Fiction Reviews

The Best of Roger Zelazny

(2023) Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, viii+486pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23500-7


Far too long ago – nearly half a century – I read and enjoyed his Hugo-winning novel The Lord of Light (1967) which sort of reads as if it is a firm fantasy – with Hindu gods and all, but is actually SF when humanity has become sufficiently technologically advanced to colonise other worlds and on one such colony those with the technology seem like gods to those without it.

I also greatly enjoyed Doorways in the Sand (1976) but I have not read (or if so remembered) any of the man's shorts. And I recall reading (again nearly half a century ago so its detail is lost to me in memory) This Immortal (1966) a.k.a. the shorter And Call Me Conrad (1965). And then there is the novella Damnation Alley (1969) which is little like its namesake film (1974), though the latter had pretty skies given the SFX of that decade. More on this novella later….

Then there is Zelazny's reputation. He was taken from us way too soon (1995), aged just 58, but – in addition to writing – he was a regular on the SF convention circuit in the US so that today I have heard many extant, and now elderly, N. American SF authors speak fondly of him. In short, I was really looking forward to this collection of shorts.

The collection is part of Gollancz's excellent SF Masterworks series and it begins with an introduction by the British author Lisa Tuttle (once affectionately parodied by Britain's 2000AD comic as Lisa Subtitle which is my way of segueing to signal that we will be returning to 2000AD later). Her introduction notes that Zelazny was a seasoned smoker and that many of his protagonists were similarly inclined up to when he quit in the early 1980s after which his characters stopped smoking too.

Much of Lisa's introduction very briefly summarises many of the collection's shorts and I'll return to this introduction towards the end of this review.

Here then are the stories in order they appear in the collection:

'A Rose for Ecclesiastes' (1963) is set on Mars, a Mars that SF portrayed early in the 20th century in planetary romances and this is perhaps Zelazny's love letter to that form of SF with which he grew up. Apparently, it was cited third in a Locus poll of best SF novelettes of the 20th century after 'Nightfall' and 'A Flower for Algernon'. It is also, apparently, Zelazny's first commercial sale. Now, I greatly like both 'Nightfall' and 'A Flower for Algernon', and I know that a number of Zelazny fans rate 'A Rose for Ecclesiastes', but I don't, and I would not put this up there with those other two great novelettes. While I'm happy with the fictional Mars, I do not like the scientifically absurd story arc in which an explorer from Earth 'saves' the Martians from going extinct… Apparently, this story is packed with Biblical and other humanities references. If so, alas, I could not (am not equipped to) pick up on these. So maybe I am missing out on key dimensions to this story?

'Corrida' (1968) sees a man awaken as if he is the subject of a bull fight. I found this confused but, hey, what do I know.

'Damnation Alley' (1969) this novelette sees a post-apocalyptic US divided. Both the Eastern and western seaboard survived largely unscathed, the reader may presume (there is a hint) that they were protected by anti-missile missiles) but between them is a ruined wasteland. A plague on the western seaboard sees them call for medicines from the East coast settlements. A rogue and criminal biker and driver is recruited as part of a three-car team to transport the medicine across the wasteland…

Now, this novelette was one that Lisa Tuttle in her introduction to the collection would have liked to see omitted and replaced with something else. I am not sure. Yes, it has a couple of Zelazny's faults – he tends not to explain everything (the reader has to do some work), for example, only as the story progresses do we learn that the cars being driven are special. Why he tends to leave gaps for the reader to fill in I do not know. It is – as far as I am concerned – a cheap stylistic device I have seen others use, a device that should be avoided unless (and only unless) a story's arc requires a big reveal. However, the value of this story is not just that many like it, but that it inspired one of the first (if not the first) epic Judge Dredd adventure in 20000AD: The Cursed Earth Saga. (I told you we would return to 2000AD.)

'Divine Madness' (1966) is a little gem as time flows backwards…

'For A Breath I Tarry' (1966) is apparently a story that Zelazny himself was most pleased. It concerns a ruined Earth and an orbiting platform created by humans (who we presume are either no extinct or living among the stars. The orbiting platform creates an artificial intelligence called Frost to control the machines repairing the Earth. But Frost develops a hobby, an archaeological investigation of humanity. This leads to….

'He Who Shapes' (1965) won the Nebula and then was expanded to the novel The Dream Master in which a psychiatrist enters his patients dreams. Sadly, this novelette did not do anything for me, though I did enjoy the film Dreamscape (1984) that it loosely inspired. Having said that, those really into New Wave SF may like it a lot: I am more a Hard SF sort of guy.

