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Roger Zelazny is the most notable of several speculative fiction writers who mix fantasy with science fiction. Zelazny brought stylistic consciousness, somewhat better characterization, mythical archetypes, humor, and deeper explorations of psychology to his novels. Zelazny, however, played out his themes relatively quickly, and later novels do not match earlier ones. By the end of his middle period, his novels of action and adventure lacked the earlier psychological depth. In recent years, his latest novels exhibit less reach, but they contain interesting and amusing situations.
Roger Zelazny, (1937) born and raised in Ohio, received an MA in English from Columbia in 1962, a decided contrast to the science fiction writers of an earlier generation with degrees in the sciences. A long time reader of science fiction, Zelazny, instead of trying to write, took jobs with the Social Security Administration in Cleveland and Baltimore, writing science fiction only part-time. Unlike Delany, Disch, and some other writers, Zelazny showed no particular inclination for wandering. Zelazny's approach to science fiction took an equally orderly route:
"I had wanted to write for many years, but did not have an opportunity until I had completed my master's thesis (in English) and taken a job with the government...I had decided to try writing science fiction. I spent a week reading all the current science fiction magazines and some random paperbacks. I then sat down and began writing every evening...sending them off to the magazines." (1)
Zelazny carefully hides his personality from critics and potential biographers because he "always felt that a story should be able to deal with such matters itself." (2) Perhaps Zelazny's cynical, heroic, haunted protagonists present a projection of himself. They certainly seem to possess some similar attitudes. All concern themselves with positive action and show similar romantic tendencies. (2)
Zelazny's stories generally organize around quests. The protagonist learns that he needs to either find some object or destroy some enemy. He does this. In the process, however, he learns also about himself. He achieves a new understanding of himself and his responsibilities in the world. Zelazny diverges from this pattern in just a few of his notable works; in his worst novels, he adheres to it dogmatically.
Zelazny's style developed throughout his career. Earlier novels feature heightened prose, literary allusions, poetic language, and an occasional tendency towards overwriting. Later novels contain tight, almost Hemingwayesque, images. His dialogue fall into consistently abrupt style, interspliced with wit and slang.
Zelazny almost always follows his main characters from a third person omniscient viewpoint. This allows him to focus occasionally on other characters before they actually effect his principal character. Many critics praise Zelazny's characterization, but his skills in this area remain relatively limited. Zelazny, like Hemingway or Heinlein, developed one protagonist who serves as the model for all his other protagonists. This hero seems a bit more interesting than most other science fiction heroes, but this merely obscures the fact that most of Zelazny's other characters fall prey to underwriting or don't vary much from accepted science fiction stereotypes. In particular, Zelazny creates few memorable women characters. The hero dominates the story and the men and women present in it.
Zelazny's reputation rests on the strange worlds of his novels, but the suggestion of these worlds more than the world itself usually makes them memorable. Zelazny gives a title and an internal logic to a planet and lets the reader's imagination supply much of the detail. One common setting invokes an earth in need of rebirth (This Immortal or Damnation Alley) or the decadent planet in need of reform (The Amber Series, Jack of Shadows). Characters act in outlined, usually dark, environments that resemble the world of dreams.
The conflict of order and chaos, reappears as a persistent theme in Zelazny's works. This imagery may derive, of course, from the research Zelazny undertook to write books such as Lord of Light and the classical Indian deistic trilogy of creator, destroyer, and preserver gods. On these forces, critic Carl B. Yoke comments:
"It poses the two eternal forces, one constructive, the other destructive, which interact to create change...concerns for self-reliance, personal integrity, and individualism are expressed in terms of renewal or restoration...Man is subject to many failings...weaknesses and forces beyond his control; he is frequently disillusioned, alienated, and unwise. He possesses, however, a great capacity to rise above his circumstances to a higher state of consciousness by virtue of the impact of his experience. (4)
Each individual and society possesses some of the characteristics of either force in the real worlds. In fantasy, one force can totally dominate a person or culture, making these stories become allegorical. The idea that myths replay basic human dramas as though they exist in the real world stems from basically Freudian thought. (5)
A related Zelazny theme comes from the psychological theories of Carl Jung. (6) All men, he posed, possess in them an animal and a human nature. The former manifests itself in positive or negative thought and the latter in reasoning and consciousness. When an imbalance occurs between these two, a character performs an archetypal task to restore that balance.
