Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Psychoshop

The abridged story of Psychoshop: Alfred Bester wrote half a novel. Then he died. Then Roger Zelazny wrote half a novel. Then he died. Finally, somebody published both halves. The end!

I like Alfred Bester. The Demolished Man is one of my favorite non-Zelazny SF stories. There's a reason it won the very first Hugo award.

Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

That said, his style is very different from Roger Zelazny's. When I was reviewing Damantion Alley, I said that, for me, when Hell said "squares", it made me think of "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis", but Chris said in the comment section that it made him think of Kerouac and the Beat movement. The Demolished Man is something that makes me think of that era.

To digress for a moment, Al Pacino starred as a Revolutionary War era farmer in a film titled, imaginatively,  Revolution, where made no effort to hide his rather distinctive accent. I haven't seen him in the 2004 Merchant of Venice (where he plays Shylock), but I imagine it's the same deal there, with Pacino channeling Frank Slade from Scent of a Woman: "Hath not a Jew fuckin' eyes?! Hoo-wah!" And he's undoubtedly one of the finest actors of his generation, but he's unmistakably, distractingly Al Pacino, and that's the problem.

There is a similar dynamic at play with Psychoshop. I like Bester's distinctive style. I like Zelazny's distinctive style. However, they really are very different, and Zelazny doesn't even attempt to mesh his style with Bester's when he takes over the writing duties.  It's not even like they're two stories with the same characters. It's like they're different stories with different characters that happen to have the same names. And I can appreciate both sections of the book for what they are, but it's not the same book I was reading ten pages ago and the difference is more than a little jarring, (like, say seeing Al Pacino in 14th century Venice.)

All right. The book itself. There are two things that cause really a visceral revulsion in me. One of them is faces with too many eyes. (I don't mind them on spiders, though, because I like spiders and eight is the right number of eyes for them). The other is brains. I don't know why it is. My mom says I used to freak out if someone even said the word. The sight still unnerves me on a really instinctual level. And I like the cover of a brain in shopping bag, because I think it's a clever way of depicting the theme of the book, but it just gives me the heebie-jeebies.

I really need to get around to buying The Ides of Octember to see if there's an alternate cover.

All right, spoilers ahoy, so if you haven't read the book, please stop reading.


Greg Bear provided the intro, and I think he must have been hungry and listening to Miles Davis when he wrote it.

And then there is the story. Alf Noir is a writer for a bleeding edge magazine and is dispatched to Rome in order to do a story on the "Black Place of the Soul-Changer". I have to wonder about the character's name, because Alf seems like a diminutive for Alfred, which is of course, Bester's first name. It seems a very odd choice. I don't write fiction, but if I did, I don't think that I'd name my protagonist "Josh".

He meets Adam Maser, proprietor of the Psychoshop, and when I read the name, I thought, "Aha!  Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation" and felt briefly kind of smart for knowing what a maser was right off the top of my head, but then it's explained a couple of pages later. Rats!

The first part of the book deals mainly with Adam brokering deals with people. His shop is actually a ship and he's capable of using it to strip away or add aspects to an individual's mind. So you might trade your telepathy for total recall or precognition for assertiveness. It's an interesting concept, and I like that everyone goes away happy, that there are no monkey's paw bargains in the mix.

I kept thinking of Kalifriki as I read it. There were bodies hanging from hooks, clones, singularities and superhuman bounty hunters. But more on that later.

The whole book is overflowing with references. I'm sure I didn't catch them all. (Edgar Allen Poe gets a cameo, which reminded me that I need to wrap up my review of The Black Throne.) I think I'd like an annotated edition, as I've been spoiled by the truly comprehensive references in the Collected Stories.

Bester's chapters were just collections of these vignettes. They were just plain fun to read, and if they didn't really go anywhere, that was a feature, not a bug. I like that someone with the pseudonym Etaoin Shrdlu comes into the shop and Alf immediately makes the connection. I like the random Burma Shave reference.

Zelazny takes over at around chapter four and it's really like starting a second book. The language changes and I really can't say if that change is for better or for worse, but it's a radical shift nonetheless. We also start seeing the plot pull together into story rather than a collection of scenes. I can enjoy each of these on their own merits, but I do think that Zelazny pulled Bester's dangling plot threads together with a very deft touch.

We learn fairly late in the book that Alf is a superhuman bounty hunter who gave himself a post-hypnotic suggestion and a set of fake memories so he could get close to Adam. It gets very convoluted at this point, unnecessarily so, and though it wasn't impossible to follow, it seemed more complicated than it needed to be.

What can I say? I was certainly entertained. Memorable characters, clever concepts, the occasional dash of psychology and philosophy, some nifty action sequences. I like Gomi the Mi-Go. I like Alf tossing up a handful of coins, moving fast enough to catch and repocket all but a quarter and tearing that one in half. But as much as I enjoyed it, Bester's beginning doesn't seem to lead to Zelazny's ending.

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