Thursday, August 12, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: From far, from eve and morning - And yon twelve-winded sky - The stuff of life to knit me - Blew hither: here am I

It's time for another Zelazny post!

Today's topic will be...

*spins the Wheel of Roger*

(I don't really have a big wheel of fortune labeled with Roger Zelazny titles mounted on my wall, but I'm starting to think seriously about getting one)

...a review of "For a Breath I Tarry".

For a breath I Tarry is a novelette (I thought it was a novella, but Wikipedia tells me otherwise), the story of which is, in its most basic form, Faust with robots. It also draws on the Book of Job and A Shropshire Lad.

Dramatis Personae:

Solcom: Mankind is extinct, but our machines still fulfill their imperatives. "High, in a permanent orbit, Solcom, like a blue star, directed all activities upon the Earth, or tried to." Solcom was programmed to oversee maintenance of the earth and that's what it does. It is opposed by...

Divcom: The Alternate. "When man had placed Solcom in the sky, invested with the power to rebuild the world, he had placed the Alternate somewhere deep below the surface of the Earth. If Solcom sustained damage during the normal course of human politics extended into atomic physics, then Divcom, so deep beneath the Earth as to be immune to anything save total annihilation of the globe, was empowered to take over the processes of rebuilding. Now it so fell that Solcom was damaged by a stray atomic missile, and Divcom was activated. Solcom was able to repair the damage and continue to function, however."

Divcom maintained that any damage to Solcom automatically placed the Alternate in control. Solcom, though, interpreted the directive as meaning "irreparable damage" and, since this had not been the case, continued the functions of command. And both would build, and both would tear down what the other had built whenever they came upon it.

Frost: The main character. A robot assembled when Solcom was suffering a discontinuity of complementary functions, best described as madness. This was brought on by an unprecedented solar flareup which lasted for a little over thirty-six hous. It occurred during a vital phase of circuit-structuring, and when it was finished so was Frost. Solcom was then in the unique position of having created a unique being duing a period of temporary amnesia. And Solcom was not certain that Frost was the product originally desired. The initial design had called for a machine to be situated on the surface of the planet Earth, to function as a relay station and coordinating agent for activities in the northern hemisphere. He was a silverblue box, 40x40x40 feet, self-powered, self-repairing, insulated against practically anything, and featured in whatever manner he chose. His hobby is man.

Beta: Frost's counterpart and overseer of the Southern Hemisphere. Her responsibility includes the last remaining city of mankind, Bright Defile, which is a very cool name.

Mordel: My favorite chracter. "It was a tiny machine compared to Frost, perhaps five feet in width, four in height - a revolving turret set atop a rolling barbell." A servant of Divcom, though he did not enter into that service voluntarily. He gets all the best lines.

The story is about Frost's quest to understand the nature of Man, who is by now long extinct. It opens with a conversation between Solcom and Divcom, echoing the exchange between God and Satan in the Book of Job. Frost takes an interest in mankind, and vows that he will in essence, become a man. He makes a deal with the Devil, Divcom, in exchange for the collected stores of mankind's lore. If he succeeds, he will become a man. If he fails, he will be taken beneath the earth to serve Divcom for so long as he continues to function. He is not the first to make this bargain.

Mordel: "You are aware that you would be forced to keep your end of the bargain even if you did not wish to; and Solcom would not come to your assistance because of the fact that you dared to make such a bargain."

Frost: "Do you speak as one who considers this to be a possibility, or as one who knows?"

Mordel: "As one who knows."
Frost goes so far as to construct analogues of the human sensory equipment, so that I may see and smell and taste and hear like a man, and attempts to reason his way to understanding Man.

Mordel drove a shaft of metal downward into the snow.

He retracted it, raised it, held up a piece of ice.

"Regard this piece of ice, mighty Frost. You can tell me its composition, dimensions, weight, temperature. A Man could not look at it and do that. A Man could make tools which would tell Him these things, but He still would not know measurement as you know it. What He would know of it, though, is a thing that you cannot know."

"What is that?"

"That it is cold," said Mordel and tossed it away.

"'Cold' is a relative term."

"Yes. Relative to Man." (My very favorite line in the story)

"But if I were aware of the point on a temperature scale below which an object is cold to a Man and above which it is not, then I, too, would know cold."

"No," said Mordel, "you would possess another measurement. 'Cold' is a sensation predicated upon human physiology."

"But given sufficient data I could obtain the conversion factor which would make me aware of the condition of matter called 'cold'."

"Aware of its existence, but not of the thing itself."

"I do not understand what you say."

"I told you that Man possessed a basically incomprehensible nature. His perceptions were organic; yours are not. As a result of His perceptions He had feelings and emotions. These often gave rise to other feelings and emotions, which in turn caused others, until the state of His awareness was far removed from the objects which originally stimulated it. These paths of awareness cannot be known by that which is not-Man. Man did not feel inches or meters, pounds or gallons. He felt fear, He felt cold; He felt heaviness and lightness. He knew hatred and love, pride and despair. You cannot measure these things. You cannot know them. You can only know the things that He did not need to know: dimensions, weights, temperatures, gravities. There is no formula for a feeling. There is no conversion factor for an emotion."

