No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, August 01, 1995

This Immortal: An Obituary for Roger Zelazny, 1937-1995

This was originally published in Vector #184 (Summer 1995) , the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. At the time I included an incomplete bibliography: there are far better ones available now on the Web, for example here and here.


Roger Zelazny's death, on the 14th June 1995, prompted mixed reactions. Someone on the Net posted a message to the effect 'at least he won't be writing any more bad books'. The author of the message was promptly flamed, both by dedicated Zelazny fans and by those who thought (rightly) that it was a tactless thing to say.

In general, the obituary writers have hung fire on the merit of his recent work, preferring to laud the Hugo-winning Lord of Light (1967) and the long-running 'Amber' series (1970 - 1991). He won (they recite) three Nebulas and six Hugos. He published nearly thirty solo novels and at least four collections of short stories. He was a Grand Master of science fiction.

In recent years, it's true, Zelazny's best work has been his short stories - which have appeared at increasingly long intervals, no doubt because of the illness that he hid from the SF community. There have been a number of collaborative novels, most notably Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming (1991, with Robert Sheckley). Zelazny's last solo novel, 1994's A Night in the Lonesome October - a cheery (if occasionally whimsical) fantasy with Lovecraftian overtones, narrated by Jack the Ripper's watchdog Snuff - received enthusiastic reviews. The wit, and the elegance, which had characterised his earlier work were still evident from time to time. As his career progressed, though, Zelazny seemed to be moving towards fantasy, and away from science fiction; and, while his fantasy novels were entertaining enough, they didn't have the originality of his science-fictional work. Dilvish the Damned (1982) even featured elves ... Over the last two decades it became increasingly apparent that Zelazny was no longer the force majeure he had been in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Back then, when the New Wave was in its infancy, Zelazny's themes were epic; men as gods, life and death, the nature of the mind, parallel worlds ... Zelazny had quite a reputation as a reworker of myth. Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) shuffled the Egyptian pantheon; Lord of Light (1967) features a colony ruled by men and women who have taken on the attributes of the Hindu gods. There are elements of Greek legend in This Immortal (1966); and, more recently, Eye of Cat (1982) featured Navajo myth. While Zelazny never ignored the psychological aspects of religion and belief systems, he was at pains to assign a hard scientific provenance to his 'gods'. Thus, for example, Osiris and Anubis have animal heads as the result of cosmetic surgery, while the Hindu pantheon of Lord of Light switch from body to body and wait for each new brain to adjust to their individual mutated minds. In This Immortal, a variety of myths and monsters infest post-holocaust Greece, snapping eagerly at the heels of the narrator, who resolutely denies his own mythic qualities.

In his short stories, he sometimes played the trick the other way around. Mythical beings were uprooted from their natural habitat and deposited in mundane times. In Zelazny's Hemingway pastiche, 'The Naked Matador' (1981), a criminal on the run is assisted by a strange woman who wears a headscarf and dark glasses. She turns his pursuers to stone. In a neat, low-key touch, the villains' car is a blue Fury. Elsewhere we find Morgan le Fay working as a Tarot reader, Jack the Ripper (again) relishing a snuff movie in Los Angeles, and a chess-playing unicorn, Tlingel, with a taste for lager. Whatever else Zelazny lost in later years, his sense of humour was as strong as ever.

Many of Zelazny's heroes are more god than man, whatever their origins. The 'Amber' series (starting with Nine Princes in Amber, 1970) features a family of superhuman near-immortals, who walk through infinite parallel worlds, competing for the crown of Amber - the Immortal City, the reality of which all other worlds (including our own) are mere shadows. The princes and princesses of Amber communicate with one another by what could be called, unkindly, a fantasy mobile phone - Tarot trumps bearing likenesses of each member of the family. Conveniently, these can also be used for teleportation. Amber's royal family behave, at times, like the cast of a Jacobean revenge tragedy (Zelazny was a professor of Renaissance and Jacobean literature for some years). There's a curious blend, which for a time typified Zelazny's style, of hard-bitten prose and poetic imagery. Consider a ride through Shadow, with Corwin - the narrator, and Man Who Would Be King - shifting reality around him as he moves:
"We race a great meteor, we touch upon its bulk ... speeding across its pitted surface, down, around then up again - it stretches into a great plain, it lightens, it yellows ... it is sand, now, beneath my horse's hooves ... thudding along the beach beneath a lemon sky, blue clouds scudding - the salt, the wrack, the shells, the smooth anatomy of driftwood ... white spray off the lime-coloured sea ..." (The Hand of Oberon, 1976).
Zelazny plays with archetypes throughout the 'Amber' series - Amber, after all, is the archetypal city. There are magical messenger birds (which have a habit of shitting on one's cloak), mazes, surreal landscapes strewn with iconic images .. since everything exists somewhere in Shadow, it's simply a case of getting to the right - or wrong - place to encounter Lancelot, visit an underwater city or be interrogated by the Sphinx (which doesn't know the answer to 'What's green and turns red at the touch of a button?')

