Who was the greatest American fantasist of the 20th century? People will have their own notions about this (as opposed to the greatest British fantasist of the 20th century, where most lists will begin with Tolkien). Personally, I think Fritz Leiber is several of the century’s greatest fantasists, and other obvious candidates would include Robert E. Howard, Kuttner and Moore, Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance, Ursula Le Guin. John Crowley has his advocates; no doubt there are others. One name I always think of in this connection is Roger Zelazny.
Zelazny was not a perfect writer. He was an avowed risk-taker, and some of his experiments didn’t come off. Others, which may have read well when they were first written, haven’t aged gracefully. His motto was “Trust your demon,” and demons aren’t always trustworthy. But Zelazny’s method (put less theologically: writers should be prepared to junk their outlines and follow whatever wild hairs present themselves) does tend to take the reader interesting places. Almost no one had heard of Zelazny before 1962. A few years later he was an acknowledged giant in the sf/f field. By end of the decade people were saying he was on the skids. De gustibus non disputandum. In my view (and many others) few fantasists will ever reach the heights Zelazny achieved in his later period.
In any case, his historical importance is beyond dispute, and when an sf/f author of historical importance needs an archival collection, you have but to wait politely and eventually NESFA Press will produce something stunning on the order of “The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny”. (Volume One and Two are the subject of this review; Volumes Three and Four are now out; Volumes Five and Six are slated for release later this year).
[Showers of sparky details beyond the jump.]
The books themselves are beautiful, with sewn bindings and acid-free paper, wonderfully typeset and designed, with wraparound dustcovers featuring art by Michael Whelan. “Collected Stories” is not wrong but “Complete” might be nearer the mark. The initial “Word from the Editors” says that the six volumes will include “all of Zelazny’s known short fiction and poetry, three excerpts of important novels, a selection of non-fiction essays and a few curiosities.” It’s extremely ambitious, and (on the basis of the two volumes under review) it achieves most of those ambitions.
That means some of this stuff is going to suck. No one is going to plow through this collection saying, “This thing is the best story I’ve ever read… No, this thing is… No, this thing is…” and so on with each entry. The very first story is the mind-blowing, genre-rattling “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” I don’t say it’s beyond criticism; I do say it’s still a good story, and it’s the one that made Zelazny’s reputation as a writer of sf/f. The next story in the collection is a little mood piece, “And the Darkness Is Harsh” which first appeared in the literary magazine of Zelazny’s junior high school. It’s not an embarrassment, but it can’t fail to suffer from comparison–so much so that the editors might have done well to exile this and a few other early pieces to a “juvenalia” section in the back of the book. Still, I’m glad this early work is in the volume. Everything from a writer as significant as Zelazny is worth reading at least once, and reading his first published pieces only heightens one’s sense of how far and how fast his work improved–and how much continuity there is in that long steep arc.
Zelazny’s best work used science fiction and fantasy elements more or less promiscuously to paint in broad strokes moving images of luminous unreal worlds and the larger-than-life figures that strode through them. But I guess you could say as much for The Eye of Argon. One of the differences between the author of Argon and Zelazny is that Zelazny is always in control of his style, even when it’s driving the reader crazy. And when the reader laughs, Zelazny usually means them to. Here’s an oft-quoted sample, part of the so-called “Agnostic’s Prayer” (really one of two prayers uttered by the agnostic priest Madrak the Mighty)
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 is at all presumptuous, and therefore will not be 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–Amen
This prayer is obviously the work of a master stylist who long worked in a bureaucracy. To my mind, it’s hilarious, and even funnier in narrative context (in the novel Creatures of Light and Darkness). It’s also the work of someone who has spent time thinking about what prayer is and why people engage in it: there’s a play of ideas along with the play of language.
In his early award-winners “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth”, the ideas Zelazny is playing with include Brackett-style space opera, Hemingwayesque notions of masculinity, the ironic use of sacred text, miscegnation, and fish. I left out a few for brevity’s sake. Zelazny isn’t drawing conclusions about these notions and forcing the reader to accept them; the stories aren’t philosophical arguments. This stuff is the flashing of his vorpal blade as he fences with you: what he really wants is to get under your guard and stab you through the heart with some strange thought. “Doors of His [etc]” ends: “No one is born a baitman, I don’t think, but the rings of Saturn sing epithalamium the sea-beast’s dower,” which could be translated asAnd they lived happily ever after (though it loses something in translation). At the end of “He Who Shapes”, the sun is a red button and a black sail is white; that’s why the hero is doomed: he has a hope that transforms his world which, like all our worlds, is just in his head.
The biggest eye-openers for me in either volume were the early Dilvish stories. Candidly, I didn’t think much of them when I first read them as a set (in the collection Dilvish the Damned–I much would have preferred Zelazny’s planned title of Nine Black Doves, but that’s a whine for another dark sea). The first one I ever read was “The Bells of Shoredan” in a used copy of Fantastic. It suffered there by comparison to Leiber’s “Stardock” in the same issue. Here I found I liked them better, both as examples of Zelazny’s restless experimentation and as deftly (and concisely) written pieces of adventure fantasy.
Even Zelazny’s minor stories, like “The Stainless Steel Leech” (narrated by a robot vampire) or “Horseman!” (set just before the beginning of the end of the world, or at least a world), often have classic stature and tremendous rereadability. And even things like “Nine Starships Waiting” (which Zelazny himself considered a failure) or “The Furies” (which may be his worst story) have a lot of technical interest: what he’s doing, and why; how he’s making use of older sources and how it works (or sometimes doesn’t).
