Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Eye of Cat

Today's Roger Zelazny commentary will be even more meandering than most.

Eye of Cat is the story of a Navajo man, William Blackhorse Singer, who is filled with such malaise that he no longer wishes to live.

After reading Eye of Cat, I understand exactly how he feels.

It reminds me of a tale from a website I used to read regularly, Fametracker's Fame Audit.

Once upon a time, a friend of mine named David was living at the home of parents of another friend of ours, for the summer, because he was living in Toronto, because he was working at a huge theme park called Canada's Wonderland, because he was singing and dancing in a musical revue called "Hot Hits." And so he spent that summer singing and dancing and sleeping and eating and hanging out at the home of parents of another friend of ours, at which also lived the grandmother of the other friend of ours, who was Hungarian and known as Oma. And Oma wasn't quite clear on exactly what David was doing at the house, or what a "Hot Hit" is, or who David even was exactly, and why he kept sitting on the couch watching TV and eating yogurt. So one day she came into the living room while he was sitting on the couch watching TV and eating yogurt and asked, in her high-pitched, Hungarian-accented voice, to no one in particular, and with a philosophical clarity and succinctness that would have done Sartre proud:

"Why is David?"

I always thought that was a clever bit of writing, and now I ask the question:

"Why is Eye of Cat?"

Okay, that was a bit harsh. The truth of the matter is that I don't really care much about Eye of Cat one way or the other. It's fine. The cover art is neat. I would file it away with Today we Choose Faces as one of the works for which I bear neither animus nor affection, if people would just shut up about it.

Confession: I don't like Joss Wedon's Firefly. Not that I think it's terrible; it's just your basic middle of the road sci-fi show, but its pedigree and the circumstances of its cancellation have elevated it to the status of sacred martyr and the wailing and gnashing of teeth that began when it was yanked in 2002 have not even begun to subside. I was largely indifferent to it at first and slowly grew to dislike it every time somebody mentioned it as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. I feel the same way about Eye of Cat.

Eye of Cat
is not terrible, like A Farce to be Reckoned With. It's not brilliant, like Lord of Light. It's just kind of there. And yet, Zelazny devotes an essay in Frost & Fire to the techniques used in the story.

I'm capable of making the distinction between something that I don't like and something I think is really and truly objectively bad. I do think that Eye of Cat does fall into the former category. I find it difficult to put my finger on why I don't like this story. Part of it is that it strikes me as over-hyped, as I encountered Zelazny's essay (Constructing a Science Fiction Novel) on how awesome the book was before I read the book itself, and I was let down when I did finally get a hold of a copy.

There were certainly good elements to it. Billy seems like a cool cat (no pun intended). I like the way Zelazny describes his outfit:

He  wears  a  blue  velveteen  shirt  hanging out  over his jeans, a wide concha belt securing it at  his waist.  A heavy squash  blossom  necklace  -  a  very  old  one -  hangs down upon his breast. High about his neck is  a slender  strand of turquoise heiche. He has a silver bracelet on his left wrist, studded  with  random  chunks  of  turquoise  and  coral. The buttons  of  his  shirt  are  hammered  dimes from  the early twentieth century. His long hair is bound with a strip of red cloth.

That's really pretty cool. I think it's the dimes that make me love it.

I was listening to the audio book and the bird whistles during Zelazny's opening narration really add an additional element to it. He pronounces coyotes  "kigh-ho-tays" whereas I always say "kigh-yo-tees". I'm sure his pronunciation is correct, but I'm so accustomed to hearing it the wrong way that the right way sounds funny to me.

The narrative is interspersed with various "myth interludes". One of them includes this passage: "But this also was a place of suffering, of misery, a thing Coyote discovered as he went  to and fro in the world and up and down it."

The same phrase appears almost verbatim in The Changing Land. (When asked of what he would do with the power in Castle Timeless, the man identifying himself as Weleand says "...I would go up and down in the world and to and fro in it, putting down injustices and rewarding virtue...")

