Monday, December 6, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: This Moment of the Storm


The latest in my series of Roger Zelazny commentaries.

I was talking to my friend Karen one day about some geeky thing or another when she said, "You should be friends with my brother. He likes that kind of thing."

I was like "Yeah, sure, whatever," because, while I didn't doubt Karen's good intentions, science fiction tends to look homogeneous from the outside, but it really covers an extremely broad range of topics, and the odds of two genre fans having a lot in common are more slim than you might expect.  An example I've given in the past is that the Bible isn't really a single book. It's a collection of books, written by different authors from different eras and different societies, many of whom had conflicting goals. Likewise, sci-fi fandom is isn't a unified whole. Anime, horror movies, video gaming, role-playing and card gaming all fall loosely under the umbrella of sci-fi, and while people within the subculture will get more granular with their distinctions, those outside of it tend not to.

Oh, you're a Star Wars fan? Original trilogy? Special edition? Prequels? Expanded Universe? Clone Wars?

It's like the old Emo Phillips routine:

"I was walking across a bridge one day, and i saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. so i ran over and said "stop! don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?" He said, "Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?" He said, "Reformed baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off."

So I was not all that optimistic about finding something in common with Karen's brother when I finally got around to looking at his blog. I'm somewhat idiosyncratic in my interests even within the subculture. I dislike Firefly for instance, a property almost universally beloved by geeks across the world. My two most recent blog posts were about Roger Zelazny and the Scott Pilgrim movie.

And so were his.

So I guess Karen wasn't completely wrong about this. When I told my wife about it, she said she expected to see my face above his profile picture.

Anyway, in his post, Karen's brother mentioned how the first Zelazny story he read was This Moment of the Storm as part of a class in college. And that's what I'll be looking at today.

When I think of TMotS, I also associate it with college, specifically with a theory to which I was exposed in a criminal justice class, that of anomie. The concept was popularized by Émile Durkheim, and I think it's a great lens for viewing the story. In its essence, it's a feeling that one is in a situation where the norms no longer apply. But more on that a little later.

Let's look at the beginning, which I think is one of the all time great introductions:

Back on Earth, my old philosophy prof--possibly because he'd misplaced his lecture notes--came into the classroom one day and scrutinized his sixteen victims for the space of half a minute.  Satisfied then, that a sufficiently profound tone had been established, he asked:

"What is a man?"

He had known exactly what he was doing.  He'd had an hour and a half to kill, and eleven of the sixteen were coeds (nine of them in liberal arts, and the other two stuck with an Area Requirement).     

One of the other two, who was in the pre-med program, proceeded to provide a strict biological classification.

The prof (McNitt was his name, I suddenly recall) nodded then, and asked: "Is that all?"

And there was his hour and a half.

I learned that Man is a Reasoning Animal, Man is the One Who Laughs, Man is greater than beasts but less than angels, Man is the one who watches himself watching himself doing things he knows are absurd (this from a Comparative Lit gal), Man is the culture-transmitting animal, Man is the spirit which aspires, affirms, loves, the one who uses tools, buries his dead, devises religions, and the one who tries to define himself.  (That last from Paul Schwartz, my roommate--which I thought pretty good, on the spur of the moment. Wonder whatever became of Paul?)

Anyhow, to most of these I say "perhaps" or "partly, but--" or just plain "crap!"  I still think mine was the best, because I had a chance to try it out, on Tierra del Cygnus, Land of the Swan...

I'd said, "Man is the sum total of everything he has done, wishes to do or not to do, and wishes he hadn't done, or hadn't."

I suspect that this either started as a Francis Sandow story or that protagonist Godfrey Holmes was the proto-Sandow.  Both Sandow and Holmes were born a long time ago and spent centuries sleeping the cold sleep aboard slower-than-light ships that take decades or longer to reach their destination as a way of fleeing tragedy.

Godfrey Justin Holmes is a Hell Cop. A Hell Cop (the named is derived from a lingual drift of helicopter) controls a legion of small hovering patrol eyes (I imagine them as floating pinballs or the spheres from Phantasm), each of them with six forty-five caliber eyelashes because Tierra del Cygnus has a large number of nasty indigenous species.

