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Crossing The Gap: A Review of Stephen Donaldson's Gap Novels


Gavrielle Perry

  The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story

UK: buy at Amazon    US: buy at Amazon

  The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge

UK: buy at Amazon    US: buy at Amazon

  The Gap Into Power: A Dark And Hungry God Arises

UK: buy at Amazon    US: buy at Amazon

  The Gap Into Power: A Dark And Hungry God Arises

UK: buy at Amazon    US: buy at Amazon

  The Gap Into Madness: Chaos And Order

UK: buy at Amazon    US: buy at Amazon

  The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die

UK: buy at Amazon    US: buy at Amazon

Note: Amazon has all the books listed as being in print in paperback except Forbidden Knowledge in the US. Forbidden Knowledge is available from Amazon UK in the UK edition, and Amazon US usually has used copies available.



Stephen Donaldson’s five-book Gap series is an astonishing achievement in science fiction, and it’s high on my list of favourite books of any genre. It’s a work of almost infinite scope which dives straight into the subconscious. The writing is powerful, dazzlingly paced and incredibly immediate, and it’s so gripping that it demands your entire emotional engagement.

Is it his best work? That’s not a fair question: his books and short stories are so diverse in what they’re trying to achieve that lining ’em up in a row and trying to impose one standard makes no sense. All I can say is that I like the Gap series a lot. A hell of a lot.

The end of the sequence was a long time a-comin’ - one of the disadvantages of reading books by a living author. I’ve been buying the books, in hardback yet, ever since The Real Story first appeared, and I’ve reread the entire sequence from the beginning each time a new book comes out. The final book, The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die finally reached New Zealand in October 1996, months after the rest of the world, incidentally. I don’t know why it takes so long for them to get here: I suspect they push the crates into the sea and hope the tides do the rest. But I digress. We finally got it, I finally read it, and here’s what I thought.


Sometimes you write for love and sometimes you write for money, and this is for love. It doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive: I’ve concentrated on the things that interest me most, and left the rest to the PhD students. It doesn’t contain any plot summaries, for example, as I find them tedious beyond belief to do. It’s also full of spoilers, so bearing these last two points in mind I wouldn’t recommend you read this unless you’ve already read all the books. Finally, the work makes no pretence at objectivity - I’m not getting any money for it, so I don’t have to pretend to be balanced. Heh heh.

Another Disclaimer

I love these books. So why am I (sometimes) so damned critical? Well, that’s the way it goes - the great stuff tends to get taken for granted, while the not-so-hot stuff’s more fun to sharpen your claws on. It should be borne in mind, though, that while I might sound critical at times, these are still amongst my favourite books in the universe, and finding faults in them doesn’t take away from that at all.

Last Disclaimer Before The Motorway

Warning - irony ahead. This is an emoticon-free zone, but feel free to insert virtual ironicons at will.

Watch This Space

This piece is a living document. I welcome comments and discussion, and have even been known to change my mind (gasp!) as a result. So feel free to email me. Bear in mind, though, that as it's getting on for eight years now since I last read the books and wrote this piece, my response may be a little more fuzzy than you were hoping for. Also, what with said passage of time, not to mention the mail I get bringing up new points and alternative interpretations I'd entirely overlooked, I'm not even sure I still agree with everything I say here. It's probably time for a reread and re-evaluation, but unfortunately for now it'll have to joust with everything else on my To Do list.

This latest edition of the review contains some additional points about Wagner, plus more stuff pointed out to me by people in email. Thanks to everyone who has taken the trouble to write - I’ve been blown away by the response.

And the long-promised Mordant’s Need review? Maybe soon. I hope.


Trying to separate out the tightly woven strands of these works into standard lit crit categories like style, structure and character is like trying to shovel ball bearings with a pitchfork. Nevertheless, I have womanfully attempted the struggle, metaphorically yanking out in the process almost as much hair as Morn, with only partial success. So please don’t write to me pointing out that some of the stuff overlaps: I know it only too well.


The Gap series is composed of four big fat novels preceded by a little skinny one, which also contains an Afterword by the author. (One correspondent has pointed out that this review is longer than The Real Story, which tickled me immensely.)

You Could Always Toss The Onion Into The Lake

The Real Story is distinct in a number of ways from the books that follow. Its events are small-scale and focus narrowly on the interaction between the three main characters, concentrating mostly on two of those characters at that; nevertheless The Real Story sets up the entire cosmic-scale story that is to come.

Donaldson has likened the structure of the sequence to peeling the layers from an onion; however, I’m not convinced that that’s the most accurate description. I think the structure is better characterised as throwing a pebble into a lake: the splash is small at first, but the widening ripples as a result eventually cover the entire surface. The first few pages of The Real Story describe the story in its most compact form; the story is then repeated several more times, each time adding detail and varying viewpoint.

As Donaldson says in the Afterword, there is no clue at the end of the book that the events described will take a further four doorstop-sized novels to play out; nevertheless, everything that is to come is contained in The Real Story in microcosm: it’s the heart of the saga. (Arguably. However, I’m so enchanted with this pebble metaphor that I warn you I’m not going to let it go without a fight.)

The scope of the story widens abruptly in the second book: it’s like replacing a zoom lens with a wide angle. Throughout this and the next three books, the camera continues to pull back until the scale involves entire civilisations and their fates.

Despite its small scale, The Real Story manages to introduce many new SF concepts, including the gap, the UMCP, zone implants, ore mining and ore pirates. Forbidden Knowledge’s scope widens to include the Amnion and forbidden space, Min and Warden and their essential benignity, the possibility of corruption in the UMCP. A Dark And Hungry God Arises introduces Holt and Norna, and it becomes clear that the work encompasses the clash between good and evil, order and chaos, UMC and UMCP, human and Amnion. The remaining two books work out the fate of the entire human species, both within the species in the clash between Warden and Holt and outside it in the clash between the human and the Amnion.

The Real Story is personal; Forbidden Knowledge veers between the extremes of the personal and the political, with the two threads gradually converging in the following books until by the final sequence of events they are virtually indistinguishable.

Bring A Ball Of String And Some Breadcrumbs

The books are multilayered in the extreme; plots build within plots, and new treachery and loyalty is apparent at each convoluted turn, with each twist building on the others to give a larger and larger picture. A good example of this is the question of Holt’s motivation: at first, no clue is given to his reasons for what he does, so we assume it’s common-or-garden power he’s after. However, later we find that what he really wants is to find a way to live forever, which is kinda disappointing: it seems a rather small-scale, personal aim given the nature of the stuff that’s at stake. Yet later, though, we discover that Holt intends achieving immortality essentially by becoming the ruler of the universe, thus involving the fate of the entire human species in his plans: the ripples therefore widen as each morsel of information is released.

We Tried Publishing It In A Single Edition, But We Ran Out Of Trees

The question arises, in terms of structure, as to whether this is in fact five works or one, given that temporally the novels follow hard on each other’s heels and the story is a continuous one, with plants in one novel being paid off in the next or the one after that. However, despite this, each novel is structured as an entity aimed at a discrete climax, and the scope of each is wider than the one before. Despite the continuous timeline of the narrative, it’s therefore not just a single work divided into convenient but arbitrary chunks.

Gap II: Angus Roams The Galaxy Selling Amway

Related to the question of one work or five is the issue of whether the work is complete. Emphatically, yes. Donaldson has said that people are always pushing him to write the Third Chronicles and have also asked whether he’ll be producing a sequel to Mordant’s Need, and now the Gap series is finished you can bet there are people begging for another instalment of that. This, to me, misses the point completely. Good books close with the sense that the characters’ lives are continuing on, and of course after being with them for so long the reader is curious as to what happens next. However, the works themselves are a gestalt: everything that should be said has been said. There is no more, and it would be violating their integrity to tack on a sequel.

Re the Covenant works, incidentally, I’d like to act as a counterbalance to the many demands for the Third Chronicles and instead beg that they not be written. I appreciate that they are different from a standard sequel in that Donaldson is exploring different issues in each of the sets of Chronicles and is not simply repeating himself; nevertheless, without being too morbid about it there are only so many years in a writer’s life, and given the scale of Donaldson’s works, the choice to write the Third Chronicles would mean several years given up to it which could not to be used to produce a work entirely different from those that have gone before. I know he can write Covenant; I want to see what else he can do. [Book One of the Last Chronicles is now out. Sigh. Still, at least it'll get it out of his system.]

Pull The Wagons Into A Circle

Of course, any discussion of structure in the Gap series can’t avoid some consideration of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Oh, God.

I know, I know. Mr Donaldson went to all the trouble of including a plot summary of the thing in his Afterword, so the least we gentle readers can do is pay attention. But I find it megadifficult to even follow the plot, let alone make sense of it.

And what makes it worse is that every time I start to read the version in the Afterword, I’m tripped up by the memory of the piece by Irish humourist Patrick Campbell, "Brunnhilde Was Wotan’s Uncle", who begins his description of the plot: "There is nothing to this, really, if we keep steady." I know just how he feels. Mr Campbell learned the plot of the Ring to attempt to gain some credibility amongst the cognoscenti, following the dreadful hush that fell over the room when he started a sentence: "Well, when in Madame Butterfly Mimi...." He therefore points out the importance of pronouncing Mime’s name as Mee-meh, or, as he so trenchantly points out, You Know What.)

Well, okay. There’s a PhD thesis in here recording the correspondences with and the divergences from the Ring Cycle, but I ain’t gonna be writing it - that’s just the sort of pseudoscholarship I hate the most, akin to drearily tallying all the clothes metaphors in Macbeth. I also freely confess that while I love classical music, particularly oratorio, opera is my cultural blind spot. (As Mark Twain said, the Ring is better than it sounds.) But I concede I do have to make some effort, so.....

One thing that’s probably worth pointing out, for a start, is that Donaldson’s version of the plot given in the Afterword is, for the purest reasons of course, about as reliable as a communiqué from Hashi Lebwohl. In order, no doubt, not to make it too easy for us, Donaldson fails to mention for example that the giants who build Valhalla, one of whom later slays the other and turns into a dragon (Dragon! Geddit?) are named Fasolt and Fafner. Helloo-o! Not to mention that Wotan has only one eye, having lost the other drinking from the spring of wisdom, no less. Are you there yet, or should I point out that Warden trades in an eye for the extra wisdom provided by an IR prosthesis?

Donaldson is kinder in other areas: Min Donner in her role as head of ED isn’t hard to figure out, seeing as she’s the avatar of Donner, the god of war, Hashi is clearly Loge, and Donaldson also kindly points out in the Afterword that he envisaged Morn and Angus as Siegmund and Sieglinde, then refers to them a couple of times in the novels themselves as "the children of Warden’s secret desires". I also like Dolph’s sneaky Wagner ref: "And I’m the Flying Dutchman" and the name of the ship Min commandeers, Punisher, which is the name of Thor’s hammer, not to mention Norna as the voice of fate. And thanks also to my more culturally literate writing partner for pointing out that Angus’s ability to make himself invisible is the equivalent of the Tarnhelm, that his weld-driven fearlessness relates to Brunnhilde's gift of fearlessness to Siegfried, and that Holt's dirt on the GCES staff directly corresponds to Wotan's bargains carved into his staff, both maintaining power.

As Donaldson himself says, he’s not just retelling the Ring Cycle, and that’s patently obvious from the books. The Gap series can in no way be seen as "The Ring Recycle", and just as well, too: while lifting previous plots has a venerable history and was a favourite wheeze of Shakespeare’s, nevertheless it must be pretty boring for the writer just to redress someone else’s tale in different clothes. However, the largest theme from the Ring, that of Wotan ceding a power resting not on natural authority but on artificial treaty and destroying himself in order to restore harmony to the world, is clearly the major theme of the Gap series. In both the Ring Cycle and the Gap series, despite the cast of thousands Wotan/Warden’s hand is everywhere, and it seems an inescapable conclusion that notwithstanding that the working out of his designs is done mainly through other characters the Gap is essentially Warden’s story.

Despite the avowed differences between the two works, at some points do I detect a little manipulation by the author to bring certain things into line with their Ring equivalents? For example, in the Ring, Siegfried, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, slays the Dragon; I note that Donaldson goes to some trouble to point out, on rather specious evidence it has to be said, that: "In that way [Davies] was directly responsible for Holt Fasner’s final defeat."

(Incidentally, I was reading recently that the ferociously talented Jim Steinman is also a huge fan of the Ring Cycle. Given that his operatic, overblown songs are the musical equivalent of Donaldson's prose, it's intriguing, no?)

There’s obviously a great deal more to be said about the relationship between the Ring Cycle and the Gap series, but someone else can say it. Phew, thank God that’s over with.

Addendum: this isn't good enough, is it? Given how important the Ring Cycle is to the Gap series, I really shouldn't be fleeing in terror. Okay, then: a bit more background about Wagner. Deep breath. I can do this.

In writing the Ring Cycle, Wagner wasn't just aiming to give people a nice night out in their best frocks. He wanted to give a recently-unified Germany a mythology for inspiration, because he believed that opera and poetry, not revolution, would change the world. This may seem a hilariously idealistic idea, but he was actually right. More's the pity, because he was a repulsively bigoted anti-Semite who frequently spouted charming opinions such as that the greatest service Jews could give to Europe would be to burn themselves alive. Yes, really. The Ring Cycle itself is full of anti-Semitism, and there's no doubt that both the work and Wagner's stated opinions had a profound influence on the development of Nazi ideology. A truly delightful legacy, and one which causes many Wagner fans to squirm uncomfortably in their seats. Anyway, where was I?

Ah yes, changing the world. So there's Wagner, visions of a glorious Teutonic past dancing before him as he scribbles madly away at the libretto. Going like clockwork, until whoops! he reads Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer's vision of humankind - that we are creatures of desire and because desires can never be fully satisfied we are always getting ready to live - knocked Wagner for six. If things really were as Schopenhauer saw them, what was the point of political activism? On the other hand, here was this lovely libretto, all finished (but no music at this stage) and it seemed a terrible shame to just chuck it in the recycling bin. What to do, what to do?

It hurts me to say this about someone as repulsive as Wagner, but what he did do was really quite clever. He left the libretto alone; instead, he let the music convey the Schopenhauerian subtext, and he did it in ways that were highly innovative. First of all, he uses chords which beg for resolution: up till then, standard practice was to use these sparingly and to resolve them almost immediately. Instead, Wagner piles on one unresolved chord after another, dragging them out as the audience are on the edges of their seats, desperate to have the tension slackened. (Desires forever unfulfilled, chords forever unresolved - see what he did there?) This, combined with Wagner's interest in portraying extreme emotion, gives the Ring its intense drama. Also, Wagner conveys what he wants to say directly through the music: both characters and ideas have their own leitmotifs. There are hundreds of the things, and Wagner often uses several at the same time. Intense emotion; unbearable tension; the conveying of theme, idea and character through repetition. Ringing any bells?

This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You: Style

Here, I know, I’m tiptoeing through a minefield. Debate has been raging about Donaldson’s style since the first Covenant was published, and it seems that style is one of the major factors which has led to the axiom in SF/fantasy circles that you either love Donaldson or hate him. Well, I’m not one to shrink from a good literary dustup, so on we go.

