Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back one and get my point of view on, well… Point of View. Then come and join me and Alan as we conclude our discussion of the novels of Roger Zelazny.
By the way, tonight (Thursday, June 13th, 6:30 pm), I’m doing a book signing at Alamosa Books here in Albuquerque with Darynda Jones and Shea Berkeley. Hope to see some of you there!
JANE: Well, Alan, in the best tradition of these Tangents, we’ve tangented off our discussion of various sub‑genres of Fantasy into a discussion of Roger Zelanzy, a writer of Fantasy and Science Fiction whose work we both enjoyed.
Where shall we go next?
ALAN: What about Roger’s Dilvish stories? I could never really come to grips with them. I’ve tried reading them several times but they always strike me as straight down the middle of the road fantasy novels with nothing especially outstanding or original about them. I’ve never managed to get more than two or three chapters into them. It seems to me that this world would have been an ideal place for Roger to explore his mythological themes from a less technological point of view, but I never saw any sign of that at all ‑ or indeed of anything else either. On the other hand, it may well be that I’m missing something important here. Roger was always a subtle writer, so perhaps I just haven’t spotted whatever it was he was trying to say.
JANE: I like the Dilvish stories, but I don’t think I ever took them as anything more than some light sword and sorcery. Dilvish reminds me rather of the Grey Mouser from Fritz Lieber’s tales. However, those stories have a firm following. After Roger’s death, they were among those I was most often asked about.
ALAN: Strange. They never attracted me at all.
Mythologies are closely tied to histories, of course, and Roger explored the way that history might work in another of my favourite novels, Roadmarks. Again it’s oddly constructed. It only has two chapters ‑ “One” and “Two” and we swap between them. Each happens (for want of a better word) in a different time and place and the very first chapter of the book is “Two.”
There’s a road that runs through time rather than through space and the travellers on can take exits to various historical periods. But history is mutable, and changes to it simply produce extra forks in the road, so there’s always something new to see.
It’s full of Roger’s trademark humour. I love the idea of Hitler driving furiously up and down the road looking for the places where he won. And what about Mondamay, the futuristic but malfunctioning warrior robot whose major hobby and interest is pottery. And the cybernetic incarnations of Baudelaire’s “Flowers Of Evil” and Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass” which talk and argue with the protagonist(s), constantly quoting from themselves.
JANE: I liked Roadmarks quite a bit, although I never could quite believe Roger’s claim that the chapters that take place in various historical settings were arranged at random. They sure seem to have a logical development to me. However, maybe that’s a logic superimposed by this reader’s mind.
Another of Roger’s odder books is Doorways in the Sand. It’s an amusing book. I especially liked the aliens. What do you think of it?
ALAN: Oh, I love Doorways in the Sand. It’s an untypical Zelazny novel in that it is an overt comedy with elements of farce. Fred Cassidy is a perpetual student (he has a guaranteed income until he graduates, so he makes sure he never graduates). 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. 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’s very surreal. Here’s a quote:
“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.”
JANE: I agree… Lovely stuff.
ALAN: Fred’s hobby is climbing buildings. He loves high places. They soothe and comfort him when he is upset or worried. And, anyway, he finds climbing fun. It’s an odd sort of hobby to have. Did Roger have any personal connection with climbing or climbers?
JANE: Not professionally or anything, but I’ve heard that back when Roger lived in the Baltimore area he’d often escape crowded parties by going out on a roof ‑ say where a porch jutted out and the roof could be reached by a second story window ‑ and sit there, smoking a cigarette and seeing what would happen. Often someone would join him and they’d chat.
Jay Haldeman (brother to Joe and author under the name of Jack C. Haldeman) was one of the people who’d often join Roger on the rooftops. Since Jay was in many ways the model for Fred Cassidy ‑ he also spent a long time studying before taking his degree ‑ this connection seems pretty obvious.
When Roger died, Jay came out to New Mexico for the memorial service. He was a lovely man, like Roger in that his seeming quiet held a lively intellect and a fine sense of humor. He said he’d dreamed of Roger on the night he died… I liked Jay a lot. His death a few years later was a real loss.
ALAN: One day in a bookshop, I spotted a novel by Roger called Jack of Shadows. The title fooled me. I thought it was another Amber book (because of the reference to shadow) and so I bought it on the strength of that.
In point of fact Jack of Shadows 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 (how does Roger consistently get away with such terrible jokes?). I never regretted my decision to buy it ‑ it is a wonderful book. 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. I think Jack of Shadows is my most serendipitous mistaken buy.
JANE: I liked it, too. It could have gone the same route as the lighter “Dilvish” stories, but manages to have a bit more depth. Roger told me that he had a vivid image of the World Machine and not much else when he started the book, but he was confident there was a story there and went after it.
What do you think of Damnation Alley? I know that many people prefer the novella, but I actually like the novel better. The character development is stronger and the story feels less like a string of verbal special effects. Hell Tanner is an interesting character, especially in contrast to what most think of as the “typical” Zelazny hero. He lacks the poise of so many of Roger’s characters but ‑ perhaps for that reason ‑ has a lot more “heart.”
ALAN: I didn’t realise there was a novella. I’ve only seen it as a novel. I thought it worked brilliantly.
Didn’t they make a movie of it?
JANE: They did, but it’s a movie I’ve never seen. Roger asked very little of me by way of restrictions, but once he jokingly asked me to never watch that movie, so I never have. A few years ago, I gave the VCR tape I had of it to Roger’s son, Trent, so I couldn’t give into temptation.
ALAN: Probably a wise decision.
I know we’re both fans and therefore biased, but I think that Roger’s books all stand the test of time very well indeed. The stories written by many of his contemporaries sometimes seem clunky and a little old fashioned to modern eyes. But Roger’s stories are just as fresh and as bright as ever they were. What do you think?
JANE: Occasionally, as in elements of the setting of Doorways in the Sand, I do find the novels become dated. However, overall, I think they have held up very well.
A few years ago, when the Chronicles of Amber were released as an omnibus, one of the most frequent comments I heard was a variation on “Those characters sure do smoke a lot.” At the time the stories were first released, social smoking was a part of the landscape. However, as I noted in the biography of Roger that I wrote back in the mid‑nineties, he never stopped growing and stretching as a writer, adapting to the world as it changed around him.
Somehow, I feel certain that if he’d written another Amber novel, some character would have commented, “Man! Did we ever smoke a lot back then.”
But, sadly, he never got the chance… I’m happy that what he did write remains stories I can recommend to newer readers.
Next time, let’s return to the sub‑genres of Fantasy. Something you said a while back has given me an idea where I’d like to go.