A little research shows me that it's from Job 1:7.

And Jehovah said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered Jehovah, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

That's interesting. I don't think I've ever encountered the phrase other than in these two works. I know that Zelazny was raised Catholic, but had stopped identifying as a member of any organized religion by the time of his death. I don't think it's coincidence that such a specific phrase appears twice (though I suppose it's possible that it is, as in any large body of work, you'll eventually have similar phrases appearing), but I have no idea what it might signify. It might even be as simple as the fact that he liked the sound of it.

On my first read-through, I didn't like how heavily emphasized Billy's heritage was. I kind of snarked about this kind of thing when I covered Lord Demon, where I observed that I have Asian friends who sometimes get through entire conversations without mentioning Sun-Tzu or Confucius. It just seemed that Billy didn't have any traits that weren't wrapped up in him being a Navajo.

On reflection, though, I think it's a particularly clever bit of story-telling. Billy is lost. He's looking for his place in this modern world, and not finding it, he reverts to the identity held in his youth.

For instance, I liked this,

"You  are  an  expert  on the  pursuit and capture of exotic life forms.  You spent most of your life doing it. You practically  stocked the Interstellar Life Institute single-handed, You -"

 Billy waved his hand.

"Enough," he said. "The alien you are talking about is an intelligent  being. I  spent much  of my life tracking animals - exotic  ones,  to  be  sure,  some  very  crafty  and  with tricky behavior  patterns  -  but  animals  nevertheless,  not creatures capable of elaborate planning."

Billy reminded me of Joseph Makatozi is Louis L'Amour's Last of the Breed. Like Billy, Makatozi is an American Indian who has received advanced training in the modern world, but when he is shot down over Russia during the Cold War, he eschews that training and falls back on the lessons of his youth to escape his captors and survive the bitter Siberian winter. With both characters, the man who fits into civilization is simply a veneer, and I think that could possibly be offensive if not handled well, but both writers execute it quite deftly.

I found Makatozi a lot more appealing than Billy, not in the least because Billy is afflicted with such ennui, and that's a hard trait to sell if you want people interested in your protagonist, no matter how talented a writer you are.

Anyway, William Blackhorse Singer is called out of retirement to help protect an alien ambassador. To do so, he frees an alien he had captured, the eponymous "Cat" of the title. Cat's price for its assistance is Billy's life. Since Billy wasn't really using it for anything anyway, he agrees.

This plan always makes me think of a scene in the movie version of NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind. The movie has a complicated plot, but the gist of it is that one thousand years ago, human civilization was all but wiped out in the Seven Days of Fire by the God Warriors, huge bio-engineered monsters. The plot is set in motion when one of the big empires unearths a God Warrior embryo at an archeological dig.

At the point in the movie where this scene takes place, NausicaƤ's people have a tenuous alliance with the people who invaded their village, because if they can't stop an approaching herd of Ohmu, then everyone there is going to die. The Ohmu are hundred-ton pillbugs, the biological equivalent of the Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back and their herd numbers in the thousands.

In order to stop the stampede, the invaders roll out the newborn God Warrior, whose growth they forceably accelerated so they could use it as a living weapon. We never get an exact head count for the number of God Warriors it took to extinguish humanity, but I get the impression that there were fewer than twenty of them. They move by bending space around them and fire radiotoxic lasers (I'm told the Japanese words used for the beams in the comic are 'poison light'). They are these horrifying, uncontrollable monsters. I love this plan because it's a swallowing-the-spider-to-catch-the-fly solution that's going to cause more problems than it solves, and the whole time they're doing it they've got this attitude like "Relax, we've got this covered."

For such a long review, I'm not really doing a huge amount of talking about the book. To return to the actual commentary, Billy's bargain with Cat strikes me as a similar thing.  It's not like Billy is oblivious to the danger Cat represents, but he really just doesn't care if he lives or dies, so he makes the deal. Cat stops the assassin, and then begins hunting Billy, who gains the assistance of a group of human psychics along the way. That's pretty much the whole story.  (If you're playing the Roger Zelany Drinking Game at home, "arroyo" only shows up four times. I'm rather amazed.)

