Monday, May 13, 2019

Birthday Review: Four Zelazny Capsules

Roger Zelazny would have been 82 today, but, dammit, he died way too young in 1995. I loved his short fiction but I haven't written a lot about it, so instead I've taken four rather short bits, capsules, really, that I did of four of his novels, for my SFF Net newsgroup a while ago, and in once case for  Black Gate retro-review of an issue of Galaxy.

I also reviewed Lord of Light for SF Site some time ago: Lord of Light review.

This Immortal

(cover by Gray Morrow)
Having just reread Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, I decided to go ahead and reread his other award-winning novel, This Immortal.  The serial version of This Immortal, "... and Call Me Conrad", won the very 1966 Hugo, in a tie with Dune.  I have the Ace first edition paperback of This Immortal. The book version, at about 58,000 words, is perhaps 8,000 words longer than the serial, but I've compared the two, and the changes are a mix of some excisions, and some expansions, and some phrasing changes. Incidentally, the copy on my Ace edition states that the book version, due to its changes, was still eligible for a Hugo, and they suggest it might win two Hugos in a row. (Of course, it didn't, and wasn't even nominated, but, interestingly, the actual winner, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, had been nominated the previous year on the basis of its (technically not yet finished) serialization.)

This Immortal is a good read, with plenty of Zelaznyesque brio. But it's not as good as Lord of Light (many, I should note, disagree,) and actually, it seems a bit, well, slight.  The ending is a distinct anti-climax.  It's still a book you ought to read, mind you, but it's just real good, not great. The storyline concerns Conrad Nomikos, one of about 4 million people still living on Earth centuries in the future, after a Nuclear war, and after the bulk of the population has gone to the stars to work for the advanced, civilized, Vegans.  Conrad and some of his friends had years before been involved in the "Returnist" movement, urging people to return to Earth, and resisting the Vegans' moves to buy up the best Earth real estate.  Nowadays, the situation is a stalemate, with Earth's exile population preferring not to return, but with the Vegans' not buying any more of Earth either.  But Cort Mishtigo, a high status Vegan, has come to Earth to tour some of the ancient sites.  Conrad, who seems to have some mysterious past identities that go back a long way, is recruited to guide Mishtigo, and to protect him from assassins.  He is in danger because the more radical Returnists believe that his "tour" is a pretext for evaluating more real estate, in advance of a renewed Vegan buying campaign.  Conrad is unsure of Cort's motives, and anyway unhappy with the idea of murder. The novel consists, then, of Cort's tour, and a number of well-done battles between Conrad and a variety of monsters and mutants.  The fight scenes, and the descriptions of the mutants (based on Greek mythology), are really good.  It's only the eventual revelation of the Vegan motives that's a bit pat and anti-climatic.

Damnation Alley

(This review is actually of the original 31,000 word novells, which appeared in the October 1967 Galaxy.)

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
“Damnation Alley” is of course a pretty famous story, especially after it became a novel (in 1969) and a film (in 1977). The film is by all accounts only loosely based on the novel, and Zelazny is said to have disliked it. I had, I confess, never read the novel or novella, nor seen the film. Barry Malzberg is quoted in Wikipedia as calling the novel “a mechanical, simply transposed action-adventure story written, in my view, at the bottom of the man’s talent” – a judgement with which I am inclined to agree. It’s set in a rather ’50s-ish postapocalyptic world. Hell Tanner is a criminal living in the nation of California. He is offered a pardon in exchange for taking some medicine across the former US to Boston.

This passage is called “Damnation Alley,” and it is full of bandits, radioactive craters, storms, giant gila monsters, bats, snakes, and other menaces. Tanner starts out in a convoy of three tank-like vehicles, and over time the other drivers are killed, including Tanner’s unwilling partner. He picks up a girl (from a motorcycle gang), and seems to slowly gain something of a conscience. None of this is surprising, and much is silly, especially the square-cube law violating monsters. That said, Zelazny could write action well, and there are bits that work nicely, even some lyrical bits. It is what it is – reasonably well done but not particularly original action-adventure. The problem is, I expect a lot more from Zelazny.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

(Cover by James Starrett)
One of the Roger Zelazny novels I had never read was Creatures of Light and Darkness, from 1969.  I've had a copy for a while, and I finally got around to it.  It's a rather strange story, based, as far as I can tell, on Egyptian mythology, though set, again, as far as I can tell, in the far future in space.  A man is awakened by Anubis, and sent on a mission to find and kill the Prince Who Was a Thousand, in order to restore Anubis and Osiris to power over the Midworlds.  The story rather obliquely follows this man, called Wakim, and Thoth, who has been given the same mission by Osiris, and the magicians Vramin and Madrak, and various other Eqyptian gods.  A battle rages across many worlds, and backward and forward in time. The gods betray each other, and the reader's loyalties to the characters are forced to switch quite a bit.

I have to admit, it didn't work for me at all.  I don't know enough Egyptian mythology to follow any of the stories, if they are actually based on such stories.  Much seemed deliberately obscure.  The SFnal bits are profoundly unconvincing, and the characters are given powers which seem to be very arbitrary, and just what is needed at any given time.  Of course it is well written, in Zelazny's trademark mode -- elevating contemporary language, complete with slang, to an epic/poetic level -- that's all well enough done, and there are some nice ideas, but overall it was a mess, and rather boring. Zelazny was certainly one of the greats, but for me, at any rate, this is a disappointment, nothing to compare with Lord of Light or This Immortal or the best short stories.

Doorways in the Sand

(Cover by Ron Walotsky)
My rereading project isn't really meant to focus exclusively on Roger Zelazny, or even primarily, but Doorways in the Sand, a favorite of mine since I read it in the Analog serialization in 1976.  It was pretty much as good as I remembered.  Fred Cassidy is a permanent student, partly because he likes learning, partly because he continues to draw from his rich Uncle's trust fund as long as he is in college.  Meantime various advisors scheme to get him to graduate, while Fred, an acrophiliac, climbs all over the roofs of the college town.  But all of a sudden he has a lot more to worry about.  Various beings seem convinced he knows the whereabouts of the alien "starstone", a cultural artifact given to Earth in exchange for the British Crown Jewels and the Mona Lisa, and the maintenance of which in good condition is essential to Earth's nascent status in Galactic civilization. These folks memorably include some alien cops who like to dress up as marsupials. Follows a lot of action, all well done if sometimes a bit implausible, and a decent resolution involving a not absurd view of our place in the universe, etc. etc.  It's not a great novel, but it's really great fun.


  1. Truly one of the greats. For me his best SF novel is The Dream Master; I find it a terrifying and endlessly suggestive book.

  2. One of my favorite authors. I invested in picking up the collected stories volumes from NESFA.It will be fun reading through all of his short fiction.