The acceptance of responsibility occurs as another persistent theme of Zelazny's work. Zelazny's protagonists find themselves thrust into situations that tax their physical and mental powers as well as their psychological balance. When the novel ends, though, their tasks only really begin. Every day leadership and life, he suggests, represents an ongoing challenge.
This introduction serves to suggest that Zelazny concerns himself with far more than the traditional killing of aliens, development of gadgets or savings of worlds. These events, particularly the latter, occur in Zelazny, perhaps a bit too often, but not as events in their own right but largely as symbolic questions and psychological journeys.
Form 1962 to 1969 Zelazny wrote as a semi-professional. During this period, he wrote most of his short stories, collected in The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories (Doubleday 1971), Four for Tomorrow (Ace, 1965), and Last Defender of Camelot (Pocket Books, 1979). Amazing and Fantastic, edited by Cele Goldsmith, published most of these along with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Many merely entertain, their entertainment value heightened by Zelazny's ability to explore a character in a small space. Others constitute masterpieces. "A Rose for Ecclesiastes," the story of a character who "finds himself" during a trip to Mars first brought Zelazny into critical attention. "For the Breath I Tarry" tells the story of a robot that attempts to learn about humanity but finds he can only do so by inhabiting a human body. He and another robot accept this condition and become a new Adam and Eve. Zelazny's first three novels all expand upon short stores and sometimes show the negative results of "padding."
The Dream Master, Zelazny's first, and possibly best novel first appeared as "He Who Shapes" in Amazing, 1964. Zelazny himself prefers the economy of the novella version. (7) Render, the protagonist, a "neuroparticipant therapist" or "shaper" uses machinery to enter the minds of his patients to change their dreams and cure them. He encounters Eileen Shallot, a blind woman who wants to become a shaper. Unseeing idealizations guide her perceptions of the world, engendered by her wealth and blindness. Render, however, sees the world realistically as it is: a stagnated society lacking enemies and problems to confront; the only frontier left, space falls opens only to a few; intellectuals and creative people commit mass suicide. He notes:
"Karl Jung pointed out that when consciousness is repeatedly frustrated in a quest for values, it will turn its search to the unconscious..This...is happening today. (8)
Render, himself, subconsciously wishes to escape. He allows Eileen to become the dominant person in their mental sessions, and he eventually escapes the world entirely by permanently entering into her dream patterns. He becomes Tristan and she, despite the legend, a faithful Isolde. Zelazny skillfully weaves the mythical patterns, allowing full exploration of his myth-making power. Render and Eileen remain among Zelazny's best characters. In the longer version, Zelazny more fully develops the culture malaise striking America. He also expands the character of Sigmund, the mutated dog. Sigmund's self-confrontation with his unintelligent brethren parallels Render's struggles with his subconscious:
"He bared his fangs and snarls (at the real dog). Then he leaped at it and bit it on the shoulder. It made a yelping noise and ran away.
"'Fool," he growled. 'Fool, fool, fool, fool, fool!'
There was no reply."
The Dream master makes an insightful, if at times over-ornate, examination of the psychology and sociology of the future. The characters become compelling and believable. Like a classic hero, Render's fatal flaw brings about his downfall if one can consider it really a downfall.
This Immortal (shorter version, "And Call Me Conrad," Amazing, 1965 Hugo Winner, 1966) follows the quest form that becomes standard in Zelazny's later novels. Conrad Nikimos, a superhuman immortal, inhabits a nuclear war-decimated Earth dominated by alien Vegan. It falls upon him the task of guiding the Vegan Cort Myshtigo across the earth. Redpol, the underground liberation front, attempts to stop Conrad and kill this perceived enemy. Conrad completes his task, fighting off mythical monsters caused by the radiation and extending his personal myth in the process.
Some lighter moments ease the tone. One character attempts to write a tragic epic about Conrad, but Conrad's immortality frustrates his attempts to come up with a suitable death. A group of Vegan filmmakers take apart the Great Pyramid for footage. Conrad radiates wittiness along with his indominability. He eventually learns that Myshtigo actually owns the earth and intends to will it to Conrad as a trust until earthmen mature and learn to love and care about their world properly.
