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REVIEW: Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

REVIEW SUMMARY: A stellar collection, containing some of Zelazny’s finest stories, some of which were later expanded into major, influential novels.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A strong collection of stories by a master of science fiction, including stories like “Damnation Alley” which were later expanded into novels.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: It’s like a Roger Zelazny primer, full of all of his writerly strengths and power of imagination.

CONS: Barely a con, but I really wish the introductions to the stories had been longer and gone into more detail; the few places where they do, it’s really a delight

BOTTOM LINE: The best place to start reading Zelazny, even before you move to the novels.


It was in a fairly rubbish used bookshop that I found a hardcover copy of The Last Defender of Camelot, by Roger Zelazny, and I didn’t even hesitate to snatch it up. I am already a huge Zelazny fan, first from reading his Chronicles of Amber, and then even more-so from reading the amazing book Lord of Light which, if you haven’t read, is the reason you haven’t yet experienced a sense of completeness in your life. He is not only an amazing writer – and you can have people like Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, and a host of others attest to that – but he’s also a bit hard to find. So whenever I see a Zelazny book, I buy it right then.

This collection had sixteen stories. Let’s get into them.

Passion Play

This is a five-star-story in two ways. First, it includes a long introduction by Zelazny on writing, and that is worth its weight in gold, not only because of its very wise advice, but because it’s coming from Zelazny.

And secondly, the story itself is terrific. Robots, gathering together to reenact a famous event (and more than that, I won’t say; why spoil a fun story). It’s a very simple story, but the prose is poetically beautiful, and it leaves you happy to have read it. Or me, anyway. The fact that this is the first story Zelazny sold is a bit depressing. He was that good, right out of the gate.

Horseman!

Perhaps one of the weakest stories in the collection, and even then, it’s no bad thing. It’s a good story. Again, for the power of description and poetry more than anything else. The actual plot movements of the story are not wholly satisfying, and they feel more like an interesting premise than anything else. But it’s still a good story.

The Stainless Steel Leech

Oh man. This is where the power of the collection starts to shine through. Zelazny can, in a short story or novella form, pack in more ideas and storytelling prowess than some authors manage in 900-page tomes. Here, we have a robot who draws his power off of other robots. And his only company, in a world full of robots (in which no human master is left) is a Vampire, who spends his time exhausted in a crypt, because he has no human blood to sustain him any longer. I say it a lot with Zelazny stuff, but I wish I’d written it. Or, failing that, I wish it were about a hundred pages longer.

A Thing of Terrible Beauty

A clever concept, had fun with. Two people, in one body, have a conversation before the end of the world. Once again, this feels like a short story with a novel sitting behind it. And actually, that’s probably on purpose. Elsewhere from this book, Zelazny said that he tried to write short stories as if they were the last chapter of a novel…and if you know that tidbit and look for it, they do sort of feel that way from time to time. This is one of them. Although I think I would have titled it “A Member of the Audience.”

He Who Shapes

The first of the very long novella-sort of stories that are in this book. It was later expanded into a novel, called “The Dream Master,” and after having read this novella, I cannot wait to go off and read the book too.

The novella is a fascinating look not only at a very strange – but logical – profession, but at the world which surrounds here. Charles Render is a Shaper. He can go into your head, mesh with your consciousness, summon up all your mental images and feelings and prejudices and everything else, shape whole worlds around you…and using these tools, he can discern what is wrong with you. It is a very advanced form of psychology, as it were.

And then, in the course of the story, he meets a woman who has been blind since birth, who also wants to be a Shaper, even though she has never seen. She puts it to Charlie Render to merge with her mind and introduce her to the world of sights, so that they do not traumatize her when she’s working with a patient. And he does, gradually, while the rest of the world (and the novella) unfolds around them. Only…only she seems to have power inside the world he controls, and it’s power she shouldn’t have yet.

It’s a brilliant story, and the end is chilling. It is particularly effective for taking its time, for wandering off on a ski trip and including letters from his son, and also introducing us to side characters, like Sigmund, a dog with enhanced intelligence and the ability to speak, albeit haltingly.

The novella begs for a novel. Zelazny says he prefers the novella, and it is streamlined and beautiful, but I can see the appeal of the novel, of wanting to spend longer in this world, with these characters, with this story unfurling before you. I haven’t read the novel yet, but I have a copy and can’t wait.

Comes Now the Power

About a man with the ability to reach out and touch minds, and his lonliness which is made all the sharper when, for one brief moment, another mind reaches out and touches his, and he can never find that mind again. In execution, the story is very similar, to my way of thinking, as “A Thing of Terrible Beauty” was, a couple stories back. However, the ending of this one is a poignant thing, and that bumps it up to four stars. It’s still worth the read, of course.

