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The Lesser Spotted Science Fiction Writer

Part 7: Roger Zelazny

 Phlogiston Forty-Two, 1995

Roger Zelazny is a man famous for what is probably his weakest work; the multi-part and completely open-ended Amber series. It seems to be perennially in print and yet his deeper, more powerful (dare I say more serious) works seem to appear and disappear so fast that if you blink you will miss them. I can't remember when I last saw a copy of Doorways in the Sand (my own personal favourite) on the bookshelves. (Well actually I can, it was in 1976 -- I don't think it has been reprinted since then). All of this makes Zelazny a most frustrating writer to discuss since all the commonly available evidence seems to suggest that he is at best a workaday, commonplace author. Yet his status in the field indicates otherwise. He has a whole string of awards and commendations behind him and among his peers his reputation is second to none.

Samuel Delaney said:

The work ... abounds in literary, historical and mythological allusions. The sensitivities revealed are far-ranging, capable of fine psychological and sociological analysis, and are as responsive to the contemporary as to the traditional... There is no other writer who, dealing with the struggle between life and death on such a fantastically rarefied level can evoke so much hunger for the stuff of living itself.

The Jewel Hinged Jaw, Samuel Delaney

High praise indeed. And so we are left with a paradox. How can we reconcile Zelazny's undoubted status as an artist with his equally undoubted status as a writer of mass-produced fiction? In his time he has produced books of high art as well as lowest common denominator, bread-and-butter hack work. Such is the riddle of the man. I'm not sure I have answers, but I would at least like to examine the question in some detail in an attempt to justify my assertions.

I will concentrate almost exclusively on the writing. I will not try to relate the man to his work. This is generally a sterile exercise (after all if the work cannot stand alone, what use is it?). It would be a particularly inappropriate thing to do as far as Zelazny is concerned for he is a very private person who believes strongly that a piece of writing should be considered as a thing in its own right, quite independent of the author. In an interview with Paul Walker published in 1987 the following dialogue took place:

"So tell us about your childhood hangups."

Speaking of Science Fiction
Paul Walker, Luna Publications 1987

I suspect this took the interviewer somewhat aback, but after a pause for breath he continued:

"Why not?"
"Because I'm a bug on privacy."
"Some, I suppose. I like to keep my writing apart from my personal life. I make my living displaying pieces of my soul in some distorted form or other. The rest is my own."


But some facts are known. Roger Zelazny was born in 1937. He gained an MA from Columbia university in 1962. From 1962 to 1969 he was employed by the Social Security Administration in Cleveland, Ohio. He interviewed people, wrote letters, memos, reports and manuals in the deadly dull bureaucratese that often characterises such jobs. Strangely during these years of drudgery he produced, in evenings and weekends, many fine fictional works. Paul Walker asked him how he managed to separate these two aspects of his writing and the reply was very illuminating:

I never regarded it as real writing. It was just a chore. It was pure, specialized communication. Not a drop of myself in it.


This ability to distance himself from his writing, to do it on automatic pilot and just churn out "pure, specialized communication" probably accounts in part for the formulaic writing that makes up such a significant amount of his output. It is a sine qua non of the professional (as opposed to the artist) and can be said to indicate his ability to produce work that, in the words of Robert Heinlein, is there simply to pay the grocery bills. That is why he is so irritating. There can be so much more to him than that, and to approach him solely at that level really is to praise with faint damns.

In 1969 he left the government service and turned to full time writing and he has supported himself from his writing ever since.

His early work was adopted by the prophets of the New Wave and for a while Zelazny was seen as one of their gurus. Certainly his work from that era (the sixties and seventies) displays a lot of the flamboyances of style (and sometimes of subject matter) that was the hallmark of the new wave. However he never really fitted comfortably into narrow categories. Even from his earliest days it was obvious that he was more than just a stylist (one of the new wave's more besetting sins was a tendency to confuse style with content) and his work always had a depth and solidity to it that has allowed it (or at least its reputation) to survive when many of its contemporaries have vanished without trace. From this era came a multitude of short stories, most of which were collected together in The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of his Mouth, and some novellas which appeared in book form as Four for Tomorrow.