"There must be," said Frost. "If a thing exists, it is knowable."

"You are speaking again of measurement. I am talking about a quality of experience. A machine is a Man turned inside-out, because it can describe all the details of a process, which a Man cannot, but it cannot experience that process itself as a Man can."

"There must be a way," said Frost, "or the laws of logic, which are based upon the functions of the universe, are false."

"There is no way," said Mordel.

"Given sufficient data, I will find a way," said Frost.

"All the data in the universe will not make you a Man, mighty Frost."

"Mordel, you are wrong."

I guess that's why I like the story so much. "If a thing exists, it is knowable." That's a theme expressed elsewhere in Zelazny's work. Yama makes the distinction between the unknown and the unknowable. It really resonates with my point of view. It may not be possible to know everything, but it's always worth trying.

FROM far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now—for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart—
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.


  1. One of my favorite Zelazny stories. "A machine is a Man turned inside out" is possibly my favorite line, although the Ore Crusher's story is a close second. I can't remember for certain, but I think the Collected Works notes for this story fail to mention that the Ore Crusher is an allusion to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is sad since its such a cool way to reference it.

  2. The Collected Stories does, in fact, cite the Ore Crusher/Ancient Mariner allusion (Vol. 2, p. 116 -- but my copy is the 2nd edition, so maybe it wasn't in the first edition).

    The fact that Zelazny had trouble getting this one published shows you what dimwits all editors are, even the supposedly "great" ones. Damon Knight should have been ashamed for rejecting it.

    --Chris DeVito
    P.S. I didn't write the first comment above, dated Feb. 13. The anonymity of the Internet really bugs me -- I don't post anything, anywhere, if I don't want myself identified.

  3. The anonymity of the internet bugs me too, especially when it allows anonymous twits to post erroneous information. A simple rule should be that if you "can't remember for certain" as that anonymous poster admitted, then you shouldn't post anything.

    The first edition, first printing of V2: Power & Light, p 116, states "The Ancient Ore-Crusher recalls the Ancient Mariner, cursed to wander the earth and confess his sins." Seems pretty simple and straightforward to me, and I knew I'd put that in there.

    Chris Kovacs

  4. Hi, anonymous twit here. Thanks for correcting me on the reference, I borrowed that volume from the library so I didn't have it around to check. Sorry if my post seemed critical of the notes, that wasn't actually the tone I was going for. I was more curious as to whether I missed or simply forgot that note.

    I have to say, though, I'm a bit surprised at the hostility my comment gathered. I think I made it fairly obvious that I did not in fact know for sure whether I was right. I certainly was trying to spread erroneous information. A simple "you're incorrect, it is in the notes" would have been enough for me.

    Also, I would be just as incorrect had I left my name in my post. Being anonymous had no real effect on my faulty memory.

  5. I think Chris Kovacs can be forgiven for being a bit sensitive about the issue, since he wrote the note. But hey, anonymous twit, you really should buy all six volumes of the Collected Stories -- you'll enjoy having them on your shelf.

    As for the issue of anonymity -- I really do think it makes a difference. Not that I don't make a twit of myself now and then, despite signing my name, but it sets a certain level for the discourse. If I wouldn't say it in person I don't post it on the Internet.

    Of course, JJ maintains a certain level of anonymity on this blog -- but I think I can understand why, since he writes about his family and occasionally posts pictures of his daughter. (Who, by the way, reminds me of a 6-year-old we know named Lola -- daughter of friends. And we have a cat named Lily -- no kidding!)

    --Chris DeVito

  6. Actually, I had no hostility in mind; my tone was simply a weary one. I'd noticed the comment when it was first posted but didn't bother to respond to it. I think my sentiment is best reflected by the famous cartoon shown at this link:

    There's no point trying to correct everything on the internet but Chris Devito's comment about the error prompted me to respond.

    There have been other anonymous people who've posted comments that they were completely offended by the annotations in The Collected Stories, but the vast majority of readers seem to find them a very useful and welcome addition. (I wonder about the ones who claim to be offended. There's a disclaimer at the start of each volume which says to skip them if not needed or wanted.) Similarly, I'd invited feedback on the annotations in case anything had been missed or needed to be corrected in future editions. There've been a few (usually anonymous) comments along the lines of "you idiot(s), you missed this one or you got this one totally wrong," whereas most people (especially the ones who sign their name) politely say, hey, you invited corrections or additions, how about this one? (And it's somewhat amusing when the person saying "you got it totally wrong" is actually completely mistaken.)

    So I guess I've been jaded by anonymous posters but it just makes me weary, not hostile. It's too easy for an anonymous person to say anything without having to check facts or bother about being courteous.

    Chris Kovacs

  7. This is very strange. I wrote a reply around 15 hours ago and received the usual response that it had been posted, but it has never appeared. So here's a second attempt. If two replies appear from me you'll see how similar but different they are.

