Friday, December 17, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Unicorn Variation

I think it was a good five years since I last read Unicorn Variations Unicorn Variation (I am informed that the collection is plural but the story is singular) and I remembered not really liking it. Like A Rose for Ecclesiastes, I recalled it as another well-crafted story that I happened not to enjoy. As with Rose, I could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into its construction, and I found the concept behind it interesting, but it just didn't engage me on the visceral level that so many of Zelazny's other stories had.

But on rereading it for this review, I found that I liked it much more than I remembered! I don't know if I had changed in the interim or if I had simply fixated on some trivial aspect of the story and that came to color my recollection. Either way, it was like I was reading it for the first time!

My favorite part is still the account of its genesis.

This story came into being in a somewhat atypical fashion. The first movement in its direction occurred when Gardner Dozois phoned me one evening and asked whether I'd ever done a short story involving a unicorn. I said that I had not. He explained then that he and Jack Dann were putting together a reprint anthology of unicorn stories, and he suggested that I write one and sell it somewhere and then sell them reprint rights to it. Two sales. Nice. I told him that I'd think about it.

Later, I was asked by another anthologist whether I'd ever done a story set in a barroom—and if so, he's like it for a reprint collection he was doing. I allowed that I hadn't. A week or so after that, I attended a wine tasting with the redoubtable George R. R. Martin, and during the course of the evening I decided to mention the prospective collections in case he had ever done a unicorn story or a barroom story. He hadn't either, but he reminded me that Fred Saberhagen was putting together a reprint collection of stories involving chess games (Pawn to Infinity). "Why don't you," he said, "write a story involving a unicorn and a chess games, set it in a barroom and sell it to everybody?" We chuckled and sipped...

There is just something in the sheer whimsy of it that appeals to me. I am imagining Zelazny with the same twinkle in his eyes at this suggestion that Sam must have had when he filled the Pray-O-Mats with slugs.

Also, the opening lines are among Zelazny's most memorable.

A bizarrerie of fires, cunabulum of light, it moved with a deft, almost dainty deliberation, phasing into and out of existence like a storm-shot piece of evening; or perhaps the darkness between the flares was more akin to its truest nature—swirl of black ashes assembled in prancing cadence to the lowing note of desert wind down the arroyo behind buildings as empty yet filled as the pages of unread books or stillnesses between the notes of a song.

If you need me, I'll be checking my thesaurus. Also, we get "arroyo" out of the way in the first paragraph. Take a drink!

The creature described above encounters our protagonist Martin, who is reenacting one of his better chess games in a bar in a ghost town.  He finishes his game, resets the boards, gets up for a beer and finds that an unseen force has started another game by moving a pawn. He engages the force in chess match and later in conversation and learns that it is a unicorn named Tlingel.

Tlingel is here, visiting from "the morning land", for something of a sneak preview. You see, mankind has disrupted the evolutionary process to the extent whenever a natural species dies out, a mythical one takes its place.Tlingel has foreseen mankind's upcoming extinction and and he's here to see the tourist attractions, and maybe help that extinction thing along.

Since Tlingel likes chess so much, Martin proposes a wager,

"Possibly. What's another game worth to you?"

Tlingel made a chuckling noise.

"Let me guess: You are going to say that if you beat me you want my promise not to lay my will upon the weakest link in mankind's existence and shatter it."

"Of course."

"And what do I get for winning?"

"The pleasure of the game. That's what you want, isn't it?"

"The terms sound a little lopsided."

"Not if you are going to win anyway. You keep insisting that you will."

"All right. Set up the board."

Tlingel is kind of a dick, but he's fun to read.

"I think we'll make it," Martin said suddenly, "if you'll just let us alone. We do learn from our mistakes, in time."

"Mythical beings do not exactly exist in time. Your world is a special case."

"Don't you people ever make mistakes?"

"Whenever we do they're sort of poetic."

And things progress from there. I can't imagine why I didn't like this story the first time around. It's breezy. It's fun. I used to do mad libs as a kid, and it just seems like this story is the result of such a thing. Man challenges (Mythological creature) to a (sport or game) in a (type of building) with (very important thing) at stake!  (Though I do think the actual story of how it came about to be even cooler.)

I'm not going to cover the ending. Either you've read it, in which case my recap would be pointless or you haven't, in which case I'll be spoiling a good story. I will say that I imagine everyone present breaking into an impromptu band performance, one on guitar, another on drums, all of them just rocking out as the credits roll. It just seems to fit.

I've always enjoyed "making-of" featurettes on DVDs, the little behind-the-scenes look at the conception and executions of various elements in a movie. That's a big part of the appeal for The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny for me. It's great having all of his short work in one place, but more than that, the behind the scene stuff is wonderful and serves to supplement the material in some very significant ways.  I started my grown up life as a chemist, and even though I didn't work very much professionally along those lines, the mindset never leaves you. I love seeing how things work. How they're put together.

Along those lines, Zelazny includes an afterpiece to the story, explaining the circumstances of the game described in the story. It's a small thing, but I used to be into chess as a kid (making it even more baffling that I didn't like this story right off the bat) and it's neat to have a word from the author at the end. I can understand why some people might not like it in that it takes them out of the world that was just created, but I love it. It feels like it's just Roger and me and he's taking me aside and telling me the secrets of the story in a conspiratorial whisper.


  1. A small nitpick: the story is Unicorn Variation (singular) and the collection is Unicorn Variations (plural).

    Chris Kovacs

  2. Thanks. Title edited to reflect that.