He expanded one of his short stories (...And Call me Conrad) as the novel This Immortal and won a Hugo for it in 1966. In the same year he won a Nebula for the novella He Who Shapes (later to become the novel The Dream Master -- Zelazny's original title for this piece was The Ides of Octember. Perhaps titles are not his strong point), and another Nebula for the novelette The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth. Two years later he won another Hugo for the novel Lord of Light.

It was an explosive start to a career and probably made a large contribution to his decision to take up writing as a full time occupation. But too many early successes are often hard to live up to and some of his later works have been unfavourably compared to the highlights of his beginnings. This is probably an over-reaction. My own personal favourites of his books date from these middle years of his career, books such as Jack of Shadows, Doorways in the Sand and Roadmarks.

For a time it seemed as if Zelazny was taking the world of myth (or rather of specific myths) and building it into his art -- using myth, if you like, as a vehicle to comment on what he was seeing, a metaphor for the time. In Lord of Light, for example, the crew of a starship have used the technology available to them to become (to all intents and purposes), gods. The gods they emulate are those of the Hindu pantheon, though the development of the plot takes on aspects of other mythologies. There are echoes of the legend of Prometheus (who stole fire from the gods) and of Coyote the Trickster from the native American oeuvre (a mythology he would mine again later in Eye of Cat).

Being gods and therefore having infinite powers the protagonists have of course become corrupted. They exploit the masses, their own descendants, refusing to share the technological benefits they themselves enjoy. The society portrayed is repressive and stagnant and Sam (the hero, and one of the gods) recognises this and sets out to try and correct it. Of course he succeeds. I never did like happy endings.

The novel illuminates Zelazny's major themes more clearly perhaps than any of the others. He is concerned with vanity, greed, power, guilt and revenge. Time after time his protagonists are the psychological walking wounded who despite lifestyles that (superficially at least) we would all envy are nevertheless consumed by internal devils and immoral imperatives.

However despite being larger than life the characters always remain credible. This is one of Zelazny's greatest strengths -- that he can make you believe in these grotesques and cheer for their triumphs, weep for their tragedies. That alone would mark him as a writer of immense skill. The reader always feels involved in the novel.

He returned to the theme again in Creatures of Light and Darkness. Similar in scope to Lord of Light, this time the gods are taken from the Egyptian pantheon. The novel was much less successful than its predecessor, probably because Egyptian mythology is less familiar to modern audiences and the reworking of the material remained obscure as a result. I found the book quite confusing and hard to follow.

Three times is the charm. Zelazny returned to the theme of man aspiring to godhood once more in Isle of the Dead, published in the same year as Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969-1970 was a very prolific year for him). This time he created his own pantheon instead of milking an already existing earthly one. Francis Sandow (a man from the twentieth century) becomes a god of the alien Pei'ans. He is Shimbo of Darktree, Shrugger of Thunders (what a lovely phrase).

The novel charts his return to a world he created many years before, Illyria and his dark masterpiece the Isle of the Dead. To his horror, after his years of absence and neglect, he finds it devastated and polluted, emptied of people. It is the creation of another Pei'an god, Belion. The gods must contest to resolve this.

I think that Isle of the Dead is the strongest book of the three.

One of the disadvantages of Zelazny's decision to use an existing pantheon in Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness is that it made it hard to control the flow. Whether he liked it or not, invoking that mythology dragged with it all the baggage of inherited legend it had accumulated over the years. It invoked images that sometimes were inappropriate because of the archetypal nature of the particular myth, and that tied his hands. The books often read as if the writer was struggling against his own characters simply to satisfy the demands of the myth-as-is, rather than the myth-as-he-would-like-it-to-be. With a newly invented pantheon and a blank canvas in Isle of the Dead there was more freedom to explore and I never felt (as I did with the earlier books) that dead weight of centuries of earth-bound tradition. It was a freer, more satisfying book as a result. Not everyone would agree with me (and the fact that Lord of Light won a Hugo and is famous and Isle of the Dead did not win a Hugo and is relatively obscure speaks for itself).

