Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Permafrost

This was a hard review to write. I like Permafrost, but not as much as I think it deserves and I can't put my finger on exactly why.

 It's a rather short piece, just over 8,000 words. Permafrost was nominated for the Nebula and took the Hugo for best novelette in 1987. It actually feels more like a short story to me, and it barely made the threshold for the novelette category, defined for the purposes of the Hugo as between 7,500 and 17,500 words

I've commented in other reviews that Zelazny was amazingly adept at painting a a scene with remarkably few strokes. Take this one for example:

She sits in the bar beside a window. The patio outside is gray and angular and drifted with snow; the flowerbeds are filled with dead plants--stiff, flattened, and frozen. She does not mind the view. Far from it. Winter is a season of death and cold, and she likes being reminded of it. She enjoys the prospect of pitting herself against its frigid and very visible fangs. A faint flash of light passes over the patio, followed by a distant roaring sound. She sips her drink and licks her lips and listens to the soft music that fills the air.

She is alone. The bartender and all of the other help here are of the mechanical variety. If anyone other than Paul were to walk in, she would probably scream. They are the only people in the hotel during this long off-season. Except for the sleepers, they are the only people in all of Playpoint.

And Paul . . . He will be along soon to take her to the dining room. There they can summon holo-ghosts to people the other tables, if they wish. She does not wish. She likes being alone with Paul at a time like this, on the eve of a great adventure.

He will tell her his plans over coffee, and perhaps even this afternoon they might obtain the necessary equipment to begin the exploration for that which would put him on his feet again financially, return to him his self-respect. It will of course be dangerous and very rewarding. She finishes her drink, rises, and crosses to the bar for another.

And Paul . . . She had really caught a falling star, a swashbuckler on the way down, a man with a glamorous past just balanced on the brink of ruin. The teetering had already begun when they had met two years before, which had made it even more exciting. Of course, he needed a woman like her to lean upon at such a time. It wasn't just her money. She could never believe the things her late parents had said about him. No, he does care for her. He is strangely vulnerable and dependent.

She wants to turn him back into the man he once must have been, and then of course that man will need her, too. The thing he had been--that is what she needs most of all--a man who can reach up and bat the moon away. He must have been like that long ago.

In just six short paragraphs, he has given us a vivid picture of the setting of Playpoint, two of our main characters and their relationship with each other. That's nothing short of brilliant. 

It's a brief story set on a the bitter off season on a resort planet with a very small cast of characters: The aforementioned Paul, a has-been con man down on his luck, Dorothy, the woman whose point of view we hear in the previous section, Andrew Aldon, the computer overseer of Playpoint, and one other character whom this review will not discuss. I especially like Aldon.

Andrew Aldon, once a man of considerable integrity and resource, had on his deathbed opted for continued existence as a computer program, the enchanted loom of his mind shuttling and weaving thereafter as central processing's judgmental program in the great guardian computerplex at Playpoint.

I can't help but think of Saberhagen's Berserkers, because that's the first place I had encountered AIs that were digital copies of human minds. (Specifically, I'm thinking Nicholas Hawksmoor from Berserker Kill) I was already familiar with Saberhagen and I first read Permafrost in the Frost & Fire collection, which also contains Zelazny's Berserker story, "Itself Surprised", and the confluence just cemented the relationship in my mind.

Paul returns to Playpoint a century after his previous venture. He's hoping to turn his fortunes around now that his current girlfriend can bankroll him. He's not wholly unsympathetic, and he's very slick. Dorothy is much younger, but she gives as good as she gets with her interactions with Paul.

"I note your use of the singular pronoun," she says steadily, meeting his gaze at last.

His smile freezes and fades.

"I was referring to only a little preliminary scouting," he says softly.

"No," she says. "We. Even for a little preliminary scouting."

He sighs and sets down his fork.

"This will have very little to do with anything to come later," he begins. "Things have changed a lot. I'll have to locate a new route. This will just be dull work and no fun."

"I didn't come along for fun," she replies. "We were going to share everything, remember? That includes boredom, danger, and anything else. That was the understanding when I agreed to pay our way."

"I'd a feeling it would come to that," he says, after a moment.

"Come to it? It's always been there. That was our agreement."

I've long admired his economy of style when reading his work, but it seems like this story was just too lean, the resolution too neat. I wanted more. It's by no means a bad story (and people more qualified to judge its merits thought it was the best genre novelette of the year) but something about it just leaves me cold.

As it were.


  1. Zelazny remarked that some of his best stories were simply the final chapters of novels he chose not to write. And I think this may be an example of that. The novel would have told the story in sequence and in greater detail, from the abandonment of the first woman in the first few chapters, through a middle section in which he has fled somewhere else and wrestled with his conscience and demons, to the end section in which he decides to return and see what has happened in that world. And along the way we would have learned a lot more about Playpoint. Instead we have the backstory compressed and given out in little bits as we read and experience only the final chapter, what happens after he returns to Playpoint. I think it is very effective written in that compressed way and that the novel would have not been so compelling. But like you I think the story seemed too short -- or maybe it's just that the story is so compelling that it leaves you wanting more when it is over.

    One critic hated the story, saying it was simply an uninteresting, hackneyed tale of a lover's spat, framed by some allusions to Hemingway. So for at least one person that story didn't even have enough meat to work as a short story.

    24 View of Mt. Fuji is a similar example of the "final chapter of the novel" concept with the prior chapters given out in little bits of backstory that keep you interested. But in the case of 24 Views it was much more fleshed out that Permafrost. And yet if 24 Views had been unrolled and told in sequence as a novel I don't think it would have worked. Zelazny knew what he was doing when he crafted his best short stories.

    Those two stories certainly are effective bookends to the collection called FROST & FIRE.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. I like "Permafrost" for its atmosphere and style. Great imagery -- it's a very visual story, for me. It's a fun, quick read, one of those likeable stories about unlikeable people. The bitch and the bastard deserve each other and Zelazny obviously had fun getting them together.

    Frost & Fire -- I notice that vol. 5 of the collected stories also opens with "Permafrost" and closes with "24 Views."

    For some peculiar reason of piracy or whatever, the full text of "Permafrost" is up, in English, on some Russian website:


    Dunno what that's about.

    --Chris DeVito

  3. This seems an appropriate place to tag this news which I at least am excited/pleased/humbled to report: The last two volumes of THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ROGER ZELAZNY were eligible for this year's Locus Award because they were released in late December 2009. I just received word that Volume 5: NINE BLACK DOVES is one of the five finalists for Best Collection. The awards will be announced at the banquet on June 25 in Seattle.

    Last year the six volumes of THE COLLECTED STORIES were considered as one entity in the Locus poll and finished #2.

    I think having the two Hugo winners in there (Permafrost and 24 Views) probably had something to do with it.

    Chris Kovacs

  4. Hey, that's great news! Congratulations! Here's wishing you luck in June!