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