"'Conrad,...I feel I have made a good choice in naming you as heir to the property commonly referred to as the Earth. Your affection for it cannot be gainsaid; as Karaghiosis (rebel leader) you inspired me to bleed for its defense; you are restoring its monuments, preserving its works of art, and your ingenuity as well as your toughness, both physical and mental, is singularly amazing." (10)
This Immortal, a witty, picaresque novel, puts forth a serious ecological theme. It pictures a ruined earth as a vacation spot for aliens wanting to examine as a cautionary tale. Zelazny juxtaposes the decadent, not mature, Vegans with the vivacious, though occasionally destructive, humans. The novels suffers from some disorder and its episodic quality. Characters do not fully develop, but the comic epic form makes this somewhat more permissible. One can consider This Immortal, a set of "travel sketches" rather in the vein of Dickens or Smollet, from an intriguing, plausible future.
Damnation Alley (short story in Galaxy, 1967) suffers the marks of its ancestry. Zelazny states that he "intended to write a nice, simple action and adventure story, and I had just finished reading Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels." (11) Hel Tanner, last survivor of a motorcycle gang, journeys across a nuclear-devastated America to deliver plague serum to Boston. Zelazny mixes realistic detail, a romanticized punk, and occasional passages of heightened prose. The symbolism, however, seems contrived and the characters stereotyped. In the short story version, which, yet again, Zelazny prefers, he makes no pretensions beyond writing a simple adventure novel, and it ranks as a competent but uninspired example of the latter tradition.
In 1969, Zelazny left his job with the Civil Service to devote hull attention to writing. In consequence, he turned almost exclusively to the more lucrative form of the novel and away from short stories. Lord of Light (Avon), though published in 1967, belongs thematically to this second period, which lasted until approximately 1976. In these novels, Zelazny exhausted the possible ways of examining myths and reduced his prose to a more concentrated form.
Lord of Light explores the destruction of a myth as This Immortal explores the creation of one. A spaceship, the Star of India, becomes stranded on another planet. The crew of earthmen decide the native humans cannot yet accept their technology. Instead, they assume for themselves the position of gods, filling the Hindu pantheon and developing such items as re-incarnation machines and "sky chariots." Sam, one of the crew, opposes this, but the others defeat and exile him. Sam resurfaces as "mahasmatman" or Buddha, recreates Buddhism, and releases the Rakshas, ancient pure energy life forms native to the planet whom he once imprisoned. He allies himself Nirriti, the Black One, a rebellious earthman who has developed a separate realm based on physical weapons and enslavement. The gods and Nirriti fight each other, and Sam destroys both. The world becomes free to advance at its own rate, and Sam elects to retire. In his role as savior, Sam learns to control the enormous forces at his disposal, and he also learns his own desires. At one point, a Raksha controls his body and performs various unseemly acts that Sam finds also satisfy his subconscious wishes. Savior and saved must recognize the sensual and the intellectual parts of their nature, but the Savior conquers his and the temptation to rule. He retires to obscurity:
"Death and Light are everywhere, always, and they begin, end, strive, attend into and upon the Dream of the Nameless that is the world, burning words into Samara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty.
"And the wearers of the saffron robe still meditate upon the Way of Light, and the girl who is named Mugra visits the Temple daily, to place before her dark one in his shrine the only devotion he receives, of flowers." (12)
The central them of the novel contrasts the apparent truth of the "gods" and Sam's real truth. Zelazny places allegorical segments into the novel, but clearly they represent the religious interpretations of the planet's pious believers rather than the message of the author. Sam and his aliens find the real truth: an agnostic perception of the universe that allows for maximum self-development and freedom, i.e., a fairly traditional science fiction attitude towards religion. Sam's uses Buddhism only as a strategy, a truth as false as his opponents, and this dishonesty, despite the good intentions behind it, muddies his role as the novel's hero:
"'Good or ill, say the sages, means nothing for they are of Samsara...but consider a thing of which the sages do not speak...'beauty'...what does the Nameless dream.
"'The Nameless, of which we are all a part, does dream form. And what is the highest attribute any form may possess? It is beauty. The Nameless, then, is an artist. The problem, therefore, is not one of good or evil, but one of aesthetics...To struggle against the dreamers who dream ugliness, be they men or gods, cannot but be the will of the Nameless.'" (12)
Zelazny does not concentrate or really analyze the philosophies involved, a major short-coming of the novel. Instead, he focuses on action, betrayal, and world-creating, still making this rank among the best in speculative fiction. Lord of Light, a colorful, original novel, nevertheless avoids or glosses over the ethical and religious concepts that could have made it a mainstream class. It won the Hugo award and several editions quickly sold out.
