Fiction Reviews

Doorways in the Sand

(1976/2017) Roger Zelazny, Farrago, £8.99, pbk, 224pp, ISBN 978-1-911-44087-1


This is a very welcome reprint, over 40 years on, of a minor 1970s classic by the US Science Fiction master, the six-time Hugo and three-time Nebula Award-winner Roger Zelazny. (At which point I feel almost obliged to say something like, "All hail the Lord of Light." But I'll let that pass.)

Doorways in the Sand sees Young Fred Cassidy enjoying his student life so much that he has been an undergraduate for several years.  Yes, he passes his exams but never with enough module points to gain his degree. Indeed, he is becoming such a master at it that some of his lecturers wonder whether he will ever leave?

It isn't entirely laziness that causes Fred to adopt this lifestyle, it is just that it is easy given that his education comes from a legacy from his uncle, and that legacy stops going to Fred the day he graduates.  So Fred continues to study and enjoy life, which includes him clambering about his university's building's rooftops.

This is the near-future and while much is the same as it is today (for which read the mid-1970s) we have had first contact with beings from the stars.  Apparently, there is an interstellar community of alien civilizations and, once humanity has been deemed sufficiently advanced and worthy, mankind may eventually be able to join this Galactic society. As part of the preliminaries humanity has undertaken a cultural exchange of artefacts – some of Earth's most prized artworks and treasures including the Mona Lisa and the British Crown jewels – with some of these alien civilisations.

Another aspect of this near future world is that it is possible to cryogenically store people. Indeed, Fred's benefactor uncle is one such in cryo-hibernation.

And so all is well and good and Fred is about to sign up for the next academic year's worth of courses which will enable him to continue in full-time education but which, again, will not furnish him with the necessary qualifications to actually graduate: by now Fred is something of a polymath given the number of different exams he has taken and passed.

Then Fred is approached accused of stealing the Star Stone – an alien artefact on loan to Earth as part of this diplomatic cultural exchange.   If word got out that humanity had lost the Star Stone then it could put pay to Earth's ambitions with the stellar civilisations.

One thing leads to another and Fred goes both on the run and becomes an unwilling investigator as to what happened to the Star Stone.   This takes him from the US to Australia as well as multiple realities and alien perspectives while having encounters with telepathic psychologists, alien's with dubious intent, and the Galactic police.  Fred's life has been turned upside down…

Doorways in the Sand is an SF thriller with sci-fi elements and laced with humour. It is an ideal read for both a Young Adult readership (in the true sense of the term meaning those aged 18 through to their twenties) – the protagonist is young and there is no gratuitous, visceral violence or other adult themes – as well as older readers.

Doorways in the Sand stands reasonably well up in today's terms for a modern reader notwithstanding that this is a world without mobile (cell) phones or the internet. But there are a few anachronisms, such as a prevalence of smoking and that in the event Fred does graduate, the balance of his inheritance his uncle has deemed will go to the IRA (Irish Republican Army): remember, back in the 1970s a good number in the US financially supported the IRA in their terrorism against Britain (something perhaps glossed over today in British school's modern history curricula).  Notwithstanding these oddities, Doorways in the Sand is a perfectly good read for today's market.  In fact, this book's first 21st century UK edition may introduce Roger Zelazny to a new generation of SF readers and that would be no bad thing.  Recommended. Indeed, nostalgically thoroughly recommended.

Jonathan Cowie

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