Visions of Paradise

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Four For Tomorrow

Continuing my dipping into fiction by my favorite authors (starting with Clifford D. Simak’s Strangers in the Universe, followed by C.J. Cherryh's Finity’s End), I reread Roger Zelazny’s first collection Four For Tomorrow, which contains four of his early novelettes, three of which rank among the best fiction he has ever written.

“The Graveyard Heart” is in the sfnal tradition of stories examining the lives of bored immortals, except it has typical Zelazny twists to it. The members of the Set are not really immortal; they undergo cold sleep for most of their lives, only awakening for brief interludes during which they are required to party before cameras for the rest of the envious world to watch them. They are the ultimate celebrities, living only for the adulation of others, yet membership in the Set is very exclusive. Money alone is not sufficient; all applicants must be approved by a single old-fashioned matron whose standards are both very high and totally unfathomable.

Zelazny’s strength is creating a milieu and exploring the emotions of his characters, but this story has somewhat more plot that usual. The main character Moore begins the story as an engineer anxious to join the Set for various reasons: the thrill of being part of such an exclusive group; the chance to live far into the future; infatuation with one member of the Set. Soon after joining though, he becomes more enamored with the Set than with the woman he had pursued, while she has fallen in love with Moore and wishes to leave the set and have his baby. “The Graveyard Heart” is a powerful story which illustrates all of Zelazny’s strengths without exposing any of his weaknesses as a plotter.

“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” is a rousing adventure story which won the very first Best Novelette Nebula Award 45 years ago. Set on a classical ocean-covered Venus, it involves a hunt for a deep-sea creature which has never been captured, by a rich dilettante and her former lover who is the baitman. The story is equal parts love story, deep-sea adventure, and sense of wonder, the type of story which might have been a throwaway if written by somebody other than Roger Zelazny whose writing had the ability to make even the flimsiest plot better than enjoyable.

The last story in the book is “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” the first story which brought Zelazny to the attention of fandom, earning a Hugo nomination in 1964. It is the tale of a poet named Gallinger who is also a linguist, as well as a genius and an egomaniac. He is part of an expedition to Mars studying the few remaining Martian natives and their culture. He is the first human permitted to enter their sacred temple area and view their ancient texts. In a relatively brief novelette, Zelazny shows us the wonders of the ancient Martian culture, the Martian religion, the natives themselves, and the growth of Gallinger as he both immerses himself in the Martian texts and falls in love with a Martian girl. But the love story is much more than merely that, as it involves the fate of the entire Martian race.

“Rose” is one of the all-time finest science fiction stories, chosen by the SWFA as the sixth best sf story written prior to 1965, and if it were the only story Roger Zelazny had ever written, he would still be one of the giants of science fiction. If you have never read it, then find it somewhere. Four For Tomorrow is only available as a used paperback, although The Science Fiction Hall of Fame is in print.

However, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” and “The Graveyard Heart” are all contained in the recent NESFA Press edition of Threshold Volume 1: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, which also contains his other classic novella “He Who Shapes” and more than a dozen other early Zelazny stories. You cannot go wrong buying that volume instead.