    In response to the anonymous person, the tone of my reply was not one of hostility but instead of weariness. I saw your post when it appeared but chose to ignore it in the spirit of this cartoon which put it best:

    In other words, there's little point in trying to correct every error because it's an infinite and futile process. But when Chris DeVito responded to it I decided to follow-up. The misinformation typically comes from the anonymous posters who, possibly because they're protected by anonymity, don't seem to care about whether what they're saying is accurate, true, or even courteously presented. On the other hand, if they had to stand behind their comments with their real name, I think a lot less would be said and it would be done more courteously.

    I've seen a similar thing in response to the annotations within V1-6 of The Collected Stories. Through a statement at the beginning of each book, I specifically invited readers to point out annotations that needed to be revised or anything that readers thought I'd missed and should be annotated. Not unexpectedly, the anonymous posters are often along the lines of "you idiot, you got that one wrong!" -- and often the anonymous poster is wrong about the error. The comments posted with a real person's name attached are usually phrased along the lines of "I notice you've invited corrections, and I think you may have misunderstood this one, here's my interpretation of it, what do you think?" Or, "You may not have realized that this poem actually reminds me of this other poem by a famous poet, so do you think Zelazny was deliberately imitating the structure, and should that be mentioned in the note?" And usually those people are correct.

    Anyway, as I said, my tone was weariness. And I wholeheartedly agree with Chris DeVito. If you can't stand behind your own name in making a comment, maybe it wasn't a comment worth making anyway. In this case the "sad" error to "fail to mention" the Rime of the Ancient Mariner was completely untrue.

    I see the same thing on news sites where the anonymous commenters can go wild with all sorts of inflammatory remarks that they wouldn't say if their name had to go in front of it.

    Chris Kovacs

    PS: Chris DeVito - you emailed me and I replied; did you receive it? Sometimes I find my email gets blocked due to the signature file.

  8. The InterTubes seem to have gotten clogged up there for a bit, but information appears to be flowing freely once again.

    I just skimmed through some of the Amazon reviews of the Collected Stories, and I can see what Chris Kovacs is talking about. One guy was insulted because some notes explained terms he felt didn't need explaining, so he took a star off his review. Bully for him. I myself don't get offended by reading something I already know -- though I suppose I might have in the past, when I was a lot younger and dumber, and thought I knew everything.

    Getting back to "Breath" . . . This is such a fresh approach to the theme, so direct and involving. And the imagery, as in so many of Zelazny's stories/novels, is so rich -- another very visual story in my mind.

    --Chris DeVito

  9. It was the spam filter. I've got things at their lowest settings here on the blog, but it seems an url included in a comment from an unregistered account makes them twitchy.

    Chris DeVito: I just skimmed through some of the Amazon reviews of the Collected Stories, and I can see what Chris Kovacs is talking about. One guy was insulted because some notes explained terms he felt didn't need explaining, so he took a star off his review. Bully for him. I myself don't get offended by reading something I already know -- though I suppose I might have in the past, when I was a lot younger and dumber, and thought I knew everything.

    Somebody is mad about the annotations? Really? They're one of the best features of the Collected Works! (Not only that, but they're unobtrusive and easily ignored if a reader doesn't want to read them.)

    Over at NESFA's website, they outline their reasoning, and I thought it was rather clever. With the ither people learn something new or they get to feel smart by knowing it already. That's as close to win/win as you're going to get here on the internets!

  10. I've received many comments from people who are delighted with the annotations, that they now understand something about a particular story or allusion within that they'd never known about. This includes some people who say that they knew most of the allusions but never knew about certain others, and were pleased to learn about something they'd never known. And then there are the few who consider it somehow sacrilegious to have attempted to explain anything at all about what Zelazny was referring to.

    My own rationale for doing this was that in reading Zelazny's works I'd often come across something that I didn't understand and I'd think, I need to look that up to see what he was getting at. But not right now when I'm sprawled comfortably in an armchair, reading by the fireplace. And so I'd forget. But I'd be reminded again the next time I was reading the same book. It's much easier if the information is right there, so you can turn a few pages down and see if the part has been annotated or not. You're not going to start a search through encyclopedias and the internet at that moment.

    I've enjoyed reading an annotated guide to the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Asimov's annotated guide to Shakespeare. I'm looking forward to reading the annotated guide to Gaiman's Sandman series when that is done.

    Anyway, as Josh said, the annotations are offered so unobtrusively and politely, but some people still take offense at their existence. And in the end, I just shrug about it because a) it's a criticism and once you write something you have to be able to take the criticism, and b), the books wouldn't exist at all without my effort to put it all together in the first place: stories, poems, biography, and annotations. The complainers weren't putting the collection together but my co-editors and I were. So we did it our way.

    Chris Kovacs

  11. Old review, obviously, but I still felt the desire to comment.

    This is easily my favorite story ever written, and I think it has to deal with the same line you love so much. I'm very much a philosophical person, and that line actually encompasses one of my primary views of anything regarding human ethics: laws should be shaped relative to humans, flaws and all. If a human changes, so should what is right. If that doesn't seem profound, consider that it neatly resolves every issue regarding transhumanism, posthuman ethics, and interaction with a theoretical alien society with different values.

    1. I love this story. I was in a conversation with someone on a web forum. He was looking for "Mythic" stories, and this one was right at the top of my list.