Saturday, December 18, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Coils

This piece has more spoilers than usual for my commentaries, so read further at your own peril.

I don't read a huge amount of fiction any more, but I still like Fred Saberhagen. I discovered him at about the same time I did Zelazny, and while I tend to prefer his SF over his fantasy, both are pretty good. I'm a particular fan of his berserker books. I think, other than Neil Gaiman, he's the only other author about whom I had written regularly at my old blog. I remember being vaguely happy when I read Loki 7281, which implied that Zelazny and Saberhagen were friends, and I was overjoyed to read Coils, the first of their two collaborations.

I picked my copy up in the town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, when my wife and I were vacationing for the 5th year anniversary of our marriage. It's a town full of book stores. It's awesome.  I've got the UK edition of Coils, but it's probably about the same as the US version with the exception of a bunch of extras "u"'s where they don't belong. I usually snag the cover art off Amazon for these reviews, but I had to scan in my copy of the book for this one. Yay, my small contribution to the field of Zelazny studies!

Our hero is Donald BelPatri (which is not actually his real name, but that's what he's called throughout most of the book, so that's what I'm going to use) and lives a carefree life on a houseboat. He gets a monthly stipend about which he is curiously incurious, until his girlfriend pushes him into looking into his past.

The story moves briskly. I kept thinking back to The Naked Matador, probably because they both involve houseboats.

Don's girlfriend (a teacher) is kidnapped and her kidnappers leave a Dear John note in her name on the computer:


Turn to page 47 to see how Encyclopedia Brown knew that an English teacher didn't write that note!

Also, I'm not buying it. If there is anything the internet has taught me, it's that English teachers are as sloppy as anyone else in their personal correspondence.

He eventually discovers that he was one of a team of psychics working for Angra Energy. He was a human-to-machine telepath, Ann Strong was a more traditional human-to-human one, Mercy was a telekinetic and Willy Boy was just plain awesome. But more on him in a minute. The characters are all interesting and each is kind of pathetic in his or her own way.

Willy Boy is great. I think he's the only time that a villain eclipsed the hero in a Zelazny work. Don BelPatri is a serviceable hero, an amnesiac super human straight out Zelazny Central Casting but Willy Boy! Man, I loved him!

A gray man, in some indeterminate region of middle age. He had grown bushy sideburns and acquired a wide network of broken veins across his wide nose since I had last seen him. He was a bit fleshier now, with the pouches under his bright blue eyes more pronounced.

"Willy Boy," I said.

Zelazny seldom uses "talkisms" other than said, but he doesn't need to. I can almost hear Don's delivery, low and flat, equal parts menace and dread.

"Well, bless me! If it isn't Mr. Don Bell-Patri!" he said, in that magical voice, clear and almost musical.

That voice had once been nationally famous. The words were always clearly enunciated; the accent varied, seeming at different times to come from all parts of the South. He'd shouted the Gospel at tent audiences and then auditorium audiences and finally at millions watching him on television.There were healings and hollerings, and then there had been the story of the teen-aged girl in Mississippi - her abortion, her attempted suicide...Willy Boy's stock had plummeted. In the end, there had been no legal charges, but for the past several years, the faithful had been denied his version of the Lord. Willy Boy's profile had flattened on the graph of public awareness. But there was still something special about him. It involved the healings.  They had been real.

He seemed to exhale evil now, along with a faint odor of bourbon. And in a way, I was glad of this, because it meant that I had not been wrong, that I was not crazy and that what was happening was not yet over.


There had been a night, long ago when I had gone with Willie Boy to his apartment and spent an evening lowering the level in a jug of very smooth white lightning. Incongruously, for what he did in those days, there was still an opened Bible in plain sight, on a small table by the window. Curious, when he was out of the room, I had gone over. It was opened to Psalm 109, which was almost entirely underlined.

If you're curious, Psalm 109 is a a cry for vengeance, where the speaker beseeches God to punish his enemies.

Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;
 for the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me:
they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.
 They compassed me about also with words of hatred;
and fought against me without a cause.
 For my love they are my adversaries:
but I give myself unto prayer.
And they have rewarded me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.
 Set thou a wicked man over him:
and let Satan stand at his right hand.
 When he shall be judged, let him be condemned:
and let his prayer become sin.
 Let his days be few;
and let another take his office.
 Let his children be fatherless,
and his wife a widow.
 Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg:
let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

And it goes on like that. Again, I have to admire Zelazny's restraint. I didn't know what Psalm 109 was without looking it up. I doubt there is huge overlap between people who would and people who would read Coils. But there it is, unexplained.

Zelazny said in the introduction to Passion Play in the Last Defender of Camelot: "I had gathered together all of my rejected stories and spent an evening reading through them to see whether I could determine what I was doing wrong. One thing struck me about all of them: I was overexplaining. I was describing settings, events and character motivations in too much detail. I decided, in viewing these stories now that they had grown cold, that I would find it insulting to have anyone explain anything to me at that length. I resolved thereafter to treat the reader as I would be treated myself, to avoid the unnecessarily explicit, to use more indirection with respect to character and motivation, to draw myself up short whenever I felt the tendency to go on talking once a thing had been shown."

Back to Don and Willy Boy:

Later, when we were both several sheets to the wind, I had asked him about his preaching days.

"How much of that was hype? Did you really believe any of the things you said?"

We lowered his glass and raised his eyes. He fixed me with that acetylene blueness which had come over so well on the tube.

"I believed," he said simply. "So help me, when I started I was full of the fire of the Lord. I wanted their souls for Him. I believed. I hollered and gave 'em Scripture and waved the Good Book. I was as good as Billy Graham, Rex Humbard - any of 'em! Better, even! When I prayed for healing and saw 'em throw down their crutches and walk, or see again, or stop hurting, I knew the grace of the Lord was on me, and I believed and there was no hype." His eyes drifted away from me. "Then one day I got mad at a newsman," he went on, slowly. "I kept tellling him to move back, he was getting in my way. He wouldn't do it. 'Damn you, then!' I thought. 'Drop dead, you miserable bastard!' " He paused again. "And he did," he finally said. "Just keeled over and lay there. The doctor said it was a heart attack. But he was young and healthy-looking and I knew what I'd said in my heart. And then I thought about it. Thought about it a lot. Now the Lord wouldn't go in for His servant pulling that sort of thing, would He? The healing, yeah - if it was helping to get a bunch of 'em saved. But killing 'em? I started thinking, maybe the power didn't come from the Lord. Maybe it was just something I could do by myself, either way.Maybe He didn't care one way or the other if I was preaching or not preaching. It wasn't the Holy Spirit moving through me, healing. It was just something about me that could cure 'em or kill 'em. I started drinking around then and fornicating and and all the rest. That's when it got to be hype and makeup and TV cameras and people planted in the audience with fake testimonies...I didn't believe anymore. There's just us and animals and plants and rocks. There ain't no more. The best thing a man can do is get a hold of all the good things in a hurry, 'cause time's passing fast. There's no God. Or if there is, He don't like me anymore."

He is "a reverse faith healer with no faith" who hates himself and he took it out on other people. He's an evil televangelist (yes, yes, the jokes write themselves), but unlike Jim Bakker, he can kill you with his brain. ("Apology accepted, Captain BelPatri.")

I don't know where he comes from. He's not really a character I think Zelazny would have written by himself, but nor does he strike me as a particularly Saberhagen-esque creation. I think it's great that the two of them combined to bring forth something that neither would make on his own.

Don (whose real name is Stephenson McFarland) remembers how he came to the state he was in the at the beginning of the book. He raised concerns about the tasks he was asked to do for his employer, and things escalated. The other paranorms try to persuade him to see reason, but he refuses to keep working for the company. I like Willy Boy's pitch:

 "..Forget about what you might think are right and wrong. You're on the winning side. You can write your own ticket, not skitter around like a hog on ice. If you still feel bad ten years from now, when you're really on top, that'll be the time to repent. You'll be in a position for all kinds of good works to ease your conscience. I know all about consciences..."