Auto-Da-Fe

This one bored me. I wonder if that’s my failing? I also wondered, briefly, if it’s because I don’t drive and don’t think about cars all that much, and so a clever car story doesn’t resonate? Who knows. It’s an amusing concept, and what really keeps you reading through it is the well-done voice of the narrator describing the events. But probably on re-reading the book, it’s one of the stories I’ll skip. Your mileage, no pun intended since it’s a car story, may vary.

Damnation Alley

This is the second big novella in the book, after “He Who Shapes,” and this one is fantastic. Just terrific. I don’t know the actual word-count length of this story, but when you reach the end, you feel like you’ve already read a completed novel. It was, later, expanded into a novel – although again, Zelazny says that he prefers the story – and I look forward to sitting down and getting to read the novel.

This is the story of a guy named Hell Tanner, who is a criminal and just as bad-ass as you have to be when you’re named that (there are no Beat Poets named Hell Tanner, for example. They would vaporize just from having the name). He is chosen by the Country of California to make the run from California all the way across the wastelands, to Boston, where there is a plague wiping out the population. California’s got the cure, and they want him to deliver it. And if he does, and somehow survives (and no one has ever survived the run), then he’ll get a full pardon.

The trip from California to Boston, across the scarred, radioactive wastelands, is called Damnation Alley. And the novella deals with his trip across country. It is a road trip story, essentially, with the road trip being full of radioactive monsters and traps and disasters.

There are no twists and turns. The story just goes on and on. But it does so fascinatingly. The end is satisfying and makes you smile, and happy to have read the story. This is one of those stories I’d hand to people in order to say “this is Roger Zelazny, and this is why you need to read him.”

For a Breath I Tarry

This is my favorite story in the book, I think. And that says something, because this is a book chock-full of things to have as your favorite stories. But this one is so mind-crogglingly creative, so incredible, that I read it and was just floored for the rest of the day. One of those awful sabotaging stories where you read it before you sit down to do your own writing, finish the story, and realize that you are splashing in tiny puddles while Zelazny is walking across lakes.

Solcom, the great computer-in-orbit put in charge with rebuilding and rehabilitating the Earth, has created two computers, one at each of the Earth’s poles, and they are in charge of a hemisphere each. This story concerns Frost, who is the computer at the North Pole, and who has a slight glitch built into his system: he has curiosity. And since he has not explicitly been banned from having a hobby, he makes his hobby to learn all he can about human beings. And to understand human emotion, the human experience, outside of data and calculative tables, which are all a machine can comprehend. He wants to experience a human emotion, not just quanitfy and qualify what a human emotion is.

Now, there is a second Earth-restoring computer named Mordel, living deep in the core of the Earth, and it is Solcom’s counterpart and enemy. Solcom and Mordel each have their own agents, and would each destroy the other, if they had some ability to do so. As it is, they talk to each other, having no one else to talk to. Mordel challenges Frost, through a medium, to experience a human emotion. To take in all the remains of human civilization and experience what it means to be a human. If he fails, then Mordel will take him.

It is, in a lot of ways, the story of Job, from the Bible…but it is also its own thing, and an amazing story it is. Amazing, all the way to the inevitable conclusion of the piece. I read it, I finished reading the rest of the book, and then I went back and I read it again. And writing this review has only made me want to read it a third time.

The only tragedy is that I can only give the story five stars.

The Engine at Heartspring’s Center

This is a quiet little story, about a man named Bork, and his time to die, and how it comes about. That’s it. It’s very simple, set entirely on a beach, and is just the story of a man and a woman. But it is heartfelt and lovely, and as with most Zelazny stories, the ending is what pays for the all thing.

The Game of Blood and Dust

This is an odd story and, while perfectly enjoyable, I am not entirely sure what to make of it. It is the story of Blood, and of Dust, and their game with human history. I’ve read it twice, and I’m not sure I understand. Or else, it’s because it was intended to be illustrated, but does not appear illustrated here. Perhaps that helps?

I’m not as confused as I sound, I got the story, it’s just that it didn’t resonate as strongly as the others, and that’s what I wonder if I’ve missed. At any rate, even a Zelazny story that doesn’t connect with me is still a helluva Zelazny story.

No Award

What an odd an interesting concept. To say too much about the plot of this story is to spoil it, because it builds satisfyingly, and I don’t want to give it away. (You can see it coming early on, but still, you should be allowed to read it and have the pleasure of seeing it coming). This isn’t as overwhelmingly amazing as some of the other stories in this collection, but it’s a very good one, and well worth the read.

