Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Bridge of Ashes

Hey, more Roger Zelazny stuff! Today I'm going to cover another favorite, Bridge of Ashes, which is a characteristically poetic Zelazny name for a title. The gist of the story is that aliens have been directing human evolution since before we were truly sentient. They require an environment very different from our own, so they have shaped human society so that we'll have so polluted the world that it will be unsuitable for us by the time it becomes ready for them. We'll self-destruct, essentially.  Down through the centuries, they have been opposed by the Dark Man, who has performed manipulations of his own. When the book begins he is trying to ensure passage of a particular resolution at the United Nations, and has arranged for an assassination to occur in order to manufacture a martyr and thereby bring it to pass. At the last moment, however, he reconsiders his method, and decides to give target the same exposition I just gave you and a choice of whether to proceed.

The story then turns to Dennis Guise, the child of two telepaths and we don't see the Dark Man again for a long time. (Well, long being relative, as the paperback copy only has 154 pages, sharing with many Zelazny books a tight economy of style) The children of telepaths tend to be telepaths themselves, and more powerful than their parents. As they lack the discipline of adults, and are subject to uncontrolled reception of other people's thoughts, they have to be raised in isolation. I think I read Dune before I read Bridge of Ashes, so I already was familiar with the idea of an obliterated identity with Frank Herbert's concept of an Abomination,  a child in the womb exposed to full awareness and overwhelmed by thousand of alien voices.

That is how Dennis comes to be in American Southwest. (Well, I think the real reason is because it gave Roger Zelazny an excuse to write "arroyo" on the first page of the second section of the book. Seriously, he loved that word. When I make my blog post about the Roger Zelazny drinking game, that's totally going to be an entry, right above the one about the disproportionate number of characters with green eyes.)

Dennis had been essentially catatonic prior to the beginning of the books, but he makes contact with several other minds, and assumes their identities, including a Children of Earth terrorist.  Eventually he is relocated him to a treatment facility on the moon because his range literally encompasses the entire planet at this point. Since he is unable to reach any mind in physical proximity, he begins reaching backwards through time to contact strong personalities in the past.

To be entirely honest, I did have some trouble with this aspect of the story. I can accept telepathy; it's been a trope of the genre for practically as long as their has been a genre. And one of the therapists mentions that they have no idea of the mechanism by which telepathy functions, but that's as close as they come to addressing it. I would have appreciated a more robust attempt at an explanation, because right now it just smacks of straight-up magic.

However, that's a rather jejune complaint, (though not so much as much constant bitching about arroyos) particularly in that it sets up my favorite set piece of the book. First he is Archimedes, then Jean Jacques Rousseau, and then he is Leonardo da Vinci, and the joy Dennis as da Vinci displays is infectious, and the way Zelazny conveys his brilliance and imagination moves me every time. It also leads to this, probably my favorite line in the book:

"Look, he answers to Dennis Guise now and he acts the way that he believes Dennis Guise should act.He is suddenly showing high intelligence and the beginnings of remarkable skills. If, in his heart of hearts, he chooses to believe that he is Leonardo Da Vinci pulling a fast one on a world of twenty-first-century clods, what difference does it make as long as he behaves in an acceptable fashion in all other ways? We all have our pet daydreams and fun delusions. There are certain areas where therapy ceases to be therapeutic and simply becomes meddling. Leave him with his daydream. Teach the outer man to behave in an acceptable way in society."

I'm as liberal as they come and back when I worked as a social worker, a coworker had a sign above her desk that read, "As long as you're capable of making rational choices, you maintain the right to make dumb ones." Meaning, that we advised our clients of the consequences of their actions, but we were to never substitute our judgment for theirs. They had to be free to make their own mistakes, to steal a line from the Offspring. The whole thing reminds me of of quote from C.S. Lewis "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." 

To return to the issue at hand, it was just nice to see a sentiment like that expressed in a story I was already enjoying.

And I really liked da Vinci's departure as I did his arrival.  Dennis as da Vinci asks: "You think that I am some sort of overlay and the real Dennis Guise is buried beneath me?" and his doctor demurs, saying that it is possible, but he does not know. "Guesses are made and discarded countless times during therapy."

"...I am not tremendously fond of the notion that I am keeping the rightful inhabitant of this body, this brain, from his rightful existence."

"Even if he may never be so fit as yourself to do so?"

"Even so."

Da Vinci departs shortly afterwards, after completing the Mona Lisa in acylics, a gesture that allows Dennis to synthesize all those he has known. I mentioned in this part of my Lord of Light commentary that Zelazny's characters tend to be ruthless men in a hard world. Da Vinci finds himself in a world beyond his wildest imagings. He could live an eternity here, and never exhaust the wonders. And yet, he sacrifices himself for a single boy who may not even exist, simply because it is the right thing to do.

I liked the rest of the book, but it feels like something of an epilogue after the wonderful da Vinci segment. Dennis is reunited with his therapist, with Quick Smith and eventually meets the Dark Man and confronts the aliens, bringing the exemplars of humanity across the bridge of ashes to stand at his side.

