Friday, March 18, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Mana from heaven

Phoenix, phoenix, burning bright

Even though the title says Roger Zelazny Book Review, this is a review of the short story and not Scott Zrubek's collection of a similar name. I just called it a book review to keep things standardized.  I was indifferent to this story the first time I read it, and I slowly grew to dislike it more and more. It doesn't help that it seems to find itself in the mix every time somebody puts together a collection of Zelazny's stories. (The same can be said of The Furies and Corrida, but I give them each a pass, because The Furies is good and at least Corrida is short.)

If I may digress for a moment, part of the problem with modern fantasy and sci-fi is that earlier creators didn't have a roadmap, so necessity forced them draw on many different resources. I'll use George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien as examples. George Lucas was inspired by Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell and Tolkien drew on his own experience as a linguist and a soldier in the trenches of the Great War, as well as a large number of real world myths. 

Most modern fantasy authors aren't reaching that far back for inspiration; they're emulating Lord of the Rings itself and all the little details that made LotR great are lost, like a hundredth generation photocopy.

And that's what this feels like. It has all the elements of a Zelazny story, but it never feels like one.  It reads like something I would have written in high school, when I thought the trappings of mythology and a smart-mouthed tough guy were all I needed to write the next Chronicles of Amber.

Pheonix is a superhuman threatened by another of his kind. He doesn't know who he can trust, so he goes around and talks to a bunch of his peers in turn...blahblahblah. He's Corwin, but boring. I certainly didn't originate the concept of a Zelazny archetype built around a few core traits (though I've certainly referenced it often enough) , but it seems like Phoenix is nothing but a collection of those traits.

I think a big part of the problem is that Larry Niven said "Come play in my playground" and invited a bunch of writers to write stories in his "Warlock Universe", and it's possible the story reads better as part of an anthology. Meaning that it doesn't really stand out on its own, but it might get away with the just the superficial aspects of Zelazny's style when compared to a number of different authors each of whom has his or her own manner of writing. No sense in trying something risky and experimental for an audience who may not be familiar with your works. I haven't read the anthology, so I don't know how it works in that context. Taken alone, it's a pretty weak Zelazny story, but it's possible that it might be a good Warlock story.

Though taking someone else's setting and writing a story in your own style has its own kind of appeal. It reminds me a of a thread on the Straight Dope message board, "What if the Lord of the Rings had been written by someone else?" There are at least two Zelazny versions of LotR there.

Trumps of Khjazad-Dum (I love that title) describes a fight between Merlin and the Balrog of Moria and  Nine Rings in Mordor casts Aragorn in the mold of Corwin. The full versions of each story are at the respective links.


It was quite a battle. The balrog was big, and it was nasty. It reminded me of Dad's old friend Sigmund, who used to tell me that if I didn't deal with my family issues, some big nasty monster would come up and bite me on the ass. Which it was presently doing.

On this particular shadow, they call me Gandalf, or sometimes Mithrandir, or sometimes Olorin. Which is close enough to the truth, anyway. This isn't my favorite place to be, it's no club med, but Random needed help, something about a ring that one of my uncles made. Once again, I should have paid attention to all those things that Dworkin used to talk about.




The hot ashes dropping from my pipe jerked me back to wakefullness and I swore quietly to avoid waking the hobbits sharing the room with me. One of them, I think it was the one they called Merry, stirred briefly but settled back down again. Good. They had questions that I hadn't thought of answers for yet.


The most amusing bit about the story is that Mana from Heaven later appeared in the Manna from Heaven. This isn't a typo; I think it's the Collected Stories that points out that this is a rather subtle pun. That doesn't stop me from hoping for a deluxe Mannna from Heaven collection in a couple of years.

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