I shook my head.

"I just don't see it that way."

He sighed. He shrugged.

"All righty. I can tell the Boss I tried. Want a drink?"

Finally Creighton Barbeau, chairman of the board of Angra Energy gives him a choice. He can either die, or consent to having his memories erased and then receiving a generous stipend while living on a houseboat in Florida. Don plays against type for a Zelazny character and rather than spitting into the flames and biting the hand of the executioner, he says "You may have a point there..."

I momentarily thought of the narrator in Love is an Imaginary Number as he rages against "The peace of the eunuch; the peace of lobotomy, lotus and Thorazine." If they'd just thought to offer him a boat, things would have gone so much better.

I assumed that Saberhagen named Creighton Barbeau, because that strikes me as such an un-Zelazny-like name, but a little research shows me that Creighton and Barbeau were both names of Canadian folklorists. While the name is rather more florid than Zelazny's norm, it's possible he was making some kind of reference here and it simply went over my head. Or maybe it was Saberhagen. I really don't know.

Don continues to look for Cora and the book drags a little in the middle. He runs into an arroyo on page 135 of the paperback. (You know, the arroyo thing started as a joke, and now this blog is the number one result on Google for Zelazny and arroyo)  There are some neat elements. I like how he falls asleep in a car and dreams about an accident, and the car he is controlling with his talent begins psychosomatically taking on the traits of the car ruined in that accident.

Ann Strong, the telepath sides with Don in his quest, and Barbeau sends Willy Boy to kill her. She contacts Don telepathically, and he coils inside the electronics of her home, and together they try to fight off the preacher. But Ann is having a heart attack and Don isn't there, so they are unsuccessful, though Don momentarily distracts him by turning on the television to a program of one of Willy Boy's proteges. It's another really well done scene. 

After that, Don goes to find Cora. And he does. But first he plays some checkers. I'm not sure what was going on with Catlum, but that scene went on for ten pages, so it had to mean something.

And then he finds Cora. I like when he meets us with Willy Boy in person at the end. Willy Boy can stop Don's heart, but Don can stop Willy Boy's pacemaker. Heh. And their resolution is pretty neat too.

Overall, I thought it was a good SF novel raised up to something special by the presence of a unique and compelling character.


  1. I just starting rereading Coils after many years, and the first few pages immediately reminded me of the beginning of This Immortal. Anyone else have the same feeling? I hadn't noticed it before.

    --Chris DeVito

  2. Josh wrote: "If there is anything the internet has taught me, it's that English teachers are as sloppy as anyone else in their personal correspondence."

    And in their blogs, too. A self-described "Philip K. Dick scholar" and English teacher does a Dick-worshipping blog called "Total Dick-Head." Here's a bit from his latest blog:

    "Over the next week I will endeavor to explore the academic work that has been written about Ubik so that we can bring that to bare one our examination of the text."

    Well. I imagine it's great to have a captive audience of hapless undergrads who have no choice but to endure it while you "bare one" while you endeavor to "examine the text" . . . if you like that sort of thing.

    Sheesh. So much for English teachers.

    --Chris DeVito

  3. Heh heh heh. I mentioned my friend Greg, the professor of Authurian Lit in my review of HE WHO SHAPES. His undergraduate degree is in some kind of grammar specialization, so whenever he notices a typo of his own, he apologizes profusely for it, drawing attention to something that would have otherwise passed by unnoticed.

    So, I'm curious. What did you think about COILS overall?

  4. I've read COILS several times and have enjoyed it. It's certainly the better of the two collaborations with Saberhagen. It's a good sf novel.

    I find that COILS and MANA FROM HEAVEN blur together a bit in my recollection because both begin with a powerful character who has his woman taken away from him to precipitate the crisis.