Creatures of Light and Darkness (Avon, 1969), replays many of the themes of Lord of Light but with an apparent confusion of purposes. Zelazny this time offers a quarreling and shifting Egyptian cosmos of Osiris, Set, Anubis, etc., apparently buoyed by superscience. Despite some superb writing, the novel suffers from damaging problems. At most times Zelazny shows, again, a group of men who assume the role of gods over a subject population. At other times, however, he writes experimental and elevated sections apparently intended to present the story as allegory to the reader. It often seems very difficult to divide the one from another. For example, Death and a man who assume the role of death mix indiscriminately. James Blish criticizes the book at length:
"There is an important theoretical misconception here. When one uses mythical terms willy-nilly, one also invokes the whole complex of associations which goes with them, that static assumption of a fixed cosmos (with Gods) about which everything important is already known. You are writing an allegory whether you want to or not, and if you don't realize that this is the problem, the end is bound to ring false." (14)
After Creatures of Light and Darkness, Zelazny's use of myth divides into two better-sorted approaches. In his fantasies, he writes allegorically. In his science fiction he explores myth from a sociological perspective, i.e., as a social construct. In Tale of the Dead, earthman Francis Sandow acquires the skill of "world-scaping" from the ancient, dying, Hindu-like, Pei'ans, utilizing their religious beliefs for his own gain. Conditions force him to assume the identity of one of their gods to gain power. A rival "god," Belion, with his own powers lures Sandow to the Isle of the Dead to perform a ritual battle to the death. Creatures actually inhabit the bodies of the two combatants and force them to fight though these creatures may actually come from the unconscious. Either way, clearly they exist as real forces and not as allegory. Sandow's new perception of the meaning of divinity clearly shows a traditional science fictional mistrust of the metaphysical as Zelazny's colloquial summation aptly shows:
"If the Gods were real, their only relationship with us was to use us for pawns to play for their games. Screw them all." (15)
Though nominated for the Nebula, Tales of the Dead suffers in comparison with Lord of Light. Most of the novel consists of simple action and battle scenes lacking the power of the previous novel. Sandow comes across as a believable, but unexceptional, Zelazny hero, and the novel, despite it intentions, comes closer to the straight adventure of Damnation Alley than Lord of Light. A later novel, To Die in Italbar (1973) exhibits many of the same characteristics and revives Sandow as a supporting character. Today We Choose Faces (1973) and Bridge of Ashes (1976) offer continuations in this less ambitious vein. The former, a tale of genetic manipulation by aliens, offers some interesting moments in which the main character confronts himself. The later tells a story of a telepath charged with the task of defending humanity against aliens. These last three novels, while competent adventures stories, lack the power of his earlier fiction and represent the mining out of a vein of ideas.
Zelazny's fantasy during this same period consists of one novel and the Amber series, which includes Nine Princes in Amber (Avon, 1970), the Guns of Avon (Avon, ironically enough, 1972), Sign of the Unicorn (Galaxy, 1974-1975, Avon, 1975), The Hand of Oberon (Avon, 1976), and The Courts of Chaos (Galaxy, 1977-1978; Avon, 1978). The series may derive from Farmer's Makers of the Universe series as its relies upon a similar premise. Zelazny presents Amber as a Platonic "real world" of which our world and all of the other parallel worlds exist as "shadows." Corum, rightful heir of the realm, must fight his way back to the throne, opposed by the rival force of Chaos and his ambitious, ruthless siblings. Chaos destroys the pattern of order, but Corwin creates a new one. Corwin learns that the House of Chaos contains order and Amber's house Chaos. Chaos and order exist in all people and societies. The Amber series offers competent fantasy but not equal to Zelazny's better works. The plot elements of intrigue, battle, and lost kingdoms to salvage repeat themselves incessantly. The characters, too realistic to function as symbols, do not seem realistic enough to generate any reader interest. The complete Amber series does not fulfill the promise that some critics saw: to "secure Zelazny's place as a major author of fantasy." (16)
Jack of Shadows (Signet, 1971) offers all the strengths of the Amber series in four fewer volumes. It received a Hugo nomination in 1972. On a non-rotating world, Jack, thief and prince, frees himself an unjust sentence from the magical land of shadows to the scientific land of light. He shatters the powers of darkness, restores the world's rotation, but finally ends all magic powers, including his own. Throughout the final sections of the work, his soul pursues him as he performs atrocities without compulsion. A man of instinct and drive, he finally learns to accept the control of conscious authority. When he turns to look for soul, however, he finds it has departed. He turns to embrace darkness as he falls to his death. Zelazny presents a world of dualities: science and magic; love and hate; light and dark. Zelazny tells the story of Jack, an interesting, damned character whose fall, due to rising guilt, falls within a powerful narrative. Jack of Shadows is probably Zelazny's best fantasy.
