Though better known for his ongoing epic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, 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?
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 generally the story of heroes, 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. Briefly summarizing the complete story in the opening chapter, then unpacking the same story in relevant detail until the end, readers will indeed find few surprises coming to the book’s conclusion not discussed in the opening. The journey 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 the key, plot is merely the framework in which the characters present themselves.
Given this strange approach to sci-fi and the seeming focus on sadistic behavior, what then is Donaldson’s aim in the book? In fact 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 of portent, 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) needed to reach the deep space mines from Earth, 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 a rival, Succorso, 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, action and plot development moving accordingly brisk despite their juxtaposition of intent. From a scope point of view, Donaldson would seem to borrow more from the style of Poul Anderson, Zelazny or Simmons, however. Wagner’s The Ring a background influence, the author 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 focused on character orientation and the socio-political scene at hand.