Francis Sandow returned in a later novel, To Die in Italbar, a novel of the plague and an examination of the fine dividing line between healing and slaying. Many doctors have the touch of death.

The works that followed these early triumphs began to show a general decline and he produced a stream of books (mainly fantasies) which were often pedestrian and plodding, indistinguishable from a thousand others (the Dilvish books, for example). During this time he seemed to be concentrating on his Amber series, an open-ended novel which started promisingly but eventually degenerated into soap opera. Other books were, perhaps, written with his "left hand" as the Amber books developed.

The first of the Amber series, Nine Princes in Amber, introduced a typical Zelazny hero; a man with no memory of his past. Gradually through incident and interaction with people who clearly know who he is (and assume that he does too) he learns that he is Corwin, a prince of Amber. Amber is the centre of the universe (in a sense Amber is the universe) and the reality we know, and many other realities as well are just shadows cast by Amber. Ousted in a palace coup, Corwin has spent many years living in one or more of these shadow worlds. This book and later ones chronicle his ever more elaborate (and confusing) attempts to regain his rightful position in Amber. Thwarted on every side by friends and relatives, making and breaking alliances, Corwin struggles on. After a while a sameness develops, a feeling of over-familiarity. Boredom sets in. The tale is too long in the telling.

Zelazny brought Corwin's struggle to an ending (of sorts) in the fifth volume of the series (The Courts of Chaos) and there he left it for a while. Then the lure of the sequel proved too tempting and he began a new series dealing with the adventures of Corwin's son Merlin. These are very thin books, both physically and metaphorically. Very little happens (the tale is dragged out unmercifully) and the page count is made up with interminable descriptions of journeys through shadow. When that concept was first introduced in the early books the shadow journeys that Corwin made were fresh and original and the descriptions of these many realities were interesting, often fascinating and not overlong. But by the time of the second series they seemed to go on forever. I found myself flipping forwards half a dozen pages at a time just to get past these never-ending lumps of padding (for that is what they are -- they have no significance in terms of plot or character resolution). Eventually I gave up. There simply wasn't enough solid material to hold my interest. I understand that the second series has had several new additions in the last few years. I will not be reading them.

And then, one day on the bookshelves I spotted a novel called Jack of Shadows. This was quite early in the life of the Amber series and I was not yet disillusioned with it. The title fooled me. I thought it was an Amber book (because of the reference to shadow) and so I bought it on the strength of that. In point of fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with Amber. It is a pure fantasy novel (with a brief bow to "science" in that it takes place on an Earth that keeps one face constantly towards its sun). Magic rules and Jack of Shadows, Shadowjack the Thief has broken the compact and duped the Lord of High Dudgeon. I never regretted my decision to buy it -- it is quite simply a knockout, a perfect demonstration of both Zelazny's mastery of language (I don't think he ever again used words so brilliantly or made such beautiful patterns). It reveals him at his peak, demonstrating his absolute mastery of character and scene. Jack shines so brightly. He leaps off the page and demands that you hear his story. From the Dung Pits of Glyve (where the dead are regenerated) to the search for Kolwynia, The-Key-That-Was-Lost the inventiveness never flags. Jack of Shadows is my most serendipitous mistaken buy.

This middle period (if you like) was a time of consolidation. Building on his early reputation, Zelazny produced a string of works forming a solid base of which any writer could be proud. There was Damnation Alley in which Hell Tanner (a Hell's Angel with a conscience) was a most unlikely hero ferrying a vital medicine across a United States devastated by nuclear war. This was a powerful and moving work which was turned into a totally trivial film that quickly vanished without trace.