It's pretty apolitical, much like just about all of Zelazny's work. Characters on both sides make compelling arguments and having just finished the audio book and the paperback, I couldn't tell you which point of view Zelazny himself felt more convincing.  I like that across a career that spanned thirty years, Zelazny never set up a straw man. Look at this exchange below. Young people are often strident and Dennis' series of questions suggests to me that he doesn't believe that there are legitimate reasons for the actions of the Children of the Earth.

[The COE's Quick to Dennis] "...Now what?"

"Now? Now I was going to ask you as the only COE member handy, whether you really believe that our rural past possessed all the virtues, whether all the cliches about the cities might not make that past seem like something it never was, whether exploitation of the land and the people - like child labor - might not have been far worse in the old days, as it still is in agrarian countries today, might the cities really offer more than they have taken when contrasted with that past."

"That is not what I meant when I said 'Now what?' and that is a string of loaded questions," he said, "but I will give you an answer, anyway, before I go back to it." I am hardly a spokesman for the COE. I am just a dirtywork specialist. It is true that a lot of us might romanticize the simpler life, turn it into a pastoral. I am not one of them. I grew up on a farm. I was child labor myself...I always loved the land. I can't romanticize it. I was too close to it...I am pro-land, not anti-city. You set up a false dichotomy when you reeled off those questions.  Being for the land does not being against the city. We cannot junk them all turn back the clock. Not now. When we blow up a dam or screw up a source of pollution, we are not telling them to turn off all the technology in the world. We are telling them to be more judicious in its disposition..."

I would guess that it had its genesis with the concepts in Robert Heilbroner's The Future as History. (Zelazny even gives a shout out to it, mentioning it by name about halfway through)

I like a lot. I love the da Vinci scenes. Also, more so than any of his other works, it feels evocative of a particular era. It was published in 1976 and it reminds of the idealism of an earlier time, when Americans still felt that advancing technology would progress at such a rate as to solve any problems it produced. The Green Revolution was less than than ten years old, Earth Day only six. I think it's one of the last Roger Zelazny stories I've read, and it has elements not present in any of his other stories, an element of urgency that suggested, to me at least, that he didn't know which side was right, but this was a conversation that we should be having.


  1. I think BRIDGE OF ASHES is far and away Zelazny's worst non-collaborative novel. The writing is flat and humorless, often stilted ("There is simply no time to tell you my story, as it is longer than all of history."), and occasionally silly ("If I get away, I may be able to carry off some more big ones for the Children.") The eco-terrorists' various speeches justifying their actions range from the implausible to the sophomoric.

    The structure of the book is the only thing I find interesting about it -- figuring out the whole shifting-viewpoint thing -- but once that's settled (i.e., after Dennis Guise develops an alleged personality) that's no longer a factor. We're left with the ending, which would be absurd if it weren't so flat and anti-climactic -- the aliens view a few "Great Men" through DG's eyes, say "Sorry, nevermind," and go away. I'd've liked the ending a lot better if the aliens' response had been: "You're kidding us with this shit, right? You justify murder with sophistries. You elevate brutality to a virtue. You raise hypocrisy to an art form. And those are your GOOD qualities. We're looking forward to exterminating all you self-righteous glorified apes."

    And it's pointless to argue about fantasy science, but the whole time-travel-telepathy thing makes no sense even by the premise Zelazny sets up. On the moon, DG's telepathic range is limited, finally, by his distance from Earth, so he reaches back through time -- and reads the minds of some people who lived on Earth in the past. Which of course was just as far away from the moon then (and, actually, much further away from Dennis Guise, since the solar system moves through the galaxy and the galaxy moves through the universe, and all that astronomical horseshit).

    I think BRIDGE OF ASHES is both poorly written and extremely unlikeable. (And those two things don't necessarily go together -- for example, I find "He Who Shapes"/THE DREAM MASTER immensely unlikeable, though brilliantly written.) It's the only non-collaborative Zelazny novel I don't own, though I did reread it (got it from the library) before writing this. Just doesn't work for me.

    --Chris DeVito

  2. While we clearly came down on different sides on this book, I do appreciate a good rant and yours was SCATHING!

  3. I agree with both of you. I love the same parts of it that Josh loves, but I agree the ending is unconvincing and anti-climatic (and the whole Dark Man bit is even more implausible than the time-telepathy, so why worry about it).

    Great individual scenes, flimsy plot.

  4. This gets a better grade than 'Today We Choose Faces'? There ain't no justice. :) I adore RZ, and I find this perhaps his most forgettable work. It's a book that never gelled for me. It's very bound up with 'Great Man' ideas about history, and some of his choices of Great Men are rather preposterous. (His version of Julian the Apostate owes more to Tennyson than actual history.) Frankly, there isn't much to like about it at all, though I too appreciated Da Vinci's ethics.

    --Garth Rose

    1. I'd be interested in hearing what you liked about Faces. (I've long since given up on finding anyone else who enjoyed this book.)