Friday, September 17, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Doorways in the Sand

Here we go. The latest in Josh's Roger Zelazny book review series:

I've got a zillion Zelazny books in a billion different formats. Mostly paperbacks, some hardcovers and assorted digital and audio files. When I went to grab Doorways in the Sand for reference in preparation to writing this post, I couldn't find a copy. It wasn't on my Zelazny shelf (I'm such a nerd) nor was it it on any of the other bookshelves in the house.

It might have been buried in a closet or something, but I probably just gave it away to someone. I'm like a lot of Zelazny fans in that I'm something of a evangelist. When visiting a used book store, I'll pick up a paperback copy of a book I already own so that I can give it away. I never kept close track of Doorways, because it seems to be the one book that's always in a used book store no matter where you go. That and Blood of Amber.

It's vintage Zelazny and there's nothing I don't love about it. It's less than 200 pages and has absolutely no padding at all, and Fred is more likable than Corwin or Sam.

Fred Cassidy's uncle set aside a generous stipend for his nephew for as a long as he was a full time undergraduate working towards a degree. Fred likes the setup and becomes an eternal undergrad. I think he's been in school for thirteen years at the beginning of the book. He occasionally has to switch majors with some regularity because his requirements are starting to overlap.

This is near and dear to my heart for a number of reasons. Part of the plot hinges on stereoisomers, and I'm actually a chemist by training, though I did get there in a rather roundabout way. The other is that I started my college career later than most, so I understand what it's like to be an older undergrad. (Also, like Fred, I passed through several disciplines in the process, so I know what that's like too.) Finally, Fred is just fun to read. I occasionally trot out the claim made elsewhere that Zelazny only really writes one character (The laid-back, easy-going, wise-cracking, homicidal protagonist), but Fred breaks that mold. I played a character modeled on him for an RPG a while.

Stylistically, it's pretty neat too. Not quite as experimental as Roadmarks or Creatures of Light and Darkness, but each chapter opens with a dangerous situation not hinted at with the conclusion of the previous chapter, and then we quickly flash back to see how we got there.

I read this a long time before I ever saw Lilo and Stitch, but they're linked together in my mind because Doorways has a bunch of aliens disguising themselves as Australian animals.

My favorite part of the book has to be after Fred passes through the Rhennius machine and he's just working out what it means for him.

This bit always makes me chuckle too:

"We are trying to recover it," he said. "Did you go through the center part of that machine?"

"No," I said. "A bill blew past it, though, and I chased it."

"It looked like you went through the center unit."

"He went around behind it," said one of the men I had told that to, as neatly timed as if he had been sitting on my knee with a monocle in one eye, bless him.

I like Fred in ways I don't like Zelazny's other protagonists. He's smart, he doesn't have anything in particular driving him, and I do feel a certain kinship in that the processes he uses in reasoning out his new situation more or less parallel what mine would be.
A few moments later, though, a half- formed thought caused me to call the bartender back again and have him pour me a shot of bourbon. It had a rich, smoky taste, unlike anything I had ever had out of a bottle bearing that label. Or any other label, for that matter.

Then some recollections from Organic Chem I and II were suddenly with me. All of my amino acids, with the exception of glycine, had been left-handed, accounting for the handedness of my protein helices. Ditto for the nucleotides, giving that twisting to the coils of nucleic acid. But that was before my reversal. I thought madly about stereoisomers and nutrition. It seemed that the body sometimes accepted substances of one handedness and rejected the reversed version of the same thing. Then, in other cases it would accept both, though digestion would take longer in the one case than the other. I tried to recall specific cases. My beer and the shot contained ethyl alcohol, C2H5OH . . . Okay. It was symmetrical, with the two hydrogen atoms coming off the central carbon atom that way. Reversed or unreversed, then, I would get just as stoned on it. Then why did it taste different? The congeners, yes. They were asymmetrical esters and they tickled my taste buds in a different way. My olfactory apparatus had to be playing backward games with the cigarette smoke also. I realized that I would have to look some things up in a hurry when I got home. Since I did not know how long I would be a Spiegelmensch, I wanted to provide against malnutrition, if this were a real danger.
I don't know if it's idiosyncrasy of Zelazny or the language of the era, but this passage is the second time he's used "stoned" where I would have used "drunk".