Doorways in the Sand was a novel that could have been (and often was) written in science fiction's Golden Age. Fred Cassidy is a perennial student (he has a guaranteed income until he graduates, so he makes sure he never graduates -- his intimate knowledge of the university rules and the tricks he plays with the bureaucracy make hilarious reading). Then Fred is accused of stealing the star-stone, an interplanetary artifact which came to Earth in a trade for the Mona Lisa and the British Crown Jewels. He is pursued by telepathic psychologists, extraterrestrial hoodlums and galactic police in disguise and the star-stone (which he didn't steal but which has designs of its own) flips him through multiple realities and alien perspectives, through the many doorways in the sand. He even graduates.

It says much for Zelazny that he has managed to create a true work of art out of such trash. There are moments in this book that have a haunting beauty. The strange messages read in the sky and subliminally present in so many places (DO YOU SMELL ME DED) are fascinating. What do they mean? It is quite a while before we find out. (DO YOU TASTE ME BRED?) There are also many moments of surreal high comedy:

I was not completely surprised when I raised my head and saw a six-foot-plus kangaroo standing beside the wombat. It considered me through a pair of dark glasses as it removed a sandwich from its pouch. "Peanut butter is rich in protein", it said.

Doorways in the Sand

(Excuse me, I have to go and fill the bathtub with brightly coloured machine tools). It is one of my favourite books and I have re-read it several times. (I AM A RECORDING) It brings together all of Zelazny's many skills. It examines all his usual themes and is brilliantly characterised and immaculately written with a fine wit that is not often present in his other works. If there is a typical Zelazny novel, this is it because it is the ultimate example of the all the things that make Zelazny the unique voice that he is. Nothing else even comes close (except perhaps Roadmarks), and he never puts a foot wrong. As an aside, the book is yet another proof of the truth that a talented artist can turn the oldest most hackneyed material into an interesting, thrilling, vital work. There is nothing in this book that you haven't seen before. But you have never, ever, seen it presented as well. The nature of the star-stone will take nobody by surprise. The art lies in the telling of the tale, not in the tale itself. Zelazny never did it better.

Roadmarks is a most idiosyncratic time-travel novel. Zelazny makes concrete the analogy of time as a road extending from the past to the future. Those who travel the road have access to all the turnoffs leading to all times and places (including those that never were but that might have been). Much of the action takes place on and near the last exit to Babylon and involves Red Dorakeen (who might be the hero, it is hard to tell), a lethal monk, a tyrannosaur, Mondamay the Potter (a robot who lives in eleventh century Abyssinia) and the Dragons of Bel'kwinith. Again, Zelazny has taken common coin and re-minted it as something fresh and wonderful. Just as with Doorways in the Sand, he has built a work of art out of trash and the book is magnificent as a result.

Zelazny is never blind to new themes and opportunities. There has always been a streak of original brilliance in the furrows he chooses to plough, and on occasion he has anticipated later trends. The three novellas collected together as My Name is Legion tell a rather Chandleresque story that is a precursor to the cyberpunk sub-genre that seems so ubiquitous of late. The world is a computerised bureaucracy. The electronic office writ large. The hero was one of the programmers who put together the network of computers that control the world and the people in it. Consequently he knows the loopholes, left himself back doors. As far as the world is concerned he does not exist -- the computers have no record of him (or rather they have lots of records as he assumes personalities at will). In a world of conformity he is perhaps one of the last individuals. (There are strong echoes of John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider which examined many similar themes and which is also often regarded as one of the instigators of the cyberpunk movement). In some ways, the book seems very naive nowadays. Time has caught up with the technology Zelazny espouses and left it long behind. The hero has destroyed his punched cards and changed his face. This sounds less than futuristic to present day ears. But that does not invalidate the points that Zelazny was trying to make about the regimentation of society and the message of the book is just as important as it ever was. The increasing depersonalisation of society is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. The drama may be melodramatic, but it is no less real for all that. Appropriate stories are timeless stories (that is one of the functions of myth) and the computer is one of the most powerful modern myths, an icon for the future (pun intended) and the book can be viewed in this light as a return to Zelazny's original concerns. Perhaps here he was building a mythology for the future based on the present rather than the past, a step beyond books such as Lord of Light. I think he succeeded brilliantly.