'Home is the Hangman' (1975) was a Hugo and a Nebula winner. An AI that was sent to probe the gas giants returns to Earth and seems to be bent on tracking down its four original operators. An investigator is despatched to find out what is going on… This is something of a thriller with an element of part of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) explored albeit on Earth.

'LOKI7281' (1984) is very short but very entertaining indeed. A home computer belonging to a writer (we presume is Zelazny) gets above his station… In the mix, a number of other US writers get name-checked. This story would pass mustard today as one of the Best of Nature SF 'Futures' stories. Huge fun.

'Permafrost' (1986) is set on an alien world, Balfrost, whose orbit means that it has decades of winter but in the decades of summer it becomes a holiday destination. During the winter, the resort of Playpoint sees no tourists and the staff put in suspended animation/hibernation with just an 'A. I.' (note the commas) and two humans serving as caretakers. One of these is Paul who lost his investments in the 'Big Washout'. The A. I., it transpires is a former human who has been sort of digitised (hence the aforementioned commas). As the story progresses we learn something of Paul's past and that he is after riches that he previously discovered on the planet and now wants to retrieve. Only his past comes back to haunt him…  Those who know their SF may see in the conceit of the planet's climatic seasons a parallel with Brian Aldiss' Helliconia Spring (1982), and subsequent 'Helliconia' novels (1983 and 1985). Well, maybe there is, but there is nothing wrong with one author using another's idea and give it a different treatment. Indeed, there is a lot here that is Zelazny's own. My one gripe was the wince he gave me as he perpetuated a common misconception behind James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. Non-scientists, indeed non-Earth System scientists, will probably not pick up on this and Zelazny's own background is that of a B.A. in English, specialising (M.A.) in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, not science, and so a more liberal person than I may be more forgiving. Nonetheless, this story has enough concepts and a solid enough story arc to keep the reader engaged.

'The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth' (1965) won a Nebula for Best Novelette and was short-listed for the Hugo. It is set on Venus, the watery kind as envisioned at the end of the 1950s. This story is set shortly after 2010. In its seas lives a giant creature which some want to hunt… This tale has echoes of Moby Dick. Despite this story's award acclaim, this was another that did little for me (but then we've already established that I cannot live by New Wave alone).

'The Great Slow Kings' (1963) this story is reminiscent on that (subsequent) classic Star Trek episode 'Wink of an Eye' (1968) only here everyone else lives their lives super-fast compared to two alien rulers for whom time flows glacially… This story hits the spot.

'The Keys to December' (1966) in the far future some workers are (genetically) modified to work in certain environments. On their retirement, a group of such modified workers buy a world and set about transforming it to suit their needs. This is not good news for the native species. But some show signs of adapting…

'Last Defender of Camelot'(1979) is a take on the Arthurian Camelot legend with a knight being immortal on a quest for the Holy Grail who discovers that Merlin is also still alive but in a kind of hibernation… Zelazny is noted for exploring myths, legends and religion, such as Hinduism in The Lord of Light.

As Lisa Tuttle explains in her introduction, this collection may not be the 'Best' of Zelazny and Zelazny fans may wish that other stories had been included at the expense of some of those here. Personally, I would have liked to see more of his earlier work when he wrote mainly short, short stories as often with these he neatly explored a genre trope with an interesting take. Also, the beauty of short, short stories is that if the reader does not like one then not to worry as there will be another in a few pages time. Conversely, the trouble with novelettes is that if one does not like one then it will be quite a while before the next tale hoves into view. Furthermore, nor am I particularly wowed by some awards: for example, I take Nebulas with a firm pinch of salt: the strength of 'Home is the Hangman' is that its Nebula is backed up by a Hugo win. However, this collection is a cross-section of Zelazny. It also is an exemplar of early New Wave in the USA: New Wave aficionados will love this.

For younger readers, hopefully some will be inspired to check out some of the man's novels. Zelazny won at least 16 awards for particular works of fiction: six Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards, two Locus Awards, one Prix Tour-Apollo Award, two Seiun Awards and two Balrog Awards. He is an SF writer serious genre readers cannot afford to ignore.

But my final words must be a plea to Gollancz: please can we have a volume 2. In fact I'd really like two more volumes: one featuring his more SFnal tales and the other those that have more of a fantasy focus. He certainly has enough in his oeuvre to mine. Go on Gollancz, you know it makes sense.

Jonathan Cowie


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