Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Isle of the Dead

Continuing the series of Zelazny reviews, I suppose it's about time to take a look at Isle of the Dead. After all, it gave this blog its name.

The feeling that had filled me with the creation of each of them came over me then. I had hurled something into the pit. Where there had been darkness, I had hung my worlds. They were my answer. When I finally, walked that Valley, they would remain after me. Whatever the Bay claimed, I had made some replacements, to thumb my nose at it. I had done something, and I knew how to do more.

I misread that the first time around as "Where there had been darkness, I had hung my words."

Sandow's not like the rest of Zelazny's other characters. Another Zelazny fan called him "half-god, half-scaredy cat", and I think that's a really good way to think of him. He reminds me a bit of Random from the Amber novels, when Random rather reluctantly went to rescue Brand.

This is the point where my personal Zelazny chronology gets fuzzy. I know I had read it by 1995, because I was working overnight shifts at the time and I would often reflect on Sandow's observation that:

Of all the things a man may do, sleep probably contributes most to keeping him sane. It puts brackets about each day. If you do something foolish or painful today, you get irritated if somebody mentions it, today. If it happened yesterday, though, you can nod or chuckle, as the case may be. You've crossed through nothingness or dream to another island in Time...sleep gives memory a chance to rev its engine and hand me back my head each day.

Working the graveyard shift will screw you up, because there is no clearly delineated transitioned between days. Go in on Monday, get out on Tuesday. I would lose track of what day it was.

I thought of Martin Bremen when my daughter first started talking, because she would pronounce "just" as "chust" exactly like he did.

"Good evening, Martin. How go things with you?"
"Chust fine, Mister Sandow. And yourself?"

Zelazny never got into intelligent aliens as much as other authors. Pei'ans and the Vegans from This Immortal are the only ones that spring to mind at the moment. Oh, and I guess the Martians from A Rose for Ecclesiastes, but they always struck me as green humans. In light of that, I'll reproduce the full description here, since it is such a rarity.

Pei'ans are about seven feet tall and green as grass. Their heads look like funnels, flat on top, their necks like the necks of funnels. Their eyes are enormous and liquid green or yellow. Their noses are flat upon their faces--wrinkles parenthesizing nostrils the size of quarters. They have no hair whatsoever. Their mouths are wide and they don't really have any teeth in them, per se. Like, I guess the best example is an elasmobranch. They are constantly swallowing their skins. They lack lips, but their dermis bunches and hardens once it goes internal and gives them horny ridges with which to chew. After that, they digest it, as it moves on and is replaced by fresh matter. However this may sound to someone who has never met a Pei'an, they are lovely to look at, more graceful than cats, older than mankind, and wise, very. Other than this, they are bilaterally symmetrical and possess two arms and two legs, five digits per. Both sexes wear jackets and skirts and sandaIs, generally dark in color. The women are shorter, thinner, larger about the hips and chests than the men-- although the women have no breasts, for their young do not nurse, but digest great layers of fat for the first several weeks of their lives, and then begin to digest their skins. After a time, they eat food, pulpy mashes and seastuff mainly. That's Pei'ans.

Their language is difficult. I speak it. Their philosophies are complex. I know some of them. Many of them are telepaths, and some have other unusual abilities. Me, too.

I liked the bit with Bayner on Driscoll. The whole thing on the planet, really. Nice to see some mundane detective work.

Later on Zelazny gets in a couple jabs at civil servants, whose ranks he had recently departed.

For there comes a time in the history of all bureaucracies when they must inevitably parody their own functions. Look what the breakup of the big Austro-Hungarian machine did to poor Kafka, or the Russian one to Gogol. It drove them out of their cotton-picking minds, poor bastards, and now I was looking at a man who had survived an infinitely more inscrutable one until the end of his days was in sight. This indicated to me that he was slightly below average intelligence, emotionally handicapped, insecure, or morally suspect; or else he was an iron-willed masochist. For these neuter machines, combining as they do the worst of both father-image and mother-image--i.e., the security of the womb and the authority of an omniscient leader--always manage to attract the nebbish. And this is why, Mother Earth, I wept inwardly for thee at that moment of the immense parade called Time: the clowns were passing,


The bit below always reminds me of the the Krikketers from Life, the Universe and Everything.

