Wednesday, January 25, 2006

This Day All Gods Die, Stephen R. Donaldson

Title: This Day All Gods Die
Author: Stephen R. Donaldson
Rating: Great!

This Day All Gods Die is book five - the last book - of Donaldson's Gap series. I have reviewed the other four elsewhere (links provided below) but this review will cover the whole series, in addition to the final book. Having finished them all, I feel the need to review the entire series as a unit.

For the record, the books in the series are:
  1. The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story, 220 pages, 20 page afterward, review link
  2. The Gap Into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge, 455 pages, review link
  3. The Gap Into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises, 518 pages, review link
  4. The Gap Into Madness: Chaos and Order, 674 pages, review link
  5. The Gap Into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die, 688 pages
About the last book itself: I think it is the best of all. Of course it benefits from being the volume that resolves the conflicts and lose ends, thus tying up the overall story. More importantly, the reader learns where the various characters wind up, and how they respond to their individual fates. Once I started reading it, I finished it all in just two days, despite other commitments. (In fact, I have to finish this review and then get back to the rest of my life, which I've left on hold for too long.)

Of the whole series, I have refined my thoughts about it over time. I called it a "space opera" in a previous review, and that is correct, but it's also misleading. The term fits because of the setting (space ships, faster than light drive, conflict in deep space, etc.) and characters (some of whom are well oversize, driven, conflicted, etc.). But there's much more to these novels than just telling a story about some people in space and their arguments.

Donaldson has a tendency to write about complex things. In my experience, he really hits on ethics and redemption. Hard. He hammers on his characters as they go through their story. Often they don't understand the forces and motivations driving them, so they have to discover (or make up) reasons for things as they go along. And all his major characters have significant flaws they must overcome, or not. They tend not to be "nice" people - not even remotely.

The Gap series follows that pattern. There are perhaps six or eight major characters, about whom we learn a lot and who we see change over time. There are another ten or so characters who we see in some detail, and who also grow, but we don't concentrate on them quite as much. Donaldson is telling the stories of those people - all of them, to some depth - as the whole story unfolds. It is the individual stories of those people that are really important. The overall plot is a vehicle or place where he can let his characters evolve and change.

Donaldson uses an interesting literary device in these books. The chapter titles are just the names of the characters. All they tell you is which person's point of view you're getting in each chapter. The story is linear, so in general the chapters don't overlap much. As a result, you see each character handle certain pivotal situations personally, rather than from outside. This makes the impacts of events more personal and gut wrenching for both the characters and the reader.

As I stated in my review of The Real Story, that book could be read as a stand alone tale. (It's almost short enough to be a novella.) However, of the five books, it is the weakest. And it is only the huge expansion on what we know about each of the characters that puts the needed perspective on that first novel. (I listed the number of pages in each book above just to give a sense of how much more story their is after that first book completes.)

I could quibble with a couple of nits in these books. Science fiction is hard to write in a way that will keep someone well trained in science happy all the time. And I think Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books are somewhat better, partly because they avoid those issues entirely by virtue of their fantasy setting.

That said, however, the Gap series does make the reader think about the gray areas of morality and ethics in much the same way that Covenant does. What does it mean when you have to do bad things to get a good result in the end? What if you have to use people - in the most horrific of ways - to achieve that end? Donaldson even approaches the question of possession here - something he dwells on at length in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Is possession ever acceptable? And again, does the end ever justify the means?

In fact, I think Donaldson's questions around possession are better presented in the Gap series because I can imagine the devices he describes that allow possession actually being possible. Possession though magic is never going to happen, but possession though technology... now there is something that could become all too real.

I admire Donaldson immensely. His work is powerful stuff, and it takes some stomach to get through it. But coming out the other side is, for me, always transformative. I believe that is his intent. I think his goal - if he has one beyond simply telling the stories of his characters - is to make his readers think deeply about the ways people treat each other, in the hopes that we'll all be better at it in the end.

I strongly recommend these books, but if you start, you need to finish them all.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Chaos and Order, Stephen R. Donaldson

Chaos and Order
Stephen R. Donaldson

Chaos and Order is book four of the Gap series. Mostly, I am posting this review just to acknowledge that I finished it, and claim credit for it. I think I will have to do a full review of the entire series when I finish the next (and last) book, This Day All Gods Die.

