaces interspersed with lacunae of characters and action. It is hard to get any sense of breadth, or resolution. The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die provides closure but it’s hard to care because of the narrow focus of the narrative.

All of Donaldson’s imagination seems to have been spent on his plot and characterisation. In high fantasy — such as The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant — the background (i.e., the map in the frontispiece) often defines the story. Perversely, the opposite takes place in The Gap Cycle: the story defines the background. But it is too reliant on the actions of individuals. It is The Birth Of Nations without the cast of thousands. It doesn’t feel right.

To some extent, Donaldson deserves respect for taking what is an inherently conservative genre — space opera — and writing a story that ushers in a new order rather than maintaining the status quo. The Real Story is an interesting exercise in melodrama (and more so because of the afterword that follows it). As an attempt to carry a story on the backs of an unlikeable and unsympathetic cast, The Gap Cycle succeeds. But suspension of disbelief comes perilously close to flatlining when considering the background, and so the series cannot be considered entirely a success.

The Gap Cycle:
The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story (1991)
The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge (1991)
The Gap Into Power: A Dark And Hungry God Arises (1992)
The Gap Into Madness: Chaos And Order (1994)
The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die (1996)
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