Where Are The Elves?

Firstly, and only arguably classifiable as "style" but I don’t know where else to put it, the most obvious difference between the Gap series and Donaldson’s previous works is the switch in genre from fantasy to SF. The question of the definition of fantasy vs SF has been argued since approximately three minutes after the Big Bang, and I’m not touching that one with a ten-foot disinfected bargepole. I’ll simply cautiously mention that according to one popular definition, fantasy is predicated on magic which the reader either accepts or doesn’t, while SF relies on technology which must be at least marginally plausible in terms of the scientific knowledge of today.

Donaldson has clearly put a lot of thought into the backstory of his SF-y concepts, which has paid off in a very realistic feel to the work. (Not to mention a lot of research, the nature of which I confess I’m curious about.) Perhaps in his zeal for plausibility the explanations for the concepts occasionally intrude a little too much in places, but that’s probably a worthwhile tradeoff. I note, incidentally, that the Gap works seem to have received less "serious" critical attention (as opposed to, er, frivolous critical attention like this piece) than the Covenant works. This could be due to their relative recency or might simply be a mistaken impression on my part; however, it seems to me that fantasy has almost entirely due to Tolkien’s legacy been accorded a weight that SF has never achieved, and I wonder if the Gap series has attracted less critical attention for this reason. (If anyone does know of any academic criticism of the Gap series, I’d be very pleased to have the references.)

Three Days In The Wind Tunnel

Apart from the switch in genre, the switch in style here from the previous works hits you like a sock in the eye. (Subtle Ring ref - see, I’m getting the hang of this Ring stuff after all.) Gone is the dense thicket of words present in the Covenant works, and while the Mordant’s Need novels were written in a much more straightforward style than the Chronicles, the style here is stripped down even further, aerodynamically sleek and covered with go-faster stripes.

Now, I’m not going to make the mistake of saying that this is representative of Donaldson’s development as a writer, as he’s been at pains for years to point out that the switches in styles are deliberate and not a function of any developing ability. (I note with some amusement that in Andrew A. Adams’ fascinating 1991 interview with Donaldson, Donaldson states that he writes for the story, not for himself or his readers, yet also says that one of the prime reasons for putting together his book of short stories, apart from the fact that short stories are considered the beau idéal of literature, was to demonstrate that he could write in a wide range of styles, a motivation a little less disconnected from the world than "I write for the story" would imply.)

Go On, Punch Me In The Stomach

The style in the Gap series is very immediate; we have a very real sense of the characters and the situation. Contributing to this is the way Donaldson extensively somatisises action and emotion so that instead of being given the concept of an emotion that a character is feeling, we’re privy to his or her expression of that emotion in a physical sense: we’re right there inside not only the mind but the physical presence of the character.

Donaldson is always pushing for extremes in these works, and this very often takes a physical form: for example, the drama of Morn being released from control through the destruction of her black box is played up by Vector’s hand in smashing it not just hurt but "mangled", with skin "shredded", and the high drama of Lane’s announcement implicating Holt to the Council is increased by her extreme fatigue.

This method also underlines one of the books’ recurrent themes of expiation of real or imagined sins through physical suffering. This stuff is quintessentially Donaldson: tremendously powerful, yet at times over-operatic, about which I say a little more later.

No Time For Idle Chat

Donaldson has said that he sees himself as a very tight writer, with no extraneous material and with everything aimed like a laser at the climax. In this he’s not fooling himself - I couldn’t find much in these books that wasn’t in there for a reason, and the necessary foreshadowing is achieved throughout the work with consummate skill: the very first line of The Real Story contains a hint of what is to come.

The tightness of the writing, given the tremendous length of these works, is an astonishing achievement. I’d love to know how Donaldson kept all the threads straight during the years of writing and how much was pre-planned to ensure plants were dropped in and hints were given in the right places.

Not only is nothing in there without a reason, some concepts are used economically to do double and triple duty: Soar/Gutbuster, for example, has as its captain not only the woman who cut Nick but also who killed Morn’s mother, and force-growing is a singularly neat device which provides a point of contact with the Amnion and an important plot thread re Davies’s importance and is also a convenient device to get Davies to a sentient age within the books’ compressed time frame.

Angus’s datacore, too, is a tremendously useful device: it’s a means of exposition (that pesky writers’ bane), it forces Angus to behave in ways which are convenient for the plot yet which his character would not allow him to do voluntarily, and his subjection to, then release from, its compulsion plays an important part in his attitudes to Warden which are critical in the books’ resolution.

And I Don’t Want To Have To Tell You Twice

The complexity and tightness of the work makes tremendous demands on the author, and unsurprisingly there are times when his control slips. In This Day All Gods Die, for example, Marc tells Warden that Angus sold twenty-eight people to the Amnion, and a hundred pages later tells him again, to Warden’s complete surprise each time. (This has apparently been fixed in the paperback edition.)

Similarly, the illusion of considerable time passing due to the multiplicity of events moving in a compressed time frame leads to Vector saying "I still haven’t recovered from losing Sib" when in fact Sib’s death had occurred mere hours before. (What a guy! He’s all heart.)

There are other errors, too, but rather than dealing with them all here they’re contained in the Nitpicks section at the end.

Warp Factor Ten

The pace of these works deserves a paragraph all to itself. Quite simply, they have the fastest pace of anything I’ve ever read. The escape from Enablement Station, the rescue of Morn from Billingate, the escape from Calm Horizons, Soar and Free Lunch, and the rescue of Warden and final destruction of Calm Horizons pour on the adrenaline in astonishing quantities. I think it would be seriously injurious to your health to stop reading in the middle of any of these parts - although on the other hand, staying up till three desperately flipping pages isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered either. Donaldson only stumbles on pace once, and that’s after the destruction of Calm Horizons when Warden and Angus go after Holt. The pace is too extended - the reader is exhausted and diminishing returns set in at the prospect of yet more peril.

Slippery When Wet

The pace of the novels, coupled with the stripped-down style, is in some ways deceptive - while things move very quickly, nevertheless the terseness of the style leaves much implied for the reader to figure out, which must be worked through to get the full sense of things. On my first reading of the novels, I’d find myself two or three times per page, even in the fastest bits, gazing off into space pondering the implications of what had just been said or had just happened.

It’s as if the narrative skims a very deep lake (I knew I’d get the pebble thing in again). You can only see the surface, but there's a hell of a lot more lurking underneath. The depth of the novels is one of the major reasons I find them so compelling, and the flawless combination of depth with pace takes them to another level altogether. The depth is also one of the many reasons why I prefer the Gap sequence to the Covenant novels: there are probably as many themes in Covenant, but they're all laid out on the surface. With the Gap, you have to do your own excavation, which is a much more rewarding experience.

The hidden depth of the novels also means that rereadings allow you to pick up more and more each time, which must be part of the reason I was able to reread the books so often (five times in the case of The Real Story, four for Forbidden Knowledge, yadda yadda) in a relatively short span of years, with no falloff in enjoyment - a very unusual state of affairs. (There’s more to the rereadability than that, of course. While I was writing this piece I was flipping through the books looking for quotes, and I got dragged in each time by the power of the writing even after having read it only weeks before.)


The spare style and the lack of inclusion of extraneous material also has another effect on the reader: once I understood that everything means something, I was hyperalert, antennae quivering in order to figure out the implications of the most casual phrase. (No wonder Donaldson also writes crime fiction - the process of sorting the clues is very similar for the reader in both instances - although ironically, the plots of his crime novels are far more transparent than those of the Gap.) This wasn’t entirely a voluntary process, and in some ways it detracts from the reading of the books, as once it’s clear things are there as foreshadowing, it becomes much easier to see where the books are going, whether you want to or not.

My Viewpoint, And I Do Have One

There’s a hell of a lot of stuff to get across in these books. Donaldson manoeuvres the dissemination of information in masterly fashion - new plot turns explode in the reader’s mind, pulverising the previously standing façade and revealing what lies behind - which may well turn out to be another façade.

There’s a huge amount of information here to be managed, and Donaldson achieves this using a variety of methods, including the use of multiple viewpoints and the dropping in of "ancillary documentation", the latter useful to provide chunks of exposition, to vary the pace and tension, and on occasion to allow Donaldson as the narrator to intrude his thoughts on various topics directly into the story.

The ancillary documentation is also intrinsically valuable for the intriguing concepts it contains: the history of the rise of the UMC, for example, is rivetingly and depressingly plausible, and the history of the contact with the Amnion poses just the sort of questions that would be likely to arise in such a situation.

The multiple viewpoints not only provide depth to the narrative, taking us all over the created universe, but also contribute to the labyrinthine layering and general paranoia - characters frequently guess at each other’s motivations and act on those guesses, with varying degrees of accuracy and effectiveness. This is an exceedingly effective device: no one character is the repository of the "real story", so all we can see, in the final analysis, are different facets of "the truth" - whatever that is.

The changing of viewpoint is also handy as a device to increase tension by keeping the motivations of various of the characters from us: after being privy to Angus’s emotions throughout The Real Story, for example, the switch to Milos’ viewpoint at the beginning of Forbidden Knowledge fuels the reader’s curiosity as to how Angus is dealing emotionally with the fate that’s befallen him.


As well as the advantages the "ancillary documentation" and the multiple viewpoints bring, there are also drawbacks: the switch away from a pivotal storyline is often frustrating and risks the reader skimming in a hurry to get back to the "good stuff". I doubt that mine was the only house from which howls of anguish rose when Morn et al were abandoned in mid-peril and I was forced to attempt to concentrate on the more subtle, if equally deadly, political manoeuvrings back on Earth.

No Laugh Track

As befitting the cosmic issues explored, the works are in the main deadly serious. It’s fascinating to see the difference between the tone of the Afterword, in which Donaldson loosens up a great deal and shows his previously unsuspected lighter side, and the tone of the writing proper.

It’s clear that for Donaldson writing is a sacrament: he’s interested in tackling the huge issues and giving his best to them, not in writing for the sheer sake of entertainment, and this being the case, the seriousness of tone is entirely appropriate. The further away from the heart of these issues he gets, the lighter he allows himself to become: Nick, for example, the least pivotal of the three lead characters, gets the snappiest dialogue by a long shot.

(Please Don’t Sue Me, Mr Donaldson, Sir)

So, the style here is stark, the pace is astonishing, we’re slammed up against the characters with great immediacy; yet it’s still unmistakably Donaldson. The style’s not perfect, by any means; in fact; it’s full of flaws. However, I would argue that the flaws in his style make it what it is. I suspect that the difference between the people who love and hate Donaldson’s work is that the people who love him recognise that the flaws contribute to his uniqueness as a writer, while the people who hate him find the flaws so irritating they can’t see past them. [Eva Sandberg has kindly pointed out, with a great deal of accuracy, that in fact the main reason people probably have for disliking Donaldson’s work is that the moral ambiguity of the main characters makes them too uncomfortable. While blindingly obvious in hindsight, this had never occurred to me, since this is one of my main reasons for liking Donaldson. Who wants to read about shiny-armoured cardboard cutouts? Go fig.] Let’s have a squizz at some of them.

Reading Donaldson’s work is an emotionally bruising experience, on a lot of levels. Some of these I discuss later, but with specific regard to his style, the reader is in a constant state of emotional conflict: the style has an astonishing power, but at the same time, and often via the same words, it can make the reader flinch or squirm with embarrassment.

Despite the fact that there is no obvious narrator in the Gap series, Donaldson has a tremendously strong presence in these books (which is one of the things that sets the books apart from the Mordant’s Need duology, in which Donaldson is far more removed from the narrative). Donaldson’s use, overuse and eventual beating to death of certain words (some of which, such as the word "clenched", are worked till they drop not only here but in previous works as well) is highly characteristic of his style.

Words used in this way in the Gap series include "brisance" (what the hell is that, anyway? It doesn’t appear in the two-volume Oxford, nor, my next hunch, my French dictionary [Stop Press: thanks to everybody (Jamie Ho was first) for pointing out that it appears in the two-volume Webster’s and is French after all. In Webster’s and not the Oxford? What is the world coming to?]), "wail", "malign", "malice", "extirpate", "chagrin", "complex demands/threats", "coherent ruin", "imprecise", a brief burst of "flagrant", which we’ve seen before elsewhere, and "malfeasance", although I concede that the latter is particularly appropriate in its context. The reader becomes so sensitised to these words that when the eye hits them it’s like going over a judder bar.

A further marker of Donaldson’s presence in the Gap series is his use of the same words either in the mouths of different characters or in both the narrative and dialogue. In the Afterword, Donaldson uses the phrase "imprecise loyalties", which is used again in the first few pages of Forbidden Knowledge with respect to Milos. The phrase "rotting in lockup" is hammered in The Real Story and to a lesser extent in Forbidden Knowledge in the mouths of different characters and also in the narration.

In A Dark And Hungry God Arises, the words "clean and simple" are used, then repeated a few pages later as "cleanly and simply". Warden’s statement to the UMCP cadets, "Space is immense and the Amnion mysterious" echoes the phrase used in ancillary documentation in Forbidden Knowledge: " was vast; the gap, mysterious; accidents, common." Donaldson uses the phrase "Oh, [character’s first name here]." over and over, which once again is also characteristic of earlier works, as is "you’re mine" and "without transition" (thanks to Simon Hughes for pointing the latter out. How the hell could I have missed it?).

Donaldson’s reasons for this repetition are puzzling. Clearly he’s no idiot, and the most basic edit would have picked this up if it was an error, so we have to assume it’s deliberate. If so, it has some distinct drawbacks: characters lose some of their individuality when their speech patterns echo each other’s or those of the narration, for example.

Characters in the Gap series can’t really be said to have individual voices, in that with identifiers stripped off and plot-specific content removed it would be hard to tell who’s speaking. Also, the judder bar effect jolts you out of the narrative, snapping the delicate thread by which disbelief is suspended.

Some clarity in the narrative is also lost: in Chaos And Order, Hashi calls Nick "malign" and refers to his "malice" - because of Donaldson’s overuse of these words, it’s hard to know whether he’s trying to indicate that Nick and Angus are essentially swapping places or whether it’s just a coincidental reference (not that much seems random in these works). On the other hand, you’re in no doubt as to who the writer is, although it’s a high price to pay.

Donaldson has likened the act of writing to karate, in that ideally the reflexes must be trained so that technical considerations don’t get in the way when the time comes to get out the story. This must have been a very helpful approach in works like these where the pace is so quick; on the other hand, perhaps if it leads the author into habitual patterns it opens the work up to flaws of style which more attention to the mechanics would have avoided. Given that Donaldson’s other works such as the mysteries avoid this quirk, though, the inescapable conclusion is that this stylistic feature is entirely deliberate.

[My writing partner suggests that the repetition echoes the repetition of musical themes in the Ring. Seems like a plausible theory to me. This topic has also generated a lot of interesting mail. Mark Norton writes about the importance of repeated words in the oral storytelling tradition, pointing out that repetition establishes a baseline of perception which throws into relief any deviations from the norm. He muses that repetition in the Gap may express law and order, and wonders if there's less repetition later on as order breaks down.