The works that followed this middle period of his career (and sometimes overlapped with it) demonstrate a slowing down of his genius. Many are pedestrian and plodding (particularly as he turned away from science fiction and moved closer and closer to the fantasy worlds of swords and sorcery). But there was still the occasional gem. Enough to keep me buying and reading, anyway. The brilliant Eye of Cat and the delightfully comedic A Night in the Lonesome October (his most recent novel) are wonderful books by anybody's standards. There was also A Dark Travelling, a juvenile novel, and several excellent short story collections (Zelazny's short stories have always been well worth reading and his collections are always magnificent).

And there are the collaborations of course. However with two and a fraction exceptions, his collaborative works are uniformly dire and are best avoided. The first (and best) of his collaborations dates back to 1967 when he put a lot of work into a novel that Philip K. Dick had stalled on. Dick's original title for the book was The Kneeling Legless Man (which may help to explain why his inspiration dried up) but it was eventually published as Deus Irae. It is a magnificent work and demonstrates Zelazny's enormous skills as a writer. He managed to absorb and reproduce Dick's unique style and oddball way of looking at things absolutely perfectly. You simply cannot see the joins.

Perhaps this fired him with enthusiasm for collaborations. Over the years he has written some fantasies with Fred Saberhagen (very ordinary) and some hard SF books with Thomas T. Thomas (again, very ordinary). He has also written some supposedly comic fantasies with Robert Sheckley which are almost unreadable. Sheckley, when he wants to, can write great comedy. He has proved this time and time again, and many of Zelazny's books contain moments of comedic genius and a very fine wit, but their collaborations are simply tired clichés full of very old and very bad jokes. Definitely to be avoided. Lately Zelazny appears to be branching out in his collaborations. With Gerald Haussman he has written a novel called Wilderness which tells the story of two famous events from the days of the American Wild West. In 1808 John Colter ran and climbed 150 miles through the wilderness of what is now Yellowstone National Park to escape from pursuing Blackfeet indians. In 1823 Hugh Glass was left for dead after being attacked by a bear. He crawled a hundred miles from the Grand Valley to the Missouri River. The book novelises the stories of these two men. The chapters alternate between the two events which initially feels a little odd since the two are separated from each other by almost twenty years and one wonders what connection there can possibly be between them. This little niggle never really goes away, though it is resolved at the end of the book when a connection is shown (albeit a rather soap opera-ish one). Nevertheless I think it is a structural flaw.

That aside, though, this is one collaboration that does seem to work well and it deserves careful reading. This, and the collaboration with Philip K. Dick are the only ones that deserve a place in a permanent collection (though there is a short story with Harlan Ellison called Come to Me Not in Winter's White which isn't bad). I suppose that makes two and a bit collaborations that are worth searching out.

Zelazny's great strengths as a writer are his magnificent characters (no one can bring a character alive the way Zelazny can) and the complex themes that he examines. Both of these give his work a depth and an appeal that is sorely lacking in many of his contemporaries. This alone would be enough to guarantee him a giant's status in a field as full of incompetent and pedestrian writers as is the SF world. But he has one other enormous strength that is perhaps not quite so obvious from this brief analysis. He is a wordsmith par excellence.

Zelazny is in love with the language and he uses it as it should be used. He knows exactly the right word for every circumstance. I suspect his feeling for the language is such that as far as he is concerned there is no such thing as a synonym. My favourite example is the title of one of his poetry collections. To Spin is Miracle Cat. Look at those words and ask yourself what they mean. Coldly, logically, analytically those five words cannot possibly belong together and the sentence they make is utterly meaningless. But I don't care. Those words in just that combination do most properly belong together and the end result is spine-tingling. Logic and meaning have nothing to do with it; this is all about feeling and art. And those five words are art, make no mistake about it. No other words will do. Zelazny knows that very well.

Is he a great writer? Yes of course he is, don't ask silly questions. Is he a great artist? Yes of course -- he is a weaver of words and a spinner of spells. One of his earliest novels was about an immortal man and many of his heroes have been immortal (or at least very long lived).

But the true immortality is Zelazny's own, for he will be long remembered because of them.

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