Friday, October 1, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: My Name is Legion

"For the love of God, Gort, put on some deodorant!"

Welcome back to my series of Roger Zelazny book reviews. Today, I've decided to recap the anthology, My Name is Legion. It contains three stories following the same nameless protagonist. The first of the stories is good, the second I find rather weak and the final story won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

The idea behind the stories is a simple one. The time is the near future and as much information as mankind could manage to record was entered into a Central database. (The idea was probably informed by Zelazny's time in the Social Security Administration.) There is an extended flashback where the main character talks about his time in the database project, and his doubts and concerns mirror those raised by privacy advocates in modern times. Zelazny was prescient with his concerns about the information society we are only now entering long before it became a realistic possibility.

Everybody, nowadays, has a birth certificate, academic record, credit rating, a history of all his travels and places of residence and, ultimately, there is a death certificate somewhere on file. Once, all things of this sort existed in separate places. Then, some people set out to combine them. They called it a Central Data Bank. It resulted in massive changes in the order of human existence. Not all of these changes, I am now certain, were for the better.

What the people in my project were doing was linking every data bank in existence, so that public records, financial records, medical records, specialized technical records all existed and were available from one source—through key stations whose personnel had access to this information at various levels of confidentiality.

His personal data was never entered into the system (he destroyed the, *sigh* punch cards, the only detail that dates an otherwise superb series) but he had a back door into the system so that he could become anybody he wanted. He didn't want to live within the system, though, so he spends some time training in judo, lockpicking, studied "every little thing I could think of that I thought would help me get by." He works as an independent contractor for Walsh Investigations, the third (and later second) -largest detective agency in the world. I like not only his method for his contacting the owner and his description of the act itself.

I send one Christmas card each year, and it is unsigned. All it bears—in block print—is a list of four bars and the cities in which they exist. On Easter, May Day, the first day of summer, and Halloween, I sit in those bars and sip drinks from nine until midnight , local time. Then I go away. Each year, they're different bars...Sometimes Don Walsh shows up, sits down next to me and orders a beer. We strike up a conversation, then take a walk. Sometimes he doesn't show up. He never misses two in a row, though. And the second time he always brings me some cash..

I've got it in paperback, (two copies, one of which is misprinted. It goes from 1 to 193, then for the final twenty pages, it has the text of pages 173 to 193. I bought it in the dark days when I occasionally only had one copy of a given Zelazny book and I was really getting into the book and I found it super annoying that I wouldn't be able to find out how it ended)

(Also, fun fact! According to wikipedia: In the film Phantasm, a paperback copy of the book is clearly seen on Mike Pearson's nightstand as he prepares to open the box containing a finger of the Tall Man.)

The Eve of RUMOKO

The gist of the first story is that Nameless is trying to figure out who is sabotaging the Rumoko project, which aims to produce an artificial volcano with the eventual goal of producing a chain of manmade islands. Zelazny goes into a fair amount of detail about the science involved and it seems pretty plausible to me.

Nameless also gets bonus points for using the alias "Albert Schweitzer".

The interrogation scene where he tries to beat the truth serum is a work of genius. Zelazny does an excellent job of portraying the guys conducting it as smart, but Nameless as even smarter. It's nearly a work without villains. I'll include a slight spoiler here along with my praise, but Nemo's adversaries seem like more or less decent guys. They have the concern, legitimate, as it turns out, that the Rumoko project would endanger the underwater city from which they hale.

For this review, I read it where it was collected in Volume 4 of the Collected Works of Roger Zelazny. You should buy the books, by the way. They cover much the same material as my reviews in this blog, and while I think anyone reading this far into a Roger Zelazny review is probably aware of their existence, but I thought I'd throw in a plug anyway.

At the end of each work is some commentary and an explanation of unusual terms in the story. I usually think this is superb, but I disagree with them on their interpretation of a particular reference.

When detonating the atomic to spark the creation of the island, the text reads: "Over the port bow, I saw the man stand up. He was old and grey and wore a wide-brimmed hat" they say the old man is likely Odin. Zelazny has twice referred to mushroom clouds with this imagery (In Lord of Light "I think the tall man of smoke who wears a wide hat shall bend above Nirriti's palace" and in Deus Irea as well, I believe) so I think they're mistaken here.

Then again, I'm just a part time Zelazny blogger, so what do I know?

(On the other hand, I'm sure I'm currently among the most prolific Zelazny bloggers in the world, so that must count for something)


This one had some dolphins in it.

Home Is the Hangman

It's an extremely interesting story. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, though you know what those awards are, you probably know this already and if you don't, you probably don't care. Also, it builds on concepts he explored in an earlier story called "The Force That Through the Circuit Drives the Current", which is the best reference to a Dylan Thomas poem, EVER!

Home is the Hangman is the story of A KILLER ROBOT FROM BEYOND THE STARS!!!! MST3K aside, that's actually a pretty accurate description of the action. The hangman was an exploration robot. It started behaving erratically, eventually stopped transmitting and was given up for lost. Shortly before the events of the story, it has returned to Earth apparently to seek revenge on its creators.

