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.