Friday, November 19, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Keys to December

Latest in the series of Roger Zelazny reviews.

I find the The Keys to December to be among the most un-Zelazny-like of all of Roger Zelanzy's stories. We usually have a legend stepping out of myth, but here that pattern is turned on its head, with Coldworld Catform Jarry Dark achieving his own kind of apotheosis by the end of the story. It's also rare in that it's straight SF, with none of the mythical elements that typically characterize his work. Also, The Keys to December is a wonderful name for a story.

It opens with this passage, which I like quite a bit:

BORN  OF  MAN  and woman, in accordance with Catform Y7 requirements, Coldworld Class (modified per Alyonal), 3.2-E, G.M.I. option, Jarry Dark was not suited for existence anywhere in the universe which had guaranteed him a niche. This was either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you looked at it.

The gist is that Jarry and others like him were modified before birth to a form suitable for habitation on the planet Aloynal, which had higher gravity and much colder temperatures than earth. Jarry is described as bearing "some resemblance to a large gray ocelot without a tail". But Alyonal's sun goes nova and Jarry and 28,000 other catforms are suddenly without a home.

The mood of the piece reminds me of the Furies. (Absent contradictory information, I think I'll pretend that they take place in the same universe.) Like the characters in that story, Jarry has a talent and his talent is making money. The Catforms pool their resources and Jarry invests them shrewdly enough that they have enough money to buy a planet and some terraforming equipment to change it to a place where they can exist. They don't have quite as many of the Worldchange units as they would like, so the terraforming will take place slowly over three thousand years. Jarry and the other catforms will sleep most of the change in a state of suspended animation, awakening only for periodic tours to monitor the change.

As Jarry and his partner wake up for their monitor duties, we get a time lapse picture of the changes being done to December and the changes undergone by its species in an attempt to adapt.

During their last month of duty, Sanza asked him, "Will everything  die here but us? The green birds and the big eaters of flesh? The funny little trees and the hairy caterpillar?"

"I  hope  not,"  said Jarry. "I've been reading back through the biologists' notes. I think life might adapt. Once it gets a start anywhere, it'll do anything it can to keep going.  It's probably better  for  the creatures  of this planet we could afford only twenty Worldchangers That way they have three millennia to grow more hair and learn to breathe our air and drink our water. With a hundred units we might have wiped them out  and  had to import coldworld creatures or breed them. This way, the ones who live here might be able to make it."

"It's funny," she said, "but the thought just occurred to me that we're doing here what was done to us. They made us for Alyonal, and a nova took it away. These creatures came to life in this place, and we're taking it  away. We're  turning all  of  life on this planet into what we were on our former worlds--misfits."

The indigenous bipeds (Redforms) continue to adapt to the situation, not only by becoming hardier, but by using tools, eventually acquiring true intelligence.  Sanza dies while the pair of them are protecting some redforms from a predator, and Jarry sinks into despair. Eventually he takes to destroying the installations around the world, and when called upon to explain himself, he answers.

"I am their god. My form is to be found in their every camp. I am the Slayer of Bears from the Desert of the Dead. They have  told my  story  for two and a half centuries, and I have been changed by it. I am powerful and wise and good, so far as they are concerned. In this  capacity, I owe  them some consideration. If I do not give them their lives, who will there be to honor me in snow and chant my story around the fires and cut for me the best portions of the woolly caterpillar? None, Turl. And these things are all that my life is worth now. Awaken the others. You have no choice."

I like it. It's a melancholy myth. The ending brings us full circle.

Now every day when the sun goes down out of the purple sky, Jarry Dark watches it in its passing, for he shall sleep no more the sleep of ice and of stone, wherein there is no dreaming. He has elected to live out the  span of his  days in a tiny instant of the Wait, never to look upon the New Alyonal of his people. Every morning, at the new Deadland  Installation, he is  awakened  by  sounds like the cracking of ice, the trembling of tin, the snapping of steel strands, before they come to  him with their offerings, singing  and making marks upon the snow. They praise him and he smiles upon them. Sometimes he coughs.

Born of man and woman, in  accordance  with  Catform  Y7  requirements, Coldworld  Class,  Jarry  Dark was not suited for existence anywhere in the universe which had guaranteed him a niche. This was either a blessing  or a curse,  depending  on how you looked at it. So look at it however you would, that was the story. Thus does life repay those who would serve her fully.

1 comment:

  1. This story has lived with me for 40 odd years or so.