Along similar lines, Filbert Hong writes that he's noticed what may be the deliberate single use of everyday words - for example, as far as he can tell "discredited" is used only once, towards the end of the sequence. (He's right, too. I checked. No, not by running my finger along all the lines.) This reminds him of a musical technique in which a particular chord is used only once, usually at an emotional high point. Filbert also points out that after the repetition of "the real story" in, er, The Real Story, it's used only once more, late in This Day All Gods Die. Filbert wonders if opportunities where it might reasonably come up have been deliberately avoided: he points out that Koina, who's the one to use "the real story", says earlier in Chaos And Order: "Somehow I don't think the Special Counsel has the whole story."

All very intriguing points, no? It'd be interesting to run some kind of analysis on the text to pin down exactly what patterns are occurring.]

A further hallmark of Donaldson’s style is his use of prose which even in the most charitable terms could only be described as overwrought. Despite the sleeker prose of the Gap series than of his earlier works, Donaldson still leaves plenty of room for horrors of this nature. Baroque phrasing along the lines of "...a pale, delicate beauty that twisted dreamers’ hearts" descends to "...her pale beauty ached towards him instantly" and, in a phrase that seemed to get every reviewer’s attention: "Her nipples were poised on her breasts as if they could do damage". Puh-leeze. Like the repeated words, the reader’s reaction to this stuff breaks the suspension of disbelief (and in fact the latter one is beyond belief). My very favourite (which as an extra bonus includes the dreaded "wail"), "Her eyes were mute wails of loss", actually made me put the book down and yell with laughter.

But wait, there’s more. In his pursuit of extremes, Donaldson has people doing and saying stuff they just wouldn’t do. In the latter books, for example, he has everybody and their aunt baring their teeth: not a likely reaction, unless you happen to be named Fido. Emotional reactions are pushed beyond believability, such as Lane’s totally over the top reaction of disappointment when she can’t find the proof implicating Holt. (Not to mention Hashi’s actions in playing with Lane’s hair - being a squillionaire writer must have many advantages, but it does keep you out of the corporate world, where as the rest of us know behaviour like this would have had Hashi slapped with a sexual harassment suit in a nanosecond.)

In addition, Donaldson does a lot of things that writing textbooks say are verboten (and they say so for good reasons). He constantly flouts the rule that recommends "said" as an invisible word, replacing it with combinations of verb and adverb ("interrupted rudely", "answered firmly") which contribute greatly to the baroque style (this stylistic trick, incidentally, is also a hallmark of the romance novel). He also uses the dread "as you know" device for exposition, having characters tell each other things they already know just so the reader’ll know too.

Donaldson’s very fond of the evocative phrase, often effective if highly coloured ("He didn’t shout, but his voice slid along her spine like the tip of a blade", " if the laws of physics were being pan-fried"). Sometimes, however, he works magic with words - then pushes and pushes at the concepts until they collapse under their own weight. He starts his description of Liete’s destruction with the sharp and chilling phrase "...a long black wind blowing in her ears". He then proceeds to wreck this perfectly wonderful metaphor by piling wind reference after wind reference on top of each other until the reader is recoiling each time a new one is used. He finally trashes the whole thing completely by using the phrase for Mikka ("Mikka rode the long solar wind of her distress"), thus removing its power to characterise completely.

All in all, then, Donaldson’s work is unlikely to be used to illustrate a style textbook. But would I change it if I could? Nah, not a word. The very things that are objectively flaws are exactly what makes him what he is. It might be a smoother, less conflicted reading experience if the flaws were ironed out, but then it wouldn’t be Donaldson, would it?

In any case, it’s the style which contributes greatly to the series’ getting such an immensely powerful grip on the mind, so he must be doing something right. Reading the books is akin to entering into some sort of bizarre twilight state: real life recedes and the characters take over your thoughts and your dreams. In my most recent reading of the books, in which I read them all over a period of a couple of weeks, by the latter half of Chaos And Order I had started to feel as if I was never free of them. I was waking up early thinking about them; I was dreaming about them constantly; I was aware of thoughts about them running continuously as a background; by the beginning of This Day All Gods Die I was as hooked on adrenaline as Davies himself. (Judging from the mail I’ve received, this seems to be a fairly common experience with these books.)

I had thought that I’d feel bereft when I finally reached the end: to an extent that was true, but there was also a sense of relief, like finally being cured of a disease the symptoms of which have taken over every area of your life. I had found this to an extent with the Mordant’s Need novels, too, but the experience with the Gap novels was a far more profound one. Reading the novels is, of course, a far more concentrated experience than writing them; nevertheless, I suspect that the writing was extremely emotionally demanding. Halfway through the novels, I was envying Donaldson for getting to live in that universe over such a protracted period, but by the end, I wasn’t so sure that this would have been an unmixed blessing.

That Guy....You Know, Nice Zucchini

One of the hallmarks of Donaldson’s writing (except his mysteries) is his wonderful choice of names. Names in his work often do double duty - not only do they fit the character in the way they fall on the ear, but they often indicate something about the character as well. Guessing an author’s intentions is always a hazardous business, but what the hell, I’ll have a go anyway.

Morn, Nick and Angus’s names simply sprang into being, according to Donaldson in the Afterword, although I wonder if the historical significance in classical history of Thermopylae was galloping around in his subconscious. The UMCP/UMC staff names, as already mentioned, are often reworkings of their Ring antecedents, but sometimes there’s more to it than that: Warden Dios’ name, for example, as well as being a reworking of Wotan has another significance, as it suggests a loose translation of "warden of the gods", which is entirely appropriate in a Ring sense.

Minor names are often highly evocative. Marc Vestabule’s surname brings to mind his special status as the most human of the Amnion, or the "vestibule" through which you must pass to reach the Amnion proper. Lane Harbinger’s surname indicates her function in the book: she is a harbinger of news, both for Hashi and for the Council. Servil, the minor functionary who decides to change allegiances from Holt to Warden, thereby allowing the destruction of UMCHO, is defined entirely in terms of his service. Sixten Vertigus’ name implies both an honest upright character in the resonance of "vertical", and also has a ring about it of ancient Rome when children were often named for their numerical position in the family (and is yet another Wagner reference). Orn’s name brings to mind his rather ornery character. Thanatos, as in Thanatos Minor, is of course the Greek word for death. Donaldson seems to have a particular interest in castles: Sorus’s surname, Chatelaine, is the female equivalent of castellan (cf Castellan Lebbick from Mordant’s Need). And Martijn Dekkers writes to say that VECTOR is the name of the Russian State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology and that there's also a Shaheed institute for science and technology in Pakistan. Coincidence? You decide.

The language the Amnion use is wonderfully rendered. The ambiguity of their terms - Enablement Station, the "defensives" Calm Horizons and Tranquil Hegemony, the emphasis on "conformity of purpose" - exactly encapsulates the enigma of their intentions. The name Amnion itself brings to mind amniotic fluid, as if the presence of this new species, as the first real threat to humankind (apart from itself) for many years, will be the catalyst for the rebirth of humankind into another stage of evolution.

It’s easy to forget when reading a work of this type, which is removed from current geographical distinctions, that it nevertheless is culture-bound, but occasionally things fly up from the text to bring this home. (I’m talking about language use here rather than theme, which is another issue entirely.) As a person born in England and living in New Zealand, what sticks out as foreign to me, apart from the obvious stuff like the use of "gotten" instead of "got", is the use of the name "the Bill", which has very strong resonances in British English in the opposite direction from what Donaldson may have intended: "the Bill", a contraction of "the old Bill", is a Cockney slang term for the police. Billingsgate, too, is a famous fish market in London, which tends to detract from the resonance of Billingate somewhat.

This cultural stuff can raise its head in unexpected ways and have a surprising impact for the reader: in the Chronicles, for example, Donaldson talks about "Lord Kevin": in British English, "Kevin" is generally considered a working class (not to mention dorky) name, while the appellation "Lord" is of course reserved for the aristocracy, so the combination of the two inevitably brings a smirk whenever it’s used, which hurts suspension of disbelief.

I note, incidentally, that the Harper/Collins British edition of the Gap books makes no changes from the American texts, preserving the "gotten"s in all their glory, whereas when British books are published in the States their works are frequently "translated" into the American idiom. Hmmm.... (I have, annoyingly, a mixed set of the Gap books - due to some arcane publishers’ contract we only get the British editions in New Zealand, but I bought the Bantam version of A Dark And Hungry God Arises in San Diego as it wasn’t out at that stage in New Zealand and I couldn’t resist the temptation, and I picked up the Bantam hardback of The Real Story, which was being remaindered (shock horror), in Australia to replace my Harper/Collins paperback: the editions look quite different. The jacket design of the Harper/Collins books is much more attractive than that of the Bantams, with an elegant black spine, and the Bantams irritatingly have the name of the book and the author on every single damned page. I mean, if you need reminding of the name of the book you’re reading and its author while you’re reading it you’ve been seriously overdosing on the aluminium. Whoops, I’m getting slightly off the track here...)

By the way, I hope you’re luckier than I was in your choice of reading companions. My ex-husband had an evil genius for twisting names, and once you’ve heard Holt Fasner referred to as Hugh Hefner and Hashi Lebwohl as Nashi Fruitbowl, it’s just not the same.

And as a final comment on names, here’s a trivia question: name the only character in the Gap series to have a first name with more than two syllables. Prize: one sirloin bar (as I’m a vegetarian, the very notion of this makes me want to hurl, so you can have mine.) [NB: this contest is now closed, since several people have pointed out a second multisyllabic name, Bryony, that I’d overlooked. Damn. No-one got the one I was thinking of, though, which was Alesha.]

Sorry, We’ve Run Out. We Have Some Sandwiches, Though

Donaldson is too involved with questions of cosmic significance to be much concerned with the mundane details of his created world. In the food area, for example, I hope you like coffee and sandwiches, as it appears that in the future that’s all you’re going to get. The only exceptions are the porridge Nick brings Morn, Min’s stew, foodbars, including (ugh) a sirloin bar, and black bean soup. That’s it. Clothes are shipsuits and if they’re not aren’t mentioned, except for a single reference to Warden’s "worksuit".

We Like To Keep It Casual Down Here At HQ

Donaldson has obviously made the decision to refer to the United Mining Companies Police always as cops. This is kinda weird: it sounds somewhat strained and artificial hearing them referred to in this casual way in settings such as a GCES meeting or in Warden’s address to the cadets.

And The Plural Is Potatoe’s

Donaldson is a masterful exponent of the dying art of punctuation: he tosses colons and semicolons around like a pro, which is nice to see in a world in which to 99% of the population even the apostrophe is an impenetrable mystery. Speaking of which, Donaldson has obviously decided that in the future the possessive apostrophe has struggled through its last death throes and is languishing in an unmarked grave (Mallorys, Paunchys). I’m sure he’s right, but it’s a depressing reminder.


Donaldson has said that in contrast to the Covenant books, where he had one very well-developed character and the rest were more or less archetypes, he wanted to have an entire cast of fully fleshed-out characters in the Gap series. Did he succeed? The short answer: no. The slightly longer answer: no, but it doesn’t matter. The exceedingly long answer follows.

I’ve Got This Idea

Donaldson talks at length in the Afterword about the genesis of the Gap series as a consequence of the intersection of two ideas, the exotic and the familiar. He adds that some of his best work springs up from this type of intersection, and has said elsewhere that the difference he perceives between Mordant’s Need and his other works is that Mordant’s Need came from only one idea rather than two. Well, he’s got a point, but there’s another dimension to this that needs considering. (Dizzy with the democratic power of the Web, I’m now correcting the author on his own work. Gee, this is fun.)

Orson Scott Card has commented on the fact that SF is often criticised for having cardboard characters: he says that these critics have missed the point. According to Card, novels are primarily "about" one of four things: milieu, ideas, character or events. One of those four elements will be dominant, and everything else in the work will be subordinate to the service of that element. In Gulliver’s Travels, for example, a "milieu" novel, the character of Gulliver is a cipher: what’s important is the environment in which he finds himself. This isn’t to say, of course, that where one element is emphasised none of the other three elements have any importance at all: the satirical, or "idea", elements of Gulliver’s Travels are also very important. It’s a question of finding which of the four is driving the others.

Applying Card’s taxonomy, then, Donaldson’s body of work is primarily concerned with ideas (although a case could be made also that the Chronicles are milieu novels, and Card himself is of this opinion. Still, what would he know.)

This being the case, it’s entirely unsurprising to find that none of Donaldson’s characters outside Mordant’s Need are fully rounded, as that’s not what they’re there for: they’re present as vehicles for the expression of ideas. Mordant’s Need I believe is the exception to this, being a work primarily about character rather than ideas, which accounts for the difference between this work and the rest of Donaldson’s writing. Even Thomas Covenant, the most fully rounded of Donaldson’s characters on the surface, can’t be described as fully fleshed out: we know a great deal about certain restricted parts of his character, those which deal with the ideas of unbelief and leprosy which Donaldson is primarily trying to express, but beyond those things we know little else about who he is.

Similarly, the characters in the Gap series are not its raison d’être: instead, they serve the ideas which the work is about. It’s clear that Donaldson has tried to make as many characters as possible in the Gap series breathe: that this is only partly successful is due to the necessity for manipulating the characters’ stories in the service of those ideas. Character rounding is also a casualty of the spareness of the work, because of the necessity of refining away everything not connected with those ideas.

To imply a criticism of the work in asking why the characters are not fully rounded is therefore to ask the wrong question: the right question is whether the characters have achieved their purpose, and to that question, the answer is yes.

Donaldson is clearly not one of those writers who gives his characters their heads and sees where they go: they’re on a very tight rein at all times. In fact, he ruthlessly manipulates the characters in pursuit of the ideas with which he is concerned.

He manages this by "dealing falsely" with character motivation, the shifting sands of which serve whatever the need is of the text at the time. In addition, he constantly manipulates his readers in an attempt to seduce them to his views. Donaldson clearly likes Angus a great deal and wants us to like him too, can’t stand Nick and wants us to feel likewise, and tries to achieve this in ways which are, frankly, cheating. (I discuss this in more detail below when I look at the individual characters more closely).

The presence of this manipulation adds to the conflicting emotions at the heart of the "Donaldson experience" - as well as the mixed feelings his style often causes me, I’m constantly struggling when reading these books against the attempts to make me see the characters the way Donaldson wants me to, which makes it quite an exhausting experience.

The Case For The Prosecution: Angus

While arguably it might be said that Morn is the major character of the Gap series, Angus is clearly the character that holds Donaldson’s interest the most. This, it has to be said, is a bit of a worry. Donaldson’s work shows a fascination with sexual violence which is pretty damned disturbing. He says in the Afterword that he’s irrationally sure that his readers will recognise that he is in fact Angus thinly disguised: I’m not sure why he thinks this is irrational, as his emotional involvement with Angus’s character is as hard to miss as a Klingon in an embroidery shop.