Overall, it's a wonderful book. It's really short by modern standards (which is true of almost everything Zelazny has written), but there is no dead space at all. It lacks the philosophical overtones of Amber or Lord of Life, but it makes up for that by brimming over with adventure and mystery and yes, just plain fun on every page.


  1. Here's another one where I'd quibble that your praise is too grudging. I first read it as a callow 14-year-old in the original Analog serialization in 1975, and my appreciation for it has only grown over the decades.

    One of the things that makes Doorways in the Sand so appealing to me is that it does NOT have the Huge Theme, the Saving of Humanity or whatever, you know, all those Deep Thoughts; it's simply and unabashedly about one very intelligent but somewhat flawed and shallow character who becomes a bit less flawed and shallow over the course of the novel. I wish Zelazny had written a sequel.

    --Chris DeVito

  2. I'm running out of Zelazny books to cover and I was thinking about what I'm going to do at that point and one thing that occurred to me was to go back and revisit books where I was unsatisfied with the review, and Doorways heads that this. I do have tremendous affection for this story, and I'm not entirely surprised that this didn't come across.

    I mean, it's not like these commentaries are the New York Times Review of Books, but this one was even more of a mess than usual. I focus on trivia, I ramble on about stuff I like, but not why I like it, and I've got no clear focus. I probably will come back and do a second review one of these days.

  3. That's a good idea, and anything that keeps this thing going is helpful -- I think more Zelazny fans will find your commentaries over time. Keep it up, JJ.

    --Chris DeVito

  4. Also one of my Zelazny favourites - just perfect from beginning to end.

  5. I love the book but I want to revisit this review someday because I just don't feel I did it justice.

  6. Isle of the Dead, Doorways in the Sand, Roadmarks, and Wilderness are my nominations for "most underrated Zelazny novel."

    --Chris DeVito

  7. Should add A Night in the Lonesome October to the list of underappreciated but great Zelazny novels.

    --Chris DeVito

  8. Doorways in the Sand features what has to be Zelazny's most excruciatingly funny image, right on p. 1:

    . . . a fountain like a phallus that had taken a charge of buckshot . . .

    I did a double- and then a triple-take on that line before it sank in, and then almost burst an artery laughing. Now Doorways is permanently linked in my mind with the old limerick:

    There once was a man from Beirut
    Who had three warts on his root
    He put acid on these
    And now when he pees
    He holds the damn thing like a flute.

    Anyway, just a random observation.

    --Chris DeVito

  9. Do you really think October is underappreciated? I wish it were more well known, but those people who know about it, tend to like it.

  10. Maybe I'm just hoping for too much -- I think October should be one of those books _everyone_ knows about, not just Zelazny fans. Tim Burton should do the movie, it'd be great.

    --Chris DeVito

  11. Agreed. Lord of Light is not an easy read, and the Amber books require something of an investment in time, but October is just about the perfect introductory Zelazny book. It's the kind of book I give to people in order to turn them into Zelazny fans.

  12. Yes! I even got my wife to read October -- she enjoyed it. The jack-and-jill pun at the end made her laugh out loud.

    --Chris DeVito

  13. For a couple years, before our daughter was born, we used to read a chapter a day out loud, every October.

    I wanted to read it as our daughter's bedtime story for October, but my wife put her foot down.

  14. I happened to check the Wikipedia page for Doorways today and it's really top notch stuff. Somebody did an incredible job putting that together.

  15. Nothing like putting in a reply to 5+ years in the past!

    Yeah, no one does books like this anymore. I miss the short, punchy, funny books which are bent over double with fun! These 800 or more page books that are oh-so-serious and are just one more link in the serial sausage novel get really old and repetitive. Tell a story, dammit! Here's a big bumper to Heinlein, Dickson, Zelazny, Decamp and others who could do gems like this. I miss the authors and the books a lot and I'm glad the books are there to reread.

    1. It sounds like an insult when I say it out loud, but I really appreciate that Zelazny's books are *short*. He stopped when he had finished the story and never padded out anything longer than it needed to be.