Here's an excerpt that touches on some on what I think are the problems with the story:

"If  you  want  to  call  it that,"  he replied.  "He's gone around  the  bend.  He's...  somewhere  else.  His mind is running everything through a filter of primitive symbolism. I can't understand him, and  I'm sure  he can't  understand me. He thinks he's deep under the  earth, traveling  along some ancient path."

"He is,"  Ironbear  said. "He is walking the way of the shaman."

Fisher snorted.

"What do you know about it?"

"Enough  to  understand  some," he  answered. "I  got interested  in Indian  things again  when my father died. I even remembered some stuff I'd forgotten for a long time.  For all of his education and  travels, Singer  doesn't think  in completely modern terms. In fact, he doesn't  even think  like a modern Indian. He grew up in almost the last possible period and place where  someone could  live in  something close  to a neolithic environment. So he's been to the  stars. A part of him's  always been  back in  those crazy canyons. And  he was a shaman - a real one - once. He set out several days  ago to go back  to that  part of himself, intentionally, because he thought it might help him. Now it's got hold of him, after all those years of repression,  and  it's coming  back  with a vengeance. That's  what I  think. I've  been reading  tapes on the  Navajos  ever  since  I  learned  about him,  in all of my spare moments here.  They're a lot different  from  other Indians, even from their neighbors. But they do  have certain things  in  common  with  the rest  of us  - and  the shaman's journey often  goes underground when things are really tough."

I bolded the part that I think is important. In the essay I referenced above, Zelazny mentions how the Navajo created their own words for parts of an internal combustion engine rather than adopting the English words for them. The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny has an account of how much research he did for this book, and it seems like he just didn't want any of it to go to waste, and I think that's the core of my dislike for the book.

It's fairly well known among Zelazny fans that he wrote a short vignette having nothing to do with the story for his major characters, just as a way to give the character life beyond his immediate circumstances. These set pieces were just for his personal reference and enlightenment and only one of them was every published (Dismal Light, a Francis Sandow story). I always admired that restraint, but it seemed to go out the window here. And I don't want to be one of those Zelazny fans who rag on his later works (Donnerjack happens to be one of my very favorites, for instance), but I think that in he had reigned in his enthusiasm for the topic of the Navajo, I would have found it more appealing. Eye of Cat is unique in its relation to me in that it's the only time Zelazny's excitement for something failed to infect me.

I'll try to end on a positive note, so I'll say that I really enjoyed the poem that ended the book, especially the last three stanzas.

Coyote call across the darkness bar...
I have eaten myself and grown strong.
There is beauty all around me.
Before me, behind me, to the right
and to the left of me,
corn pollen and rainbow.
The white medicine lifts me in his hand.

The dancer at the heart of all things
turns like a dust-devil before me.
My lightning-bead is shattered.
I have spoken my own laws.

My only enemy, my self, reborn,
is also the dancer.
My trail, my mind, is filled with stars
in the great wheel of their turning
toward springtime. Stars.
I come like the rain with the wind
and all growing things.
The white medicine lifts me in his hand.
Here at lost Lukachakai I say this:
The hunting never ends.
The way is beauty.
The medicine is strong.
The ghost train doesn't stop here
anymore. I am the hunter
in the eye of the hunted. If I call
they will come to me
out of Darkness Mountain.


  1. Gotta flat out disagree with you. Eye of Cat was as good as anything Zelazny ever wrote, short of Lord of Light. Also, Firefly was every bit as good as the hype. I shudder to think what you consider good science fiction, if Firefly is "middle of the road" in your estimation. Please, for the love of sanity, don't say Stargate.

  2. Can you expand on that and lay out what you liked about either Firefly or Eye of Cat?

    I think with Firefly, Whedon realized what he set out to do, but which resulted in a creation that had little appeal for me. Conversely, for Eye of Cat, I don't think Zelazny managed to accomplish what he set out to do.

