Thursday, February 24, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Angel, Dark Angel

Another review with SPOILERS:

Today's Roger Zelazny review is the story Angel, Dark Angel. The thing that sticks with me is the story of how the story came about.

Yet another variation on the way stories come into being. Back when Fred Pohl was editing Galaxy, Worlds of Tomorrow and Worlds of If magazines he used to encourage artists by buying pieces they painted to use as covers. These days, the contents of a magazine tend to come first, the cover subsequently commissioned to illustrate something within. But I can't complain about the old order of things, which paid a number of bills. Fred would send a reproduction of such a cover to a writer and request a story to go behind it. One of my better short stories, The Man Who Loved the Faioli, came about in such a fashion. (Also, my absolute worst, but never mind) This one showed an extended, black-gloved hand, a strange little creature with a near-human face standing on the palm.

I always imagine the Simule looking like the little slimes from the Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest series of video games.
The salvation of the human race, baby

We get a more detailed description later in the story,  (Stain studied the tiny, six-legged creature, with its disquietingly near-human face. Near. Yet not quite. It was unmarked by the physical conversions of those abstract passion-producers men call good and evil, which show in some form upon every human countenance. Its ears were large, doubtless for purposes of eavesdropping, and its two antennae quivered upon its hairless head and it raised a frail limb as if to shake hands), which shows that my initial impression was rather inaccurate and yet that's how I still see it.

I would imagine that the cover is featured in the Ides of Octember, so I should probably just break down and buy it already.

I like the story. It's vintage early Zelazny, where he presents a world and explores it. In the distant future, mankind has stagnated under the guidance of Morgenguard,, the supercomputer which took fifteen years to build, and its executioners, the Angels of Death. If Morgenguard determines that an individual must die to preserve society, then an Angel is dispatched to do the deed.

What is an Angel of Death, you ask?

The Angel of Death is, at any given moment, any one of ten thousand anonymous individuals whose bodies bear the mark of Morgenguard, after this fashion: Selected before birth because of a genetic heritage that includes heightened perception and rapid reflexes, certain individuals of the homo sapiens variety are given a deadly powerful education under force-fed conditions. This compensates for its brevity. At age fourteen, they may or may not accept employment in the service of Morgenguard, the city-sized machine created by the mutual efforts of all civilized peoples over a period of fifteen years and empowered to manage their worlds for them. Should any decline, these individuals generally proceed to excel in their chosen professions. Should they accept, a two-year period of specialized training follows. At the end of this time, their bodies have built into them an arsenal of weapons and numerous protective devices and their reflexes have been surgically and chemically stimulated to a point of thoughtlike rapidity.

They work an eight-hour day, five days a week, with two daily coffee breaks and an hour for lunch. They receive two vacations a year and they work for fourteen years and are retired on full salary at age thirty, when their reflexes begin to slow. At any given moment, there are always at least ten thousand on duty.

On any given workday, they stand in the transport cubicles in Shadowhall in Morgenguard, receive instructions, are transported to the worlds and into the presence of the individuals who have become superfluous, dispatch these individuals and depart.

He is the Angel of Death. Life lasts long, save for him; populations would rise up like tidal waves and inundate worlds, save for him; criminals would require trials and sentencing, save for him; and of course history might reflect unnecessary twistings and turnings, save for the Angel of Death.

One dark form might walk the streets of a city and leave that city empty of life at its back. Coming in lightning and departing in thunder, no world is foreign, no face unfamiliar, and the wearer of the black gauntlets is legend, folklore and myth; for, to a hundred billion people, he is but one being with a single personality.

All of which is true. Quite, quite true. And the Dark Angel cannot die. 

Should the near-impossible occur, should some being with speed and intrepidity be standing accidentally armed at the moment his name on the roll yonder and up is being shouted, then the remains of the stricken Dark Angel vanish as, with a simultaneous lightning-and-thunder effect, another takes his place, rising, as it were, out of ashes.

The few times that this has occurred, the second has always finished the job.

I don't like having such long passages in my reviews of short works, but that was all so great that I couldn't find anything to cut. I especially like the detail about the two coffee breaks. I can't help but imagine that Angels of Death clocking in at an old-fashioned time clock at the beginning of their shift.

A retired Angel, Stain, is asked by Morgenguard to take up his gauntlets for a special mission. He accepts, and the narrative shifts to Galatea, "who has red hair and stands to slightly over five and a half feet in height. Her eyes are green and her complexion pale, and men call her lovely but generally avoid her company."

They meet up and hit it off and wind up competing in the Cyborg Open Mixed Doubles tennis matches. It just seems absolutely incongruous with the rest of the setting, but maybe that's why I like it, for its whimsy.

Galatea has a fresco depicting human thought in her apartment and she explains it when Stain asks about it. It depicts John Locke, Einstein, Homer, Virgil, Dante and Da Vinci, with five empty spots at the end, empty because civilization has become stagnant under Morgenguard, with everything now "planned, prescribed, directed", and no ill coming of it but no real progress either. That is why she developed the Simule, creatures who share a mass mind who wish only to learn and instruct.  For this she earned a visit from the Angel of Death.

But as she was a retired Angel herself, her body's implanted defenses turned back the charge and slew the Angels dispatched to kill her. This was hinted at, earlier in the story, and I can't remember if I saw the twist coming the first time I read it.  But Stain loves her and can't bring himself to harm her, and departs, requesting  an audience with Morgenguard upon his return. Once there, he turns the power of his gauntlets against himself, resulting in a perpetual chain reaction which destroys the computer and will give Simule time to grow.

This is another story which grew on me. It seems like such a straightforward tale on its surface, and I was familiar enough with Zelazny at the time to see the influence of his time at the SSA on his writing. But there's more to it than the simple theme of "bureaucracy enforcing conformity" that I first saw in it.  Maybe that's the core of it, but since it's told on such a grand scale and presented in such a compelling way that they combine to infuse a straightforward plot with a universal relevance.


  1. This story is in my top ten of Zelazny's short works. I suspect I have more than ten in my top ten.

    Yeah, you should get THE IDES OF OCTEMBER already! That cover is there along with all the others...

    Chris Kovacs

  2. Ah, but the trick is convincing my wife that there exists a book about Roger Zelazny that I don't already own in some form.

  3. There's a low-rez color repro of the Galaxy cover on the isfdb site:

    Click the thumbnail for a larger image.

    Love the cover almost as much as the story -- I keep the issue on display on my Zelazny shelf.

    I think the little guy bears a remarkable resemblance to the NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown.


  4. Thanks for the link! (My guy is way cuter, though.)

  5. Seriously, the resemblance to Jeffrey Brown (PBS NewsHour) is uncanny -- check it out. Not the Spock ears or antennae, of course, but the eyes and mouth. Eerie.


  6. I wasn't familiar with the man, so I finally found an image, and WOW, you weren't kidding!

  7. Freaks me out every time I watch the NewsHour.