Visions of Paradise

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Roger Zelazny

One of fandom's leading cliches is that every science fiction fan has his or her own Golden Age, usually around the age of fourteen. Well, I must have been a slow developer, because my Golden Age took place between the years 1966-1969 when I was in college. Those were the years of the New Wave when, in my opinion, some of the most exciting science fiction ever was being produced by such writers as Samuel R. Delany, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison and, perhaps most importantly of all, Roger Zelazny.

Zelazny was first published in 1962 with an obscure story entitled "Passion Play" in Amazing Stories. He achieved his first widespread recognition a year later with "A Rose For Ecclesiastes," a melancholy story of love and poetry amidst the Martian sand dunes. The story earned Zelazny his first Hugo nomination for Best Short Fiction. In 1970, when the Science Fiction Writers of America were compiling their Science Fiction Hall of Fame, "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" was voted the 6th best science fiction short story ever published prior to 1965.

In 1965, Zelazny abruptly became the most important science fiction writer in America with the publication of three award-winning stories which showcased three different aspects of his talent.

The novel ...And Call Me Conrad (later This Immortal in book form) featured a favorite Zelazny protagonist, the immortal human who spends his life as a sort of super guardian angel for humanity. The novel combined mythological characters with references to an alien invasion of Earth, one of the early uses of fantasy tropes in a science fiction story. The novel tied Frank Herbert's Dune for the Hugo Award as the best novel of the year.

The novella "He Who Shapes" (expanded into The Dream Master in book form) was a complex study of a psychiatrist who heals patients by controlling their thought processes. Typical of Zelazny, the story was emotionally-charged and very moody. It tied Brian W. Aldiss' "The Saliva Tree" for the Nebula Award as Best Novella.

Finally, the novelette "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" was a colorful whale-hunting adventure set on a mythical Venus, interspersing adventure with another emotional love story. This won the Nebula Award as Best Novelette.

Two years later Zelazny published his masterpiece, the Hugo-winning novel Lord of Light. This was perhaps a true blending of fantasy and science fiction in a single package. It told the story of a highly-advanced society in which technology is used to enable the ruling class to imitate the ancient Hindu dieties. It is also the story of how the abuse of power creates a society in turmoil and engenders revolution.

While Zelazny claimed to not be a New Wave writer (just as Delany also claimed), it was his ability to combine traditional science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and deep emotions, with mainstream writing skills that made him a favorite of the New Wave and exerted considerable influence on other science fiction writers.

For the subsequent two decades, science fiction critics debated why Zelazny turned away from the complex fiction of his early years in order to produce simpler, more accessible novels in the 1970s and 1980s. Whatever the reason, while his critical acclaim lessened, his popularity considered to soar. He earned much popular success for the original Amber series, five fantasy novels set partially in Amber, the only real world, of which Earth is but a shadow. At times the series slowed glimpses of the more thoughtful Zelazny, but it was primarily a fast-paced rousing adventure.

The fix-up collection My Name is Legion contained three related novellas about a nameless detective who is the only human not recorded in the vast data net encompassing the entire Earth. On the surface these are routine adventures, but a careful reading shows a depth reminiscent of the early Zelazny. The best of the three stories was "Home is the Hangman" which examined the nature of intelligence and the hubris of those who would create it artificially.

A decade later, "24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai" re-affirmed Zelazny's ability to examine such serious themes as the nature of intelligence in an action-adventure package.

Even the most lightweight Zelazny adventure novels still had many interesting and worthwhile aspects. Highlights included the post-apocalyptic Damnation Alley; Jack of Shadows, which took place on a world neatly divided into fantasy and science fictional portions; and Eye of Cat, which combined Native American tradition with an examination of the nature of intelligence.

But in spite of all the glimpses of the true Zelazny talent, it is hard to ignore the fact that he took the easy way out for much of his career, leaving many true fans hoping that someday the spark of ambition would revive in him and we would see another Zelazny masterpiece to rival Lord of Light or This Immortal. In the mid-1990s he signed a contract to write a science fiction trilogy, and like many of his other true fans felt, I hoped and prayed this would be the real comeback.

Instead, Roger Zelazny died in 1995 at the relatively young age of 58. While other giants of the field such as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein passed away around the same time, none of them affected me as much as the man who really sparked my enthusiasm for science fiction in the late 1960s. I'd only met him one time at a convention, and that was for a five minute conversation outside a men's room, of all places! But that was long enough for me to realize he was a genuinely warm, caring individual, who also managed to be shy and self-effacing in spite of his incredible talent and success as a science fiction writer. I still miss him.

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