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REVIEW: Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny

REVIEW SUMMARY: One of Zelazny’s more standalone works that shows off his polished prose, humor and frantic pacing.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Fred Cassidy is doing his best to remain a student. However, after being robbed, staked out in the sun, “protected” by alien police and probed by an alien telepath, even graduating from college seems like a lesser evil.


PROS: An excellent display of Roger Zelazny’s wordsmithing at its best. A mixture of polished prose, some literary experimentation, and a plot full of red herrings and MacGuffins worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock film.

CONS: Until Zelazny is recognized as a “literary” figure and gets enshrined on our shelves along with others (such as Philip K. Dick), you’re probably going to have to scramble to find this and other gems.

BOTTOM LINE: In a single volume you get what was always the best about Roger Zelazny. The magic of the plot where you’re never sure of what exactly is going on. The carefully chosen prose, honed down to the bare essentials. The occasional bit of literary experimentation. 181 pages, a single volume, no sequels, no padding, no fluff. Pure magic.

Fred Cassidy is doing his best to stay in school. Despite the efforts of multiple academic advisers (all of whom want to graduate him), he has managed to skip from major to major for thirteen years (he gets a stipend from his late Uncle Albert as long as he is not awarded a degree). But things get strange when one of his professors turns up to ransack his apartment and question him about a reproduction of an alien artifact known as the Star Stone. Fred goes Down Under and into the Outback to pursue a project for college only to be attacked and staked out in the sun to become a human raisin; he is “rescued” by two aliens (dressed as a wombat and a kangaroo) and taken into “protective” custody.

Not strange enough? How about the words he sees in the sky or in windows, or the voices that echo from dreams. Toss in the State Department, the United Nations, two alien telepaths that try to “help” (one is a cost accountant, so is not very good as a telepath), ex-academic advisers who turn up in odd places, friends of his uncle, associates of his uncle turned bad, more aliens, another alien artifact that can turn you inside out.

More? How about a predilection for climbing buildings. Reversed greasy-spoon hamburgers and fries that taste like the best meal you’ve eaten; reversed brandy that is the nectar of the gods. Cigarettes and booze, booze and cigarettes. An alien menace. A fight in the sky. A journey to the stars and the start of a new partnership.

And all this–I’ll say again–in 180 pages.

There’s something about writer’s from a certain age–maybe it was using a typewriter and carbon paper or a need to get as much prose into the slicks, pulps and between the hard covers as possible or genetic imprinting from the old school–that caused them to write briefly but beautifully. Zelazny, like Arthur C. Clarke, Clifford D. Simak, and Alfred Bester packed a lot per page. Whereas somebody today would give you an infodump of several pages to explain how an alien object, for example, could reverse you, Zelazny tosses the idea off in a sentence or two, mixing it in with dozens of other bits and pieces throughout the book. Indeed, this book reminds me strongly of all those writers. Like Clarke, Zelazny packs more ideas into his pages than most other authors manage in the space of a career. Like Simak, he employs a sparse style and an economy of words as well as creating memorable aliens. Like Bester, he experiments with prose and typographical layout as well as making the ordinary extraordinary.

(This novel in particular reminds me of another genre craftsman: Spider Robinson, especially Robinson’s tales of Callahan’s Place. It would not have surprised me one bit to have Fred Cassidy, in visiting the several bars that appear in this book, stop in at Callahan’s and tell of his story and find help from Jake and the others.)

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read this book since I first read it as a serial in the pages of Analog in 1975. Every time I do read it, it manages to once again charm me, thrill me, and surprise me. As it did so again this evening, and as I hope it will do so for you.

12 Comments on REVIEW: Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny

  1. Peter Tzinski // March 9, 2009 at 1:39 pm //

    Oh my God, I LOVE Zelazny. I think he’s such an unsung master of the field. As you say, he needs the literary recognition that people like Philip Dick get. (He deserves it.)