    ......Hmm. Then again, Sandow has his woman taken away from him at the start of ISLE OF THE DEAD. Mind you, she's already dead but reincarnated and taken away all before he realizes it, and he wants her back as soon as he gets the ransom note.

    ...I think I'm sensing a recurrent Zelazny theme that I hadn't noticed before.

  5. Coils is fun and engaging; I like it. Not sure I have much at all to add to your review, Josh, except a few random comments and a silly what-if:

    1. The opening scene reminds me of This Immortal in that we have the protagonist's companion questioning him about who he really is, and our protagonist being evasive (for different reasons, obviously; not sure it amounts to much more than that). But then . . .

    2. Chris K.: In This Immortal, Conrad's woman is also taken away from him, or so he's told -- by an earthquake -- and though he doesn't spend the book searching for her (since he thinks she's dead), it affects most of his motivations and actions throughout the story, until fate (or auctorial fiat) returns her. I'm not trying to make too much of a connection -- I just think it's an interesting parallel.

    3. Josh, you wondered about the point of the segment with Catlum; me too. I really wish there'd been a follow-up, though, because Catlum is an interesting character! No idea if the character was created by Zelazny or Saberhagen or both. Too bad they didn't develop him, or preferably give him a story of his own.

    4. Did Zelazny quit smoking while he was working on Coils? This is the only Z story I can think of where a character actually quits smoking (as opposed to smoking like a chimney throughout, or not at all).

    5. OK, putting on my tattered, neglected old fanboy cap, here's what Zelazny and Saberhagen SHOULD have written:

    BERSERKER vs. AMBER!!!!!!!

    Those arrogant Amberites are always traveling from one shadow world to another, and often enough Zelazny mentioned that the stars were different here or there, in this shadow or that -- so the rest of the universe was OUT THERE, eh? Despite the fact that the Amberites showed no interest in it. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Zelazny ever mentioning an Amber space program . . .) Would've served them right if a fleet of Berserker planet-busters had suddenly descended on Amber and the Courts of Chaos. Now, THAT would've been some awesome space opera.

    --Chris DeVito

  6. Chris K: It's certainly the better of the two collaborations with Saberhagen. It's a good sf novel.

    I think I recall some commentary in the "And call me Roger" section, where they lament that the collaboration went *too* easily. I really think the book is a smooth melding of both their styles. It's not great literature, but it's a really fun with some very memorable characters.

  7. Re: Crossovers. I would have really liked to see a Dilvish/Jack of Shadows crossover, as long as we're talking gonzo hypotheticals.

  8. I'm over a year late to this conversation, but I just finished Coils, so I figured I'd chime in.

    First of all, I'd like to agree with you on a few points, Josh: 1) Yes, the book drags in the middle, unfortunately; 2) Willy Boy was wonderful; 3) Chapter 12 (the one where Ann is killed by Willy Boy) was FANTASTIC. Might have been my favorite part of the book, actually.

    But the thing I found most interesting about this book was Saberhagen's voice. And by that, I mean, I didn't even notice Saberhagen's voice. I've never read any of his stuff before, so I don't know what he's *supposed* to sound like, but if someone had handed me this book and told me it was written solely by Roger Zelazny, I never would have questioned it. Whereas, with Deus Irae, every time we switched over to one of Dick's sections it felt like I was getting punched in the face.

    That's not to say that I dislike Dick's writing; it was just such a drastic, noticeable change from Zelazny's. I imagine if I really tried to look for the parts in Coils that didn't sound like Zelazny I could probably find some of them, but without actively searching, I didn't even notice. And that was kind of awesome.

    Speaking of Saberhagen--is there a book of his you'd recommend for someone who might be interested in checking out his work?

    Oh, and Chris (K): Funny that you should mention "Mana From Heaven" here. I had a similar thought while I was reading Coils, and because of it, I half-expected Cora to be another person with paranormal powers, like Dancer (wasn't that her name?) in "Mana."