Is There a Demon Lover in the House?

This is another clever concept of a story. And again, to say why would perhaps spoil it. Leave it as “a young man brings an older gentleman to see a snuff film,” and then you go off and read it. It’s very short. Just pay attention and you’ll get the twist, the terrific twist.

Someone, I forget who, said that all stories are set-ups and punch-lines. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but it is sometimes. And sometimes, it’s blatant. This is a story with a set-up, a twist, and the punch-line, and it works wonderfully because of it.

The Last Defender of Camelot

Some stories are pure style, some are pure Zelazny and his voice, some are powered by the sheer idea, and some are character pieces. Others are plot-driven. Actually more rare, I find, in his short stories, but this one is plot-driven. It’s about Lancelot, in the modern day world, as the Last Defender of Camelot, and his encounter with Merlin, mad and newly awakened. It’s a good story, an exciting and interesting read. It didn’t excite me the way some of the other longer pieces in the book did, and I don’t know why that is. It didn’t feel like a huge world unfolding, and then stuffed into a length shorter than you thought possible for that much information.

Still worth a read, though, still a terrific plot. It would make a very fine TV show, provided it was adapted well and acted well. I’d watch it. Actually, more than a short story, that’s what this one feels like: a really good TV episode. Nothing wrong with that.

Stand Pat, Ruby Stone

Is this a good story, or a bad story?

I have no idea. Truthfully, I’m not even sure what’s happening in it. It’s interesting to read, but it’s sort of like listening to Louie Louie, in that you’re enjoying the song but have no idea what the hell is being said.

So give it a read, and see if maybe you can parse it, and then get back to me. Because I’d really like to know what on Earth I read.

Halfjack

This isn’t a story, so much as a scene. We meet HalfJack, a man who is half-machine and can connect to starships. His skin, on half his body peels off (which is what happens, graphically, in the course of the story). After we learn this about him, he leaves. And that’s the story. It’s a nice and interesting scene, but nothing more or less than that.

And that’s the collection, and what I think of it, and I hope it’s enough to send you off looking for Zelazny material. He wrote a lot, and a lot of what he wrote was brilliant and enjoyable to read. I suggest you read The Great Book of Amber, because it’s a terrific story, and you can see the pieces of brilliance that would go on to inspire people like Neil Gaiman (who, somewhere, acknowledges the debt that his Sandman series owes Zelazny and his Amber books). And after that, I’d personally send you off to read The Lord of Light, because that is an amazing book, full of ideas and plot and characters and everything. It’s an amazing book, and you’ll probably need a couple of read-throughs to digest it all, which is part of the delight of it. .

But even then, I really suggest you go find some short stories, like the ones in this collection. He wrote very good long works, but he was also a master of the shorter craft, and you won’t go far wrong reading his short stories. They turn up in a lot of collections that have titles like “The Best Science Fiction Since The Dawn Of Time” or something.

He’s not on the list of authors everyone names, with Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein…but he should be. He should be right up there. And I think it won’t take you very many stories to agree with me. Go read.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

19 Comments on REVIEW: Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

  1. I got my first Zelazny book in the 70s as a present from a friend. It was The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth. After that, I bought every Zelazny I could find. Unicorn Variations is another great volume. The only other collection that, to my mind, comes close (besides anything by Tiptree, Jnr.) is John Varley’s In the Hall of the Martian Kings, although some argue that Blue Champagne is the real stand-out.

    Thanks for the memory prompt, Peter. Am putting several Zelazny’s from our library on my current TBR pile now. About time they had a re-read.

  2. He’s not on the list of authors everyone names, with Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein…but he should be. He should be right up there. And I think it won’t take you very many stories to agree with me.

     

     

    Oh, I’ve been in that camp for years.

    The devoted Zelazny fans should know about NESFA Press’ Zelazny project, which is a projected six volume set of his stories. 4 of the 6 volumes are out:

    http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Zelazny-Project.html

     

  3. For a Breath I Tarry is one of my favorite short stories of all time. I am glad you mentioned it, and glad you gave it five stars.

