Thursday, October 16, 2014

Aye, and Zelazny.

by J. D. Popham

If you wish to write good stories, you must read good stories, and among the best in the science fiction and fantasy genre are those written by Roger Zelazny.  Many readers will only be acquainted with Zelazny though his Amber novels; a ten-book fantasy series published over the course of twenty years.  So it may come as a surprise that I regard Zelazny primarily as a Science Fiction writer, albeit one who infused science fiction with myth and legend, treating the two genres as a continuum rather than drawing hard lines between them.

Zelazny was a word man, which is to say he delighted in the sound of words at play, and his books and stories reflect that delight.  As an undergraduate he studied Jacobean literature and, if you have the wit to listen for it, the spirit of John Donne hovers at the edges of his prose.  It was not uncommon for him to deliver dialogue with Elizabethan flourish, only to punctuate it with a bit of 1960s East Village beatnik (which drove Ursula K LeGuin just a little bit crazy).  He was insatiably curious, forever reading new authors and auditing classes on a diverse set of subjects.  He once commented that, if he weren't a writer, he'd enjoy working in an old-fashioned hardware store because all the humble bits and pieces that underpin civilization can be found in the aisles, and received a flood of employment offers (which he politely declined).  All of this informed his prose, yet his prose is never inaccessible. 

Lord of Light and a few of Zelazney's non-Amber related novels are still in print and, though rarely stocked at bookstores, are easy to find online.  If you have not read Zelazny's Lord of Light, go do so. Do it now.  Really. Stop reading this blog, go lay hands on a copy of Lord of Light and read it.  It is one of my favorites and every now and then I re-read it just to recall how good at telling a story he was.

Unfortunately his novel Doorways in the Sand appears to be out of print altogether, which is a shame as it's also high on my recommended reading list, though used versions if it are still to be found.  It's a very different book from Lord of Light. Doorways is straight-up science fiction, a near-future story of interstellar intrigue involving an acrophiliac undergrad, undercover aliens, extraterrestrial artifacts, the Lady with the smile and the Crown Jewels of England.  It's Zelazny at his best; words at play in a wry and playful book.

Much of Zelazny's short and novella-length fiction has gone out of print in the mainstream press and become wicked hard to lay hands on.  I have a very old and much thumbed copy of the Avon printing of The Doors of His Face, The Lamps Of His Mouth, a collection of short stories from Zelazny's early days.  I bought it at Savran's Book Store on Cedar/Riverside in Minneapolis back in the day when there was a  Savran's Book Store on Cedar/Riverside in Minneapolis.  Which is to say I've had it for a long time.  I hold onto it like grim death not only for sentimental reasons, but also because the book has become irreplaceable.  Like much of his short and mid length fiction, The Doors of His Face, The Lamps Of His Mouth hasn't graced the shelves of bookstores for a long time.

So it was with a certain delight that I stumbled across the New England Science Fiction Association's hard-bound six volume set of Zelazny's stories last month.  The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny is an impressive offering.  Not only are Zelazny's published stories collected, but most of his unpublished stories as well, along with a number of essays Zelazny wrote for various markets over the years.   Chris Kovacs' literary biography of Zelazny, titled ...And Call Me Roger is spread in sections across the six volumes, and most of Zelazny's stories are followed by some comments on the piece by the author.  It's interesting to note that often Zelazny's commentary had to be cobbled together using snippets from a number of sources.  Zelazny had, as he put it, a bug about privacy, and was rarely given to talking much about himself or his work; a rare quality in today's social media saturated world.

Robert Silverberg provided a general introduction to the overall collection, and Carl Yoke, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Walter Jon Williams, Neil Gaiman, David G. Hartwell, Joe Haldeman, Steven Brust, Melinda Snodgrass, George R. R. Martin, Jane Lindskold, Gerald Hausman and Gardner Dozois each contributed introductions to the individual volumes.  The introductions I have read so far are striking.  There is nothing pro-forma about them.  Written by authors, many of them luminaries in their own light, their respect for Zelazny the writer and an honest warmth toward Zelazny the person are evident.

And I have the sense that I have met the man they describe. However private and retiring Zelazny was, his presence couldn't hide behind his prose.  It's good to know that the author, as recalled by his friends and colleagues, is the same one I've known all these years through his writing.  He has been my companion for a very long time; since I met him at the tail end of the alphabet in the science fiction section in Savran's Book Store on Cedar/Riverside.

If you haven't already, I highly recommend you make Roger Zelazny's acquaintance.

1 comment:

  1. Once you've read a lot of Zelazny's work, you might want to try out the anthology published shortly after he passed, called "Lord of the Fantastic: Stories in Honor of Roger Zelazny" (Martin H. Greenberg, ed.). It has about two dozen pieces, mostly riffs on Zelazny tropes and ideas, many with afterwords by the various authors about what Zelazny meant to them, either in person or through his works. It's not the same as still having him around, producing new works, but as Andre Norton writes in the afterword to her story, "Such as he leave an unfillable void behind - but also set goals for those who follow."