Donaldson gets my respect for continuing with this line of stuff even when he felt it was opening his darker side up for general inspection: that can’t have been easy and shows a powerful and disconcerting honesty at work. I’m surprised, however, that he talks about finding, rather than inventing, Angus in a way that had never occurred before, as this thread’s been right through his work. One can hardly miss the fact that Thomas Covenant is a rapist, and it was with heavy-duty déjà vu that I read in a review of the Chronicles that many readers were unhappy at being manipulated by the author into accepting Covenant as a hero worthy of redemption.

In Mordant’s Need, there are of course some slimy scenes between Terisa and Eremis, but those don’t set off my warning klaxons in the same way: it’s pretty clear that Donaldson feels about Eremis the way he does about Nick (he certainly seems to have something against the sexually charismatic). The scenes, however, in which Castellan Lebbick alternately hits Terisa and kisses her leap off the page with a particularly concentrated intensity, the exact same quality of which, magnified geometrically, is present in The Real Story. (Donaldson’s "confession" in the Afterword came as quite a relief: when I first started reading The Real Story, with its peculiarly vivid and unpleasant scenes of Angus either raping Morn, anticipating raping Morn or recalling raping Morn, and recognised that same quality again, I had started to think that it was my own lurid imagination going into overdrive, so it was nice to know it wasn’t just my warped mind at work.)

To temper these comments, however, when you look a little closer it appears that it’s more than sexual violence per se that fascinates Donaldson; rather, he seems obsessed with the paradox of heterosexual sex: that men with their greater strength can physically compel women but cannot compel the surrender of their hearts and minds.

In Donaldson’s work, the men who control women physically in fact are dependent on the women in some way, and it is therefore the women who are stronger. Lebbick is pulled to Terisa, and is compelled to hit her, not just because of his desire for her but because of her defiance and because she breaks through his emotional defences by reminding him about his wife: in other words, he’s attempting to even the odds, and Terisa is not as helpless as physically she would appear.

Similarly, the scenes between Angus and Morn (and between Nick and Morn) are all about the balance of power, and Donaldson is at pains to make it clear that despite Angus’s ability to rape and hurt Morn she is in fact the more powerful of the two through her hold on his heart. (Interestingly, both Lebbick and Angus are slightly shorter than the women they damage.)

While in general I’m not willing to read about the torture of women, I find the scenes in The Real Story are ameliorated in their impact to a degree because of the clarity of Donaldson’s intentions: he makes Angus’s feelings about Morn clear from very early on, which to an extent redresses the power balance between them (I find far more disturbing the self-mutilation scene in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze, which is truly sickening).

Having said that, however, there’s no doubt that Angus’s actions render him a complete bastard: quintessential scum, in fact. Donaldson pulls no punches in setting Angus up at the beginning so that the reader has no choice but to hate him: he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is a completely black character (as Morn is totally white): a scruple-less illegal who "hates everybody" and who clearly will stop at nothing in pursuit of his own desires. Just in case we don’t get it, he’s even plug-ugly, with repulsive personal habits: Donaldson spends more time on the physical description of Angus than he does on all the other characters put together. When Angus gets control of Morn, his treatment of her is vicious, indefensible. Donaldson, who clearly relishes a challenge, then spends the next four and three quarter books trying to reflect Angus as an increasingly sympathetic character and attempting to seduce the reader into accepting this point of view.

This determined and unrelenting attempt at seduction is carried out in a number of ways. First, Donaldson wastes no time in establishing that Angus is emotionally vulnerable to Morn. In helping her where he need not in The Real Story, he takes "another small step along the course of his doom"; a little later, Morn "...once again...seemed to find a chink in his character." The paradox is spelled out: "The more he saw of her helpless beauty, and the more he exercised himself on her flesh, the greater her hold on his imagination became - the more power she seemed to have over him. No matter what he did, however, he could never make her want him." Angus begins eagerly scanning Morn for signs that she is falling in love with him; he is desperate with jealousy when he thinks that she is lusting after Nick. All of this, of course, is designed to start redressing the power imbalance between himself and Morn, thus making him (supposedly) more sympathetic.

Further, in Angus’s keeping his side of the deal with Morn Donaldson is making a strong bid for the relaxing of our hatred for Angus, and Donaldson continues to remind us of Angus’s keeping his faith as the books progress. Angus’s vulnerability to Morn is continually stressed and grows in incremental steps: in A Dark And Hungry God Arises, Donaldson spells out what was implicit before, that inasmuch as he is able, Angus loves Morn ("He wanted to rescue Morn. Even to protect his heart from Nick and Milos, he couldn’t pretend that wasn’t true."). In Chaos And Order, he agrees to go to Deaner Beckmann’s lab because it’s what Morn wants, and her having the upper hand is stressed again: "[Angus] had already proven he couldn’t beat Morn".

Donaldson makes it clear that Angus has by this stage undergone a considerable transformation: "Yet he was changed in some way, subtly different from the butcher and rapist she knew and different as well from the clenched bitter machine who’d rescued her on Thanatos Minor. Something essential had been set loose in him when she’d allowed him to edit his datacore. His concentration was as hard as his malice and brutality, but it had new implications".

This determined manoeuvring continues apace until by the end of This Day All Gods Die, Angus has undergone a transformation which when compared with his position at the beginning of The Real Story is nothing short of remarkable. Angus is intent on keeping Morn from harm for his own sake; he shows concern for others, for example about Mikka’s welfare; he’s glad he’s got a son. As well, "In some ways he was becoming more like Warden Dios all the time". He can even be said to be remorseful for his behaviour towards Morn and to understand how he has affected her: "‘Tell her I’m sorry I wasn’t better.’ He was sorry she’d chosen Nick to save her. If she hadn’t helped Nick frame him, everything after that would have been different. In spite of himself, however, he understood. Nick hadn’t given her a zone implant." In short, "He’d become someone he didn’t know at all."

Morn’s attitude to Angus, too, is carefully manipulated by Donaldson to increase Angus’s likeability. Donaldson plays perfectly fair at the beginning: he makes no suggestion that Morn is in any way drawn to Angus as a result of his treatment of her. Morn’s hatred and disgust for Angus is unequivocal, and her attitude to Nick as a result is also exactly as you would expect after Angus’s treatment.

However, while Morn doesn’t precisely warm to Angus, over time her attitude certainly moderates. Although she makes it clear to him that she will not allow him to touch her again, at the price of her death, nevertheless she has moved by the end of the sequence into a position where she can allow him some measure of forgiveness: "For reasons she didn’t question", she is "glad that Angus hadn’t died on HO." Davies too is aware of this, as he says to Angus: "I can remember everything you did to her...but I still think she’ll be sorry she didn’t get to say goodbye."

Angus gets further good press via Davies’s attitude towards him. Although Davies knows what his father has done, nevertheless he sees something of worth in him as his much needed male role model: "He’s the only image strong enough to help me". By Chaos And Order, Davies has given Angus conditional absolution: "When I don’t think about you [Morn], about his crimes, about who he is, the things he does make me proud", and by the end of the sequence the absolution has become unconditional: "None of us are that good...I think you’ve done all right."

The motivation for Angus’s general hatred of the world is in The Real Story unguessable; however, in Forbidden Knowledge, Donaldson starts dropping clues about his torture by his mother as a baby, which become less and less elliptical as the books progress, and fairly close to the beginning of Chaos And Order we are at last allowed all the tragic details.

Yes, of course it’s a sad story, and naturally we’re supposed to think that Angus therefore has at least some sort of excuse for treating people in the way he does. Donaldson is in fact explicit in this, going as far as to say in A Dark And Hungry God Arises re Angus’s treatment of Morn: "Her zone implant had allowed him to reverse the positions in and above the crib, to fend off the abyss". I can’t say I’m terribly fond of all the crib stuff - it seems a little too connect the dots to me in terms of its lack of subtlety. Each time Donaldson helpfully underlines it for us yet again ("Another baby for the crib", etc etc etc ad nauseam), it’s like having a Warner Brothers anvil fall on your head.

Donaldson ties this thread into a picture-perfect bow at the end, supplying us, in the comparison between Angus and Norna in her "crib", with an analogy so pat that only the reader with the IQ of a cornflake couldn’t have seen it thundering over the horizon like a herd of enraged rhinos. The one-note motivation flattens Angus as a character, but to some extent this is inevitable anyway given the weight of the rest of the stuff he has to carry in terms of the themes and plot.

Donaldson is careful to release information in a measured way that won’t jeopardise the picture he is meticulously assembling of Angus’s changing character. For example, he waits until he’s softened Angus a great deal before letting us know, in A Dark And Hungry God Arises, of Angus’s worst crime - selling twenty-eight people to the Amnion - so that we’re clear by then that he’s no longer the person who did that.

Donaldson conceals the impact of some of Angus’s actions using sleight of hand: we despise Milos when he’s in control of Angus as Donaldson is careful to spell out the details of the way he tortures him; Angus’s more repulsive acts, on the other hand, are left carefully vague ("Perversions which had never occurred to him before now seemed exciting, even compulsory") so that sympathy is not irretrievably lost.

An important step in Donaldson’s campaign to make us feel identification with Angus is his making Angus pay physically for his crimes, something that also fits the works’ continual exploration of the theme of expiation of sin through bodily suffering. This relationship is made explicit: "[Morn] had no idea what Hashi Lebwohl and the UMCPDA had done to Angus; no idea how much he’d suffered for it. [Angus] didn’t deserve her indignation."

Donaldson makes it clear that in being made a cyborg, thereby having his freedom taken away from him and thus essentially (as far as Angus knows at the time) "rotting in lockup" forever, Angus’s worst fears are realised. The loss of control in his submission to first Milos and then Nick is part of this process, as is the direct payback of Angus being fitted with zone implants. Donaldson is at pains to spell out Angus’s fears then show him being forced to confront them: Angus’s horror of the void leads naturally to his having to go EVA, for example.

Angus’s programming as a cyborg is another cunning device on Donaldson’s part to soften Angus while not betraying his character. Angus’s natural cowardice is overridden by his programming which forces him to rescue and protect Morn, casting over him the glamour of the hero: while Donaldson doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that it’s the programming, not Angus’s inclinations, which are responsible for this, nevertheless his actions cannot but have a certain weight in the mind of the reader, and Donaldson is careful, while saying how scared Angus is, not to say that Angus doesn’t want to help Morn, which would undo this.

Overall, then, Donaldson’s cunning plan to change our feelings towards Angus is pretty transparent. Does it work?

Hell, no.

Resisting the author’s blandishments with regard to Angus is the single most gruelling part of reading the Gap series, but it’s not something you can avoid. Despite Donaldson’s best efforts in this direction, this man is a rapist and a murderer and whatever he does to save humankind doesn’t wipe this from his slate.

And I find the implication that while he might have had his little faults in the past we can overlook that now pretty offensive: this is not to say that no one is capable of redemption, but I don’t think Angus by his later actions has redeemed his crimes. Angus learns more about himself and his reasons for his actions, and it’s fair to assume that he’s "broken his programming" and won’t be the amoral slayer he’s has been in the past, but I see nothing that tells me Angus is sorry for his past, except for some nebulous regret over Morn. He can and does change, but that doesn’t amount to an automatic expiation of his previous sins.

Even more offensive, however, is the suggestion that Morn could change her mind about him. Yes, he’s supposed to have changed, and he saves her life, not to mention the world. But I find it a suggestion beyond the pale that despite all of that Morn, if not anxious to see his intestines extracted and strung between here and Aldebaran, doesn’t at least wish fervently that he spends the rest of his natural life in the coldest, darkest, slimiest prison cell in the universe. Sorry she couldn’t say goodbye? Spare me. Any woman who was the victim of the treatment Morn underwent at Angus’s hands is not ready to collapse on her rapist (and father’s murderer)’s bosom weeping a fond farewell, and to say that she is is an insult to women who are victims of rape and violence.

Addendum I: Daniel Hunter has written to me to say that he feels that Donaldson’s intentions were that Morn’s forgiveness of Angus was possible because of the fact that Angus was welded: welding being a "crime against the soul" similar in level to the way Angus treated Morn, Morn could feel that justice had been served and forgiveness was therefore possible. This had never occurred to me (and I therefore probably missed the entire point of the novels as far as Donaldson is concerned) and I agree it’s a good point. However, personally I still don’t think it’s likely that one wrong could have cancelled the other out in Morn’s mind, although perhaps I’m just exceptionally vindictive. It’s certainly true, too, that Angus has suffered extremely in the past - but neither this not his changed behaviour can excuse the acts he perpetrates.

Addendum II: Brigit McCone, in a beguilingly intelligent and persuasive argument, writes to draw even deeper parallels between Angus and Morn. According to Brigit, the reason Morn forgives Angus is because in many ways they are alike: forgiving Angus means Morn can forgive herself. Brigit attributes Morn's actions such as asking Angus for the zone implant control, seducing Nick, and taking antimutagens when that risks the whole of humankind to an "essential cowardice" the same in nature as Angus's. She also points out that in treating Morn the way he does Angus makes Morn more like him (there are in the last four books at least five references to what Angus has taught Morn). Morn begins to transcend this cycle when she decides to have her baby, and her unconditional love for Davies and her decision to free Angus is the trigger for Angus's own transcendence ("And he wanted to match her. That may have been the only thing he'd ever truly wanted."). Donaldson therefore offers hope that forgiveness can break what sometime seems to be an inexorable cycle in which the abused child grows into the abuser. There's no doubt that Brigit's utterly right that Donaldson explicitly and repeatedly draws parallels between Angus and Morn; when you look at the text with that in mind, you find it's absolutely littered with evidence. Brigit's points seem in hindsight so obvious that I can only wonder, slack-jawed, how I managed to let them whistle over my head before.

The Case For The Defence: Nick

Nick is the least important of the three lead characters, and because of this is also the most complex and rounded: he has less weight to carry in terms of the story’s themes than the other two and thus has more freedom to develop as a character as opposed to a vehicle.

Nick’s motivation is more believable than that of either Morn or Angus: Nick’s history is more comprehensive and more real, and he consequently attains credibility as a character in a way Morn and Angus can’t achieve. Nick is defined mostly in terms of Morn and to a much lesser extent Angus - his share of the viewpoint in comparison to theirs is quite a small one.

Nick’s relative freedom to be who he is makes him a lot of fun: he’s the most real and most believable character, with the most convincing motivation and the best lines: his sardonic humour, black at times, injects some lightness into what is otherwise a very, very serious work.

Poor old Nick, though, gets a pretty rough deal at Donaldson’s hands. The process Nick undergoes in the Gap series is diametrically opposed to Angus’s: instead of starting off unsympathetic and becoming progressively more likeable, Nick starts the story at the zenith of his likeability, and it’s all downhill from there.

Similarly, whereas Donaldson likes Angus a great deal, he clearly has a cordial dislike for Nick and takes what seems almost a malicious pleasure at times in charting his disintegration. Whereas Angus moves from the worst sort of bastard in the universe to the quasi-saviour (notwithstanding Vector) of humankind, Nick moves from debonair buccaneer through coldblooded murderer to raving loony. And again as with Angus, this process is achieved by the author not without the judicious use of smoke and mirrors.