    1. Zach: Chapter 12 (the one where Ann is killed by Willy Boy) was FANTASTIC. Might have been my favorite part of the book, actually.

      I remember reading in essay Zelazny wrote where he said that after reading Clive Barker's BOOKS OF BLOOD that when he got to the end of each story that if he were writing it, he would start from the striking image and work his way backwards to get there, and that chapter was so well put together that I wouldn't be surprise if this is the method he employed to get it.

      Zach: But the thing I found most interesting about this book was Saberhagen's voice. And by that, I mean, I didn't even notice Saberhagen's voice. I've never read any of his stuff before, so I don't know what he's *supposed* to sound like, but if someone had handed me this book and told me it was written solely by Roger Zelazny, I never would have questioned it. Whereas, with Deus Irae, every time we switched over to one of Dick's sections it felt like I was getting punched in the face.

      I gotta agree with this.

      Zach: Speaking of Saberhagen--is there a book of his you'd recommend for someone who might be interested in checking out his work?

      I'm partial to his Berserker stuff. I mentioned it a little bit when I talked about ITSELF SURPRISED, the Zelazny-penned Berserker story over here:

      He wrote that series for decades, and the tone of each book can vary radically, from straight up military SF to puzzle story to character study.

      I'm not as into his fantasy stuff, but I enjoyed the various Books of Swords when I read them. I haven't read beyond the first trilogy.

      I read one of his Dracula books, but I couldn't really get into it. That was ages ago, though, so perhaps that's more a reflection of my tastes at the time than of the quality of the book.

  9. The reason you don't hear Saberhagen's voice in COILS is because of the way this novel was written. Zelazny wrote a brief outline, Saberhagen wrote a detailed outline, and then Zelazny wrote the full and final version. So that means that all the words are Zelazny's unless some phrases from Saberhagen's outline survived intact. In contrast, with DEUS IRAE, Zelazny and Dick alternated writing sections without revising each other's work, and the original manuscript showed the alternating type faces of Dick's versus Zelazny's typewriters.

    I own Zelazny's original hand-written outline of COILS. He then typed it, probably revised it a bit, and gave it to Saberhagen. After deciphering his scrawl on the original version, we published it in NINE BLACK DOVES, Volume 5 of THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ROGER ZELAZNY. So if you want to see how Zelazny's original idea differs from the final novel, read it there.


    1. I'm actually somewhat pleased that I started my Zelazny blogging before I had the full set of THE COLLECTED STORIES, simply because they are such a definitive work. If I had all of them when I started here, I don't know if I would have been moved to write about Zelazny, because Dr. Kovacs and his fellows got there first and did it better.

  10. I was a big fan of the Berserker stories back in the '70s, when I was a teenager. Recently I reread a few of the stories and found them underwhelming, to say the least -- first Saberhagan would tell us how fearsome and devastating the Berserkers were, and then some Berserker would easily be defeated via some trick or gimmick. In one story a Berserker is defeated when some kind of alien monkey-dog beats it at checkers. The Golden Age of sf is 13 . . .

    1. If I recall correctly, that story with the alien monkey-dog was the very first Berserker story. I hated that one. It was opaque, it was hard to follow and not nearly as clever as he thought it was.

      My favorite Berserker story, though, is the one where this guy is playing a wargame with his ex when there is this Berserker on the loose. She has this mental block where she can't bring herself to exploit a strong position against him. She beats him and he realizes that the Berserker must be in the control room with her. So he rounds up the Security team and they go to confront the Berserker. It ambushes them but gets nailed by a bunch of drones set to blast anything that moved faster than a human could.

      If you'll forgive a digression, I thought that my girlfriend (and later wife) suffered from that same flaw until we played our first game of Magic the Gathering together. I gave her my white/red wall/direct damage to play in the big multi-player game, figuring that I'd get rid of everybody else and she'd be easy meat at that point. So I get rid of everybody else and Jen is like, "Okay, I fireball you for 23...and fork it! Whee!"