Thursday, March 24, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: This Mortal Mountain

Welcome back to Josh's Roger Zelazny commentaries. Today I'm looking at This Mortal Mountain, which I always used to confused with This Moment of the Storm. (And then I used to get This Moment of the Storm confused with The Night has 999 Eyes, because the Hell Cops have those patrol eyes, but now I've finally got everything straightened out.)

It's the story of Mad Jack Summers, and his odyssey to climb the Gray Sister, a forty-mile tall mountain whose peak extends beyond the atmosphere. I consider this story to be in the same class of Zelazny stories as A Rose for Ecclesiastes or The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth  in that they're pretty straight SF stories which remind me of a pulpier era of sci-fi.

I really like the language used in the story.

"How does the Gray Sister strike you?"

And I lit one of my own and inhaled, as the flier was buffeted by sudden gusts of something from somewhere and then ignored, and I said, "Like Our Lady of the Abattoir--right between the eyes."

We drank some coffee, and then he asked, "She too big, Whitey?" and I gnashed my teeth through caffeine, for only my friends call me Whitey, my name being Jack Summers and my hair having always been this way, and at the moment I wasn't too certain of whether Henry Lanning qualified for that status--just because he'd known me for twenty years--after going out of his way to find this thing on a world with a thin atmosphere, a lot of rocks, a too-bright sky and a name like LSD pronounced backwards, after George Diesel, who had set foot in the dust and then gone away--smart fellow!

"A forty-mile-high mountain," I finally said, "is not a mountain. It is a world all by itself, which some dumb deity forgot to throw into orbit."

Later on they establish that Jack climbed Everest at 23. I thought Bear Grylls was the youngest person to climb it, and I knew he had done it at 23, but he wasn't the youngest person to climb it, just the youngest Brit.

 (The youngest person to climb it was 13-year-old Jordan Romero It's kind of funny how time marches on, and a feat that was impressive when the story was published is entirely unremarkable now. (As unremarkable as climbing Mount Everest can be, that is.)

Everest is 29,029 feet, or about five and a half miles. The Gray Sister is more than seven times taller. It's probably not possible to climb a mountain that big with the techniques you'd use on a terrestrial mountain even with Diesel's lesser gravitation.   And I know, it's a picayune complaint, along the lines of dismissing Dracula because you don't believe in vampires (though such a response is perfectly valid when confronted with Twilight, however.) And there's something about the willing suspension of disbelief. It's just a central element of the story and happens to rub me the wrong way. That said,  sometimes the genius is not found in the tale, but within its telling, and that's true for me here.

Mountains rising to my right and to my left, mountains at my back, all dark as sin now in the predawn light of a white, white day.  Ahead of me, not a mountain, but an almost gentle slope which kept rising and rising and rising.  Bright stars above me and cold wind past me as I walked.  Straight up, though, no stars, just black.  I wondered for the thousandth time what a mountain weighed.  I always wonder that as I approach one.  No clouds in sight.  No noises but my boot sounds on the turf and the small gravel.  My small goggles flopped around my neck.  My hands were moist within my gloves.

For an instant, I was seized by a crazy acrophobic notion that I was looking down rather than up, and the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands tingled, like an ape's must when, releasing one high branch to seize another, he discovers that there isn't another.

And I immediately thought of Dubhe in Donnerjack, to whom this had happened.

I don't really care what Whitey is doing, but I am interested in why he does it.

"Mountain," I said.  "Mountain, you have told me to go away."

There was a rumble.

"But I cannot," I said, and I took a drink.

"I'm bringing you the best in the business," I said, "to go up on your slopes and to stand beneath the stars in your highest places.  I must do this thing because you are there.  No other reason.  Nothing personal...."

After a time, I said, "That's not true."

"I am a man," I said, "and I need to break mountains to prove that I will not die even though I will die.  I am less than I want to be, Sister, and you can make me more.  So I guess it is personal."

And a little later:

"There is a certain madness involved," I said, "a certain envy of great and powerful natural forces, that some men have.  Each mountain is a deity, you know.  Each is an immortal power.  If you make sacrifices upon its slopes, a mountain may grant you a certain grace, and for a time you will share this power.  Perhaps that is why they call me...."

While climbing the mountain, Whitey and his crew are warned by a possibly supernatural manifestation that they should turn back. I couldn't help but think of the nonsense words at the beginning of ELO's  Fire on High, which if played backwards say "The music is reversible but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back." They persevere and find something entirely unexpected, but fits in very neatly with a reference hidden early in the story.

While I wasn't all that captivated by the literal story, the mountain as a metaphor really works for me. Jack wishes to become more than he is. He climbs the Gray Sister because it's there. That's a universal goal and Zelazny speaks compellingly of it here.


  1. Another of my favorite Zelazny stories. I like rereading this one in its original publication, the March 1967 issue of IF, where it directly follows "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream."


  2. ...though I don't buy the whole "Because it's there" philosophy. I think Zelazny was trying to make it clear that the philosophy is really "Because I feel so small . . . but I'll climb this mountain and then I'll be BIG!" The story's ending shows the limitations of that line of thought. (. . . "Stars?")

    And may the gods help you for being reminded of ELO. My suggestion for a quick remedy is to listen to lots of King Crimson, Iannis Xenakis, and Coltrane in quick succession, and if that isn't enough chase it down with some death-metal of your choice. For sanity's sake, don't let ELO reverberate in your mind for any length of time.


  3. I remember reading a piece by David Sedaris, who suffered from OCD in his youth. He aged out of it, as sometimes happens, but I remember that he described it by saying he didn't want to do things like licking a light switch, but there was nothing worse than the awareness of *not* doing it.

    I think I see a little of that with Jack. I'm seeing it not as a desire to climb that mountain as much as it is being unable to bear living in a universe where he saw the mountain and didn't climb it.

    Also, Coltrane you say? Never heard of him. Are there any books you could recommend?

  4. The Dante references, which Chris Kovacs outlines in his note in the Collected Stories, went right over my head. Next time I read the story I'll have to keep that in mind.

    There are some interesting Coltrane books out there, but you don't really need them -- the music is enough. (As my friend VideoChrist likes to say: "Words are evil; words can kill. Words are the death of music.")


  5. In universe reference to "This Immortal". At one point in that novel Conrad is thinking over things he regrets not doing before he dies. Climbing Kasla, the tallest mountain in the universe is one. Kasla is then mentioned in this story as being the previous holder of the tallest mountain in the universe before the Gray Sister was discovered

    1. That’s glorious! Paging Dr. Kovacs! When can we expect to see the Roger Zelazny concordance from NEFSA?!

    2. Actually it's Kasla in this story and Kasia in THIS IMMORTAL. I wonder if Zelazny misremembered how he spelled it. They're so similar that he must have intended the same name.

    3. I'm looking at an e-text of THIS IMMORTAL right now because I'm traveling, and maybe the e-text is erroneous. I haven't any physical copies of the book at hand.

    4. I just checked my physical copy, because you got me curious. It's "Kasla", in my copy, which is the 1973 Ace Edition,

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