  4. tLDoC is a very strong collection, and a good introduction to Zelazny for people who read short fiction, although, if you can find it, the 1967 anthology “Four For Tomorrow” features four foolproof distillations of his finest early short fiction — including: THE FURIES, THE GRAVEYARD HEART, THE DOORS OF HIS FACE THE LAMPS OF HIS MOUTH, and A ROSE FOR ECCLESIASTES.  ROSE is my favorite genre short story, ever.  It’s unfortunate that a lot of genre readers encounter Zelazny first in NINE PRINCES IN AMBER, and then go on to read only work after that point.  The majority of Zelazny’s…most profound work (I was going to say “best”, but that word is too subjective) was published prior to the late 70s and includes novels like LORD OF LIGHT (which you mentioned), THIS IMMORTAL, ISLE OF THE DEAD, CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS, etc.  Although Zelazny was extraordinarily prolific, some fans aren’t aware of his collaborations with other wrioters, including PKD, Alfred Bester (posthumous for Bester), Fred Saberhagen, Thomas T. Thomas, Robert Sheckley, and Jane Lindskold (posthumous for Zelazny).

  5. I finished reading “For a Breath I Tarry” and I just sat there, thunderstruck. It had to be one of the most amazing pieces of short fiction I’d ever encountered…and that was after a whole bunch of OTHER stuff in the book that had already floored me. That was SUCH a collection.

     

    @ Mark – I don’t own, but I’ve read all of “Four For Tomorrow,” and you’re spot on, they are foolproof distillations. Which, considering this is Zelazny, says we’re talking about something pretty potent. And I’m glad that (as Paul mentioned) NESFA’s been doing their collection of his stuff. I lust after those volumes and wish I had the money for ’em. Those, and Harlan Ellison’s Edgeworks volumes top any Christmas list for me.

    I’ve been dilligently snatching up every Zelazny book when I come across it for years now. I have one I haven’t read yet (The Immortal, in rickety old hardback), which I’m sort of saving up, the way you save up the last shot of really fine whiskey.

    If I had to make my lists, then I would do this. I would have SCIENCE FICTION: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke. And then I would have FANTASTIC FICTION: Zelazny, Bradbury, Ellison. And I’d feel pretty good about my selections.

    To anyone reading this stuff who HASN’T read Zelazny…go read something. Anything. Go buy an old short story anthology that’s got something by him in it, and read it. You won’t be sorry.

  6. Zelazny is definitely one of the greats. His work is enjoyable no matter how many times I read it and I was fortunate enough to meet him a few times at conventions before his untimely death and he was a joy to be around. BTW, The Last Defender of Camelot has been filmed. It was adapted for the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, which is currently on DVD. Richard Kiley played Lancelot. It is an excellent episode. From that series you’ll also probably enjoy Paladin of the Lost Hour, from the Ellison story. Ellison also wrote the screen play for the show and Danny Kaye starred.

  7. Christopher Kovacs // July 12, 2009 at 12:58 pm //

    The image of a book cover that you’re displaying is the wrong one. You’ve described the original collection from 1980 with sixteen stories and introductions to each by Zelazny (published by Pocket Books and also the SFBC). But the picture is of a posthumous 2002 book with a completely different table of contents: 11 stories, no commentary from Zelazny, and an introduction by Robert Silverberg (published by ibooks).

    It was really dumb of that publisher to put an existing book’s title on that “best of” sampler, it just confuses the situation.

    In other words, in case anyone is confused by what I’ve just written, there are at least two completely different short story collections from Zelazny which are entitled The Last Defender of Camelot. 5 stories are shared among these two books.

    …I say “at least two” because there was also a limited edition of the first one with four bonus stories (published by Underwood-Miller) which means three different short story collections bearing the same title, and there was a limited edition chapbook (from Underwood-Miller) that contained just the title story, and there was another limited edition chapbook (from Subterranean) that contained the title story plus GRRM’s teleplay version of it, and there was even a limited edition comic book of the title story…

    And so The Last Defender of Camelot is a confusingly overused title if you’re a Zelazny collector.

    But if you get the 6-volume The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny from NESFA (mentioned above), you’ll have all of his stuff and not have to worry (like me) about all the different versions of this one title. You’ll also find that extra detail you were seeking from Zelazny’s commentary about individual stories: the “A Word from Zelazny” sections after many stories contain his explanations of where/when/why/how he came to write them or what he thought about them in retrospect.

    …and I liked your review, by the way.

  8. Christopher – Yep, I know it’s the wrong cover and it drove me up the wall for awhile. MY cover has bright green letters and a robot on the front, sucking the life out of another robot, and is magnificant. But what images I use come from Amazon, and that was the nearest-to-accurate one I could find.