Nick begins, in The Real Story, as a handsome swashbuckler dripping with charisma, over whom women from three galaxies swoon. Unlike Angus, whose basis for his hatred of the universe is only gradually revealed, the mainspring of Nick’s motivation, the scars he receives at the hands of a woman, are mentioned in the first few pages, although the full story of how he came to be who he is takes longer to be revealed. Nick is nevertheless a cryptic figure throughout The Real Story; we can only assume, along with the denizens of Mallorys, that Nick takes Morn on board because he desires her and to bolster his reputation - which is, of course, true as far as it goes, but not the whole story.

Once Morn gets on board Captain’s Fancy, Nick is immediately at a disadvantage in terms of his likeability, as we see him through Morn’s eyes. This allows Donaldson to give us the impression, entirely because of this, that in his own way Nick is as bad as Angus (and in time, he conveys that he’s considerably worse).

This isn’t really fair: Morn, unsurprisingly, experiences sex with Nick as a further violation, but that’s hardly Nick’s fault: he’s always under the impression that Morn is giving her consent (with a vengeance). Even when he has sex with her in front of his crew, he still asks her permission for this. Donaldson implies through statements like: "Morn Hyland had endured Angus Thermopylae and Nick Succorso, rape and zone implants, for months", that Nick too was a rapist, given that Morn was with Angus for weeks, not months, but this simply is not the case.

Donaldson deliberately twists language in order to give this impression: he says, for example: "...he pursued sex with her as mastery rather than pleasure...and yet as always her survival depended on her ability to preserve the illusion that she hungered for him whatever he did, that even rape only made her love him more." I’m sorry, but this is not rape: that must always imply lack of consent, and thanks to Morn’s implant Nick could never have thought that she didn’t want him. Nick uses sex for a number of reasons: he uses it to get women onto his side and to augment his reputation, but primarily he enjoys seeing himself reflected back from women’s eyes at twice his natural size; coercion, therefore, holds no interest for him, and it’s dishonest of the author to imply that it does.

In Forbidden Knowledge, we’re assured that "Nick did indeed treat [Morn] like shit"; however, prior to Nick’s finding out about the zone implant, which occurred after this statement was made, there’s little evidence of this. Morn joins Captain’s Fancy of her own free will, and the only thing Nick does to her without her consent is to hit her once - I’m not implying this is acceptable in any way, but compared to Angus’s behaviour, it’s a mere bagatelle.

Similarly, there’s a whole lot of twittering amongst the UMCP brass about Morn being "sold" to "a man like Nick Succorso", and much breathless speculation as to what indignities she must have suffered at his hands - when in fact Nick only wanted Morn in the first place because (he thought) she wanted him: there was never any question of compulsion, and the chances are that if she hadn’t lied to him he would have continued to treat her pretty reasonably.

Things change, of course, when Nick discovers that Morn has been duping him all along: her pretended passion for him was faked with a zone implant, and her child isn’t his but Angus’s. Unsurprisingly, Nick is a tad miffed at this turn of events, but as a result he undergoes a personality change which is way out of proportion with the previous pattern of his life, which he had run on careful lines to ensure he was the Nick Succorso who never lost: "He’d learned never to be beaten again; learned to wait until all his contests were unequal, in his favor. He’d learned to wait until he was in control of what happened. Common sense".

Nick ends up selling Morn to the Amnion, which is without argument a Bad Thing, but it’s worth pointing out that it takes him a fair while to get to this point, before which despite serious provocation he has not shoved Morn out an airlock, and he’s very much backed into a corner by events, whereas Angus, our fair shining knight, sold twenty-eight (twenty-eight!) people to the Amnion just for profit.

It’s easy to forget, as Nick grows increasingly callous and deranged, that he was once a successful pirate who commanded great loyalty from his crew - mostly, it’s easy to forget this as Donaldson is determined that you do so. In Chaos And Order, Donaldson has Sorus thinking: "Men like Succorso didn’t inspire the kind of loyalty that would lead Ciro to sacrifice himself" - this is admittedly true from her perspective seeing Nick as he had become, but it also draws a false veil over the kind of man Nick was in the past for the reader, who may well be seduced by this into forgetting that an entire shipful of Nick’s crew, men as well as women, sacrificed themselves for Nick not very long before. (Incidentally, Donaldson also uses the exact same phrasing with regard to Holt: "In general Holt didn't inspire the kind of loyalty that would hold men and women at their posts when he'd obviously abandoned them" - one of the many examples of Wagner-like repetition.)

While Sib says: "We’ve done things that make me sick. They gave me nightmares and made me wake up screaming", it’s hard to imagine how bad these could have been compared to Angus’s shining example, and they certainly weren’t bad enough to drive away his crew, most of whom seem not blood-crazed psychopaths but simple honest illegals trying to make a living. (Daniel Hunter has written to remonstrate with me about this statement, pointing out with total justification that the piracy Nick was involved in was no doubt similar to the kind of stuff Angus did, i.e. grabbing the cargo and killing the crew or selling them into slavery, even if not selling them to the Amnion. Okay, I admit that this is not terribly nice behaviour, and that maybe I’m overrepresenting Nick just a tad - it’s just that Donaldson’s pushing so hard to make me hate Nick that I shoot off in the other direction, ending up thinking he’s a perfect sweetie just out of sheer cussedness. Torbjörn Andersson points out one of Nick’s less pleasant traits of obvious glee at the prospect of hurting Davies, an innocent bystander. However, I have less of a problem with this, as I can’t stand Davies either, the whining, snivelling brat. I'm not saying Nick's an all-around great guy; just that he's not who the narrator paints him.)

Morn is not the sole reason for Nick’s downfall; that comes from his pre-existing weaknesses which are simultaneously his strengths: his dependence on his reputation and the remembrance of his scarring which drives him. However, Morn pulls the loose thread which leads to his complete unravelling. It’s easy (for me, anyway; obviously not for Donaldson) to feel sorry for Nick, who was living a relatively blameless (oh, all right, not that blameless) life as a pirate and UMCP undercover agent prior to meeting Morn and probably would have continued to do so had he never met her, yet who was doomed to crash and burn irretrievably the moment that he did so.

After Morn’s "betrayal" of Nick, his downhill slide is a rapid one: it’s as if Morn has triggered the widening of the faultline of his weaknesses until in the end that’s all there is. His sighting of Sorus Chatelaine is the final nail in his coffin: if his fate was in any doubt before, it was assured at that moment - although the chances are that had Morn not already destabilised him, he wouldn’t have come unglued quite as spectacularly as he does.

From the moment of seeing Sorus, everything else is irrelevant to Nick, and he crosses the line into madness: "Somehow Nick had just sacrificed Ciro as a pawn in his deranged quest for revenge on Sorus Chatelaine." (Donaldson therefore takes the opportunity to sneak in another low blow - Nick as a mass murderer: "All those people! ...Nick, what have you done?", which wouldn’t have been in keeping with his character had he not been conveniently crazy. Doug Rank writes to point out, too, that it was in fact Sorus who destroyed the lab, acting on the Amnion's orders. Moreover, given that the Amnion wanted the lab destroyed to choke off the spread of knowledge about the mutagen, the chances are that they would have taken exactly the same action had Morn and Vector used to lab to "save humanity" as opposed to Nick's use for profit. Doug also contrasts this with Angus's destruction of Billingate and the consequent death of thousands, which passes completely unremarked despite the fact that, as Doug says, "Angus destroyed it, enjoyed destroying it ("A keen joy like a paean of murder began to sing in his heart") and did so on Hashi and Warden's direct instructions." Very good points, and I wish I'd thought of them.)

Although Donaldson says in the narration that "For all his cunning and expertise, and talent for self-preservation, Nick had been reduced to suicide by his craving for revenge on Sorus Chatelaine", this isn’t in fact the case. To deliberately commit suicide you must form an intent to kill yourself, and this certainly wasn’t Nick’s aim - it was simply that his purpose grew so large that it crowded out anything else, including the instinct for self-preservation.

The question then arises as to whether Sorus was really the point - in fact, she wasn’t. Donaldson makes it clear that Sorus doesn’t give a damn about Nick: "As far as she was concerned, Succorso was trivial. When she’d manipulated him and discarded him all those years ago, she truly hadn’t cared whether he lived or died; she didn’t care now"; this belittles Nick’s obsession on the face of it, as he is obsessed with a woman who barely remembers him. However, this isn’t the real story: in fact, Nick and Sorus are very similar as both are concerned only with themselves. Nick is too self-obsessed to care that much about another person: as with his lovers whom he sees entirely in terms of their passion for him, his pursuit of Sorus is in fact to heal the narcissistic wound she inflicted.

Similarly, in A Dark And Hungry God Arises, Nick tells himself that he loved Morn. He’s genuine in saying this, but deluded - what he felt was never love, but simply an emotion that reflected in direct proportion the apparent magnitude of Morn’s passion for him, and his later hatred for Morn is for the same reason as his hatred for Sorus: her wounding of his self-image.

When Nick reaches the apotheosis of his struggle, the EVA confrontation with Sorus’s ship, Davies says correctly: "He won’t bother to turn on us. We don’t matter. We never did. Sorus Chatelaine is everything. She’s all there ever was." This being the case, the fact that Nick’s dying words are "Morn - God -" is seriously annoying. This makes no sense: Morn has been for some time totally irrelevant to Nick, and it seems a desperate and spurious effort to pull Nick at the last minute back into the "triangle".

Nick’s death, too, is also irritating: while I’d probably admit under torture that it’s fitting, Donaldson meanly denies us the emotional payoff of Nick achieving his goal before he dies. It makes sense thematically, it fits the plot, but damn, it’s annoying. In a final boost for Nick’s reputation, too, I’ll point out that Nick’s destruction of Soar’s proton cannon does nothing to help him on his personal quest, but is of immeasurable help to Trumpet.

Donaldson does scrupulously point out a couple of times near the end of the sequence that things might in fact have been not quite as he’d allowed them to be implied: "Fuck you, [Morn] echoed to herself. That was nothing new. How often had [Angus] already done it? How often had she allowed - no, seduced, encouraged - Nick Succorso to use her?" "[Morn] wept for the lies she’d used to manipulate Nick Succorso. She wept over the way Davies had been made to suffer by Nick’s justifiable outrage.". Well, this is quite a concession, all things considered, but too little, too late. Nick is obviously no angel, but he gets an unnecessarily bad rap; resisting the author’s attempts to persuade me to his view of Nick was along the same lines, although not nearly as emotionally bruising, as resisting his attempts to sell me Angus.

Bad Day Barbie: Morn

While Angus is Donaldson’s favourite character, it’s Morn who’s the centre of the sequence: she’s the pivot of the triangle and the focus of the action. Like Angus (and like Nick, in a funhouse-mirror sort of way), she’s on a mission: not only to save the universe, but to come to terms with her past.

As Angus starts off black, so Morn is his diametric opposite. Morn’s goodness at the start is almost a reflex: she was brought up with the ideals of the UMCP ringing in her ears, and particularly after her mother’s death her assumption that she’ll spend her future on the side of the angels is automatic. Later, of course, when it turns out that doing the right thing isn’t necessarily enough for good to prevail and the boundary between the good and the bad guys becomes fuzzy, Morn has to make some choices, and this time makes a conscious decision to act for good. She does this because she’s a cop - not the sort of cop she has learned exists, who would do such things as suppressing an antimutagen drug, but the sort of cop she was brought up to believe in.

As ever, of course, this isn’t the real story. Morn’s childhood decision to become a cop comes not just from a pure burning zeal for justice, but instead from her shame at causing her mother’s death (or so she thinks) by her grudge. Donaldson says that "Ever since Starmaster died, [Morn]’d been paying the price of her old grudge against herself"; however, I would argue that it goes back a lot further that that, poisoning her childhood and shaping all of her decisions about her future.

Morn’s gapsickness and her dependence on the zone implant are metaphors for the fundamental flaw in her personality - her inability to forgive, whether herself or others. [This now strikes me as a somewhat ironic remark given what I just said about not forgiving Angus, but whatever.] Her learning to control her gapsickness and function independently of the implant symbolises the fundamental psychological journey she undergoes: in order to gain mastery over her life, she has to give up her grudges and self-blame.

These layers are revealed slowly: first, we think Morn chooses to go to Nick because she’s addicted to her implant and by making the deal with Angus she’ll have control over herself. The flaws in this reasoning become clear, and another layer emerges - her placing herself in Nick’s hands is also an act of self-hatred, part of her continuing punishment of herself for her imagined crime of killing her mother, exacerbated by her killing of her father and family through her gapsickness. Before this point is reached, the gapsickness stands in for that self-hatred: "From that crisis - from the undetectable flaw which the gap had found in her brain, a weakness triggered by heavy g - all her sufferings had flowed as if they were inevitable."

Where Morn’s turning point comes is moot - sometimes Donaldson says it’s through her having a child, and at other times it’s because of her realisation of the price of her holding on to blame. A third reason given is that: "The Amnion had injected their mutagens into her. They’d taught her that she couldn’t afford to hold grudges anymore." It was obviously a gradual process, but Morn’s conscious choice doesn’t come till she makes the decision to let Nick into Trumpet.

A further choice, more difficult for her in its implications and a crucial one in terms of her letting go of her past, comes when she makes the decision to free Angus from his priority codes. However, it’s not until she reads Warden’s note that Morn finally comes to the end of her journey and looks reality full in the face, reaching a full acceptance of herself, her past, and her own behaviour whether heroic or less so.

I might as well put my cards on the table, since it’s going to be blindingly obvious anyway, and say that I had a hard time liking Morn. I mean, I sort of did, and being a woman she was the character I identified with the most, but....

Part of my problem in warming to Morn is that she never seems quite real, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I find her personality and actions unrealistic in terms of her age: to me, Morn behaves with a self-assurance unlikely to be found in a woman in her early twenties.

Second is the archetypal rôle played by Morn’s beauty, which because of its double duty as a stand-in both for her character and for the experience she undergoes fails to convince in characterising her as a person. Just as Angus is hideous, Morn, like Terisa, is dazzlingly beautiful: Morn’s goodness is manifest in her beauty, but it’s a beauty without character, unearned.

The destruction of Morn's beauty parallels the breaking down of her world and her rebuilding of it on more realistic grounds - she goes from a beauty "almost featureless" to one less perfect but built on character. There’s some weird sleight of hand going on here, though: despite Donaldson’s scrupulous chronicling of the loss of Morn’s looks, going as far as to make her partially bald at one stage, we never lose the feeling that Morn somehow retains her beauty in some odd way nevertheless. Part of this each way bet is probably due to the way Morn, despite the degradation of her looks, remains a one-woman singularity, dragging practically every man in the universe into her event horizon. (Oops! Claws now retracted.)

Morn’s also battling under the handicap of carrying, as the main character, the weight of many of the themes, so that virtually all of what she does is shaped not by the demands of her character but by the exigencies of the points Donaldson wants to explore. Thus I sometimes have the sensation that she’s being squeezed to fit, which reduces her believability as a character.

