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Forbidden Knowledge
by Stephen Donaldson

classifications: Science-Fiction / Space Opera / Dark / Hard

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Donaldson, primarily known for the excellent Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, has turned his attention to science-fiction with the Gap series. This, the second of the five books, starts to show the depth of the series, after the rather brief The Real Story.

It is immediately obvious that this is a very unpleasant world. Those familiar with Donaldson's earlier work would not expect sweetness and light, but this far surpasses what has come before.

Morn Hyland, the central figure of the series so far, a former United Mining Companies Police crew member, is in the hands of a pirate. Nick Succorso has "rescued" her from another pirate, Angus Thermopyle. Outwardly, they appear opposites, but their treatment of Morn is much the same. Using and abusing her body, Angus and Nick have pushed her mind beyond any point of return. Her only lifeline is the zone implant Angus installed in her brain; with it she maintains the facade of sanity and devotion recquired to keep her alive.

Donaldson pushes his characters through hell and then some, with not even a glimmer of hope anywhere. Though this is hardly cheerful, it is also less disturbing than the "build up hope then crush it" cycle of A Song of Ice and Fire. There is also the feeling that the characters are simply parts in the machine that is the story - I did not ever care for the characters in the way I normally would. There was simply a detached interest in what was going to happen next, and how each "problem" would be solved.

This may be simply a defense mechanism on my part. The style of the story, however, reminds me of classic hard sci-fi "problem stories", where the author uses some clever trick of physics to extricate his characters. In this case, the problem is survival, and the tricks are usually emotional rather than physical.

Despite the corruption and amorality that is every page of this story, I found myself enjoying it, on a purely intellectual level. Emotions never came into it, which I have to think in this case is a good thing, and deliberate. Donaldson proved in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant he can write characters disturbingly well, so the lack this time around is unlikely the fault of the author. Naturally, this will not be to everyone's tastes, but then, what book is? This is the closest I have seen to an old fashioned hard science fiction story in recent times, and for me, that is reason enough to read it.

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