    And telling me how cool the NESFA collection is? It’s like telling a broke alcoholic how cool this expensive bottle of whiskey is. You’re just going to make me fall off the wagon AND go broke, all at once. And then how will you feel? Hmmmm? πŸ˜‰

  9. Christopher Kovacs // July 13, 2009 at 5:43 am //

    Pete – What you are describing is the SFBC edition. An on-line image is available here: http://www.isfdb.org/wiki/images/a/ac/LSTDEFCAM19XX.jpg

    Or I can email you one that I made which is cleaner.

    I should have added that I’m one of the editors of the NESFA collection, and the one who wrote the story notes, annotations, and biography. So I’m biased. The reason the NESFA collection is complete and contains all of Zelazny’s short fiction and poetry (even unpublished stuff) is that it is really a reflection of my own personal collection of Zelazny material. I didn’t have to go far to find what needed to be included.

  10. Dear Christopher,

    If, late tonight, a shadowy figure is seen slipping through your library, please remain in bed. Do not phone the police. Also, do not check on your Zelazny collection in the morning.

    *waves hand in desperate jedi mind trick attempt; makes self dizzy*

    At any rate, that is spot-on the right cover. Although that one is in better shape than my cover. I’ve made a note, I’ll see about swapping covers on the review.

    (And my compliments to the whole of NESFA. I have adored my “Adventures in the Dream Trade” for years now, and quietly and in a non-creepy fashion, lust after all manner of pretty pretty NESFA books.)

  11. “I’ll see about swapping covers on the review”

     

    I can’t take this browbeating!!  Images updated.

  12. Quick! Everyone make gentle hints that John should up my monthly bagiel stipent!

  13. >>Pete – What you are describing is the SFBC edition. An on-line image is available here: http://www.isfdb.org/wiki/images/a/ac/LSTDEFCAM19XX.jpg<&lt;

     

    And the cover art on the original Pocket Books PB 1980 edition is altogether different from either image shown above.

     

    There was also a limited edition (333 signed copies) issued by Underwood/Miller in 1981 with cover art different from the three aforementioned versions, and a fifth version by James Warhola for the 1988 reprint.

     

    To confuse titles and content even more than Christopher mentioned, there was a graphic adaptation drawn by Jim Zimmerman of tLDoC (title story only), and a 1986 TZ episode using the same title with a screenplay by David Gerrold.

  14. A bunch of the covers can be found on LibraryThing.

  15. Fortunately, the confusion within this review doesn’t have to go any further, since it’s the brightly-lit cover that is wrapped around the copy which sits on my desk, and which I’ve reviewed. And I think that with a bazillion adaptations and editions and covers and things, you could make a really good hobby out of collecting Roger Zelazny. (and for an auctorial collecting hobby that would outlast your lifespan, go try to collect Asimov…)

  16. Christopher Kovacs // July 16, 2009 at 8:30 pm //

    The post by Mark Willey repeated information I’d already posted (the paperback, the limited edition hardcover, the limited edition comic book), but added an error — the teleplay was by George R. R. Martin (i.e. GRRM, as I’d indicated), and not by David Gerrold. And it’s that teleplay which was reprinted together with the original story in a chapbook published by Subterranean as a supplement to GRRM’s limited edition RRetrospective.

  17. (Yanno, I had three more Zleazny reviews I was intending to write but sheesh, now I know there are Lords Of Zelazny Knowledge hanging about, and will be spooked even to try.)

    (I’m kidding of course)

    (it just means I’ll be extra careful going to my mailbox in the morning in case of surprises such as e.g. and to wit: gunshots, thrown stones, bombs, custard pies, etc, etc.)

    (Right. This concludes my allotment of parenthesis today).

  18. Burton Rivera // July 22, 2009 at 2:27 pm //

    Roger Zelazny Is The Best-of that there can be no question. With his dizzying array of short stories, novels and novellas alike, series; they’re Though Provoking & Inspiring, the re-read probability is Extremely High. My only suprise is why there hasn’t been more than Damnation Alley come to the silver screen, though, come to think of it, too complex to convert without Snip-Snip-Snip. May you rest in peace O Sorcerer, Adept, Master Dreamer and Narrator, Diety Of The Created Story. I furthermore spit on the hordes presently attempting to perpetuate His Worlds, be it RPG’s or the Catch-A-Wave prequel,ala Star Wars! Nay, I daresay, lest you plummet to the depths of the nether shadows. He may be presently amongst us again, reborn…

  19. How glad I am I found these reviews! I get “Who?” comments when I mention Zelazny as one of the greats and it is good to see I am not alone in his appreciation. I am, however, rather devastated that I have the 2002 edition of the Last Defender of Camelot and thus am missing out on some fantastic short stories as well as snippets from Zelazny himself. Needless to say, I have a new quest. Thanks. 

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