The 'Amber' books encompass an epic tale, but perhaps - even in the first five books - at too great a length. The second part of the series - while featuring computerised shadow-shifting and even more Machiavellian intrigues - doesn't have the same spark as the earlier books, perhaps because its narrator, Merlin, has less godlike arrogance - and considerably less common sense - than Corwin. The 'Amber' books, however, are perhaps the most popular of Zelazny's work; they've spawned interactive novels, a Tarot set and even a role-playing game on the Net.

Zelazny first explored the 'Amber' theme of Order versus Chaos, with all possible worlds existing in between, in Creatures of Light and Darkness. The earlier book is perhaps the more effective. The thirty thousand 'midworlds' lie between the houses of Life and Death, ranging from medieval societies to worlds which foreshadow some familiar cyberpunk images. (Zelazny was writing about mechanised prostitution, where a human being is wired into a machine, before Gibson had his first typewriter). It's a far more poetic, almost experimental novel, which blends poetry, play scripts and strong imagery - and, among the poetic prose and the vivid characterisations, there's some pretty solid scientific grounding. Black holes and population dynamics mingle with dead cities and shapechangers, and a teleportationist who - like the Amberites - can project himself to anywhere he can imagine. There is also a remarkably funny passage concerning the use of human entrails for prophecy.

The mingling of science fiction and fantasy, which typified his earlier novels, is most blatant in Jack of Shadows (1971). The world has stopped turning; one side, eternally facing the sun, is devoted to science, while the other is governed by magic. The eponymous hero, a creature of twilight, reincarnates again and again, seeking to destroy the machine at the heart of the world - a task which can only be performed with both science and magic - and a generous dose of cynicism. There are some neat metaphysical conceits, not least the World Machine - a Darkside image, which the Daysiders claim is really a fire demon. Both views, of course, are correct. "Each of you colours reality in keeping with your means of controlling it," says Morgenstern, the fallen angel who is waiting for the sun to rise.

Zelazny's gift for evocative philosophical metaphor is also present in Roadmarks (1979). Any point in history - including alternate histories - can be reached from the Road: "Time is a super-highway with many exits ... the sideroads have a habit of reverting to wilderness when there are none to travel them". Like his earlier Doorways in the Sand (1975) this is an entertaining adventure novel with an exotic setting, rather than a serious exploration of a theme. Nevertheless, Zelazny's prose is literary and sprinkled with wit and vivid imagery.

Another theme which Zelazny returned to time and again was that of the mind. His first novel, published in 1966, was The Dream Master (expanded from the novella 'He Who Shapes'). This posited a future branch of psychiatry in which dreams - and nightmares - are lived out under the control of the Shaper. Like any good novel, the setting is only half the story. The Dream Master is a powerful description of a great man with a flaw - too strong a liking for playing God.

