The Real Story by Stephen Donaldson. Retrospective review

Posted by Nick Niesen on October 27th, 2010


The Real Story is a short but intense tale set in a future in which humans travel between the stars using "gap drives," controllable brain implants are punishable by death, and a private company called the United Mining Company runs law enforcement for all of known space. Ensign Morn Hyland lives aboard a police ship with most of her family, chasing down pirates and other illegals who prey on the weak or smuggle goods into forbidden space.
Through a strange turn of events, one particularly nasty perpetrator ends up with Morn as his companion--or at least that's the way it appears to the folks at the space station's bar. Why would a young, strong, beautiful police officer associate with a crusty, murdering pirate? People watch with interest as Morn appears to fall in lust with another racy illegal, Captain Nick Succorso. Morn and Nick must have plotted together to frame Angus and escape together, right? But the real story was quite different.


This novella is a prelude to four subsequent volumes, and it tells a simple and one-dimensional story. An intergalactic setting in the far future revolves around two rival space pirates named Angus Thermopyle and Nick Succorso, and, between them, a UMCP (United Mining Companies Police) ensign named Morn Hyland. The story is told from Angus' point of view, and he is one of the most depraved and sorry figures ever depicted in a work of fiction. His repeated violations of Morn -- described in graphic detail -- have drawn hostile reviews and cries of misogyny, but Donaldson's purpose is to evoke a thoroughly dark and sordid mood in this series. 'The Real Story' is simple and short., and indeed, as a stand-alone novel, this book is lacking is depth, character development (with the exception of one character, and though we come to understand his decisions, his motives are largely unrevealed) and a satisfying conclusion, there are two points that are vital to note. These two points are apparently contradictory, but I'll attempt to explain:

1) This was written as a short novella. It wasn't intended to be the first in a series, and as such it doesn't bear many of the traits usually associated with the first book in a series, such as hints of larger plots or other elements designed to draw the reader back for book 2. As a stand-alone novel, Donaldson kept this in a drawer, unpublished, for some years. Only as part of a larger series does it work, yet it doesn't read like the beginning of a series. Once you understand this, the flaws are less glaring.

2) In apparent contradiction of point 1, above, please understand that it IS the first in a series. The series itself is probably the best science fiction I've ever read, but it really doesn't get going until mid-way through book 2. Again, once you accept that most of the "good stuff" comes after 'The Real Story, it's easier to bear to flaws.

Though I don't seek to excuse any form of weakness here (after all, whatever it was intended to be and however great the rest of the series, the first book should still be complete and engaging), I do seek to prevent people being deterred by the lukewarm reviews of this first installment. It's not bad by any means, merely incomplete. I would issue a couple of warnings though: Firstly, this book is grim and brutal; be prepared. And secondly, Donaldson tells character-based stories in fantastic settings - if you're looking for detailed high technology and hard science, this might not be your scene.

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Nick Niesen

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Nick Niesen
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