Since I’ve broached the delicate subject of what doesn’t work for me in these stories, I might as well mention a few specifics. The tone Zelazny chooses is sometimes deeply grating on my inner ear–for instance, the beatnickery straining the narrative voice of “Circe Has Her Problems” (“Like, I don’t know geometry, but I know a square when I see one” etc). The tone isn’t an accident; this is a story that turns on a specific sort of genre joke and the tone is meant to reflect that; Stan Freberg was doing a lot of comedy along these lines around this time. I just think that, in Zelazny’s story, it’s not very funny. Less footwork and more punch were needed here.
More importantly, in this story and some of his other early work (like “The Furies”) the mythology is the point, in a way that it should almost never be. That might sound weird, coming from a myth junkie like me, but the power of a mythic image in a piece of fiction should be almost unimpaired even if the reader isn’t familiar with the source material. A vagina dentata should be scary even if the reader knows no Latin (although, of course, everything is better with Latin!™). But Zelazny, in “The Furies” and elsewhere, springs the myth content like like the punchline of a joke, or the moral at the end of an Aesopian fable: Aha! This is what the story is About! Am I not a clever person who has read many books? May I have a gold star at the top of my paper, please? This sort of thing lacks emotional impact for me, because I don’t usually count irritation as emotional impact.
But even in his brief apprenticeship Zelazny was writing better than most people ever will, and he was learning to make up his own myths, as well as steal other peoples’ more skillfully. In “For a Breath I Tarry”, the book of Job meets the second chapter of Genesis, with introductions performed by Mephistopheles, in a post-apocalyptic world empty of and haunted by humanity (see Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”).
And the narrator of “…And Call me Conrad” may be Pan, but it’s not all-important if he’s not; it matters far more that Conrad Nomikos is a monster-hero who destroys and protects things and people unpredictably. (“Feathers or lead?”) One of the editors’ more interesting choices was to include the magazine version of “…And Call me Conrad”, the version for which Zelazny won the Hugo (and which differs significantly from the book publication, mostly because of the space requirements of F&SF).
The editors have added to almost every story an afterword section called “A Word from Zelazny”, where they gather reflections Zelazny made on the given story, sometimes from several sources. Some of the juvenilia have no afterword at all; some of the afterwords are very brief; the one on “Passion Play” is nearly as long as the story itself. For me, these added a lot to the experience of reading this work, some of which was very familiar, and I was grateful to the editors for them.
The editors have also collected some fiction-relevant articles by Zelazny, and their running literary biograpy “…And Call Me Roger” (one section per volume) was extremely helpful in putting the pieces into the context of Zelazny’s career and life. This stuff, along with a memoir of Zelazny by his lifelong friend Carl Yoke, opened a lot of doorways, sandy and otherwise, in Zelazny’s work. Now I have some sense of the importance of all those car crashes in Zelazy’s work, the oddly pervasive sense of guilt and anger, the casual authority with which he narrates fight scenes, why so many of his heroes are named “Carl” and other matters. “Zelazny” seems to mean “a shower of sparks” and, whether that’s true or not (Polish being an unexplored mystery to me), it’s significant that Zelazny thought so and said so repeatedly. It was part of his self-definition.
It was interesting, too, to read that he thought of both Lord of Light and the early Amber books as being sword-and-sorcery, and that Lord of Light was written in novelette-sized chunks so that Zelazny could sell them piecemeal to the magazine market. The fluctuating publishing schedule of New Worlds frustrated this scheme–only one of the Lord of Light sections appeared in the magazine, but it’s an approach you can imagine a sword-and-sorcery writer trying, even nowadays.
On the down side: I’m not so crazy about the editors’ decision to have a set of explanatory notes along with each story. I’m not saying that Zelazny does not create richly layered tissues of references, and I’m not saying that I have the knowledge to decode them so screw everyone else. I don’t have the knowledge to decode many of these references, especially references to the martial arts, Buddhism etc. which were a big part of Zelazny’s thinking but are quite arcane to me. On the other hand, I can look all this stuff up pretty easily, now that we are Living In The Future–Googling “Ik-Kyu” will yield more information in moments than the editors can possibly work into a line or two of text. Also, they devote notes to explaining the strangest things–stuff one would take to be a matter of common knowledge, e.g. what the Koran is (I kid you not), or what “cannoned” means. Certainly if I didn’t know what “cannoned” meant, the explanation “bombarded by canons [sic]” would be of little use.
And there were sometimes places where the editors missed a sizable forest while concentrating on such miniscule trees. In the poem “Decade Plus One of Roses” the editors note that “this poem parodies ten poets and adds Zelazny’s own voice at the end.” But that eleventh section is not in Zelazny’s voice at all; it’s unambiguously a parody of beat poetry, and declares itself as such.
ROSE ON THE ROAD.
walked on in the defiling night
by fuzzyheaded disciples
of the rival-red poppy. …
I also bit my elbow over their explanation of the crucial line “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a stainless steel leech” from the eponymous story. They trace it back to Robert Bloch’s book on fandom, A Way of Life, where he dashes off the line, “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan.” But this itself is a punning reference to “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a man“–a catchphrase sometimes associated with Hubbard’s Final Blackout but which apparently derives from Walter MacFarlane’s story “To Watch the Watchers” (Astounding 1949). So Mr. Google told me in about 10 seconds.
It’s not a crime to not know this stuff; nobody knows everything. But it does mean that, after the general knowledge and the errors were eliminated, relatively few of the notes seemed to me to be worth the space they were taking up. As editors, I think these guys have done an exemplary job. As annotators, eh, I can’t be as enthusiastic.
Such trivia aside, these volumes are strange and wonderful books that collect the work of a strange and wonderful writer. In spite of all the kvetching you see above, I can’t recommend them highly enough.