Thursday, January 20, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Come Back to the Killing Ground Alice, My Love

"I had forgotten," he said softly "that you are the magician who slew the phantom tiger."

"I didn't really kill him," Kalifriki said. "He's still out there somewhere. I just came to terms with him. Storytellers don't know everything.

Sometimes I think that I'd like to see someone pull a Kilgore Trout (the pen name used by Philip José Farmer
when he was writing actual versions of the fictional books mentioned in Kurt Vonnegut's stories) and and write the stories about the spectral tigers or the Moonriders out of Ghenesh, or the tale of how One in Red went up against the power of the Seven Lords of Komlat in the land of the witches, (all the stories that Zelazny alluded to, but never told) but then I remember that Zelazny was insistant against allowing other authors to play with his creations, and the only authors I can think who could have done these stories justice are his friends who loved and respected him too much to do so.

Zelazny sequels make me happy. His imagination was so impossibly fertile that he seldom needed to return to old worlds, opting to create something completely new instead.  I am certain that had Zelazny lived longer, we would have seen more Kalifriki stories. I don't know where they would have appeared, as the magazine model was already fading when he passed, but I'm confident that Kalifriki would have found a path.

For today's installement of my Roger Zelazny Book Reviews, I'm looking at "Come Back to the Killing Ground Alice, my Love". It's the second and final Kalifriki story and it opens with a reference to Casablanca, "All the death-traps in the galaxy, and she has to walk into mine" and that segment concludes with "Play it again, Alices...". I don't know what meaning to ascribe to the references. The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny, probably the most comprehensive look at Zelazny's works, simply notes that the lines are from Casablanca, one of Zelazny's favorite movies. It may very well be that there is no deeper meaning than that, and he just used the quote because it could be made to fit the story and it was an engaging way of drawing the reader in.

Kalifriki, the hero of the previous story, is somewhere in Greece when a woman named Alice calls upon him for his services. He's a master of the Thread, which surrounds the universe in its nth-dimensional way, and allows Kalifriki to perform all manner of tricks in his chosen role, that of a very special type of troubleshooter. (Which usually, but not always translates to assassin)

I like that Alice comes to Kalifriki with a plan. She's thought it through, and even though he chooses not to employ the methods she lays out, he seems to respect them as valid. His has resources that she does not, but never once does she strike me as a damsel in distress. I like Alice, scarred, blue-eyed, ("She fixed him with her blue gaze and he felt the familiar chill of the nearness of death"), stone cold. Even though the resolution of the story puts her actions in a different light, I never stop liking her.

She's a clone whose short life is built into her design, in the form of a poison sac at the base of her brain. (This safeguard was disabled by her head wound) I think Blade Runner and Berserker did this better, with Blade Runner simply designing the Replicants with limited lifespans and Berserker setting up field agents with a hypnotic "death dream" whereby they could will themselves to death in circumstances where capture is inevitable. Yes, yes, it's one of Josh's picayune complaints about an exceedingly trivial aspect of the story, and I've already spent more time complaining here about it than they spent talking about it. Anyway, it's a small point, and purely subjective and just about the only thing I didn't like in an otherwise pitch perfect fable, but it felt needlessly complicated and out of place in the story. (I do really like the story, and I think finding exceedingly trivial things to bitch about is half the fun of being a fan. I mean, it's not like it's a trait limited to science fiction fans.)

Kalifriki accepts the mission and they begin their journey. When Kalifriki brings a second singularity into the subspace, the AI notices something odd, but observes "Is it that I am running faster? It would be hard to tell if my spin state were affected." That reminded me of a smackdown I saw posted online somewhere or other, "What's sad is his total lack of understanding of theoretical physics. Max Planck is spinning in his grave. Whether it is spin up or spin down is for someone else to determine." Nerd humor always tickles me.

He makes the distinction between a self-sustaining, programmed accretion disc and a black hole. (And it didn't occur to me until now that that must be what the cover art from Manna from Heaven is depicting. I thought it was just some generic spacescape.) Lesser writers sometimes make the big new technology like radiation in the 1950s. Nanotech is to the 2000s is what radiation was to the 1950s, some magical force that gives you superpowers/allows ants to grow to 50 feet/whatever. I don't think these kind of stories are going to age well. It reduces science to Magic! Zelazny's take on new technologies were always plausible, for lack of a better word. I don't think a superstring will ever be employed in the same way Kalifriki uses it, but Zelazny takes enough care in crafting the story that I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. (Though I'm a chemist and not a physicist, and for all I know, the physics in the story gives those guys fits.)

I kind of like not knowing the whole deal with Kalifriki.  When I was a young kid, I loved big roster books for licensed games. I'm thinking of TSR's Marvel Superhero game. They sold these Gamer's Handbook to the Marvel Universe pre-holed-punched and set up for inclusion in a binder, each of them nothing but stats and histories for all the characters. I loved it. I loved it more than the source material. I loved knowing every little secret and having the exact capabilities of my favorite characters measured out for me.

I'm still somewhat analytical in my thinking, but there are some areas where I'm content not knowing everything going on behind the scenes. (Coincidentally, this shift in my thinking came around the time I saw Highlander 2, which taught me that a bad answers can be so much worse than not knowing.)

"Who are you really?" she asked him. "You know too much. More than the culture of this world contains."

"My story is not part of the bargain," he said.

I mentioned before that something I like about Zelazny is that his creations seem part of a larger world and not things that springs forth simply to populate a story.

Anyway, we have some lovely and evocative set pieces in Ubar and elsewhere as Kalifriki gathers what he will need and we get a plot twist right out of Raymond Chandler near the end, and if the story doesn't have a happy ending, it has an enormously satisfying one. It had been a while since I had read this story, and I had forgotten how it resolved. When I got to the end, I started over and reread it in its entirety, and reading the story with foreknowledge of where it was heading was like getting two fables for the price of one.

(Also, if Chris K is reading this, please check out the lively debate in the Damnation Alley comments. We have need of your expertise.)


  1. Kalifriki became much more interesting and "cool" with this story and the implied backstory. Zelazny wrote that Kalifriki, like a real person, had continued to bother him over his morning coffee, arguing with him until this story was written. And I think he'd intended to write another because Kalifriki still hadn't let Zelazny go. I wish he had written it. I really like that character.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. Yeah, me too. The stories seemed quantitatively different from his other work. I used the word "fable" to describe them and that seems somehow apt.

  3. Errr....qualitatively different rather. They just seemed to have something of a Gothic faerie tale about them.

  4. Coincidentally, this shift in my thinking came around the time I saw Highlander 2, which taught me that a bad answers can be so much worse than not knowing.

    This should be the guiding principle of poetry. All we wanted was another soundtrack by Queen and more lightsaber battles. Who knew Jar Jar was the least of George Lucas's transgressions.

    Let the darkened (or hazy) corners of an authors imagination remain unexplored. "Here there be dragons" is so much more deeply moving than "next exit, McDonalds and midichlorians."

    1. As you can see it is late and I must put the swype down before i risk further self humiliation. Just wanted to say thanks again for all these reviews that allow me to think more about and see how others think about Zelazny's work.

  5. I always thought the most interesting line in the story comes from Kalifriki and goes something like "Its because we are all aliens right?". This goes unanswered but makes a big difference I believe.