Monday, June 27, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Concerto for Siren and Serotonin

There's Been a Lull in my Zelazny book reviews lately, but here's another, at long last.

Concerto for Siren and Serotonin
is the third Croyd Crenson Wild Cards story.  I'll touch briefly on the second one, Ashes to Ashes before looking at Concerto.

On reading the title, I couldn't help but think of Merlin's "Concerto for Cuisinart and Microwave" spell in Knight of Shadows.

Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper (first story here) wound up being one of the more popular characters in the Wild Cards shared world, to the extent that the Wild Cards website features a Croydwatch cataloging his appearances. Someone on a message board I frequent pointed out what should have been obvious. Croyd is popular because he can be plugged into any story, because he can exist in any time frame, and he can have whatever appearance the author prefers and whatever powers the plot requires. Even though there is a reference to Croyd in almost every book in the series, Zelazny himself only wrote four Sleeper stories, The Sleeper, Ashes to Ashes, the multi-part Concerto for Siren and Serotonin and The Long Sleep.

Ashes to Ashes
was pretty terrible. I would be very much surprised if it came into being any other way than Martin asking Zelazny for a Wild Cards story and Zelazny hammering this one out as fast as he could type it. It's got a few clever bits (like Croyd checking his "cash cache" upon rising, or the bit where he inadvertently uses his power to impart hypnotic suggestions through speech alone.)

"Just what the hell is going on here?"

Croyd turned and beheld a uniformed officer who had just crossed to their island.

"Go fuck yourself!" he snarled.

The man began unbuckling his belt.

"Stop! Cancel that," Croyd said. "Buckle up. Forget you saw us and go walk up another street."

It reminded me of the similar bit in Preacher, though it came a full ten years earlier.

I also liked the exchange between Kid Dinosaur and Croyd. KD is a prepubescent Ace with the power to turn into dinosaur of the same mass as his normal form. He's skipping school to follow Croyd around.

 "Hey, how come you're not in school?" Croyd asked.

"School sucks."

"Now, wait a minute. I had to quit school in ninth grade and I never got to go back. I always regretted it."

"Why? You're doing okay."

"There's all that stuff I missed. I wish I hadn't."

"Like what?"

 "Well. .. Algebra. I never learned algebra."

"What the fuck good's algebra?"

"I don't know and I never will, because I didn't learn it. I sometimes look at people on the street and say, `Gee, I'll bet they all know algebra,' and it makes me feel kind of inferior."

The story as a whole is pretty weak, though, and all the swearing seemed gratuitous. I mean, my commentary here is peppered with all sorts of profanity, so it's not like it's something that bothers me, but it does feel out of place in an Roger Zelazny story.

is much better. The Croyd with the faceted eyes is the iconic representation of the character.

Hey kids! Stay in school!

It's a funny format. The story is divided into eight chapters woven throughout the book.


We open with Croyd waiting for someone who is hiring Aces. He meets a man named Mazzucchelli, who wants Croyd for something more than mere muscle.

"With that understanding, I want to hire you. It's a little more subtle than breaking heads, though. And it isn't any sort of simple burglary either."

"I've done lots of odd things," Croyd said, "and lots of subtle things. Some of them have even been legal."

I like that Mazzucchelli takes Croyd's special circumstances into account:

"When you go to sleep you turn into a different person, right?"


"Well, if that happens before the job is done, that new guy's still got a contract with me."

"So long as he gets paid."

"We understand each other."

He flirts with Water Lily, his waitress and comes across as kind of a dick.


The chapter opens with Croyd following James Spector, aka Demise, an Ace who can kill people by making eye contact with them.

"Yo, Demise!" the man called. "I need to talk to you!" Demise stared, trying to place him. But there was nothing familiar about the man, not even his voice.

The man came up and stood before him, smiling. "I just need a minute or two of your time," he said. "It's important. I'm in a big hurry and I'm trying for a certain measure of subtlety. It isn't easy."

"Do I know you?" Demise asked him.

"We've met. In other lives, so to speak. My lives, that is. Also, I believe you might once have done some accounting for my brother-in-law's company, over in Jersey. Croyd's the name. "

"What do you want?"

"I need the name of the head of the new mob that's trying to take over operations from the kindly
old Mafia, which has run this town for half a century or so."

"You're kidding," Demise said, taking a final drag on his cigarette, dropping it and moving his toe to grind it.

Croyd is kind of a brutal moron, but I think that's a feature, not a bug, because I think that's how fourteen year-old boy with a drug addiction and super powers would go about solving his problems. He strong arms Demise, who gives him the little information that he has after some rough persuasion by Croyd.


Croyd enters the Jokertown Clinic asking to be put to sleep. Finn, the centuar doctor assists him

"I don't know how much of this is in the file," Croyd told him, "but I've a terrible fear of going to sleep-"

"Yes, there is something about your paranoia. Perhaps some counseling-"

Croyd punched a hole in the wall.

"It's not paranoia," he said, "not if the danger is real. I could die during my next hibernation. I could wake up as the most disgusting joker you can imagine, with a normal sleepcycle. Then I'd be stuck that way. It's only paranoia if the fear is groundless, isn't it?"

"Well," Dr. Finn said, " I suppose we could call it that if the fear is a really big thing, even if it is justified. I don't know. I'm not a psychiatrist. But I also saw in the file that you tend to take amphetamines to keep from falling asleep for as long as you can. You must know that that's going to add a big chemical boost to whatever paranoia is already present."