  3. I'm not the person who posted the comment above. Like you, I have mixed feelings about this book.

    I found Eye of Cat to be too short. And each time I read it, I wonder why we're being introduced to the set of telepaths whose role seems so superfluous to the novel and are practically forgotten about. And I'm always surprised by how quickly the first task is completed such that Cat is already chasing Billy before the novel is really underway. But having said that, the book does contain some of Zelazny's characteristic great writing and a very interesting set of main characters. So I can't disagree with people who love the book as one of his best, nor can I disagree with people who hate the book as one of his worst. It has its brilliant aspects and its flaws, and I still look forward to re-reading it yet again.

    But what do you think about the ending? Is Billy dead or alive? I change my mind each time I read it. It's a sort of Schrodinger's Cat moment and your perception on the outcome may depend upon your mood when you reach that point in the book.

    Chris Kovacs

  4. I'm also not the person who wrote the first comment (though I can understand why he was peeved -- I think parts of this review border on the snotty, which is uncharacteristic of your commentaries, JJ).

    One of these days I'll write lots more about Eye of Cat, but for now I'll address Chris Kovacs' question about the ending: Is Billy dead or alive?

    My feelings are exactly the same as yours, CK -- uncertainty: sometimes I lean toward life, other times death. And I think it's pretty clear that that's exactly how Zelazny wanted it. Singer had won the war with himself in that he was whole, at peace, and happy -- happy enough to draw a smiley face on the wall using his own blood (I love that image). Ironbear's reaction tells us all we need to know:

    ... And then [Ironbear] saw him, propped against a wall near a corner of the ruin. At first Ironbear could not tell whether he was breathing, though his eyes were open and directed to his right.
    Moving nearer, he saw the pictograph Singer himself had drawn on the wall with his own blood. It was a large circle, containing a pair of dots, side by side, about a third of the way down its diameter. Lower, beneath these, was an upward-curving arc.
    Inhaling the moment, Ironbear shook his head at what was rare, at what was powerful. Like the buffalo, it probably would not last. A life's gamble. But just now, just this instant, before he advanced and broke the feeling's spell, there was something. Like the buffalo. [end excerpt]

    I think that's a powerful enough ending that anything further would detract from it. I guess you can look for clues, especially in the poem that closes the book -- for example, "I have followed the trail of my life and met myself at its end" always pushes me toward the death hypothesis -- but again my mood at the moment influences my interpretation -- "I have eaten myself and grown strong ... My only enemy, my self, reborn" pushes me back toward life. I think I like it both ways.

    --Chris DeVito

  5. My Zelazny collection can't compare with Chris Kovacs' (I doubt I'll ever be able to afford a first edition of Lord of Light or Nine Princes in Amber!), but I did recently acquire an autographed first edition of Eye of Cat, thanks to the kindly indulgence of my very understanding wife. It's a "presentation copy" to Zelazny's editor. Zelazny wrote:

    To Dave Hartwell --
    -- Roger Zelazny
    -- Thanks for the righthand
    margins --

    I think the style is much of the substance of this book, and the ragged-right typesetting is part of that. JJ, in your review, you seem irritated that the book is so highly regarded -- but though it got some positive reviews when it was published, it didn't actually do very well. It wasn't nominated for any awards. Even many of the positive notices the book got had a backhanded ring to them -- "Zelazny is back," that kind of thing. After Eye of Cat Zelazny seems to have spent the rest of the decade mostly cranking out the second five Amber novels.

    I guess I shouldn't read too much into it, but comparing my own "best of Zelazny" list with those published in the last volume of the collected stories, the consensus seems to be that the early 1980s to ca. '90 was a very uninspired period for Zelazny -- a handful of good short pieces, the Amber novels (ka-ching), and some dubious collaborations.

    Anyway I'm rambling here and I don't want to emphasize a fallow period in Zelazny's career -- artists should be judged by their best work, and Zelazny left us a lot of that. But I most certainly put Eye of Cat with his best work.