Never-the-less, I will say that I continue to enjoy these books. Good stuff.

More when I finish the last one.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Dark and Hungry God Arises, Stephen R. Donaldson

Title: A Dark and Hungry God Arises
Author: Stephen R. Donaldson
Rating: Good

A Dark and Hungry God Arises is book three of the Gap series. It continues the story of the three main characters: Angus Thermopyle, Morn Highland, and Nick Succorso, as well as introducing (and/or developing) several more. Book two left things at a major cliff hanger; here things aren't left quite as open, but there is clearly a lot of the story still to tell.

I am enjoying these books quite a bit. Donaldson's handling of the space opera setting is better in books two and three than it was in the first. I suspect he requires a complex plot and setting to do his best work, and he simply hadn't figured it all out while writing the first volume. As always, his characters are still very dark, full of conflicts, and most are stuck in the bad side of humanity much or all of the time. Never-the-less, they grow on you, in a weird way.

There are two more left in the series, and I'll start on book four very soon. Perhaps tomorrow.

In short: recommended, but as I mentioned in my previous review, I haven't read the entire series yet, which means I can't yet address the entire thing as a whole. I'll have to do that when I review the last volume.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Forbidden Knowledge, Stephen R. Donaldson

Forbidden Knowledge
Stephen R. Donaldson

Forbidden Knowledge is book two of the Gap series. Book one - The Real Story - basically stood on it's own. Book two, however, is clearly an introduction. Donaldson sets his board up carefully, and then it ends, leaving you (or me, in this case) hanging, and needing to go read the next book - A Dark and Hungry God Arises - which I will do shortly.

The writing in here is well done, and well paced. As with the previous volume, this is a space opera, and the story is getting larger. Many of the things that I wondered about while reading The Real Story are now explained, or at least fleshed out in enough detail that I have a clue about them.

I enjoyed this, but frankly I expected him to end it without a huge cliff hanger. He's got major characters in peril at the end of this, and then, poof, it's over. Thankfully I own the next volume already.

If I have any complaints, they are pretty minor. Donaldson didn't anticipate the rate at which digital data storage would grow. He writes (in one location) that a particular kind of storage device contains "thousands of gigabytes." He wrote that in 1990 or 1991. But even then, I suspect that the term "terabyte" was being thrown around in various places, and it would probably have been better if he's just avoided mentioning data capacity at all, and instead said it was gigantic. But that's a nit, really.

The other concern I have, if you want to call it that, is that I keep thinking there must be some other solution or way out for his characters. To make an example from a book I dearly love and that I probably can't spoil for anyone: why did Frodo and the rest of the members of the original quest party have to walk all the way from Rivendell to Mordor? Gandalf had connections with the eagles, and could, in theory, have called in some favors, and had them all flown there in record time. Why did they walk?

I haven't found a plot breaker in the Gap series yet, but for some reason I keep feeling like there might be one there somewhere. Don't get me wrong. I am enjoying these books, and will plow on into the next one ASAP, but at the back of my mind, I keep wondering if there isn't something obvious that I (and thus the author) have missed. I sincerely hope I am wrong.

Oh, and one more thing. Like all of Donaldson's works that I've read, and as I mentioned in my review of The Real Story, none of his main characters are simple, nice heroes or heroines. They're all a mess, with complex (and sometimes horrific) back stories and histories. Even the most heroic figure from The Real Story is showing his other side in many ways by the time you're half way through this book. If you read these, be prepared to deal with the nasty, scummy side of human nature.

In short: recommended, but since I haven't read the whole series yet, I can't yet address the entire thing as a whole.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

The Real Story, Stephen R. Donaldson

The Real Story
Stephen R. Donaldson

This is an interesting review to write.

At some level, I am addicted to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Donaldson. His writing in them is interesting, sometimes challenging, and sometimes irritating, but the story he tells, the characters he creates, and the Land... oh, the Land. (That may sound stupid as you read it, but for some reason - perhaps having to do with when I was introduced to these books, or perhaps because the woman who became my wife did the introduction - I love the Land.)