Croyd was running his finger around the inside of the hole he had punched in the wall, rubbing away loose pieces of plaster.

Dr. Finn helps him get to sleep and that ends the chapter.


Croyd wakes a super strong albino.

Artist's depiction

He follows up on his clues and arrives at Club Dead Nicholas. I couldn't help but think that this is how investigations usually go in role-playing games and Mike Hammer novels, a little bit of investigation, but mostly smashing heads until somebody gives you the name of the next man in the organization.

Zelazny's observations enrich the story: Croyd rode the elevator to Aces High, regretting the absence of a power of flight on such a perfect spring evening.

He hooks up with a woman named Veronica and then goes on to investigate Danny Mao in much the same fashion he conducted the earlier investigation. Specifically, he beats people up until they tell him what he wants to know. At one point he rips the nose off of some guy there and ends the chapter telling him to "keep your nose clean."

Croyd's kind of a jerk


Croyd continues his investigation, such as it is, arranging an appointment with the next name on the list, St. John Latham.

"Who is the head of this new family? That's all I want to know."


"Perhaps someone wishes to arrange a meeting with that person."

"Interesting," Latham said. "You wish to retain me to arrange such a meeting."

"No, I only want to know who the person in charge is."

"Quid-pro-quo," Latham observed. "What are you offering for this?"

"I am prepared to save you," Croyd said, "some very large bills from orthopedic surgeons and physiotherapists. You lawyers know all about such matters, don't you?"

Latham smiled a totally artificial smile. "Kill me and you're a dead man, hurt me and you're a dead man, threaten me and you're a dead man. Your little trick with the stone means nothing. There are aces with fancier powers than that on call. Now, was that a threat you just made?"

Croyd smiled back. " I will die before too long, Mr. Latham, to be born again in a completely different form. I am not going to kill you. But supposing I were to cause you to talk, to stop the pain, and supposing that later your friends were to put out a contract on the man you see before you. It wouldn't matter. He would no longer exist. I am a series of biological ephemera."

"You are the Sleeper."


"I see. And if I give you this information, what do you think will happen to me?"

"Nothing. Who's to know?"

Latham sighed. "You place me in an extremely awkward position."

"That was my intention,-Croyd glanced at his watch, "and I'm on a tight schedule. I should have begun beating the shit out of you about a minute and a half ago, but I'm trying to be a nice guy about this. What should we do, counselor?"

Latham gives him the name, and Croyd calls Veronica to tell her that he thinks he's almost done, and they can take some time off together, but she's really sick.

While Croyd is walking home there, he is attacked by a guy with some knives, this coming almost simultaneous with a drive by. Croyd overpowers the attacker and and makes lemonade out of his lemons.

Croyd moved forward and stuffed the man he held into the car. He did not fit through the window easily, but Croyd pushed hard and he went in nevertheless, losing only a few pieces along the way. His final screams were mixed with the roar of the engine as the car jumped forward and raced off.

He goes to collect his payment, and gives them the name he was hired to find. I like how the chapter ends.

The expected question followed: Where could she be found?

"This I do not know," Croyd replied. "Chris asked me for a name, not for an address. You want to hire me to get that for you, too, I suppose I could do it, though it would be cheaper to use your own talent."

This drew some surly responses, and Croyd shrugged, said goodnight, and walked out, stepping up his pace to the blur level as the muscle near the door looked about, as if for orders.

It was not until a couple of blocks later that a pair of such street troops caught up and attempted to brace him for a refund. He tore out a sewer grating, stuffed their bodies down through the opening and replaced it, for his final bit of subtlety before closing the books on this one.


He heads back to his apartment, where there is no Veronica, but there is a Bengal tiger, which Croyd smacks with a table, whereupon it turns into an origami tiger.

Then after this, he sees his name in Lights in Times Square, with a message to call Dr. Tachyon. Croyd kind of meanders through town, being attacked by men wearing the face of Senator Hartmann, Croyd questions one of them and when he is not satisfied with the answers, he responds thusly: 

"This is a political statement," Croyd said as he raised the gory Hartmann and tossed him after the others. "See you in November, motherfuckers!"

which made me chuckle.

Croyd sees a number of people in surgical masks and one of them tells him about a new outbreak of the Wild Card virus.  He runs into the joker called Snotman (*sigh*) and tells him his story.


This chapter begins where the previous one ended. Snotman falls ill and eventually passes out, so Croyd finds a place for him to sleep it off. Snotman begins changing as he sleeps, and Croyd realizes that the joker has somehow become reinfected with the Wild Card virus.

Croyd grows more paranoid, a condition that is not helped by the arrival of authorities outside his refuge.


Croyd flees, barely coherent.

He hurled chunks of concrete, broke streetlights, and dashed from alley to doorway. He crouched within parked cars. He watched the choppers go by, listening to the steady phut-phut of their blades. Every now and then he heard parts of appeals over some loudspeaker or other. They were talking to him, lying to him, asking him to turn himself in. He chuckled. That would be the day.

He breaks into a Wild Card museum, tearing open the armored vehicle previously used by the superhero the Turtle and falling asleep within.

The story doesn't work that well as a stand alone work, but it wasn't written as one. As a Wild Cards story and a framing mechanism, I think it's pretty decent. It's by no means great, but it's decent pulpy fun.

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