    I haven’t read this one, but have a bunch of other Zelazny novels on my shelf (and short stories in various volumes) and he never gets old.  The Chronicles of Amber books were amazing, sure enough, but my favorite is definitely Lord of Light.

    Right. Done blithering. I need to find “Doorways…” now. πŸ™‚

  2. I grew up early and often on Zelazny.


    Fred, are you going to pick up the NESFA collections of his short stories?  (6 are planned, two are already in print)

  3. I always buy the NESFA books for any favorite author, so that is a definite yes! I’ve circulated a couple of titles among the publisher contacts I have to try and get some new editions out. Also, the long-lost Zelazny book The Dead Man’s Brother is showing up in stores. That’ll be interesting to read!

    Hopefully more Zelazny reivews from me later. I think both Zelazny and Bester are going to be a re-reading project this year.

  4. Pete Tzinski // March 9, 2009 at 3:59 pm //

    Bester’s “The Demolished Man” was a heart-stopping book for me, growing up.

  5. I can only share your enthusiasm for this. For some reason I had the urge to re-read it recently, and had to go searching for a copy on eBay. This book deserves a wider audience than that, and better editions than it’s had. It’s also one of Zelazny’s funniest books.

  6. Matte Lozenge // March 9, 2009 at 5:23 pm //

    I’m currently rereading the Great Book of Amber. It’s a sprawling, swashbuckling fantasy series that Zelany worked on for 21 years. It’s everything a sword and scorcery series should be. Great fun.

    On the other hand, I re-read Lord of Light recently and was bored to tears. It enjoys a much higher critical opinion but is weighted down by bloated aspirations to profundity.

    Damnation Alley is a kick in the pants. Zingy post-apocalyptic fun from start to finish. Not to be confused with the crappy film version ripoff of the same name.

    Thanks for this review. I gotta get more Zelazny on my reading list.

  7. Pete Tzinski // March 9, 2009 at 6:50 pm //

    I dunno about aspirations, or where to get a profundity; I just thought Lord of Light was a terrific idea turned into a well-told story. (I don’t think I’ve ever read a book and sat there going “This Is Such A Profound And Important Book!” I mostly just read good stories. And if it’s not a good story, no amount of literary/critical attention can make me push on.)

    I just found a used copy of Doorways in the Sand, and shall now harass wife into letting me get it. Hooray!

  8. Another Fred // March 9, 2009 at 7:32 pm //

    Fred, thank you very much for this review.  Zelazny’s  shorter works (the novellas, in particular) were critically lauded… yet I get the feeling that they aren’t read very much these days.  His novels, sometime shortly after Lord of Light, were critically slagged… and I get the feeling that they aren’t read very much these days — with the exception of Amber.

    Man, there’s some good reading there!

  9. Pete Tzinski // March 9, 2009 at 9:44 pm //

    I think that it came after Lord of Light (I can check later), but I have this grotty old paperback copy of a book called “Changeling”. It’s heavily illustrated, with beautiful black and white pictures every page or two, done by Esteban Maroto. It’s SUCH a gorgeous little book. I wish I had more like it. And the story is pretty fine too.

  10. Roger Zelazny has always been one of my favorites.  This novel is a personal favorite.  Thank you for this review.

    I linked this to a posting on my site.  It ties into what I have been thinking about the length of science fiction novels.

  11. John Wright // March 11, 2009 at 11:51 am //

    Zelazny rocks. I am glad I am not the only one who remembers this little gem. Each chapter starts with a one-paragraph flash-foreward of what is happening in the chapter, and, each time, by the time you get to the foreshadowed scene, things are a lot different (and a LOT weirder) than you thought.

    Another overlooked Zelazny classic is TODAY WE CHOOSE FACES — a book which I recommend to be read in the order the author wanted it, reading Part II first, then Part I (the editor made him change the order to make it more accessable to the reader — a courtesy we readers do not need).


  12. John De Nardo pointed this out to me: I’m not cited as a reference on Wikipedia. Teachers across the world can point to me and say “Do not use that man as a reference!” See:

    Another 15 picoseconds of fame!

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