Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Devil Car/Last of the Wild Ones

I wrote once about the uncanny verisimilitude in Roger Zelazny's story, how the consequences of his character's actions seem natural, but that the actions leading up to those consequences never seem forced.

I can't decide if The Murdock/Jenny cycle defies this trend or not. His introduction implies that he wrote the first story without a sequel in mind, but the second story does grow so well from elements planted in the first that the sequel does seem inevitable when the pair is read back to back.

It's a fun story, a rather silly concept played mostly straight.  A computer virus has run amuck among the computerized cars of the future, causing some of them to turn against the humans. ("Ten years ago the Devil Car, their leader, killed my brother in a raid on his Gas Fortress...")  Like The Stainless Steel Leech, it reminds me more than a bit of "The Honking", the Werecar episode of Futurama.  which may be why I interpret it as a lighter work than it really is. Nonetheless, I think Zelazny must have have his tongue at least partially in his cheek when he wrote it. His comment about "herds of wild mustangs" always makes me smile.

I don't have my book with the intro in front of me, but I think I recall that Zelazny's preferred title was "Morning of the Scarlet Swinger", which is so much more evocative than "Devil Car". (Also, "...and Call me Conrad" is a much better title than "This Immortal", and while we're on the subject, "The Ides of Octember" is leaps and bounds better than either "The Dream Master" or "He Who Shapes" (And I am very much looking forward to NESFA's Pictorial Bibliography of that name coming at the end of this year.)

She was made to look like a carefree Swinger sedan: bright red, gaudy, fast.  But there were rockets under the bulges of her hood, and two fifty-caliber muzzles lurked just out of sight in the recesses beneath her headlamps; she wore a belt of five- and ten-second timed grenades across her belly; and in her trunk was a spray-tank containing a highly volatile naphthalic.

       ....for his Jenny was a specially designed deathcar, built for him by the Archengineer of the Geeyem Dynasty, far to the East, and all the cunning of that great artificer had gone into her construction.

Early in the story she describes machine profanity to Murdock:

He chuckled.  "Cars actually swear at each other?"

"Occasionally," she said.  "I imagine the lower sort indulge in it more frequently, especially on freeways and turnpikes when they become congested."

"Let me hear a swear-word."

"I will not.  What kind of car do you think I am, anyway?"

They find the Black Cadillac that killed Murdock's brother, but Jenny chokes when it comes time to put him down.

"Why did you miss it?" he asked softly.  "Why did you miss it, Jenny?"

She did not answer immediately.  He waited.

Finally, "Because he is not an `it' to me," she said.  "He has done much damage to cars and people, and that is terrible.  But there is something about him, something noble.  The way he has fought the whole world for his freedom.  Sam, keeping that pack of vicious machines in line, stopping at nothing to maintain himself that way without a master for as long as he can remain unsmashed, unbeaten Sam, for a moment back there I wanted to join his pack, to run with him across the Gas Road Plains, to use my rockets against the gates of the Gas Forts for him...But I could not mono you, Sam.  I was built for you. I am too domesticated.  I am too weak.  I could not shoot him though, and I misfired the rockets on purpose.  But I could never mono you, Sam, really."

At the end of the story, Jenny has become the kind of car that would engage in machine profanity.

Before she did though, he heard a strange mechanical sound, falling into the rhythms of profanity or prayer.

Then he shook his head and lowered it, softly patting the seat beside him with his still unsteady hand.

That's the end of Devil Car. Last of the Wild Ones picks up fifteen years after the destruction of the Black Caddy.

Murdock lay upon his belly atop the ridge, regarding the advancing herd through powerful field glasses. In the arroyo to his rear, the Angel of Death - all cream and chrome and bulletproof glass, sporting a laser cannon and two bands of armor-piercing rockets - stood like an exiled mirage glistening in the sun, vibrating, tugging against reality.

Also, I can't be the only one who thinks "Take a drink!" when reading "arroyo" in a Zelazny story. (Zelazny and arroyo returns 111,000 hits on google.) I kid because I love. But seriously, he really liked that word. Also, that is some poetic prose right there.

They have almost defeated the scourge of the wild cars, but there is one left. Murdock pursues her in his Angel of Death, which speaks with a "soft, well-modulated, masculine voice."

"How about this? You were the best car I ever had. Surrender. Fire off your ammo. Drop the grenades. Come back with me. I don't want to blast you."

"Just a quick lobotomy, eh?"

Another explosion occurred, this one behind him. He continued to gain on her.

"It's that virus program," he said. "Jenny, you're the last - the last wild one. You've nothing to gain."

"Or to lose," she responded quietly.

I like it. The relationship between Murdock and Jenny parallels that between Red and Flowers in Roadmarks or Maxine and whatever that dude was called in "My Lady of the Diodes".

I introduced my friend Jen (not to be confused with my wife Jen. This Jen is married to my legendary friend Tom) to the Amber books and we discussed how the women are portrayed:

Jen: I don't think all that much of the women in the book, though.  Okay, Fiona was something, but I felt most of the other female characters were marginal.  Maybe not marginal, but they were nothing compared to the men.  A few of those sisters might as well not have been there.  Dara was a tool (in the being used sense, not a tool like Merlin),

Heh heh heh. Seriously, fuck Merlin.

Jen: ...so was Flora for that matter, and Lorraine was forgettable.  But, that can be said of many to most science fiction/fantasy books.  Where are the women in Lord of the Rings, after all?  This is a personal pet peeve, so it's not like it detracted from these books for me.  It's just an annoyance to never see oneself represented among the heroes of books that you like to read.

I think she's right, and while I don't think that Zelazny is any worse than genre writers of his generation. (Also 24 Views kicks all kinds of ass and goes a long way towards fixing my opinion of this), post Buffy-genre works tend to have women in stronger roles, and the absence of such is notable to an audience in 2010.

I occasionally found Robert Heinlein (to name an particularly egregious example) actively offensive in his portrayal of women, but I never had that problem with Zelazny. The worst I'll say about women in his writing is that they never had too much to do. His stories are tight and economical and they just don't deal with women, just as they tend not to deal with politics or race or religion.

Whoops, I didn't mean for this post to segue into commentary on gender relations. I'm inclined to think making the Angel masculine was an intentional decision on Murdock's part to make the car as unlike Jenny as possible in order to to avoid previous pitfalls than it was anything else. I like the pair of stories a great deal. I would have loved to see more Sandow or Snuff or Red, and it's a shame that Zelazny returned to his classic worlds as rarely as he did, so when he does, it makes me extra happy.

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