I've already mentioned that the characters in the Amber novels use their minds to shape the world around them, adding and taking away elements until they reach the Shadow world they seek; Zelazny has some profound (and also, on occasion, facile) things to say about the attitudes that this power evokes:
"Solipsism is where we have to begin - the notion that nothing exists but the self ... I can find, somewhere off in Shadow, anything I can visualise. This, in good faith, does not transcend the limits of the ego. It may be argued ... that we create the shadows we visit out of the stuff of our own psyches, that we alone truly exist, that the shadows we traverse are but projections of our own desires. Whatever the merits of this argument, it does go far towards explaining much of the family's attitude towards people, places and things outside Amber. Namely, we are toymakers and they, our playthings - sometimes dangerously animated, to be sure; but this, too, is part of the game. We are impresarios by temperament, and we treat one another accordingly. While solipsism does tend to leave one slightly embarrassed on questions of etiology, one can easily avoid the embarrassment by refusing to admit the validity of the questions." (Sign of the Unicorn, 1975)
Zelazny was fascinated with immortality; indeed, if he could be said to have had a major theme, particularly in his earlier works, the concept of living forever - or almost forever - would have been it. He offers a variety of ways in which immortality can be achieved; for instance, in this lecture from Creatures of Light and Darkness:
"By one means or another, certain individuals have achieved a kind of immortality. Perhaps they follow the currents of life and draw upon their force, and they flee from the waves of death. Perhaps they have adjusted their biochemistry, or they keep their bodies in constant repair, or they have many bodies and exchange them, or steal new ones. Perhaps they wear metal bodies, or no bodies at all ... they cheat on life, on death, as you can see, and their very existence upsets the balance, inspires others to strive to emulate their legends, causes others to think them gods."
Elsewhere he has body transfer via computer (Lord of Light); rejuvenation drugs (Isle of the Dead, 1969); and sheer good luck (or, perhaps, mutation) as in the case of Conrad Nomikos, the narrator of This Immortal (1966). Conrad has been alive for at least two hundred years, although this is not generally known. On the other hand, it's difficult to hide in a computerised society ... Conrad never thinks of himself as a god, but eventually godhood is thrust upon him by the Vegans, who bequeath him the Earth: "I feel I have made a good choice in naming you as heir to the property commonly referred to as Earth. Your affection for it cannot be gainsaid ... you appear to be the closest thing to an immortal overseer available."

The flipside of immortality is death. Perhaps Zelazny's most powerful short story is 'A Rose for Ecclesiastes' (1967), in which the poet Gallagher is sent to Mars to translate the holy books of a dying race. His love affair with a Martian girl, Braxa, leads him to fight the doom-laden pronouncements of the Mothers, who have decided that their infertile people should, effectively, give up the will to life. "The dance was good. Now let it end." He preaches to them from the Book of Ecclesiastes, and from his own work, trying to persuade them to accept help from Earth. Gallagher convinces them to choose life; then, finding that Braxa was only doing her duty, he attempts suicide. That's a glib summary of an immaculately crafted story; deservedly, it won a Hugo.

Zelazny's own enthusiasm for life showed in much of his work. His was an eclectic range of interests; fencing and wrestling (most of his books contain exquisitely-choreographed fight scenes); philosophy and psychology; computer science; astronomy; literature .... He quoted many poets in his work, from Chaucer to Whitman, and was a poet in his own right - although his poetry is not easily obtainable. The influence of Jacobean tragedy has already been noted; reading the 'Amber' books is much more fun if you've a Dictionary of Quotations to hand! He had an eye for detail - both emotional and physical - that, at its best, was reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon; and a tendency to philosophise:
"Sipping beer in a mountain lodge on the planet Divbah ... I once looked out through a wide window and up at the highest mountain in the known universe. It is called Kasla, and it has never been climbed. ... It is one of those crazy things you think about and promise yourself that someday you're going to try, and then you wake up one morning and realise that it is probably exactly too late; you'll never do it." (This Immortal)
In his time Zelazny was one of the great; he co-authored a novel with Philip K. Dick (Deus Irae, 1973), and even appeared as a character in Delany's story 'We Who In Some Strange Power's Employ'. (Zelazny was not averse to basing characters on his friends and colleagues; Fred Cassidy, the hero of Doorways in the Sand, is based on Joe Haldeman.) While little of his recent work had the brilliance of earlier years, one can't help feeling that there were still some ideas coming to fruition.

Best, then, to let his own words, again from This Immortal, serve as an elegy:
"Had you died young, your passing would have been mourned as the destruction of a great talent before its fulfillment. But you lived and they cannot say that now. Some choose a short and supernal life before the walls of their Troy., others a long and less troubled one. And who is to say which is the better? The gods did keep their promise of immortal fame to Achilles, by inspiring the poet to sing him an immortal paean. But is he the happier for it, being now as dead as yourself? I cannot judge, old friend ... May the lords Phoebus and Dionysius, who do love and kill their poets, commend thee to their dark brother Hades."