Monday, August 16, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Creatures of Night, brought to light!

Today, I'll cover Creatures of Light & Darkness. But first, some reflections.

I'm not sure exactly what I should call these posts about Zelazny books. Reviews? Recaps? Random Observations? "What Roger Zelazny means to me"? The audience for this blog is largely composed of my friends and family, most of whom don't particularly care about sci-fi author who, while renowned within the field, is not particularly well-known outside and who died fifteen years ago. Blogging is a peculiar form of expression anyway, and these Zelazny posts are of little interest to those most likely to be reading them. (And they're so looooonnng, aren't they, mom?)

I drive my normally sanguine wife to distraction by referring to her journal as a "paper blog", but she thinks it strange that anyone would publish personal information where everyone can see it. (I figure this blog is pseudo-anonymous. I don't use my real name here, but I don't think it would take all that much digging to figure out who I am to someone so inclined.) I write what interests me. As it says at the top of the page, "Where there had been darkness, I had hung my worlds. They were my answer."

Along those lines, Creatures of Light and Darkness was originally something Zelazny wrote to amuse himself. He'd jot down a neat set piece on a couple pages then forget about it for a couple months. The whole thing was...I'm reluctant to call it experimental, because that implies a more specific goal than he had. He was just playing with whatever appealed to him at the time. It was written in the present tense, a lengthy chapter in the middle was a free verse infodump and the final chapter was written as a play.

If more people read my Zelazny posts, then that would be great, but I think that writing them is an end in itself.

Creatures of Light and Darkness was either the first or second Zelazny book I read. (See my Roadmarks post for more details.)

Perhaps I could keep track of which elements I stole from each book to populate my Mazeworks game. (Surely that has broad appeal!) (Also, plug! Join today! )

From Creatures of Light and Darkness, I stole comparatively little (but man, when I get to Jack of Shadows, the list of things I stole is going to be longer than the book itself): The concept of Skagganauk Abyss!, and assorted lines I liked

  • One snowflake drifting down a well, a well without waters, without walls, without bottom, without top. Now take away the snowflake and consider the drifting….
  • “...because it is not formed of matter, nor any other thing over which you may exercise control.”
  • Death is a black horse shadow without a horse to cast it,
  • Madrak's Possibly Proper Death Litany (aka the agnostic's prayer): "Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen"

The gist of the plot is that the Prince Who Was A Thousand (aka Thoth Hermes Trismegistus), used to rule over the known universe, the Middle Worlds. He had many lieutenants, "Angels" of various Stations or Houses to help him in this capacity. (I think that a House is just a powerful Station, but it's never spelled out.) He laid the entire universe within an energy field and gradually expanded it, bringing forth life where there had been darkness. (Hey, that's the name of this blog!)

In the process of his exploration, he rouses a world-devouring monster that had been lying quiescent, the Thing that Cries in the Night. His son/father (there's weird time travel stuff involved, called temporal fugue in the book) Set is the only one capable of destroying it, but at the moment of his victory, Osirus uses the Hammer that Smashes Suns, a device used to incite stars to explode to novae. Set was killed and the Thing was weakened but not destroyed, and Thoth had to abdicate in order to serve as warden to the Thing.

The Angels then fell upon each other until there were only two surviving Houses, Osiris, Angel of the House of Life and Anubis, Angel of the House of the Dead. The book begins with Anubis naming a man who had served him for one thousand years.

I read this book all the time. I think one summer, I read from it every day. I wanted to adapt it to its own RPG. It had 283 unique immortals.

"“By one means or another, certain individuals have achieved a kind of immortality. Perhaps they follow the currents of life and draw upon their force, and they flee from the waves of death. Perhaps they have adjusted their biochemistry, or they keep their bodies in constant repair, or they have many bodies and exchange them, or steal new ones. Perhaps they wear metal bodies, or no bodies at all. Whatever the means involved, you will hear talk of the Three Hundred Immortals when you enter the Middle Worlds. This is only an approximate figure, for few truly know much about them. There are two hundred eighty-three immortals, to be exact. They cheat on life, on death, as you can see, and their very existence upsets the balance, inspires others to strive to emulate their legends, causes others to think them gods. Some are harmless wanderers, others are not. All are powerful and subtle, all adept at continuing their existence. One is especially noxious, and I am sending you to destroy him.”

The immortals we meet are all affiliated with the former regime, so I'm inclined to think the majority are surviving Angels of various stations. I gave away my annotated copy, but I used to tear this book apart to try to figure out what the six races might be. (Was that dwarf in the House of the Dead a human of short stature or an actual dwarf?) I still think that it would make an incredibly fun game.

