Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #18: Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny's work is more recent than that of most of the authors I've been reviewing. Indeed, his inclusion represents a problem: Not only is he still alive, but he is still publishing (much more actively than, say, Hal Clement), so it might seem that I'm implying that his best work is behind him -- which would be tactless. Still, since most of the books I'll cover were written before many of the people reading this were born, since there's a good chance that many of said people missed those books, and since some of those books are exceptional, I'll proceed.

Zelazny's books tend to be mixtures of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology. They are 'peopled' by gods who have a healthy respect for technology, spell-casting computers, mythological creatures who act like ordinary humans and humans who act like creatures out of legend. It's an odd combination, but Zelazny makes it work. His best books were written in the late sixties and early seventies, including:

"Lord of Light" (****). Those who make a point of locating the better Hugo winners will have read this. In a distant future, on a distant planet, some colonists have developed godlike abilities -- patterned upon the Hindu pantheon -- to fight the native 'demons'. After the defeat of the demons, those colonists, now unabashedly calling themselves gods, remain in power. They are opposed by one man, the binder (and unbinder) of demons, the Lord of Light. What makes the book work is a brilliant balancing of two levels: The members of the pantheon are godlike immortals, and they are also humans who remember Earth. Their opponent has the attributes of Siddhartha, and he is also a somewhat cynical student of history who knows how effective Buddhism can be in a Hindu culture. "Lord of Light" makes excellent use of the Hindu mythos while still working as science fiction.

"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit."

When people talk about "Lord of Light", mention of "Creatures of Light and Darkness" (***+) is rarely far behind. This book is based upon Egyptian mythology. In this case, however, the characters really *are* the gods of ancient Egypt. Or perhaps the gods of ancient Egypt were echoes of these beings who, for all their timeless divinity, fit comfortably enough into the galaxy of the future. The gods exist, if not in harmony, then at least in uneasy truce until, in the House of the Dead, Anubis wakes a seemingly undefeatable man whose memory he (or someone) has taken.

The style of this book is unusual, and a bit difficult: The story is not told in a smooth narrative, but in a series of short, often disjoint, episodes, and by the time the tale is done, most of these episodes have fallen into place. My personal judgment is that Zelazny could not make this work as well as he'd hoped, but that it's a remarkable effort. The book is probably best known, though, not for its Egyptian gods and their struggles but for Madrak, the all-bases-covered agnostic preacher:

"Then into the hands of Whatever May Be that is greater than life or death, I resign myself -- if this act will be of any assistance in preserving my life. If it will not, I do not. If my saying this thing at all be presumptuous, and therefore not well received by Whatever may or may not care to listen, then I withdraw the statement and ask forgiveness, if this thing be desired. If not, I do not. On the other hand --- "

"Nine Princes in Amber" (****-) is the first of the five books in the first Amber series. Fortunately, it stands well enough alone that you can read it without committing yourself to the four (or nine) books that follow. It's a remarkable combination of light fantasy and Byzantine plotting.

At the center of reality is the land/kingdom/universe of Amber. Emanating from it are the Shadows -- other universes or realities -- and members of theroyal house of Amber have the ability to walk from one Shadow to the next. In an infinity of Shadows, any world that can be imagined exists somewhere. (Or perhaps they only come into being when they are imagined; is there anyway to know? In either case, knowledge and imagination seem to impose limits: There is no indication, for instance, of anyone being able to walk to a hypothetical world of super-advanced technology and bring some of that technology home.) In some sense, though, Amber itself is more 'real' than the Shadows, and when Oberon, its ruler, disappears, it is for Amber that his nine sons compete.

Corwin, the hero of this story, is competing at a particular disadvantage: Most of his opponents don't know that he has lost his memory, and is running a very long bluff. In the process of his relearning his way through Shadow universes and shadow politics, the reader is also introduced to this fascinating and ambitious setting. "Nine Princes in Amber" is the first and best of the series. The story goes on too long as, in the succeeding novels, "The Guns of Avalon" (***), "Sign of the Unicorn" (**), "The Hand of Oberon" (**), and "The Courts of Chaos" (**), the story becomes more and more convoluted, and Corwin works out who is betraying what to whom. The second Amber series, which starts with "The Trumps of Doom" and follows Corwin's son, is definitely too long and too convoluted. (I really ought to wrap this up with a clever quote from "Nine Princes in Amber", but none comes to mind. It's not that kind of a book.)

"This Immortal" (***+) is less ambitious in scope. It takes place on a future Earth which is tired and tapped out, abandoned by most of its population, subsisting on memories and tourism. It is typical of Zelazny that there is room, in odd corners of this gone-to-seed world, for elements of Greek mythology to coexist with visitors from other stars. One of those visitors is a very very important personage, with enough pull to demand that Conrad Nimikos, Commissioner of the Earth office Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives (ie, a very senior bureaucrat), give him a guided tour of the old planet -- a tour complicated by the fact that Conrad is given excellent reason to allow him to be assassinated. And by the fact that Conrad is a lot older than he seems. (This milieu isn't nearly as interesting as the others, which is one of the reasons this book isn't as memorable as the others. The quality of the writing goes a ways towards compensating for this, however.)

"So feathers or lead?" I asked him.
"It is the riddle of the kallikanzaros. Pick one."
"You're wrong."
"If I had said 'lead'...?"
"Uh-uh. You only have one chance. The correct answer is whatever the kallikanzaros wants it to be. You lose."
"That sounds a bit arbitrary."

I'll mention "Jack of Shadows" (***+) in passing. It takes place in a distant-future in which Earth no longer rotates. The Night side is the domain of magic, of great mages -- and some subtler powers, such as Jackof Shadows -- and the Day side is a technological society where the powers of Night are dismissed as myth. It's one of Zelzny's minor works, but I enjoyed it. Zelazny has also written a number of critically aclaimed books which I *didn't* much enjoy. (As a tie-in to the recent discussion about Tennyson/Silverlock, I'll identify "The Dream Master" as one of those: One of the main characters is, not coincidentally, named Eileen Shallot.) The general rule applies: Try his better stuff, and if it motivates you to seekout his other books, do so then.

%A Zelazny, Roger
%T Lord of Light
%T Creatures of Light and Darkness
%T Nine Princes in Amber
%T This Immortal


Standard introduction and disclaimer for Belated Reviews

Dani Zweig
"One of my favorite games when I was a kid was 'murder/suicide.' Dad would show us a photo and ask us, "Is it a murder or a suicide?"
   -- Colleen Doran