[Brigit McCone writes to point out that lack of realness isn't limited just to Morn: she feels all the male characters have more of a ring of truth about them than the female ones. Brigit puts this down to the female characters' lesser complexity: Sorus, for example, is a Nickalike but without his insecurities, and Min isn't afflicted by Warden's shame. As Brigit says, "Despite his efforts at non-sexism, Donaldson's preoccupation with helpless beauties and capable dominatrixes always seems to interfere with the believability of his female characters." While some of her points are arguable (Sorus is a much more minor character than Nick, for example, and therefore couldn't be expected to match him in complexity, and Min always strikes me as less a capable dominatrix and more a man in drag), I can only agree that there's indubitably something wrong with Donaldson's women. And not just in the Gap, either: Terisa in Mordant's Need is the quintessential helpless beauty, and Linden Avery in the same vein decidedly misses the mark.]

So, she’s never completely real, but what else? I think one of the main problems with Morn is that so much of what happens to her is just that: it happens to her. Although strong and resourceful, she rarely gets the chance to direct events but instead responds to them. As a result of her gapsickness, Angus gets hold of her; she has a hand in her escape to Nick, although essentially she’s Warden’s pawn, and once on board Captain’s Fancy she’s entirely at Nick’s mercy. She’s then passed from hand to tentacle: from Nick to the Amnion, from the Amnion to Angus, and it’s not until after Nick’s death that she’s in a position to be able, to an extent, to take charge of her own fate.

This isn’t Morn’s fault, of course; she does her best with the hand dealt her and certainly tries to wrest whatever control she can manage from an unpromising environment. Nevertheless, in the end it becomes a little tiresome waiting to see what fresh disaster will fall on her hapless head and push her hither and yon. At times the ghost of Fay Wray, kicking and screaming in the clutch of the monster, hovers eerily over Morn’s shoulder, and this isn’t helped by Donaldson’s characterisation of Morn’s (ugh) "helpless beauty". Quick, find her some railway tracks to be tied to.

So, things happen to Morn - and boy, do they happen: never have I seen such unrelenting suffering in any one place. Donaldson’s theme of physical suffering as expiation is here in spades: it’s hard to think of a physical injury Morn doesn’t have to endure, short, perhaps, of an impacted wisdom tooth.

This theme is hammered relentlessly, from her injuries as a result of Angus’s beating and rapes, to the symptoms caused by zone implant withdrawal and overuse of the implant, to the injuries she sustains at the hands of Orn, then Nick, to her self-inflicted injuries when she yanks out her hair and tries to mutilate herself. The last straw in this litany of pain is when Morn deliberately allows her arm to be crushed to avoid the onset of her gapsickness: this simply Went Too Far, and my delicately suspended disbelief slipped its tether and dropped to the floor with a thud.

As well as the descriptions of Morn’s injuries, there’s a constant harping in the narration and from other characters on Morn’s pain, on her tiredness, weakness and vulnerability, and on the suffering she has undergone both physically and mentally. As well as the echoes of martyrdom, this stuff has an unpleasant, almost lascivious undercurrent to it: it’s like the flipside of Donaldson’s identification with Angus.

In addition, the one-note hammering of Morn’s physical suffering delivers an impact that dulls with endless repetition. In some ways, it’s as if Donaldson doesn’t trust the readers to make their own connections - things must perforce be spelt out, underlined and repeated with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The annoyingness of Morn’s suffering is compounded by Donaldson’s determination to portray Morn, despite her faults, as a shining beacon of virtue in a naughty world. As the books progress, Donaldson sets up some of the erstwhile crew of Captain’s Fancy as a cheering squad for Morn, to point out her unutterable goodness, truth, bravery and beauty to us all. Okay, okay, bitch mode cancel, but the grovelling praise they heap on her head makes me want to hurl.

Vector (the little toady) is the chief offender: he says barfworthy stuff like: "As far as I’m concerned, you’re absolutely amazing. Whenever I make the mistake of thinking you Hylands have limits, you go and do something like this", and Mikka feels weak and limited, even humbled, in Morn’s presence. Gag me with a spoon. Just in case this is too subtle, Donaldson says things like: "She seemed to take over the bridge just by being there, despite her weakness. She was only an ensign, had never commanded a vessel before, yet she might have been Trumpet’s true captain, regardless of who held the priority codes". Have mercy, willya?

If that weren’t bad enough, by the end of the sequence we’re seeing Morn through the eyes of the UMCP staff, the GCES and in particular Warden as the saviour of humankind’s future. But hang on a minute - is this really the case? Apart from Morn’s character faults, there’s a lot about her actions that makes this view of her distinctly dodgy.

Firstly, in terms of the Captain’s Fancy’s people’s gooey-eyed adoration, what has she actually done to deserve this? She fought hard to save Davies - big deal, he’s her son, what do you expect? I know, I know, she would have done it for anyone. (Isn’t that sweet.) Aside from that, though, I can’t actually see she does much at all, except for electing not to kill Nick which I wouldn’t have thought would have endeared her to the crew, to deserve the level of respect she gets on Trumpet. They seem to respect her for what she’s gone through, but suffering doesn’t necessarily make you a great anything - you survive it, or you die. But no, no, her simple, shining example, which in fact seems to boil down to espousing a few pretty basic values, is enough to have "changed [Vector], just as it had deflected Mikka and transformed Sib...".

Apart from Morn’s lack of much real achievement, she also endangers the lives of everyone who comes into contact with her, not to mention the rest of humankind, by taking the antimutagen, thus allowing the formula to fall into the hands of the Amnion. Donaldson tries to turn this into a noble gesture, by having her say to Davies that the most important thing is for her not to betray her humanity. I would have thought this meant not selling humankind out in order to stay human herself, but apparently her desire to stay human at the possible cost of all humankind is some sort of highly principled stand. Personally, I would have thought that not betraying humankind was a tad more important, if you were going for the moral high ground, than not betraying her humanity, which seems merely a way of dressing up the fact that she didn’t want to become Amnion. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have gobbled down as much of the antimutagen I could get my hands on and damn the consequences, but I wouldn’t be claiming a moral victory as a result either.

Morn further practices reckless endangerment by her actions at the end of the sequence: she decides that the need to stop the secrecy and lies, i.e. by addressing the Council, is more important to concentrate on than ensuring the survival of the species. As well, Morn doesn’t try and stop Davies going to the Amnion, yet she knows that having access to Davies may well help the Amnion in their plans to destroy humankind utterly. Quel sense of proportion. Donaldson also tries to sell this to us as her reason for risking the Amnion getting hold of the antimutagen through her ("She’d placed her entire species in danger for the sake of her own survival. But she’d preserved her humanity...she’d come to believe that the need for a better answer was more important than keeping Nick’s antimutagen secret"), but no matter how often he puts it in italics, I’m not buying. All the ethical dealings in the world will become totally irrelevant if the species is wiped out, so all Donaldson manages to convince me of here is Morn’s self-righteous stupidity. (It’s interesting, incidentally, that Nick, supposed evildoer extraordinaire, is always extremely careful when he uses the antimutagen never to let the Amnion get hold of it, whereas Morn, our fair heroine, gives it up without blinking.)

Due to layers of deliberate if spurious image-polishing, Morn has become such a legend in her own lunchtime that by the time they board Punisher, Min cedes control of the ship to her virtually without a fight. With the lives of the crew and maybe all of humankind at stake, a woman passionate in the protection of her people hands over a ship of the line to an inexperienced ensign? I don’t think so. We know by now that Morn is superhuman, of course, but Min knows virtually nothing about her. Yes, Min’s showing her trust in Warden by trusting Morn, but she has to know that neither Warden nor anyone else has clue one as to what Morn’s been doing all this time - she might be barking mad for all they know as a result of her ordeal. The fact that she’s undoubtedly suffered as a result of the UMCP’s actions is hardly a compelling reason to hand over the decision making rôle to her, either - in fact the opposite, given that her ordinary effectiveness is likely to have been compromised.

So, there it is. Caveat lector. You could accept Donaldson’s picture of his three main characters as he presents it to you, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Neither Morn, Nick nor Angus can safely be taken at face value: the author attempts to manipulate us into acceding to a vision of the characters that a closer reading of the text just doesn’t support.

The Sum Of The Squares On The Other Two Sides: Morn/Angus/Nick

Donaldson lays out in the Afterword his intention of tracing the shifting roles of Morn, Nick and Angus as they move around what Stephen Karpman calls the "drama triangle" of Victim, Villain and Rescuer. (Personally, I’m more fascinated by watching this triangle at work in real life than in literature, but I suppose that’s why my degrees are in psychology and not in English.) This triangle is of course vital in The Real Story, but contrary to the implication in the Afterword loses importance reasonably rapidly, falling more or less effectively out of sight by the beginning of Chaos And Order. In the Afterword Donaldson talks of how Nick becomes Angus’s victimiser and Morn Angus’s rescuer, but this is, of course, no more the "real story" than anything in the book itself. It can happily be argued, for example, that in going to Nick Morn is in fact his victimiser, and that in a sense by agreeing to the deal that Angus is Morn’s rescuer.

As events develop, the rôles continue to shift back and forth, but Donaldson seems to gradually lose interest. Much of this seems to be due to Nick’s increasing irrelevance: by the time the crew get on board Trumpet with Nick as a prisoner, he’s really only a passenger in the story. Nick in fact sheers off the triangle the instant he spots Sorus, which gives the switcheroo with Nick taking over Angus’s codes a dutiful, perfunctory feel, a one more lap round the track kinda thing tossed in in order to appear to keep the triangle alive. As I’ve already said, the inclusion of Morn in Nick’s dying words seems a somewhat spurious attempt to drag Nick back into the triangle, when in actuality he had left it a long time since. The complete death of the triangle occurs a little later when Angus asks Morn why she didn’t want Nick to go on his mission to Soar and finds out Morn had never wanted Nick.

Although the relationship between the three main characters is designed in the shape of a triangle, it’s scarcely an equal one. Morn is the pivot: Nick and Angus spend most of their time relating to her, and relate to each other only because of her (it’s rather like George and Elaine, whose relationship exists only because of and through Jerry). Their relationship is, unsurprisingly, somewhat strained and stylised when they are forced to deal directly with each other. Angus applies the charming sobriquet "Captain Sheepfucker" to Nick, but Nick also refers to Angus in this way once as well early in the piece - I’ve never been able to figure out whether this is a vastly cunning device designed to highlight the mirrored aspect of their relationship or an editing error.

Et Al

As I’ve said, Donaldson has indicated his intention in the Gap series to make all of his main cast fully rounded characters, and again as I’ve said, he doesn’t completely pull this off with regard to the Big Three. With the other characters, he again isn’t fully successful in this, but for different reasons. There are too many for me to discuss all the secondary characters, so I’ve just picked a random few.

The effort Donaldson has gone to to make his secondary characters real people is evident: each has her own little story and his own identifying characteristics. While I’ve said he isn’t fully successful, that should be taken in context: overall, he does a pretty good job. The large cast adds greatly to both to the depth and the breadth of the novels, and is particularly effective in helping to layer the plots and counterplots. Multiple points of view make it clear that there is no one version of the truth: readers are forced to sift through all the views and determine their own opinions as to just what the hell’s going on. I particularly like the touch that characters often speculate on each other’s motives and base their actions on those speculations, but are often wrong - something common in life but rare in literature.

Making secondary characters who have only a constricted space in which to come to life rounded is an uphill task which is to an extent predestined to fail: there just isn’t the room. Donaldson uses various methods to deal with this, one being the use of the very, very, very annoying device of choosing one salient trait per character and hitting us over the head with it until we whimper for mercy. This reduces characterisation to a series of very simple equations: Sixten = age, Mikka = hips, Darrin = itchy chest, Vector = arthritis, mildness (okay, he has two). All right, I know this is an exaggeration - there’s more to them than this, but nevertheless this device makes me grind my teeth.

Donaldson tries to fully work out the fates of as many as possible of his secondary cast, which is a nice touch; an unfortunate side effect of this, however, is that some characters have their fates written all over them. Hands up anyone who was surprised that Vector, Ciro, Sib and Liete ended up dead? Didn’t think so. Liete and Sib in particular might as well have had "red-shirt extra" stamped on their foreheads: Liete because according to Donaldson anyone stupid enough to be taken in by Nick’s seduction deserves to die, and Sib because with his history he had nowhere else to go. Ciro, too, is a natural victim. As Vector himself says, "We’ve been doomed ever since we joined Captain’s Fancy. No one recovers from that kind of mistake."

Donaldson has a tough time with the Captain’s Fancy crew - on the one hand, he can’t paint them too obviously as Morn’s allies at the beginning, but on the other, their transformation over to the heroic side of the ledger can’t be too unbelievable. For example, in order to keep our sympathy with the crew members, as with Angus Donaldson is carefully vague about what the Captain’s Fancy crew might have got up to in their chequered past: Sib might talk about having seen things that make him wake up screaming, but that’s as specific as it gets.

Vector is probably handled the worst of these in respect of his "transformation": against his friendliness from the word go towards Morn, his reasoning for looking after her "so [Nick] can hurt [her] more" is completely unconvincing. Vector partially redeems himself with his work synthesising the antimutagen at Beckmann’s lab for his earlier failure of nerve in not protesting the suppression of the drug and choosing instead the protest of living as an illegal, and has already been punished for choosing this course by being beaten by Orn, resulting in his arthritis, but it’s pretty clear that Donaldson considers this only partial payment and his death comes as no surprise. (In a theoretical sense, that is - his actual death in its suddenness packs quite a punch.)

Mikka is there as a confidante and ally for Morn and as a foil to show up Morn’s goodness in starker contrast. Mikka’s chief crime is in having been seduced in all senses of the word by Nick in the past and remaining loyal to him even after he has dumped her, but under Morn’s tutelage she sees the light: "Nevertheless it was better than staying with Nick: supporting his crimes, enabling his betrayals, while he scorned her for the simple reason that she couldn’t heal the wounds Sorus Chatelaine had cut into him." Because Mikka manages to break free of Nick’s influence, unlike Liete she escapes the death penalty. Donaldson economically shows us that she’s basically a good person by drawing a parallel between her and Warden, as Morn realises in This Day All Gods Die. (Yeah? Too slow, babe - the rest of us saw that one coming a book ago, the minute she had her eye bandaged.) However, despite this her payment for supporting Nick for so long is still a heavy one: the death of her brother. While she’s one of the few survivors from the Captain’s Fancy crew, the future seems pretty bleak for Mikka - by the end of the sequence, everything she has has been stripped away from her.

Ciro is a less well-developed character - basically, he’s there in order to die to complete Mikka’s story. I don’t find the whole Sorus/Ciro thing well handled at all: his slagging of the drives even after the mutagen has been cleared from his system makes no sense, as he has no reason to distrust Vector’s expertise and has seen Soar destroyed by that time in any case. And there’s just no basis for the whole Ciro-in-Sorus’s-emotional-thrall thing ("In some sense he had fallen in love with her"): I knew he was going to say this - it’s just such a Donaldson thing to say - and I really, really hated it.

