Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Engine at Heartspring's Center

I'm not sure if I want to do another Croyd Crenson post, so while I chew over that, I'll put up this review of The Engine at Heartspring's Center.

The Engine at Heartspring's Center
is one of those stories that keeps slipping away from me. I look at my list of stories I haven't reviewed, and I think "What a great title! Which one is that again?" and then I check it out and say, "Oh. Right. The one with the Bork. Why can I never remember that?"

Probably because I first encountered it in The Last Defender of Camelot Collection, which also features a story called Halfjack, which  also opens on a beach and features a half-human character named Halfjack, which is a much better name than the Bork, and there are some concepts are so similar in how I visualize them that I always mix up the two stories. (Also, "Bork" is close enough to "Borshin" that I also think of the creature of that name from Jack of Shadows.)

I can't think of a single Zelazny book or story where he had a weak opening paragraph, and the first lines of Engine are characteristically great.

Let me tell you of the creature called the Bork. It was born in the heart of a dying sun. It was cast forth upon this day from the river of past/future as a piece of time pollution. It was fashioned of mud and aluminum, plastic and some evolutionary distillate of seawater. It had spun dangling from the umbilical of circumstance till, severed by its will, it had fallen a lifetime or so later, coming to rest on the shoals of a world where things go to die. It was a piece of a man in a place by the sea near a resort grown less fashionable since it had become a euthanasia colony.

Choose any of the above and you may be right.

The story opens on the Bork walking on the beach of the euthanasia planet, poking things with its stick. He runs into a woman fleeing two men and rescues her.

"What is the matter?" he asked, his voice smooth, deep, faintly musical.

"They want to take me," she said,


"I do not wish to go."

"Oh. You are not ready?"

"No, I am not ready."

"Then it is but a simple matter. A misunderstanding."

He turned toward the two.

"There had been a misunderstanding," he said. "She is not ready."

"This is not your affair, Bork," the man replied. "The Center has made its determination."

"Then it will have to reexamine it. She says that she is not ready."

"Go about your business, Bork."

The man advanced. The machine followed.

The Bork raised his hands, one of flesh, the others of other things.

"No," he said.

"Get out of the way," the man said. "You are interfering."

Slowly, the Bork moved toward them. The lights in the machine began to blink. Its skirts fell. With a sizzling sound it dropped to the sand and lay unmoving. The man halted, drew back a pace.

The thing that I like about that scene is how they address him, "This is not your affair, Bork," "Go about your business, Bork." as if he were an animal or just an unthinking machine.

I think it was a better story back in the day. Most Zelazny stories age quite well and certainly don't seem like they were written at any specific time, but I think this one is an exception to some extent. Even in the era of Raymond Chandler, the double cross by the pretty girl wasn't unknown, but now it seems to be the norm. Modern audiences are more savvy about these kind of things and when reading the story for the first time, I couldn't help but think that the big surprise would be if she were anything but a mole.

It's still an engaging read, and the dialogue crackles with the characteristic Zelaznian flare.

"Charles Eliot Borkman," she called.

That name again.

He halted once more, tracing lattices with his stick, poking out a design in the sand.

Then, "Why did you say that?" he asked.

"It is your name, isn't it?"

"No," he said. "That man died in deep space when a liner was jumped to the wrong coordinates, coming out too near a star gone nova."

"He was a hero. He gave half his body to the burning, preparing an escape boat for the others. And he survived."

"Perhaps a few pieces of him did. No more."

"It was an assassination attempt, wasn't it?"

"Who knows? Yesterday's politics are not worth the paper wasted on its promises, its threats."

"He wasn't Just a politician. He was a statesman, a humanitarian. One of the very few to retire with more people loving him than hating him."

He made a chuckling noise.

"You are most gracious. But if that is the case, then the minority still had the final say. I personally think he was something of a thug. I am pleased, though, to hear that you have switched to the past tense."

"They patched you up so well that you could last forever. Because you deserved the best."

"Perhaps I already have lasted forever. What do you want of me?"

"You came here to die and you changed your mind—"

"Not exactly. I've just never composed it in a fashion acceptable under the terms of Item Seven. To be at peace—"

"And neither have I. But I lack your ability to impress this fact on the Center."

The euthanasia centers make me think of the Ethical Suicide Parlors in Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House. The woman, Nora is eventually moved by the Bork's decency and humanity and her ruse becomes the truth. She had been dispatched to bring him in, but takes her own life instead.

The ending hearkens back to the beginning.

Let me tell you of the creature called the Bork. It was born in the heart of a dying star. It was a piece of a man and pieces of many other things. If the things went wrong, the man-piece shut them down and repaired them. If he went wrong, they shut him down and repaired him. It was so skillfully fashioned that it might have lasted forever. But if part of it should die the other pieces need not cease to function, for it could still contrive to carry on the motions the total creature had once performed. It is a thing in a place by the sea that walks beside the water, poking with its forked, metallic stick at the other things the waves have tossed. The human piece, or a piece of the human piece, is dead.

Choose any of the above.

It's a pretty good story. I think my biggest problem is that The Man Who Loved the Faioli examines similar themes of love and loss in a much more compelling way. It's not a bad story by any means; merely one overshadowed by its older brother.


  1. This is another of those short Zelazny pieces that I seem to like more each time I read it. It kind of sneaks up on you. -- Chris DeVito

  2. final paragraph is still so sad and chilling!