My favorite character is the Steel General.

He is the one who is called the Steel General. That is not a suit of armor that he is wearing; it is his body. He has turned off most of his humanity for the duration of the trip, and he stares now straight ahead past the scales like bronze oak leaves on the side of his mount’s neck. He holds four reins, each as thick as a strand of silk, on the fingertips of his left hand. He wears a ring of tanned human flesh on his little finger, because it would be senseless and noisy for him to wear metal jewelry. The flesh was once his; at least, it helped to surround him at one time long ago.

All know of the General, who ranges alone. Out of the pages of history come the thundering hoofbeats of his war horse Bronze. He flew with the Lafayette Escadrille. He fought in the delaying action at Jarama Valley. He helped to hold Stalingrad in the dead of winter. With a handful of friends, he tried to invade Cuba. On every battleground, he has left a portion of himself. He camped out in Washington when times were bad, until a greater General asked him to go away. He was beaten in Little Rock, had acid thrown in his face in Berkeley. He was put on the Attorney General’s list, because he had once been a member of the I.W.W. All the causes for which he has fought are now dead, but a part of him died also as each was born and carried to its fruition. He survived, somehow, his century, with artificial limbs and artificial heart and veins, with false teeth and a glass eye, with a plate in his skull and bones out of plastic, with pieces of wire and porcelain inside him—until finally science came to make these things better than those with which man is normally endowed. He was again replaced, piece by piece, until, in the following century, he was far superior to any man of flesh and blood. And so again he fought the rebel battle, being smashed over and over again in the wars the colonies fought against the mother planet, and in the wars the individual worlds fought against the Federation. He is always on some Attorney General's list and he plays his banjo and he does not care, for he has placed himself beyond the law by always obeying its spirit rather than its letter. He has had his metal replaced with flesh on many occasions and been a full man once more— but always he hearkens to some distant bugle and plays his banjo and follows—and then he loses his humanity again. He shot craps with Leon Trotsky, who taught him that writers are underpaid; he shared a boxcar with Woody Guthrie, who taught him his music and that singers are underpaid; he supported Fidel Castro for a time, and learned that lawyers are underpaid. He is almost invariably beaten and used and taken advantage of, and he does not care, for his ideals mean more to him than his flesh. Now, of course, the Prince Who Was A Thousand is an unpopular cause. I take it, from what you say, that those who would oppose the House of Life and the House of the Dead will be deemed supporters of the Prince, who has solicited no support—not that that matters. And I daresay you oppose the Prince, Wakim. I should also venture a guess that the General will support him, inasmuch as the Prince is a minority group all by himself. The General may be beaten, but he can never be destroyed, Wakim. Here he is now. Ask him yourself, if you'd like.”

On the persistence of the Steel General:

“Surely, if one were to number all his parts and destroy them, one by one, and scatter them across the entire cosmos, then would he cease to exist.”

“This thing has been done. And over the centuries have his followers collected him and assembled the engine again.

To digress for a moment, my first real exposure to Belle & Sebastian was their Dear Catastrophe Waitress Album. It was a marked departure from their earlier work, but to me that was the sound of Belle & Sebastian. When I went back to listen to their earlier, more highly regarded work, it didn't sound like Belle & Sebastian to me. Zelazny said that Creatures of Light & Darkness was "an unconscious self-parody" and as a kid, I read straight elements that were not intended that way. His prose has a very distinctive feel to it, and it's ramped up to eleven in Creatures, but since it was my first exposure, this exaggerated Zelazny served as my baseline.

It lacks the philosophy of his other books, and the characters at times seem less like gods and more like superheroes. Some elements are... corny? Absurd? Ridiculous? Sure, but I think if he had second guessed himself and removed those elements, it wouldn't be half the story it is now.


  1. You never know when a blog might turn up in someone's search. I'm making a decision whether to buy a used copy of this book tonight and you've told me much more than a book description. Thank you!

  2. my favorite book and writer of all time

    1. There's nothing quite like it anywhere.

  3. Zelazny is the most underrated and unknown scifi genius ever. Thanks for your insightful blog. I enjoyed reading it.

  4. Creatures of Light and Darkness by Zelazny is in my top five best ever books ever written. It is concise and comic book fast. The short changes and shifts and the canvas it paints this dance is rarely seen elsewhere. Perhaps a Vonnegut has something of the style. In any case, the story rips through continua as if such were mere pages and yet the grandeur is never lost. Neico.

  5. An amazing work from someone who knows how the temporal fugue works. Mind bending to say the least.