Sib is a born loser, and like Ciro, his motivation at times seems specious. He has his own little story, which revolves around his guilt at surviving the attack by the Amnion when everyone else dies, but the idea that a born coward would have reacted by turning to the dubious and precarious life of an illegal even after the courtmartial of Nathan Alt is hard to take. Donaldson through Morn tries to justify Sib’s death ("Finally, she wept for the dead, for poor Sib Mackern, frightened and abandoned, whose self-sacrifice had helped protect them in the asteroid swarm"), but when you examine it a little more closely, Sib’s death is in fact an utterly pointless sacrifice. Sib couldn’t manage to stop Nick when Nick was tied up and Sib had a gun, so what the point was of sending Sib out to "control" Nick when Nick was fully armed eludes me. Had Nick wished to do so, he could have damaged Trumpet and Sib couldn’t have done thing one about it (although in fact it was clear that Nick didn’t give a damn about Trumpet at that stage anyway). Sib’s one pathetic effort is the putting out of commission of a video camera before Nick blows him away; really, though, that wasn’t the point. He had to die, and this was a convenient place to do it. As with the other characters, Sib must undergo a ritual expiation, whether his crimes are real or exist only in his own mind.

Darrin and Alesha (and the rest of the crew of Free Lunch) are a curious failure. There’s no reason why Donaldson shouldn’t introduce new characters at this stage - the ones in the lab work just fine - but these guys just don’t come off. They’re the token happy couple - and older happy couple at that, which is an exception in a cast where there are no other stable relationships at all, but they never really fire. Part of the problem is probably that they never have any relationship with the main bunch, so seem curiously suspended outside the plot and therefore superfluous. The manner of their dying is also badly handled - in introducing them and allowing us to get to know them, Donaldson creates an expectation that he will follow through to the end of their story, but this doesn’t happen: he doesn’t chronicle their deaths and there’s therefore no sense of closure. There actually seems to be a scene missing: I can see it, with the crew trying to pull away from the singularity, then when they realise they can’t, Darrin and Alesha saying goodbye and going to their deaths holding hands - but I can’t seem to find it in there. (Too soapy? Definitely, but I’m a romantic.)

Cleatus Fane is one of the more cardboard characters: Donaldson’s image of a fanged Santa is remarkably vivid, but he presents Cleatus with no light and shade whatsoever - he is only there as Holt’s eyes and mouthpiece, however. Donaldson’s use of Cleatus’s viewpoint while Morn speaks to the Council is extremely effective: it preserves the conflict of the situation and thus gives the scene a dimension beyond straight exposition.

People have written to me and asked why I don't mention any of the "god" characters here (Hashi seems to be a particular favourite for a lot of people). It's a good question, and one that's made me realise with more clarity exactly what I'm interested in. Although the Warden/Hashi/Holt plot and counterplot stuff is of course interesting and beautifully handled by Donaldson, my own personal bias is towards character, so that side of the books is the least important to me. The god characters' personalities don't come as much of a surprise once you figure out which god each of them represents, and therefore they're just not as intriguing to me as the characters who aren't quite as closely aligned with the Ring Cycle. Your mileage may vary.

Of course, no discussion of character should leave out the Amnion, who are exceedingly cool aliens. The nicest thing about the Amnion is that they genuinely are alien, unlike so many SF aliens who are human with a few tentacles slapped on; they don’t look up to humans as the pinnacle of evolution, and they operate in a fundamentally different way to humans. That whole communal thing is viscerally shocking to humans (well, to Westerners, at least, for whom the notion of individuality has attained sacred cow status), in the same way that the concept of the Borg is shocking. Their genetic imperialism is also terrifying for humans, who aren’t skilled at being prey. Donaldson wisely leaves a lot about the Amnion unexplained: they’d be much less fun if they were fully mapped.


Hmmm, this is a tough category. I’ve already said quite a bit about theme as it happened to crop up in other sections, and I’m not really interested in categorising every thematic thread and instance. However, a few pithy remarks are probably in order on this subject nevertheless.

The clearest theme here is obviously the Ring-inspired one of Warden saving humankind by destroying both himself and the order he has built. This theme resonates through the books in sometimes surprising ways: for instance, Warden’s rise to power through the "artificial treaty" (in Ring terms) of his complaisance with Holt’s direction is echoed in Morn’s zone implant, which is also a crime against the natural order. Angus’s wiring as a cyborg is also a crime against the natural order in the same way, as is Sorus’s working for the Amnion: "time is out of joint", and all that. The working out of this theme therefore requires that Warden is destroyed, that Morn becomes free of the influence of the implant and Angus of his programming and that Sorus dies, in order to restore the natural order. It’s a theme elegantly and logically handled, and I really don’t have a great deal more to say about it.

Taking a step back, though, behind this theme, others become apparent which are arguably operating at a less conscious level. There’s a strong thread in the books of crime and punishment, handled in a, dare I say it, almost Biblical manner. Donaldson has spoken about his own background, being brought up by fundamentalist parents, and whatever his current views on religion, it seems pretty obvious (and also common sense) that this way of thinking has been influential in the way he views the world. Extrapolation from an author’s life to his or her work is always a dangerous business, but the themes of crime (which could equally comfortably be labelled "sin") requiring payment, the way of conceptualising that crime, and payment for the crime through physical suffering are omnipresent and have a measured, Old Testament weight to them in these books.

One leitmotif that’s impossible to miss is the presence of shame as a driving force for virtually all the characters (and it’s certainly one that’s been important in Donaldson’s earlier work). Shame is an emotion which is curiously important in Judeo-Christian religions, tied up as it often is with the notion of sexual sin, which given sex’s crucial place in life tends to inform and shape the entire religion. (People raised under the aegis of Judeo-Christian religions tend to equate sex and sin as a universal given, which is pretty damned weird when you think about it, as is the whole puritanical thing whereby just about anything that’s fun is sinful, thus perforce making most people sinners most of the time. Other religions seem to do this a lot better, thus releasing their adherents from a lifetime of guilt for enjoying what are, when you strip away the artificial moral constructs surrounding them, frequently rather harmless activities. I’m not going there, however.) Shame is consequently a current running pretty close to the surface in anyone raised in this tradition: it’s therefore not particularly surprising to see what a preoccupation it is in Donaldson’s writing and also unsurprising that so many of the characters conceptualise what they conceive to be Bad Things in their pasts in terms of shame.

So, we have sin and we have shame as a response: it won’t therefore have you reaching for the smelling salts to learn that expiation of that sin and shame, not to mention absolution for it, is mostly obtained from physical suffering. In the fine old tradition of flagellation and the hair shirt, the Gap series characters pay with pain and sometimes their lives for their own sins and those of others.

Morn, as I’ve already said, is the chief sufferer: as well as paying for her own sins, she has to go through hell before the sins of Warden, for whom she is a proxy, can even partially be paid for (he also has to contribute his own life). However, while Morn’s suffering is attention-grabbing, not to say spectacular, there are few characters here who don’t get hurt in one way or another. Some have to die for their pasts; others once they’ve gone though a bit of torture are able to redeem themselves. (Head injuries, incidentally, are very prevalent, which is sort of interesting from the point of view of the changes of consciousness which all this suffering is achieving.) It’s a very moral work in that sense: everyone, but everyone, gets their just deserts. (According to Donaldson, that is. I don’t necessarily agree, but if you’ve got this far you know that already.) Either they’re bad and deserve their sticky ends, or they’re not as bad but can’t forgive themselves for their pasts and are therefore their own executioners: nothing is random, and the books are therefore highly structured from that point of view.

Mixed with the themes of sin and redemption are ones more modern in a psychological sense. All the main characters and some of the secondary ones (Warden, say, growing up in the borderlands and Milos in the guttergangs) are highly influenced by their upbringings, and for the three main characters coming to terms with that is key.

Morn’s childhood is shaped by the family involvement with the UMCP and more particularly her mother’s death: her task is to come to terms with the darker side that emerged in response to that and to remake her choices about her life based not on tradition but on a conscious decision to be on the side of good. Angus must learn to break free of the emotional cage his mother’s torture and abandonment built for him, and Nick must resolve the alienation of his upbringing and his betrayal while still not an adult by Sorus. The physical suffering of all three is an important part of the working out of this: Morn and Angus struggle for some time before reaching resolution, and Nick’s death signifies that unlike the other two he’s unable to get beyond his past.


And finally, this is the part where I get to point out all the bits of the plot that didn’t make sense and make random remarks which I couldn’t be bothered finding a place for elsewhere. The stuff’s in the chronological order of the books, in a very vague sort of way. Thanks to everyone who’s supplied additional material for this section.

I Got My Gold Star In Stupidity At Cadet School

When Angus gives Morn an order shortly after taking her on board Bright Beauty, she smartly responds: "Yes, sir". Yeah, right. Ingrained obedience is one thing, but in the case of a man who’d just killed her father and taken her prisoner? I think not. (Maybe they are teaching deportment, after all.)

Acting Strangely

(Thanks to Peter Hunt for pointing this one out to me.) Donaldson paints himself into a corner with regard to the reasons for the Preempt Act being passed and has to do some hasty backpedalling to get himself out of it. In Forbidden Knowledge, the ancillary documentation says that the Preempt Act was passed because of evidence of Com-Mine station security scheming with one illegal to frame another, risking Station supplies in the process. However, later the story changes: in A Dark And Hungry God Arises, when Holt talks to Norna, he repeats this story, but later in the same scene when the newsreader on Norna’s screen reports on the story, he says essentially that Milos and Angus were partners in the crime, with any reference to Angus being framed being dropped, and this version is also repeated elsewhere. There’s a big problem here - Angus was held by Com-Mine Security until after the Preempt Act was passed, at which point he could be reqqed by the UMCP - yet the very Act which allowed him to be reqqed was passed on the basis that he was an innocent victim of a framing, thus making his forced incarceration at Com-Mine pretty problematic. In addition, much of the tension between Milos and Angus during the interrogation comes about because of Milos’ fear that Angus will make public the fact that he has been framed and Security’s complicity in that - yet at the same time, given the ancillary documentation, the framing must have been public knowledge for the Act to be passed. Oops.

You Should See Her After She’s Eaten Sugar-Coated Cereal

Morn says to the Captain’s Fancy crew: "Until I destructed (sic) Starmaster, I could have hoped for a Station job, UMCPHQ maybe. Now the only thing I can hope for is that they’ll give me a zone implant to keep me under control". Why? She’s hardly running amok, is she? Once they got rid of the implant and she’d recovered from the withdrawal symptoms, I can’t see why she shouldn’t have been allowed to have a station post.

Captain, We’re Experiencing A Few Technical Difficulties

(Thanks to Tor Laneryd for suggesting some of this, and my writing partner and Dan Muller for pointing out the rest.) Despite being built to travel at .5C, Captain’s Fancy reaches .9C. First of all, how did the propulsion system manage it? Even with the Amnion gap components, it’d be like trying to blat a Fiat Bambina down the autobahn at 200 mph. Secondly, how did the shields hold up? If they were designed for .5C speeds, they wouldn’t have been able to cope with the stuff that was thudding into them at .9C. Maybe Nick fitted superior shields to be better protected against other illegals and/or the UMCP, but still. Thirdly, what about the spaceframe, which presumably would have been designed in expectation of the ship’s top speed? A frame designed for .5C would have crumpled like a paper bag at .9C, especially during acceleration/deceleration. And without additional inertial dampeners, the people inside would have been squished all over the walls like an explosion in a jam factory.

Pretty Good, For A Woman

Mikka says to Morn: "Until you came along, I was the most competent woman I’ve ever met. If you don’t count Nick and one or two other men, I was the most competent person I know". Leaving aside the whole question of why the hell she should think Morn is so competent (let’s not start that again), this seems an odd distinction to make, and most unusual for the scrupulously non-sexist Donaldson.

I Thought We Were Playing Truth Or Dare

Morn goes to a great deal of trouble to hide the fact that she has a zone implant from Nick. Then, as soon as someone asks her a direct question about what the hell’s going on with her, she blurts it right out. On a strange ship, surrounded by people who if they don’t mean her harm don’t exactly have her welfare at heart, knowing that if Nick found out he’d probably kill her, to a woman whom she has every reason to believe is loyal to Nick. I don’t think so.


(Thanks to Brigit McCone for this one.) As the Seventh Doctor might have put it: "Just three small points. Who am I? Where am I? And who are you?". Now, we know that when Davies comes to on Enablement there are probably one or two trivial little matters preoccupying him, like how he's suddenly not a girl and how on the other side of the room somebody seems to have picked him up and thrown him on the floor. Absorbing matters, I agree. But despite all of that, isn't it a little strange given Morn's terror of the Amnion that when confronted with a strapping specimen with arms aplenty, Davies doesn't even blink?

Not Tonight, I Have A ... Sixteen Year Old Son

Shortly after Nick and Morn return to Captain’s Fancy from Enablement Station, Nick plans to make love to Morn - after she’s just had a baby! Neither here nor anywhere else is any recognition given to Morn's physical state. The most charitable explanation for this is that the Amnion force-growing technique doesn’t stop at the birth but continues in the mother as well as the child so that she heals immediately, but if so Donaldson should have said so.

I Knew She Was Irresistible, But This Is Ridiculous

Donaldson gets a lot of mileage out of the implied incest issues between Morn and Davies. It’s all stomach-turning, but worse than that, some of it’s illogical. In A Dark And Hungry God Arises, Donaldson says: "[Davies’s] crotch responded when he looked at Morn Hyland", but this just doesn’t make any sense. Davies thinks he is Morn, after all, and biology is mediated by cognition. Overall, Davies has to be one of my least favourite characters, and I'm not the only one. As Brigit McCone comments: "Davies, as a son to Morn with her mind who looks exactly like Angus, had a lot of interesting potential, but wasted it all by relating to his mother only in a sort of whiney at best, incestuous at worst manner that totally failed to convey the fact that he thought he was her." Couldn't have said it better myself (so I didn't).

You Never Know

(Thanks to Torbjörn Andersson for this one.) Before Nick gives Morn to the Amnion, he leaves her zone implant control aboard Captain’s Fancy. He has time to go back for it later, but why would he? What possible use could it be to him given that he’s not expecting to see Morn again? It’s not as if zone implants are rare technology he could sell to the Amnion.

It’s Not That Easy - The Bacteria Charge Double Time At Weekends

(Thanks to Chris Boden for this one - it’s way above my unscientific head, but I like it a lot.) The Amnion’s lesser technological ability is obviously an attempt to identify them with Wagner’s dwarves, but it’s not a concept that makes much sense. Using tailored bacteria to "shit steel" should in fact be more energy-efficient than the human method of digging ore out of the ground, since the metal could just be extracted from ordinary water. Also, the implementation of the idea is not consistent - if the Amnion can make whacking great spaceships, then why not an easy-peasy courier drone? (Apart, of course, from the fact that Morn’s off the hook for broadcasting the formula this way.)

It’s Just Not A Party Without Him

When they take Nick aboard Trumpet, he has a generally cool time scowling, sneering and making acid remarks, eventually getting away from the hapless Sib effortlessly. But why the hell didn’t they just lock him in a cabin in the first place? That wouldn’t have hurt him, so Angus wouldn’t have been stopped from allowing it, and surely all of them put together could have managed it.

The Alarm Was Broken

Davies takes Morn’s zone implant control to knock her out so she doesn’t get gapsick. This gives an opportunity for more brooding on Morn’s part about how he’s male and all that, but why didn’t she just take the control herself and use the timer as she had before?