Around 1976, Zelanzy seems to have entered into a third period. He wrote a number of works apparently designed to break free from the patterns of his past work. In Deus Irae (1976) he collaborated with Philip K. Dick. My Name is Legion (Ballantine, 1976) consists of three novelettes, including the Hugo and Nebula-winning "Home is th Hangman." (1973). Zelazny wrote the first two sections in 1969 and 1973. In My Name Is Legion an unnamed protagonist exiles himself from a repressive, massed, catalogued society by totally destroying his social identity. The government occasionally employs him in special cases where his skill at anonymity makes him a valuable detective. In "Home is the Hangman," he stalks a robot whose masters forced it into killing a man. The sentient robot, however, seems more human than his trackers. Innocent of the murders it unwittingly commits, the robot eventually travels to the stars with a better view of humanity's strengths and weaknesses than that of its makers:
"'...without his guilt, man would be no better than the other inhabitants of this planet. Look to instinct for a true assessment of the ferocity of life, for a view of the natural world before man came upon it...Mankind, despite enormous shortcomings, is nevertheless possessed of a grater number of kindly instincts than all the other beings, where instincts are the larger part of life. These impulses, I believe, are owed directly to this capacity for guilt. It is involved in both the worst and the best of man.'" (17)
In this work, Zelazny recovers some of the verve of his sixties compositions. His protagonist allows him some external critiques of the rising mechanization and corresponding isolation of individuals in our society. In other later works, such as Doorways in the Sand (1976) and Roadmarks (1980), Zelazny revives some of he picaresque qualities of This Immortal. Roadmark poses a highway through time the one can travel in a pick-up truck. In one sequence, an archeologist explains that he understands the history behind a given object because he, himself, placed in back in time. These recent novels, lighter and less ambitious, offer competent, witty entertainment.
Zelazny helped bring a new literacy to speculative fiction. He incorporated myth-making patterns into the genre and pursued them to examine the relations between men, their beliefs, and subconscious understandings. His stories make for interesting reading with at least one, "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" a science fiction classic. Of the novels, Lord of Light, The Dream Master, and This Immortal rank about the very best in the genre. Isle of the Dead and My Name is Legion nearly reach the same standard while Jack of Shadows makes an excellent fantasy. In his best works, Zelazny uses science fiction and fantasy to explore the limits of humanity, conscious and unconscious.
(1) Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master (New York: Pocket Books), p. 6. (2) Ibid, p. 1. (3) Ibid, pp. 3-5. (4) Carl B. Yoke, "Roger Zelazny," in Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers, p. 215. (5) J.P. Chaplin, Dictionary of Psychology (New York: Avon, 1975), p. 208. (6) Ibid, pp. 27-28. (7) Zelazny, Last Defender of Camelot (New York: Pocket Books, 1980), p. 22. (8) Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master, pp. 49-50. (9) Ibid, pp. 60-61. (10) Roger Zelazny, This Immortal (New York: Ace, 1966), p. 188. (11) Zelazny, Last Defender of Camelot, p. 122. (12) Zelazny, Lord of Light (New York: Avon, 1967), p. 319. (13) Ibid, pp. 46-47. (14) James Blish, More Issues at Hand (Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1970), p. 135. (15) Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead (New York: Ace, 1969), p. 174. (16) Yoke, Carl B., "Roger Zelazny," in Twentieth Century Fiction Writers, p. 218. (17) Roger Zelazny, My Name is Legion (New York: Ballantine, 1976), pp. 210-211. Links to other sites on the Web: Back to Chapter 4