TT: Roger Zelazny — Master of Odd Twists

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and join me as I muse over why magical items are suddenly so unpopular with some readers of Fantasy.  Then join me and Alan as we continue our discussion of one of our favorite writers.

Zelazny's Mythic Universes

Zelazny’s Mythic Universes

JANE: Last time we were just getting into Roger Zelazny and his particular ‑ or perhaps I should say “peculiar” ‑ take on using mythological and historical material in his fiction.  I know we both had other books we wanted to touch on.  You go first!

ALAN: Roger continued to explore mythological themes in two novels called Isle of the Dead and To Die in Italbar. Both books featured a character called Francis Sandow. However this time Roger didn’t base the stories on any known mythology, he made everything up from scratch.

Sandow himself is an avatar of the god Shimbo of Darktree, Shrugger of Thunders. Isn’t that a wonderful phrase?

JANE: It is indeed…

ALAN: The books play with similar ideas to those in Lord of Light (men as gods) but I enjoyed them a lot more, probably because I didn’t have to struggle with references to mythologies I only half remembered. When the writer invents his own mythologies, every reader starts from the same level of ignorance and the book succeeds or fails purely on its own merits. As I recall (correct me if I’m wrong), these novels were not a great critical success ‑ but I always enjoyed them a lot and I felt that the interweaving of an invented mythology with the story line worked brilliantly.

JANE: I don’t recall how great a critical success the novels  were (I was about five when Isle of the Dead was published).  However, I liked them a lot.  One difference between the Sandow novels and Lord of Light is the manner in which humans can become gods.  In Lord of Light, the means may or may not be merely technological.  In the Sandow stories, the becoming is far more mystic.

Another novel where Roger drew both on traditional mythology ‑ in this case, Egyptian and Greek,  as well as creating his own – was the very strange novel, Creatures of Light and Darkness.   I remember being pretty confused by it the first time I read it, but I found it merited a re‑reading.  Now it’s one of my favorites of Roger’s works.

ALAN: What a peculiar book it is. Lighthearted and grim at one and the same time. Osiris captures a deadly enemy and weaves his nervous system into the fabric of a rug. Every so often Osiris entertains himself by jumping up and down on the rug and listening to the screams of pain that the rug broadcasts through loudspeakers. I find that simultaneously hilarious, sick, wonderfully imaginative and quite twisted.

Come to think of it, you could describe the whole book with those words. It continues Roger’s fascination with the theme of men who might be gods, but this time it paints the picture with Egyptian and Greek mythologies. It is set in the far future and so technology plays a large part in it. In some ways it feels a bit like a proto‑cyberpunk novel. The style is also very odd. It’s written in the present tense and it’s got poetry and a playscript in it. Given that it experiments so much with style, it could even be thought of as a New Wave novel!

 JANE: It also has one of the oddest sex into romance plots in any of Roger’s novels.  Actually, I’d go so far as to say in any novel at all.

Roger didn’t write Creatures of Light and Darkness with any plans for publication, so, I suppose, in some ways it could be looked upon as the quintessential Zelazny novel.  If I remember correctly, he mentioned it to Samuel R. Delany ‑ one of the brightest lights of the American New Wave ‑ who convinced him to show it to an editor.  So your feeling that it belongs to that particular “tradition” seems right on the spot to me.

ALAN: Gosh ‑ I never knew that. I was just commenting on the feeling I got from the text.

JANE: You obviously have a good sense for literary forms…

Roger’s most popular works ‑ the ten volume Chronicles of Amber ‑ were also heavily indebted to myth and history.  Corwin, the narrator of the first five books, has lived for centuries, been a soldier in many wars, and left traces of himself in our myths and legends.  So, too, have his numerous siblings.

Roger kept the references light, but I always felt they added depth to what otherwise might have been just another sword and sorcery adventure.  In fact, I missed these brush strokes of myth and history in the latter five books, where the narrator (for all that his name is Merlin) is much younger and the stories delve more deeply into the back history of the courts of both Amber and Chaos.

ALAN: Oh, I agree completely. The stories about Merlin always felt thin and lacking in depth to me. Merlin is a callow youth in comparison to his father and the stories were slight. I missed Corwin’s vast experience and his cynicism.

What do you think of A Night in the Lonesome October? It’s one of my favourites of Roger’s books. Not only is it very, very funny but it also uses mythology in a way that few other writers have used it. Mythologies are not static. Every age adds its own stories to the myths and legends. There are layers upon layers.

JANE: I agree…  While one definition of “mythology” is firmly rooted in religions, there is another that embraces the themes and stories that define us as a culture.

ALAN: Our modern myths seem to involve Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper et. al. (who may themselves be avatars of older beings). There are also many nods to the supernatural in the telling of our tales (the stories of the Angels of Mons from the First World War spring to mind, along perhaps with more mundane entities such as vampires and werewolves). Of course this kind of thinking leads naturally to the current glut of Buffy/Twilight urban fantasy rubbish. But in A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger treated the ideas in a much more mature fashion and the result is quite delightful.

JANE: I loved A Night in the Lonesome October.  However, I am rather biased…  After Roger was done with the book and re‑reading it, he told me that he realized he’d modeled the cat, Graymalk, somewhat after me, especially in the banter with Snuff, the dog.  I, of course, was thrilled…

A Night in the Lonesome October was also one of the few of Roger’s books that I had the chance to “watch” being written from start to finish.  He’d had the idea for the book for many years, but he’d had his heart set on Gahan Wilson illustrating it.  Eventually, he decided to just go ahead and write it in the hope that Gahan Wilson could find time to do his part.  (Which he did.)  I’m so glad Roger did so.  His joy in the project was a delight.

By the way, the book is a homage to many of the writers whose work Roger read when he was young.  The dedication provides a listing, just in case you’re interested.  I think he touched on most of the major modern “mythologies” in that one ‑ with the exception of Tarzan, and Tarzan got his nod in Donnerjack.

ALAN: But of course Roger had other literary interests as well. Perhaps we could look at some of those next time?

JANE: I’d enjoy that quite a bit

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5 Responses to “TT: Roger Zelazny — Master of Odd Twists”

  1. Peter Says:

    In a nice little bit of synchronicity, I was just listening an early episode of the SF Squeecast last night, (a podcast in which a group of writers, well, squee about various things – books, movies, games, television) and A Night in the Lonesome October came up. The most interesting part of the discussion (to me at least, and this is where the synchronicity comes in) arose when one of the contributors discussed her experience bringing A Night in the Lonesome October to her book group, composed almost entirely of people who don’t read SF/F, all of whom bounced off the book…because they weren’t familiar with the underlying mythology.

  2. Paul Says:

    There was so much varied mythology in “A Night in the Lonesome October,” from real-life (Jack the Ripper) to old Universal horror movies (Lawrence Talbot). You might have to be of a certain age to get some of them, but they sure were fun!

  3. Cat Says:

    Zelazny’s reading of A Night in the Lonesome October is simply fantastic as he gives voice to each of the characters in his over so droll voice.

  4. OtherJane Says:

    I’d forgotten about A Night in the Lonesome October. I loved that one…but I’m not sure what happened to our copy of it…I don’t think we have it anymore. (We’ll have to fix that.)

    I’d just a month or so ago, I’d started rereading the Chronicles of Amber. I hadn’t read them since the early 80s. I remembered really enjoying them and found that they’ve held up really well.

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