    What the heck, since I already posted my favorite short fiction, here's a baker's dozen of my favorite Zelazny novels:

    • This Immortal (Ace, July 1966 [pb])
    • The Dream Master (Ace, 1966 [pb])
    • Lord of Light (Doubleday, 1967 [hc])
    • Damnation Alley (Putman, 1969 [hc])
    • Creatures of Light and Darkness (Doubleday, 1969 [hc])
    • Isle of the Dead (Ace, 1969 [pb])
    • Nine Princes in Amber (Doubleday, 1970 [hc])
    • Jack of Shadows (Walker & Co., 1971 [hc])
    • Doorways in the Sand (Harper & Row, Mar. 1976 [hc])
    • Roadmarks (Ballantine Books/Del Rey, Oct. 1979 [hc])
    • Eye of Cat (Underwood/Miller, 1982 [hc]; Timescape, 1982 [hc])
    • A Night in the Lonesome October (William Morrow/Avon Books [AvoNova], Aug. 1993 [hc]) with illustrations by Gahan Wilson
    • Wilderness (Forge, 1994 [hc, pb]) with Gerald Hausman (Zelazny wrote Chs. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18 [“Glass”]; and Ch. 15)

    --Chris DeVito

  6. I also picked up some of the signed Zelazny books that Dave Hartwell had owned. I was surprised to see him selling them, but I didn't mind because I wanted them. Eventually I'll have to plan for the problem of what to do with the collection after I'm done with it: donate it to a library/archive? sell it? It will be a shame for it to be dispersed after putting it together in the first place, so I'd rather know that it's going to remain intact.

    I like that list of yours and don't disagree with any of it -- except that I might take Damnation Alley out and put Today We Choose Faces in its place. To me they're about equally enjoyable.

    Chris Kovacs

  7. I have to add that I'm puzzled that you (Chris DeVito) put The Dream Master among your favorites, because didn't you describe it earlier as a novel that you hated? You actively dislike it but reread it frequently?

    Chris Kovacs

  8. Yeah, it's a Jekyl/Hyde thing -- I have a real love/hate relationship with He Who Shapes/The Dream Master. I can't in good conscience keep it off a list of Zelazny's best works, much as it rankles me. Whereas I give Damnation Alley a bit of a boost because I like it so much. Hey, cut me some slack -- it's all subjective!

    I've also got a funny thing with Nine Princes in Amber. I first read it in 1975, when I was 14. I loved it -- probably reread it half a dozen times within a few years. But I haven't read it in something like 30 years now (though I still have that paperback I bought in '75). Now I'm kind of afraid to. I'd like to reread the first five Amber novels, then read the second five (I've never read those) -- but I'm sort of afraid that if Nine Princes isn't what I remember, it'll sour me on the whole series. Well, I guess that's a personal problem -- one of these days I'll just suck it up, dive in, and see where it goes.

    --Chris DeVito

  9. Nine Princes in Amber has held up for me each time. But I deliberately resist re-reading it more often than every three or four years because I don't want it to get too familiar or memorized. I cheated a couple of years ago by listening to the unabridged recordings of Zelazny reading the first five books.

    Chris Kovacs

  10. Like I said, I haven't read the book in 30 years or somesuch -- I may have cracked it open now and again between moves, but the book spent most of the last three decades in a box. But I remember the first line as:

    It was beginning to end, after what seemed like most of eternity to me.

    I remember the scene where Corwin is riding in a car (a passenger, if I remember correctly) as they start to travel through the shadow worlds. And when, as a prisoner, he's supposed to crown the new guy, but he puts the crown on his own head and proclaims himself king. And then he gets his eyes burned out. Blew my teenage mind.

    --Chris DeVito

  11. Wow, I get sick for a weekend and the Chrises take over!

    There may be something to what you say about my tone in the review. And looking back a couple months later, I do kind of regret it. It comes across a bit nastier than I intended, and I think I would dial back some of the snark if I were redoing it.