I Flunked Eye Gouging

Davies and Morn try to ambush Nick as he comes on board Trumpet, and make a complete pig’s ear of it. This is an incredibly pathetic effort - Morn may be "dismantled" by this stage, but Davies isn’t, and he has the benefit of both Angus’s strength and Morn’s training. Clearly they need a few Klingons on staff at the Academy.

I Prefer The Old Ways

I like the way Davies keeps referring to Soar as Gutbuster, thus showing where his emotions on this are coming from.


(Thanks to Dan Muller for this one.) On board Trumpet, Vector brings Morn and Mikka food and coffee. Donaldson refers to steam curling past Vector's shoulders, to steam reaching Morn's nose, and to Mikka having her face in the coffee's steam. It's a zero g environment! If there was a big enough gap to let out so much steam it was reaching Morn's nose, the soup would have been streaming up her nostril as well.

Beware Of Ensigns Bearing Gifts

Min says about Morn: "In the performance of her duties, she’d given humankind a staggering gift: an effective defense against the Amnion". An effective defence against.....??? This about a woman who not only had zip to do with the actual synthesis of the drug but actually allowed the Amnion to take her blood with the antimutagen in it? Did I miss something?

But Don’t Tell The Amnion, ’Cause It’s A Secret

The paradox about the broadcast of the antimutagen formula is never satisfactorily sorted out. They start to broadcast the formula so that it can become public property instead of being in the hands only of the UMC, but the fact that by so doing it’s bound to fall into the hands of the Amnion is never explained away. The continuing broadcast of the formula in the vicinity of Calm Horizons (and Soar, since they knew Milos was on board) seems particularly stupid. Morn, in worrying about whether the Amnion have her blood (bit late then, babe) never seems to grasp that if the Amnion have heard the formula then the point is moot and that even if they haven’t heard it directly they’re going to get hold of it the instant an illegal can get it to them.

We Thought We’d Put The Pool Table In First

There’s no real explanation for why super-light proton cannons aren’t more common. It seems very unlikely to me that installations which ships with them might visit wouldn’t have them also.

Oh, Those Lasers

(Thanks to Torbjörn Andersson for this one.) In Chaos And Order, Mikka uses Trumpet’s forward lasers against an asteroid. However, later in the novel Donaldson states that Trumpet is not equipped with lasers.

Oh, Yeah. Him

(Thanks to Roberto Ullfig for this one.) In Chaos And Order, Trumpet's transmission to UMCPHQ doesn't list Sib Mackern as one of the crew aboard. Yet when Warden is talking to Holt, he knows Sib is on board. A-ha! That's because he... um...

That Fat, Smug Taverner Bastard Was The Last Straw

Aside from the thematic reasons why Nick must fail at revenging himself on Sorus, the practical reason he can’t kill her is that we need her to be around to change sides and thus play a decisive part in the battle. Sorus has to die then, of course, which is kinda interesting given how many years she’s spent serving the Amnion up till then. What isn’t clear is why she made the decision then and why she wasn’t able to kill her Amnion escort prior to this. It would seem the work of a moment for the resourceful Sorus to kill her Amnion then beat it to Deaner Beckmann’s lab with a pocketful of antimutagens - the Amnion with her must have been carrying a fair few at a time, and she therefore could have lasted out the period until they’d managed to synthesise the drug.

A Singular Error

(Thanks to Chris Boden for this.) When the singularity grenades are introduced, we’re told these don’t work because it’s not possible to generate enough localised mass/energy to trigger the black hole. Clearly a vexing problem which has defeated the best efforts of both human and Amnion research teams - but a problem no more, of course, for our intrepid adventurers, who manage to solve it effortlessly and with breathtaking simplicity, firing first a teensy miniature matter cannon, then an even teensier rifle at it! Guess that had never occurred to them back in the lab. Not to mention that there’s no convincing reason (except good old plot expediency) why Ciro has to stand next to the thing to fire the rifle - why not strap the rifle to it and fire by remote control?

As for the physics of all the black hole stuff, all I can say is no, no, no. I'm not gonna criticise the singularity grenades; Donaldson is handwavy about how these work, and that's fair enough. But once the black hole gets out there into normal space with normal physics, nothing that then happens makes any sense. Where did the mass come from that's so huge that ships are sucked in inexorably when they were perfectly comfy before with the ambient gravity? Concentrating the mass isn't going to make that much difference. (Thanks to Dan Muller for this.)

She Wants A Good Grade On Her Performance Review

There seems no question that Sorus has always done the Amnion’s bidding - but I have to wonder why she’s quite as zealously efficient at it as she is. The Amnion are notoriously bad at detecting human treachery, so there seems no reason why she couldn’t have obstructed them to a reasonable degree. After all, if the Amnion succeed in assimilating humanity, her life as a human is over anyway, so it’s to her advantage to do what she can to scupper them.

My Mother Always Said This Would Happen If I Stopped Moisturising

So much happens in these books that sometimes it’s easy to overlook the fact that the events take place in quite a compressed time frame. This being the case, it’s a bit surprising that Morn could go from "airbrushed loveliness" to this: "Her experience had chiseled at her features . . . cutting lines like gutters for pain" in a matter of mere months.

He Couldn’t Find The Manual

The Trumpet crew’s attack on Min aboard Punisher seems a tad melodramatic - was that the best they could come up with? Why didn’t Angus just repair the drives?

I Probably Shouldn’t, But You Have A Kind Face

Holt give a message to Warden from Norna without knowing what it meant? In a pig’s eye. No matter how harmless he thought Norna, Holt didn’t get where he is by trusting anybody, let alone someone he knew wanted to hurt him, or by overlooking details.

It’s For Your Own Good

This whole priority code thing is a huge headache, as there seem to be multiple inconsistencies. Angus hits Min, and the justification for this is that "he had been allowed to hit the ED Director only because Morn was in danger". This doesn’t stack up with what we’ve learned previously about his programming, which is supposedly that he’s not allowed to hurt any UMCP personnel. On the other hand, when Milos tried to use the priority codes to prevent Angus from rescuing Morn it didn’t work, implying that in Angus’s programming Morn is more important than the priority codes. However, Nick later successfully uses the priority codes when he’s attacking Morn to prevent Angus from intervening. And Angus hits Nick at times and also slaps Morn to break her out of her gapsickness. Sigh. (Thanks to Tor Laneryd and Torbjörn Andersson for some brain-bending discussions on this. I don’t think I’m ever going to get it straight.)

Or Press Zero To Leave A Message

Just how does Morn's black box work, anyway? At the beginning it seems like a pretty simple kind of buttony arrangement, yet later on, as Mark Norton points out, "she was playing the black box like it was some sort of MIDI synthesiser and she was belting out the Ode to Joy." (Hey, if you guys are going to do the jokes for me, I'm not going to get in your way.) And what's more, Morn's able to work this apparently infinitely sophisticated device without looking at it.

More philosophically, Mark wonders what the black box might mean on a thematic level and where else they might occur symbolically in the story. Good questions. Any ideas out there?

We Always Figured We’d Do Like We Did At Roswell

Earth of course can’t be allowed to bristle with defences, otherwise it’d make the scenes at the end with Calm Horizons pretty dull, not to mention short. However, the reasoning given for this is a bit pathetic. The idea of Earth not being well-armed is that they had always expected any battle to be further out so that if any aggressor got that close the battle would be over anyway. This, however, seems to completely ignore the nature of the gap drive, with which you can pop out of space right next to Earth or anywhere else with no trouble whatsoever. I found this was a serious flaw - the whole way through the climactic final scenes a current was running in the back of my mind going "I can’t believe they don’t have super-light proton cannon. I can’t believe they..." From the mail I’ve received, this irritation seems to be pretty common - it therefore wins the award for Most Annoying Plot Goof.

I Left Them In My Other Pants

Before Warden leaves for Calm Horizons, Hashi gives him a suicide pill. But why doesn’t he give him an antimutagen? We know Hashi has them, as that’s where Nick got his from.

That Would Be A Demotion

It’s said in Chaos And Order that "it was possible that Fasner would emerge from this crisis as the Dictator for Life of all human space". You mean he’s not already? Given the centrality of the UMC to humankind, the toothlessness of the GCES relative to this and the personal and direct power Holt has over the UMC and the indirect power over the UMCP, I don’t think you’d notice the difference.

It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

After a lot of layers being stripped away, we eventually discover that the "real" reason that Warden sold Morn to Nick was to keep her away from Holt. Jeez, was this the best he could do? I can think of a dozen different schemes, particularly with the Preempt Act in force, that would have been better than that.

She Found A Twelve-Step Programme

Okay, so all the way through the first books we have a whole lotta drama about the zone implant and its withdrawal symptoms. But once Morn gets on board Punisher, it’s never mentioned again! That was a quick recovery.

These Engines Of Destruction Raining Ruin Down From The Sky All Look The Same Part I

(Thanks to Torbjörn Andersson for this one.) When Koina reaches Suka Bator for the emergency session, she ponders: "Then she might find herself praying for Punisher to fire down ruin on the island. Death would be easier to face than her culpability for a disaster of such magnitude." Punisher? Doesn’t she mean Calm Horizons?

These Engines Of Destruction Raining Ruin Down From The Sky All Look The Same Part II

Don't fret about Calm Horizons being snubbed, though, as it gets its revenge when Morn tells the GCES via a downlink from Punisher : "Aboard Calm Horizons, I discovered I was pregnant...". Whoopsie! (Thanks to my preternaturally observant writing partner for this one.)

That's Fightin' Talk

As anyone who's read The Man Who Fought Alone knows, Donaldson's a martial arts aficionado. No surprise, then, that the name of Punjat Silat, the Senior GCES Member for the Combined Asian Islands and Peninsula, is an adaptation of Pentjak (a.k.a. Punjat) Silat, the Malaysian and Indonesian martial arts style. (Well, it was a surprise to me, but not to Colin Burnaman, who kindly pointed it out.)

A Matter Of Time

(Thanks to Doug Rank and Dan Muller for this one.) Everybody's very scared of the Amnion's proton cannon comin' at 'em at .9C. Yet Donaldson rips the spine out of his own argument by showing during the escape from Enablement just how difficult for all parties tactical combat is at that speed. There's the relativistic effects, for a start. And let's not even get into the complicating factor of time dilation - since Donaldson doesn't either. [Both Doug and Dan independently suggested that an asteroid thrown at Earth would have made a much more effective weapon. With such dastardly minds, it's lucky for us neither of them are Amnion.]

Come In, Come In, M’Boy

It’s implied that Holt has some sinister fate for Davies in mind, which is why he’s trying so hard to get hold of him. However, it turns out in the end that all Holt wants Davies for is because "He wanted to see the result of imprinting for himself, to secure some vindication for his vision." Is that all? So what?

Richard Butler also writes to point out with perfect truth that this goes double for the Amnion. Rather than fixating on Davies like a toddler who's had its lollipop taken away, why didn't they just get hold of an apparently-ubiquitous zone implant and a few human guinea pigs and experiment away to their hearts' content?

Bad Move, Space Cadet

Why did Warden show Marc his suicide pill? It would have been just as easy to tell him he had a device that couldn’t be taken away - like a tooth, say - without revealing it.

That Alienesque Fabric’s All The Rage

Davies hangs onto his Amnion shipsuit, as it’s a thread of continuity for him, etc etc. This seems pretty unlikely - the Amnion might well have invented mutagens which can penetrate skin and impregnated the fabric of the material with them, and if they hadn’t, it likely would have occurred to somebody that they might have. And what are the Amnion doing making human shipsuits anyway?

This Was More Of A Challenge

Donaldson makes a big mystery about how Angus is planning to take out Calm Horizons’s super-light proton cannon. We eventually find that Angus is planning to squish it full of hull sealant, but why didn’t they just do whatever it was Nick did? He didn’t seem to have too much trouble neutralising Soar’s. ( Torbjörn Andersson points out Nick wasn’t exactly making a secret of what he was doing and that the sealant squishing would have been less easy to detect at a routine check. Fair enough. I guess that while Punisher’s plasma sealant stores were almost exhausted, there was enough for the cannon squishing, and it seems that in fact the introduction of the concept of the sealant was the whole point of the fire scene on board Punisher, which seems curiously pointless otherwise.)

Sequels Are Always Disappointing

The singularity grenade - yeah, cool concept, despite its tecnological problems, but only the first time. By the time they were waving it around at Calm Horizons it had lost its novelty value and just seemed like an excuse to kill Ciro.

We Come In Peace

I’ve got serious problems with the decision not to attack the Amnion (not that I expected Donaldson, avowed pacifist, to say anything else). They say that it’s too risky to provoke a full-scale war, yet we know the Amnion don’t have the technological knowhow to be able to take on humankind at this point in time. If they are planning to fight them at some point, what are they waiting for, exactly? The Amnion have the antimutagen formula, so time is on their side. The longer humankind waits, the more likely it is that it’ll be infiltrated once the Amnion develop mutagens that allow the victims to retain enough of their humanity to pass, thus allowing the species to be wiped out in a bloodless coup. The incredibly feeble excuse is given that the Amnion won’t be a problem because "it wounds their genetic identity to deal falsely". Oh, suuuuure. That’s about as accurate as saying a Vulcan can’t lie. What about them giving Nick the experimental gap drive components in the sure and certain hope that Captain’s Fancy’d vanish in the gap? Highly trustworthy, I must say. (Addendum: Larry Symms has written to point out that the Amnion are in fact (at least, according to Nick, and we have no reason to assume he got it wrong) using Captain's Fancy to test their components that use tach to generate acceleration, as Donaldson makes perfectly clear in the text. Mea maxima culpa. Although I still wouldn't trust the Amnion as far as I could heave 'em.)

And They All Lived Happily Ever After

Well, you can’t blame Donaldson for wanting to end on a high note after all the trials and tribulations his characters have endured, but in fact the ending is treacherously upbeat. For a start, as I’ve said, humankind, far from being delivered from the threat of the Amnion is in fact standing on the brink of destruction. And on a personal level, what exactly is Angus planning to do with the rest of his life? We get the impression that he isn’t gonna have any truck with the Amnion, but Donaldson also implies elsewhere that everything illegal turns around the Amnion, and I can’t see Angus going legit. And Morn doesn’t appear to have much ahead of her either. After saving the world, she can hardly go back on the beat (and she can’t anyway because of her gapsickness), yet she’s not qualified for anything else - she is, after all, only a young, recently qualified ensign, despite the near-superhuman status she (apparently) manages to achieve. It’s also seriously annoying that Morn should have one moment of epiphany and be miraculously healed - anyone less Goddesslike than Morn would need years of therapy to get over what had happened to her, if indeed she ever did. (None of this, of course, stopped me sobbing my eyes out when I was reading Warden’s note to Morn, although I protest that it’s a cheap trick.)

So there it is. It's gripping, it's infuriating, it's mesmerising, it's flawed, it's brilliant. It's the Gap, and I love it.

  The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story

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  The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge

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  The Gap Into Power: A Dark And Hungry God Arises

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  The Gap Into Power: A Dark And Hungry God Arises

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  The Gap Into Madness: Chaos And Order

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  The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die

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