How much can humanity consume? Earth is a solitary realm. She has a long past, most of it devoid of humanity. Thanks to plate tectonics and the unique chemical ability of sediment and stone to record images of Earth’s past, we know that other creatures once roamed the plains and forests or swam the deep oceans of our world. The Kansas prairie is full of fossils from the Permian geologic period. The diversification of amniotes into mammals, turtles, lepidosaurs, and archosaurs was a key to our evolution. But 250 million years ago, a runaway greenhouse effect caused by an explosion of methane in the atmosphere caused nearly all life on Earth to vanish. It took thirty million years for Earth’s ecosystems to recover.
In A Dark and Hungry God Arises the third book in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Gap Cycle humanity stands at the door of an extinction event that comes from the deep dark of space. In this book we get closer to the real story promised us in the first book of The Gap Cycle. Morn Hyland’s crisis aboard Captain’s Fancy becomes an existential fear of genetic mutilation by the Amnion. A personal horror that all of humanity faces if the UMCP cannot prevent it.
The story unfolds on Billingate, a space station where humans and Amnion trade secrets and currency for profit, pleasure, and power. At Billingate we are re-introduced to Angus Thermopyle who has become a welded cyborg under the control of Hashi Lebwol and Warden Dios. As a tool for the UMCP, Angus has a singular mission; destroy Billingate, even if that means sacrificing Morn Hyland and the crew of Captain’s Fancy in the process.
Meanwhile, in Earth space, we learn about the power structure of the UMCP, how and why humanity ventured to the stars, the invention of the Gap Drive—the talisman that powers the story—and humanity’s first encounter with an alien species.
Without enough fossil fuels to make energy cheap (except in space, fusion generators were prohibitively expensive to build and maintain); without enough trees to recycle the atmosphere; without new raw materials to replace the old; without any adequate way to make productive use of garbage, or to dispose of it in a nonpolluting fashion; without frontiers or wars to provide the sense of excitement or urgency which inspired creative problem solving: Earth had become a seemingly endless list of things her people had to do without. The planet appeared to have outrun its own future.A Dark and Hungry God Arises by Stephen R. Donaldson
Thank the muses Donaldson does not write in the limiting first person narrative. The Gap Cycle unfolds from the omniscient third person, each chapter a study of one character and their actions in the larger narrative. My nit to pick is that characters like Liete, Soar, or Godsen are visited just enough to mend the ends of a narrative that threatens to unravel. On the other hand, the narrative does not unravel. Our glimpse into Godsen Frick is crucial to understanding the Dragon and his conflict with Warden Dios. Liete’s breezy entrance and exit bring a sudden end to Captain’s Fancy, an end we might not appreciate if seen simply from Nick’s point of view.
What I like best about The Gap Cycle is how the conflicts of this epic story layer one against each other into a delicious and satisfying work. All good authors attempt to layer a character’s inner conflict with an external conflict; an inner weakness that can only be reconciled by the physical or mental conflict with another. In The Gap Cycle we have traveled from an intensely intimate conflict between Angus and Morn, and Morn and Nick to the broader conflicts of humanity against itself and the Amnion.
The enslavement of Angus mirrors his humiliation and control of Morn, but it also represents the old human desire to control or take from another so that you and yours might profit. Nick selling Morn to the Amnion, and the Amnion attempts at genetically mutating her into an Amnion is a microcosm of the Dragon selling out humanity for his own immortality.
Another element that I enjoy in The Gap Cycle is the use, and not-use of the Gap Drive. The Gap Drive makes it possible for humanity to cross between stars in the blink of an eye. All the Galaxy is available to explore with the only limits the speed of a ship entering the gap and that ship’s capacity to support her crew. While the distance between stars has become small, the distance in a planetary system is still immense. After making a gap crossing, space ships need to find their position and determine a route to the nearest civilized outpost.
I cry foul when ships in Star Trek or Star Wars line up on a plane and start shooting at each other from a few kilometers distance. Donaldson avoids that. The crew on a gap-enabled ship is blind until the ship’s sensors can sweep the area and determine the location of objects in the vicinity. And in space, where everything is moving all the time, positions must be assumed, calculated, and, in some cases, guessed. Add the old challenge of matching or exceeding velocities in a chase and the ship-to-ship scenes become grittier, more real. Unlike the warp drive of Star Trek, the Gap Drive does not cut the vastness of space, it traps humanity into believing any distance can be crossed, then leaves them abandoned, all alone in the dark.
By the end of A Dark and Hungry God Arises we have a complete view of the Universe Donaldson created for his story, but with the destruction of Bilingate we are left with the uneasy feeling that the real story has yet to be told.