I like how Don Walsh goes from operating the third largest detective agency in the world to operating the second largest. I like to think that this improvement in his fortunes comes through Nemo's efforts.

Hangman makes for interesting reading. Society hasn't changed that much since it was written in the late 1970s, but technology continues to advance. So we get an odd juxtaposition of conversations we could be having (hell, are having) today with talk about a worldwide database on punch cards.

The story has a great cold open and we return to these lines near the end.

Beside the helmet, next to the gun, in front of my hand, stood a small walkie-talkie. This was for purposes of warning Bert and Larry if I should hear the click of a microswitch followed by a humming sound, should see a light come on and begin to blink rapidly. Then they would know that Tom and Clay, with whom we had lost contact when the shooting began, had failed to destroy the enemy and doubtless lay lifeless at their stations now, a little over a kilometer to the south. Then they would know that they, too, were probably about to die.

I called out to them when I heard the click. I picked up the helmet and rose to my feet as its light began to blink.

But it was already too late.

I used to work in Competitive Intelligence (much like Nameless, I have something of an eclectic background) and it was neat to see him employ his tradecraft tricks for getting into the apartment building.

I enjoyed Leila Thackeray's snark about the Liberal Arts:

"You are saying that if it did pull through, it would hate us. That strikes me as an unfair attempt to invoke the spirit of Sigmund Freud: Oedipus and Electra in one being, out to destroy all its parents—the authors of every one of its tensions, anxieties, hang-ups, burned into its impressionable psyche at a young and defenseless age. Even Freud didn't have a name for that one. What should we call it?"

"A Hermacis complex?" I suggested.


"Hermaphroditus having been united in one body with the nymph Sahnacis, I've just done the same with their names. That being would then have had four parents against whom to react."

"Cute," she said, smiling. "If the liberal arts do nothing else, they provide engaging metaphors for the thinking they displace."

Oh, snap!

I really like his portrayal of David Fentris. Leila on Fentris: "Some people find comfort in religion. Others . . . You know. Others take it up late in life with a vengeance and a half. They don't use it quite the way it was intended. It comes to color all their thinking."

For an author whose work is so steeped in mythology, religion, as it's commonly understood, seldom enters into his stories. We have Willy Boy, the fallen faith healer in Coils, but off the top of my head, we only get three characters who self-identify as Christians, Lancelot (both of them), Nirriti the Black and David Fentris. I know that Zelazny was a lapsed Catholic, and I wonder how that informed his writing. Possibly, it was a structural thing, rather than a personal one, as such issues would not be germane to the story and Zelazny tends to keep his stories very tightly plotted. It's interesting to speculate, but ultimately futile, I think.

Or perhaps he just used up all his awesome on Fentris, who is such a fascinating character:

About fifteen years my senior, Dave had been with the data bank project when I had known him. Where a number of us had begun having second thoughts as the thing progressed, Dave had never been anything less than wildly enthusiastic. A wiry five-eight, graycropped, gray eyes back of homrims and heavy glass, cycling between preoccupation and near-frantic darting, he had had a way of verbalizing half-completed thoughts as he went along, so that you might begin to think him a representative of that tribe which had come into positions of small authority by means of nepotism or politics. If you would listen a few more minutes, however, you would begin revising your opinion as he started to pull his musings together into a rigorous framework. By the time he had finished, you generally wondered why you hadn't seen it all along and what a guy like that was doing in a position of such small authority. Later, it might strike you, though, that he seemed sad whenever he wasn't enthusiastic about something. And while the gung-ho spirit is great for short-range projects, larger ventures generally require somewhat more equanimity.

Nameless is smart, but Fentris is brilliant. One of the many things I admire about Roger Zelazny is his ability to write smart people more convincingly than anyone I've ever read. Witness this exchange. (Nameless is going by the alias John Donne here)

[Fentris] "We were doing something we had no business doing,"

"That being...?"

"For one thing, attempting to create an artificial intelligence."

"Why had you no business doing that?"

"A man with a name like yours shouldn't have to ask."

I chuckled.

"If I were a preacher," I said, "I would have to point out that there is no biblical injunction against it—unless you've been worshiping it on the sly."

He shook his head. "Nothing that simple, that obvious, that explicit. Times have changed since the Good Book was written, and you can't hold with a purely fundamentalist approach in complex times. What I was getting at was something a little more abstract. A form of pride, not unlike the classical hubris—the setting up of oneself on a level with the Creator."

"Did you feel that—pride?"


"Are you sure it wasn't just enthusiasm for an ambitious project that was working well?"

"Oh, there was plenty of that. A manifestation of the same thing."

"I do seem to recall something about man being made in the Creator's image, and something else about trying to live up to that. It would seem to follow that exercising one's capacities along similar lines would be a step in the right direction—an act of conformance with the Divine ideal, if you'd like."

"But I don't like. Man cannot really create. He can only rearrange what is already present. Only God can create."

