Monday, July 26, 2010

The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume One: Threshold by Roger Zelazny

NOTE: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume One: Threshold was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by NESFA Press.

The New Wave of science fiction was a movement that revolutionized the genre, moving away from the pulp and towards a new, highbrow literary style. Michael Moorcock’s work as editor of New Worlds really ushered in the movement, with authors such as Samuel R. Delany (Dhalgren), Brian Aldiss (Report on Probability A), Thomas M. Disch, Philip Jose Farmer, and Harlan Ellison (both as author and as editor of the core New Wave anthology, Dangerous Visions), among many others, contributing to this new mood in the genre. The movement rocked genre fiction, and changed the face of it permanently, even after its decline, when it was replaced with the new burst of Hard SF led by Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin, and the cyberpunk movement epitomized by William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

One of the key figures of this era of science fiction was Roger Zelazny, who exploded on the scene, putting out classic stories early and often. NESFA Press has recently released a six volume set of the complete short works of Roger Zelazny, from his early beginnings through to the end of his career. Each volume contains a huge amount of content, and is a treasure trove of classic works. I jumped in right at the first volume. The stories begin after an editorial note and two introductions, “Out of Nowhere” by Robert Silverberg and “Before Amber” by Carl B. Yoke.

“A Rose for Ecclesiastes”: This was my introduction to Zelazny, as I was reading The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. I was curious how it would hold up on re-reading, and it acquitted itself quite well. This tale of a poet on Mars is a very well-wrought piece.

“And the Darkness is Harsh”: The first of Zelazny’s high school tales, this one is quite forgettable. I can’t explain much without giving away all of this two page story.

“Mr. Fuller’s Revolt”: Another of the high school era tales, this one follows Mr. Fuller in a post-life utopia of sorts, and shows some of the depth and irony that would infuse later works.

“Youth Eternal”: Another high school age story, and another forgettable one. A rendition of the over-done “Them darn kids!” stories.

“The Outward Sign”: The only college-age tale of Zelazny (who was focusing on poetry at the time), this one also proves to be rather unimpressive, but the fable-like style of this story of a holy man turned to sin becomes important in later Zelazny works, such as Lord of Light.

“Passion Play”: Finally reaching Zelazny’s professional career stories, we get this tale of robots enacting a very unique religious celebration. It isn’t on the same level as many of the other stories, but it is still entertaining.

“The Graveyard Heart”: Another Zelazny classic, this story of cold sleep through the ages weaves an intriguing love story with a crushing ending through intense emotional responses to outliving what you created. A solid piece of work.

“Horseman!”: While almost overly-stylized at times, with incessant and uncontrolled metaphors, this story takes a nice twist to that of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, when a horseman arrives in town and can’t find his companions.

“The Teachers Rode a Wheel of Fire”: A very good story of aliens trying to teach another species about technology, and what they didn’t mean to teach him but did anyway. A nice tale with a nice ending.

“Moonless in Byzantium”: In the robot controlled future, one man feels the poetry in his heart, and may die for sharing it. This is a fun story, and a nice tip of the hat to William Butler Yeats.

“On the Road to Splenoba”: A fun combination of war in Russia and country vampires, this tale works on tying the two together, with an ending that worked quite nicely.

“Final Dining”: An artist uses a material that may be more than just the ground rock he thought it was, in this tale of betrayal and tragedy. Not my favorite of the pieces at first, the end makes up for some of the weaker points at the beginning.

“The Borgia Hand”: An intriguing tale with a nice twist that runs throughout, but may only be caught by a few readers before the notes at the end explain it, this tale does a nice job of combining the legend of the Wandering Jew and…a man not known for being a lover of Jews. Well written.

“Nine Starships Waiting”: To my mind, this was the low point of the Zelazny stories post-college. An at times overly obscure tale of a formerly-dead assassin who is sent to stop an uprising, this one just flopped. I can understand why this one was previously uncollected.

“Circe Has Her Problems”: A fun, fast, and flippant tale of Circe, post-Odyssey, who has moved into space and seeks to find a man who can overcome the curse of Sappho.

“The Malatesta Collection”: A very engaging tale of a future that is strangled by censorship, and finds that the works of the past may be too much for “modern” sensibilities. A nice combination of many literary names and titles and a bid against censorship.

“The Stainless Steel Leech”: A vampiric robot in a civilization of robots finds only one companion: an actual vampire. A nice story, although not as emotionally effecting as I had thought it could be.

“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth”: For my money, this is the best story in the collection. Zelazny’s story is like a Moby Dick on a Venus of the pulp era, but manages to be all Zelazny at the same time. A man becomes obsessed with capturing an Ikky, the great sea beast of the seas of Venus. Exciting, engaging, and powerfully written, this one is everything that is good about Zelazny.

“A Thing of Terrible Beauty”: A being in the mind of a drama critic tries to discover the meaning of pity, as the clock ticks down on planet Earth. A tale that uses emotional depth, or lack thereof, to great effect.

“Monologue for Two”: The gimmick of using nothing but one person’s side of a conversation works well here, in this story of a woman who finds a doctor that owes her a spot of revenge. Very good.

“Threshold of the Prophet”: A tale of the poet Hart Crane in the future, this one was okay, but didn’t do a whole lot for me.

“A Museum Piece”: A man decides that, if his art doesn’t imitate life, then his life will imitate art. A bizarre story that was, again, okay but not great.