Tierra del Cygnus is a backwater world, and Holmes is a man out of time. Add to that the storm of a century, and I really enjoy Zelazny's look at how we all go a little crazy in a crisis,  "the delirium of city under storm", to borrow a phrase from the story.

As things fall apart and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, Holmes speaks of his alienation:

 Whether it was for five minutes or an hour, I don't really know. I remember telling her, though, about the girl buried on another world, whose death had set me to running.  Two trips to two worlds and I had broken my bond with the times.  But a hundred years of travel do not bring a century of forgetfulness--not when you cheat time with the petite mort of the cold sleep.  Time's vengeance is memory, and though for an age you plunder the eye of seeing and empty the ear of sound, when you awaken your past is still with you.   The worst thing to do then is to return to visit your wife's nameless grave in a changed land, to come back as a stranger to the place you had made your home.  You run again then, and after a time you do forget, some, because a certain amount of actual time must pass for you also. But by then you are alone, all by yourself: completely alone.  That was the first time in my life that I knew the meaning of despair.  I read, I worked, I drank, I whored, but came the morning after and I was always me, by myself.  I jumped from world to world, hoping things would be different, but with each change I was further away from all the things I had known.

To return to the subject of anomie for a moment, it's not just not fitting in society. People, generally, know how they're supposed to act. Even if they are not acting in accordance with the mores of society, they understand what those mores are. Even the most ardent revolutionary tends to rebel against the constructs of society, and is thereby still defined by them. Anomie is more than simple alienation. Society no longer makes sense. And that's what happens with Holmes. The standards of behavior he learned no longer apply. Oh, he can fake it and some things really are universal, but when it comes right down to it, the world moved on when he was sleeping.

As the rains continue, people do things that they wouldn't under normal circumstances, and tragedy strikes. The final passage is beautiful in its melancholy.

Years have passed, I suppose.  I'm not really counting them anymore.  But I think of this thing often: Perhaps there is a Golden Age someplace, a Renaissance for me sometime, a special time somewhere, somewhere but a ticket, a visa, a diary-page away.  I don't know where or when.  Who does?  Where are all the rains of yesterday?

(Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?)

In the invisible city?

Inside me?

It is cold and quiet outside and the horizon is infinity.  There is no sense of movement.

There is no moon, and the stars are very bright, like broken diamonds, all.


  1. re: "I suspect that this either started as a Francis Sandow story or that protagonist Godfrey Holmes was the proto-Sandow."

    No to the first but yes to the second. Zelazny is quoted on this in the second part of the ...AND CALL ME ROGER biography, within the second volume of THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ROGER ZELAZNY, wherein the genesis of the novel ISLE OF THE DEAD is described:

    “This was a spin-off from the novelette I did called ‘This Moment of the Storm.’ Actually, it wasn’t the guy I was interested in, at first. I wanted somebody that was born in the twentieth century, who had made it aboard one of these generation starships where he’d been frozen and spent generations getting to this new planet which proved habitable. By the time he got there, they’d invented a faster-than-light drive, because several centuries had gone by and they’d become more sophisticated. Earth had much higher technology, and he had the means of going back fast if he wanted to, but he didn’t. He wasn’t sure he was happy on the world he’d reached, though, and decided to go out and try a few others, since it was easy to do. There were still time dilation effects and, through making a few sharp investments here and there, with so much time passing, he became quite wealthy. He also happened to become the oldest human in the galaxy, and because of the fancy new medicine he was in very good shape. He also just happened to have been through the initiation ritual which would make him a god in this other religion, even though he didn’t believe in it wholeheartedly. But it was the concept of the big expanse of time that interested me.”

    But "This Moment of the Storm" didn't start as a Francis Sandow story because this story was written in 1965 (published 1966) and he didn't write ISLE OF THE DEAD until 1968 (published 1969). The fact that "This Moment of the Storm" was so well-received and popular (both a Nebula and Hugo finalist in 1967) may have sparked his interest in revisiting that scenario for the novel.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. Ah, very cool! Thanks for the information!

  3. Ahh, it's one of my favorite stories of his. I had no idea it was also popular with others, that's great. The end is extremely beautiful, and I simply love the title so much. I also wondered about connection with Francis Sandow, good to have it clarified.
    Too much freedom and possibilities can also be a bad thing, eh?