Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Stephen R. Donaldson - The Real Story

Most of the crowd at Mallorys Bar & Sleep over in Delta Sector had no idea what was really going on. As far as they were concerned, it was just another example of animal passion, men and women driven together by lust – the kind of thing everybody understood, or at least dreamed about. The only uncommon feature was that in this case the passion included some common sense. Only a few people knew there was more to it.

That, of course, was not the real story
. (p. 1-6)

The Real Story opens by giving us the general view of what happened between two space pirates over a woman. What we see is bland and predictable. It is not, of course, what really happened. Next we’re shown the experts’ point of view those same events, probing deeper beneath the surface. That is not the whole picture either, however. Finally, we’re shown the real story, played out scene by agonizing and unilluminated scene, and we come to understand the intricacies of Donaldson’s creation.

Donaldson’s central conceit is to begin with a classic Antagonist-Victim-Rescuer triangle and turn it on his head, with Donaldson saying as much in the afterword:

My original intentions were explicitly archetypical. What I had in mind was an aesthetically perfect variation on the basic three-sided story: the story in which a victim (Morn), a Villain (Angus), and a Rescuer (Nick) all change roles…Victimized by Angus, Morn is recued by Nick – but that, of course, is not the real story. The real story has to do with the way in which Nick becomes Angus’s victimizer and Morn becomes Angus’s rescuer. (p. 224-225)

In this, Donaldson moves with power and subtlety. From the opening, Angus Thermopyle seems a standard villain, vain, greedy, run down, powerful, and all but cackling. As the narrative progresses, however, we come to truly understand (though still revile) him. Morn Hyland’s character, on the other hand, doesn’t become deeper, but rather shallower, in devastating, heart wrenching, and drawn out torments. The final member of our subverted triangle, Nick, is viewed only on the periphery, for most of the story, but he is handled as well as the other two.

There are two main problems with The Real Story, however. The first of them is the sheer grimness of Donaldson’s vision. Now, I like dark fiction. I think that, imply what it may about my psyche, the most interesting stories are the ones that hurt the most, that make us reel back and try to shy away. In The Real Story, Donaldson has plenty of that. What he has absolutely none of, however, is contrast. There are no, and I mean that quite literally, uplifting moments in The Real Story. None.

This isn’t a black and white drama, but I’m not sure if it’s necessarily more complex. We aren’t talking about that new fad of gray versus black. This isn’t even gray versus gray. The Real Story is full on black versus black, pitch battling midnight, with an is-that-black-or-just-a-really-really-dark-gray watching from the sidelines. If black and white morality can be criticized for taking the human element out and exculpating the characters from all meaningful moral choices, this is the same. By painting everyone in an equally despicable light, Donaldson shirks away from any real moral dilemmas to the same degree, no longer a battle between Rand and the Dark One, it’s just the Dark One squaring off with Sauron, innocent slaughtering, sadistic, misogynistic pirate versus innocent slaughtering, sadistic, misogynistic pirate.

The other major problem with The Real Story results from the interesting opening and increasingly deep conceptions of just what happened. Now, I think that the structure of the book was extremely well done, and I was curious as to just how certain events played out when everything began, but the real story turns out to be far too similar to the experts’ conception of it. Yes, over the two hundred pages of narrative we get more motivations, some events that those experts didn’t imagine, etc, but on the whole, our initial grasp of what happened is pretty much sufficient to extract all suspense from the story, turning nail biting fight scenes into yeah, I know how this ends. Can we speed things up a tad?

The Real Story set out with a very specific concept in mind and succeeded perfectly in its aim. Unfortunately, its narrow focus led to a whole host of other problems, and I’m unsure if that one success really justifies the flaws of the story. I suppose that this volume’s worthiness will really depend on the strengths of its sequels. On its own, however, I’d only advise checking out The Real Story if the concept is something you feel you need to read.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't like the book at all. Thermopyle is an out-and-out bastard with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. When he runs into trouble, the reader is supposed to feel sorry for him, even though the reader is not given the slightest reason for doing so. Morn Hyland, whom Thermopyle has beaten and raped does feel sorry for him; however, I have worked with rape victims, and not a single one of them would feel the slightest compassion for their rapists.

    There are also holes in the plot that one could drive a spaceship through.