There is a place. It is a place where broken rocks ring a red sun. Several centuries ago, we discovered a race of arthropod-like creatures called Whilles, with whom we could not deal. They rejected friendly overtures on the parts of every known intelligent race. Also, they slew our emissaries and sent their remains back to us, missing a few pieces here and there. When first we contacted them, they possessed vehicles for travel within their own solar system. Shortly thereafter, they developed interstellar travel. Wherever they went, they killed and they stole and then beat it back home. Perhaps they didn't realize the size of the interstellar community at that time, or perhaps they didn't care. They guessed right if they thought it would take an awfully long time to reach an accord when it came to declaring war on them. There is actually very little precedent for interstellar war. The Pei'ans are about the only ones who remember any.. So the attacks failed, what remained of our forces were withdrawn, and we began to bombard the planet. The Whilles were, however, further along technologically than we'd initially thought. They had a near-perfect defense system against missiles. So we withdrew and tried to contain them. They didn't stop their raids, though. Then the Names were contacted, and three worldscapers, Sang-ring of Greldei, Karth'ting of Mordei and I, were chosen by lot to use our abilities in reverse. Later, within the system of the Whilles, beyond the orbit of their home world, a belt of asteroids began to collapse upon itself, forming a planetoid. Rock by rock, it grew, and slowly it altered its course. We sat, with our machinery, beyond the orbit of the farthest planet, directing the new world's growth and its slow spiral inward. When the Whilles realized what was happening, they tried to destroy it. But it was too late. They never asked for mercy, and none of them tried to flee. They waited, and the day came. The orbits of the two worlds intersected, and now it is a place where broken rocks ring a red sun. I stayed drunk for a week after that.

I like that he's willing to buy Shandon off.

"I am. I've decided to do it the easy way."

"What do you mean?"

"How much do you want?"

"Money? You scared of me, Frank?"

"I came here to kill you, but I won't do it if Kathy loves you. She says she does. Okay. If you've got to go on living, then I want you off my back. How much will it take for you to pick up your marbles and go away?"

"What are marbles?"

"Forget it. How much?"

"I hadn't thought you would offer, so I never thought about it. A lot, though. I'd want a guaranteed income for life, a large one. Then some really large purchases in my name--I'd have to make a list. --You really do mean it? This isn't a trick?"

"We're both telepaths. I propose we drop our screens. In fact, I'd insist on it as a condition."

"Kathy has been asking me not to kill you," he said, "and she would probably hold it against me if I did. Okay. She means more to me. I'll take your money and your wife and go away."

You know, I didn't realize it right now, but it seems like none of Zelazny's vengeance driven characters really get their revenge in the manner they expect. Shadowjack does, but Corwin, Dilvish, Sandow, something prevents it for each of them. It seems a more mature route to take and it reminds me of a Lincoln quote I like: "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?" Off the top of my head, I can't think of any of his characters who get the decisive on-screen confrontation that they've been expecting.

Ultimately, it's pretty decent. I even like the sequel To Die in Italbar, and I know a lot of Zelazny fans don't care for that one.


  1. Hey, JugJo: My only quibble with you on Isle of the Dead is that your praise seems somewhat grudging. I think this is one of Zelazny's best-written action novels, economical yet multilayered, on a par with This Immortal. I was floored by the book the first time I read it, as a teenager back in the mid-'70s, and I've reread it many times over the years and find no diminishment. (The only things I stub my toe -- so to say -- on are those "condums." What was that about, Z? A fetish for obscure variant spellings?) First-rank Zelazny on my shelf.

    --Chris DeVito

    P.S.: Nice that you've got the Giger Isle of the Dead with the review, rather than a Böcklin -- wonder what Zelazny thought of it?

  2. I like it a lot too, and I didn't mean to come across as reluctantly liking it, but I see how I would give that impression.

  3. Isle of the Dead was my first Zelazny book. I picked it up at a used book store--never heard of Zelazny before that. After reading it I hunted down all his books I could find. He's definitely one of my favorite authors. I do find his later works are lacking in the same "life" that you'd find in his earlier works though. Cool blog...

  4. Hey thanks. So what prompted you to check out Isle of the Dead in the first place?

  5. One day I just was looking over the sci-fi section at the used book store, was appealed by the cover (the pic with the tree growing out of the guy's chest), and then I flipped through the pages, and liked what I saw. So I just found the book by accident really. I'm not a big fan of "nuts and bolts" sci-fi. I like Zelazny because he has a poetic style and he's able to combine sci-fi and fantasy very well too.

  6. Yes, that is a great cover -- Leo and Diane Dillon. They did all the covers for the original Ace Specials and were (are?) Harlan Ellison's artists of choice.

    And you've characterized Zelazny in a nutshell -- poetic style that combines sf and fantasy. I wish there were more writers like that.

    --Chris DeVito