Top positive review
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Flawed but still brilliant
on 25 July 2015
Just so you know, this is effectively a review of the whole Gap series not just the double issue "The Real Story" and "Forbidden Knowledge". I've re-read the whole sequence over the past few weeks and, in spite of the fact that the individual books do have individual end-points, they are so tightly interwoven that it serves little purpose to discuss them in isolation.
There is, of course, no such thing as a perfect science fiction series. Or even a perfect novel. And even if I thought were, I would not be trying to argue that the Gap Sequence is it. As a long-term SF reader, I found that reading this book (and the others that go with it) was like having a conversations with my parents: there are lots of things it's better to ignore, skip over or not think about.
In the case of the Gap books these include Donaldson's habit of liberally filling his text with terms like "relativistic", "quantum discontinuities" and "nucleotides" in a way which creates the strong impression that he either does not know or does not care that these words do actually have well-defined meanings; his way of arbitrarily introducing new technology into the plot whenever it happens to suit him; his cavalier attitude to physics, especially when it comes down to the composition of asteroid belts, the effects of explosions in space, the behaviour of bodies at relativistic velocities and the nature of black holes; and his apparent assumption that xenophobia is a natural, universal and inevitable human reaction to an alien species.
Then there's the sex. It's not that I feel moral outrage about using sexual violence as a plot driver. The books are what they are. The characters do what they do. But it does trouble me that the depictions of sexual violence and sexual deception mostly fail to sound true. Particularly in the "Forbidden Knowledge" the text simply fails to convince me that the kind of sex on which the plot critically hinges could actually occur. Basically, I don't believe that sex can have the effects that Donaldson needs it to have and the writing about the sex is not strong enough to change my mind.
So, quite a lot to overlook then. And yet, I'm still going to give these books a maximum mark.
Because in terms of what they set out to do, I can't think of anything which comes close to doing it as well as The Gap Sequence. And what the Gap Sequence does his high-octane action fiction in space. These books are maybe best read as expansive noir thrillers rather than pure SF. I read them initially when they came out and recently set out to re-read the entire sequence and can safely say that they are every bit as good as I remember.
In spite of being the shortest book by some considerable distance "The Real Story" is actually the slowest read. It does take a certain effort to get through it. But it's worth persisting with because you get into "Forbidden Knowledge" you'll find yourself at the top of the Cresta Run with no way to get out until you hit the bottom.
From here onwards (about 25 percent of the way through the first volume) the books expand in scope and tension, revealing layers of complexity and conflicting agendas. The ride just gets rougher and faster and wilder and more intense.
These books are insanely gripping. Yes, many of the characters are deeply unpleasant. Yes, they do some truly awful things. Yes, Donaldson takes the concept of the morally ambiguous hero and cranks it up to eleven. And then some. But the capacity of the series to push its heroines and heroes into unwinnable situations, let them fight their way out then dump them into even more of a mess than before kept me turning the pages long into the night.
As ever with Donaldson there is a surprising amount of moral complexity underneath the sex, the violence, the bad physics and the dubious psychology. You may not always agree with the morality the books espouse but it's hard to ignore it and it does force you to think, and that increases the overall emotional engagement with the story.
The organisation of these books is phenomenal. Puzzles revealed at the start of the "The Real Story" are only full resolved two thousand pages later in "This Day All Gods Die". Characters are thrown through a mill of conflicting plots and shifting alliances. It's dizzying stuff and it's a tribute to the author's organisational skills that the only confusion you feel as a reader is confusion he wants you to feel. The books do an exemplary job of letting you understand what is going on in the various plot threads and just keeping the multiple plates of action happily spinning.
Donaldson is an author who seems guaranteed to provoke strong reactions, either positive or negative. You'll have guessed by now that I come down strongly on the positive side of the ledger. I can't and don't recommend them to everyone. As I suggested at the top there are many reasons why you may not like these books. But I suspect that if you're not one of those who throws them away in disgust you're probably going to like them a great deal.