And slightly later:

"Just for the record," I suggested, "if the Hangman had had full access to the necessary equipment and was able to construct another unit such as itself, would you consider it guilty of the same thing that is bothering you?"

He shook his head.

"Don't get all cute and Jesuitical with me, Donne. I'm not that far away from fundamentals. Besides, I'm willing to admit I might be wrong and that there may be other forces driving it to the same end."

And after that:

"What if you are wrong on the supernatural," I said, "but correct on the other? Supposing it is coming under the circumstances you feel it proper to resist? But supposing you are not next on its list? Supposing it gets to one of the others next, instead of you? If you are so sensitive about guilt and sin, don't you think that you would be responsible for that death—if you could prevent it by telling me just a little bit more? If it's confidentiality you're worried about—"

"No," he said. "You cannot trick me into applying my principles to a hypothetical situation which will only work out the way that you want it to. Not when I am certain that it will not arise. Whatever moves the Hangman, it will come to me next. If I cannot stop it, then it cannot be stopped until it has completed its job."

Nameless also observes: "Marvin Minsky once said that when intelligent machines were constructed, they would be just as stubborn and fallible as men on these questions."

I wind up blogging a lot about Marvin Minksy a lot on this blog.

The conclusion took me by surprise the first time, but subsequent readings have impressed me with how neatly each piece fits into the puzzle. I would have enjoyed seeing the further adventures of Nameless, and while Zelazny said he was interested in writing some more of them, he never got around to it before he died. Still, we couldn't ask for a better sendoff than Hangman.


  1. Also, apropos of nothing, I imagine Don Walsh looking like MacGuyver's friend Pete.

  2. Don Walsh was a very real person, one of the founding members of the New Orleans Science Fiction Association back in the 1960's. He was Tuckerized by Roger Zelazny in this series of stories, and a few others if memory serves me correctly.

  3. That's very interesting. I suppose it refutes my theory about him looking like MacGuyver's sidekick, though. Can you tell us anything more about this?

  4. Don Walsh was a Worlds of If new writer winner from around 1967. President of NOSFA July 68 thru June 1969.

  5. "Mu Panther," by Donald J. Walsh, Worlds of IF, October 1967. A somewhat Zelazny-esque story, in the vein of "The Doors of His Face" -- about guys hunting a Big Beast (in this case, a mutated ["mu"] panther, a panther the size of a house.) Not a bad story, actually.

    --Chris DeVito

  6. I've done some half-hearted digging on Don Walsh, but it's complicated by the fact that there's a much more famous oceanographer with the same name out there.

  7. I recently listened to this one again, and I had a couple new thoughts about it.

    It struck me that Nameless refused the injection from the men who broke into his cabin, using a line very similar to that voiced by Corwin in the beginning of 9PiA.

    Nameless was a bit of a jerk. I didn't like the bit with the ring, partly because it seems at odds with the tone of the rest of the story, being more fantastical than the rest of it, and partly because Nameless rather cold-bloodedly murders a bunch of guys with it.

    I think the privacy concerns Zelazny raised were remarkably prescient, though I think he seriously underestimated the amount of data that can be triangulated through secondary sources. (However, my perspective is informed by a career in competitive intelligence in the 21st century, so I have the benefit of another forty years of hindsight, and half a a decade of direct experience, so I'm not going to fault him too much for that. The climate must have been very different back then and he had no way of foreseeing the advances in tradecraft and technology.)

    I listened to an audio book version and I was happy that the reader pronounced "Uranus" correctly. ("Yur-RINN-us" rather than "Your anus"). I'm sorry the poor bastard had to suffer through all the clicks when reading the title for Kjwalll'kje'k'koothai'lll'kje'k, though. (Also, I think my review of Kjwalll'kje'k'koothai'lll'kje'k, as brief as it was, includes everything I have to say about the story.)

    Hangman was great, though it reminds me in parts of "Eye of Cat". And when I had that thought, I realized that I couldn't even remember why I didn't like that book. Maybe I should give it another chance.

    Also, this line made me laugh: "I lit a cigarette to protect my lungs against the pollution."

  8. Kjwalll'kje'k'koothai'lll'kje'k

    This one had some dolphins in it.... everything I have to say about the story

    I wonder sometimes if RZ wanted to get out from under the '60s fanboy hype piled on him and simply be the John D. MacDonald of sf.

    Kjwall is a great example. A set of '70s sf tropes (dolphins, telepathy, the Central Data Bank) blended with elements from MacDonald's Travis McGee series (Florida-like location, ocean, a protagonist both cynical and idealistic "a knight in rusty armor," a woman flavored with some femme fatale).

    Hmm, many of the same Travis McGee elements appear first in "Eve of RUMOKO." But not "Hangman" (save for the Hangman's landing in the Gulf of Mexico). Hmm.

    1. I was thinking about this story not that long ago, because I had come across a list of episodes from the Linda Carter Wonder Woman show: "The Deadly Dolphin:" Both Kjwalll and Wonder Woman are just so painfully 70s.

      I really like the Nameless stories, though, and I hope we get one with the upcoming collection.