So, over the years, I have always been interested in the other things that Donaldson has written. He wrote the Mordant's Need books, and they are good, but I didn't think they came quite up to the level of Covenant. He wrote some short stories too, and the one volume I have of those is good, but it's been a long time since I last read it. He also wrote a set of detective novels, which are on my TBR list for this year. And finally, he's written a science fiction series, of which this novel - The Real Story - is the first.

Yesterday night, I was sitting in my living room, dog tired after a very long day of physical work at the gym and then in the yard, and couldn't bring myself to read the next chapter in the AHA manual on CPR that I have yet to finish. So I picked up The Real Story and started in.

Now before I tell you what I thought about this book, I need to relate a bit of history. This book was first published in 1991. At the time, I found it in some book store, and was curious. So I opened it up and stood there - in front of the new releases shelves - reading the first few chapters, perhaps more. After maybe 20 or 30 minutes, I put it down, deciding I wasn't interested. It seemed false in some way, and unfulfilling. That is all I remember from that encounter, except a feeling of disappointment that Donaldson hadn't done better.

Fast forward 15 years.

I read half the book last night, and the other half this evening. Clearly it held my attention. Finishing it in such a short time isn't that big a surprise. In paperback form, it isn't that long; only 220 pages.

Perhaps my standards were lower because of what little I remember of my reaction from my last perusal, but then again, perhaps not. The story is interesting, and reasonably well told. I won't say it is a masterpiece. It's good, though; a solid story. It introduces some interesting characters, though it spends most of it's time on just one of them. Perhaps the largest issue I see are the references to various things that I don't yet understand, and yet feel I should. (What is "forbidden space" for example?) The world here may be well fleshed out, but I can't tell that from only the first novel in the series.

Never-the-less, I enjoyed the book. Without giving it away, it's a space opera of sorts. The plot is reasonable, though perhaps a tiny bit simplistic to my mind. None of the main characters is particularly likable - that's a trademark of Donaldson's writing, though, and I was not surprised by it. (Read the first few of chapters of Lord Foul's Bane if you want to meet a really unlikable character - and hero. Thomas Covenant has a lot to get over, let me tell you, and many people cannot get past the introduction to him and thus give up on the series. To their loss, I add.)

In short, a good story, but not a great story.

And then I came to the Afterward that I didn't know was there the first time I picked this book up 15 years ago. A 20 page afterward, from the author to the reader, discussing where he gets his ideas, and how the Gap series evolved. It doesn't give away anything big (as far as I can tell) about the rest of the books, but it was fascinating reading, encompassing many things, but including an interesting summary of Wagner's entire Ring Cycle.

That Afterward is a gold mine to me, even having only read it once, and even if I never read it again. Donaldson struggles with his writing - The Real Story went through his word processor at least six times and he was still not happy with it. When he finally figures out why he's not happy with it, it's because the story is too small, and he needs four more books to finish it.

Ah! The Real Story is essentially an introduction! And even Donaldson didn't know that when he first wrote it. Fascinating!

I've toyed with the idea of writing fiction. I've not done it since high school, though, and I'm a bit afraid of trying. Mostly because I have a lot of other commitments, and because I have a budding career as a sculptor that should be consuming much more of my time than it currently does. However, Donaldson has given me permission to do what I have to do. It wasn't intentional, but to me, he's said "this is hard" in a way that got through my brain. That lets me off my own hook for a while, so my ideas can percolate as long as needed, possibly forever.

Maybe I will write when the time is right. Maybe I won't. Either way, and without it being his intention, a master has said it's OK. He didn't think that's what he was writing in that Afterward, but that's what he told me.

I really look forward to the rest of the Gap series. I have no real expectations on content, and they may or may not rise to the level of greatness, but I've got a step up on them now. I hope to enjoy them, and analyze them too. Donaldson's writing is always worth analyzing. And it's worth enjoying too.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Title: The Princess Bride
Author: William Goldman
Rating: Good

If you've seen the movie The Princess Bride then you know the story: grandfather reads to sick grandson a story about a beautiful but poor girl who falls in love with a handsome but poor farm boy. The farm boy has to make his fortune in the world before he can marry the girl, so... oh, wait. Anything more would be a spoiler for those who haven't seen the movie or read the book. And I don't want to spoil it for you.