“Mine Is the Kingdom”: The story of the last man on Earth, an unwilling ambassador to the alien Puffy race. This story was engaging, but not the best.

“King Solomon’s Ring”: A man who has “the gift of tongues” goes out to meet and communicate with alien races, but finds his mental match. A good story, although I’m not sure that the extended letter pastoral style was the most effective way to put this story.

“The Misfit”: The story of a man conscious of the fact that he is trapped in his dreams, with an ending I loved. A nice story, neatly wrapped up.

“The Great Slow Kings”: A fun story of two ancient kings who live life at a very slow pace, and their sole subject: a patient robot. Nice humor makes this one a winner.

“Collector’s Fever”: The story of a man who finds a sentient rock. Okay, but not great.

“The Night Has 999 Eyes”: In all honesty, I didn’t really get this one. Overly dense, with a page-long sentence, this one did nothing for me at all.

“He Who Shapes”: A very long novella about a man who shapes dreams as a psychiatric technique, it manages to be the most densely crowded with allusions, metaphors, legends, etc., of the stories in this volume, but also, behind “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of his Mouth,” one of the most engaging contained here. A very intricate plot makes this one resonate well when finished.

Intermixed with the stories are selections of Zelazny’s poetry. Volume one contains the following poems: “Braxa,” “Ecclesiastes’ Epilogue,” “Bok,” “Diet,” “Slush, Slush, Slush,” “The Agnostic’s Prayer,” “On May 13, 1937,” “The Cactus King,” “One Wintered Way Through Evening, and Burning Bushes Along It,” “In the Dogged House,” “Future, Be Not Impatient,” “Flight,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “The World of Stat’s a Drunken Bat,” “The Cat Licks Her Coat,” “From a Seat in the Chill Park,” “Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’,” “To His Morbid Mistress,” “Old Ohio Folkrag,” “How a Poem Means,” “Concert,” “Iceage,” “Hart Crane…,” “Southern Cross,” “I Used to Think in Lines That Were Irregular to the Right,” “Hybris, or The Danger of Hilltops,” “St. Secaire’s,” “In Pheleney’s Garage,” “The Black Boy’s Reply to William Butler Yeats,” “Rite of Spring,” “Decade Plus One of Roses,” and “See You Later, Maybe…” I’m not brilliant at explaining why I do or don’t like a poem, but I can say, without whys, that the poetry collected here is very enjoyable, and worth a read.

After the stories and poems, we have two articles:

“Sundry Notes on Dybology and Suchlike”: This essay doesn’t do a whole lot on the proposed subject of writing science fiction and fantasy, and is rather unimpressive, in all honesty.

“‘…And Call Me Roger’: The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 1” by Christopher S. Kovacs, MD: A very well done biographical piece that covers the same portion of Zelazny’s career as covered by the stories in this volume. A large number of references allowed for direct quotes of Zelazny to make up a nice chunk of the content, adding a lot to the otherwise well-researched and well written segment. The only downside to this that I saw was that it seemed to repeat content contained in the afterwards on occasion. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own, having sat down to read through the book, it meant that those afterwards were still fresh in my mind, and thus I felt it detracted a bit from the otherwise good biographical segment.

Things are then wrapped up with a few “Curiosities”:

“Conditional Benefit”: The first part of the earliest Zelazny story on file, this one certainly reads like he was very young at the time, but it is still not a bad piece, nevertheless. An insurance man on Venus finds an interesting client.

“Hand of the Master”: Another fragment, this time concerning a dead man brought into a new body hundreds of year in his future. Not enough here to make any real judgment on it.

“The Great Selchie of San Francisco Bay”: Part of a script for a story about a selchie, or “sea-folk,” who has a love that visits a coffee house. Again, not much content to go on here.

“Studies in Saviory”: A long story about two monsters, Zlaz and Yok, who must stop Hell from unleashing its armies on the city of monsters above it. A very fun tale, indeed.

That is a lot of content to cover in one review, but here is the overall look: This is a collection that fans of the genre need. Not those who just like the occasional science fiction or fantasy, but those who are interested in the history of the genre, in the movements of it. Fans of Roger Zelazny will get a lot out of this as well, as the presentation of his stories in the order they were written and/or published gives a whole new perspective on Zelazny’s growth as an author. While there are stories above that I said weren’t too excellent, they really showed how the author was emerging, how he was taking elements of okay stories and tying them together to make great ones. There are lots of bits and pieces of his life tied in as well, which do a lot to add to his story as a whole.

Those looking for a fast-paced, exciting story won’t find that here. Zelazny piles on the references, allusions, subtleties, and detailed in-jokes to the extent that, even with the notes after each story (which were a godsend), I still doubt I got everything out of them. However, you don’t need to get all of the references (or any of them really) to enjoy the stories, in most cases. And with the notes, everyone can piece together even the most dense of passages. Zelazny wrote engaging, intriguing, thought provoking stories. One is likely to get the most out of this by reading these through over a longer period, enjoying a couple, then coming back, instead of over-indulging, although immersing yourself in his rich fiction has a joy all of its own. This is for those who are looking for the non-straight-forward, deep thinking science fiction and fantasy, ones that you may read a few times before you fully get it, but that reward you each time for the reading. Any collection of Zelazny is far more than the sum of its parts.

Pick up a copy of this, and see the birth of one of science fiction and fantasy’s most important authors. It won’t be an experience that you will soon forget.


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