Let me say this, then. The book, which was written before the movie (book: 1973; movie: 1987), has many of the same devices in it that the movie does. I found that very amusing, actually. It (the book) is a bit of fluff, to be honest. It's a fairy tale, and it reads very quickly. The same plot holes that exist in the movie also exist in the book. However, it, like the movie, is a lot of fun. It's a very quick read, and kept me in my chair and chucking, so I'd call it a success.

What I found most interesting were the differences between the book and the movie. This isn't an "internal" story, where the author gets into the heads of his characters in any depth. It's an action-adventure-comedy, and that makes the transition from book to screen much easier, I'd guess. That said, there are differences between the two, and noting them as you read this is interesting. As an aside, the author - William Goldman - also wrote the screenplay for the movie.

If you've ever considered writing a screenplay, I suggest watching the movie and reading this book, then sit down and carefully analyze the differences. If you note what had to be changed to turn a 283 page paperback into a 98 minute movie, I suspect you'd learn a lot. The movie is #120 on IMDb's current top 250 list, so it's probably a good movie to study, if that's your thing.

In short, a fun, quick book, and a chance to learn a bit of craft if you so desire.

Monday, January 2, 2006

The White Plague, Frank Herbert

The White Plague
Frank Herbert

I first read The White Plague by Frank Herbert back in 1988 or '89. I had started a new job at a very strange company - one where I had no real friendships, and where any social interaction I got came from outside the company. My coworkers were brilliant people, but their lifestyle was not like mine. They'd come to the US from France to start a company. They hung out together, and did nothing but work. The company was located in downtown Palo Alto, and I took to reading on my lunch break as a way to relieve the monotony of sitting in front of my computer all day with no other breaks at all and no one to talk with about anything. Palo Alto had (and may still have) some used bookstores, and I found this book in one of them.

Picking it up to reread it, something like 18 years later, I didn't remember much about the book except that I thought it was both amazing and frightening when I first read it. I wondered if it would hold up to that standard now, or if there was something about me or my environment that made it stand out so much.

I'm glad to report it is still a good book, but I must admit it wasn't as great as I remembered it.

Of the plot, I will say basically what is on the back cover - it won't count as a spoiler. An American biochemist has his wife and children killed in a bombing in Ireland. He takes his revenge by creating a disease that kills only women and releasing it there, among other places. It's set in the "now" of the early 1980's. The Berlin Wall hasn't come down, the Soviet Union still exists, and computers are still large, central, shared objects. You have to accept the story in that time and place, or it won't make much sense.

Frank Herbert can write - and write well - in my opinion. Just look at Dune. The writing in this book is good but the problems, however, are two fold:

First, there's a lot of molecular biology double talk in here, I think. Perhaps, back in 1982, it was good enough, but this time around, I wasn't buying it as deeply as I must have before. Every time he'd get on the hairy edge of something that sounded plausible, he'd just as quickly get away from it again. I found that frustrating, and eventually just had to decide that he was doing the best he could at the time. Biology has advance a lot in 20 years, and I've followed a fair chunk of it, even if only superficially.

Secondly, there are some things happening in the last couple of chapters that feel too warm and fuzzy. It's as if he had to end the book and hadn't thought everything through deeply enough about the ending, and had a happy ending requirement like the one Hollywood usually imposes. I think a more sober ending would have been better.

There's a lot of Irish history in here, and I honestly don't know how true or accurate it is. If anyone with a deep understanding of Irish history were to read the book, I would appreciate some indication of how well Herbert did in his research.

What is scary about The White Plague, though, is still 100% possible. The anthrax scare of the 9/11 period could easily be just the tip of the iceberg. If a determined lunatic wants to do damage to our planet, it very well might not require nuclear weapons. Biology provides ample opportunities to harm vast numbers of people, and the fact is that one person's efforts could be both lethal and hidden until it is too late to counteract them.

So in summary, the message of the book is still very real, and it is something I think people should ponder. I only wish the book itself had held up a bit better over time. A good read, but not a great read.