Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Lord of the Fantastic

Since I'm running out of books and stories by Zelazny himself, I'm going to look at something a little different today.  Lord of the Fantastic was a tribute to Roger Zelazny, collecting a number of stories and personal reminisces from the people who wrote them. The stories are all "inspired by" Zelazny, and Wikipeidia calls it a festschrift, or an anthology that memorializes someone's art, usually written by colleagues. I liked it more for the remembrances than for the stories, though some of them were pretty good. The thing it reminded me of the most was a wake, where those assembled tell stories about the good times they shared with the departed, and thereby keep him alive in their memories for a little while longer.

I guess I was in the mood to write this review because of the conversation going on over in the post about the Locus Awards. I write this blog in part as a tribute to Roger Zelazny, and Chris said that similar factors went into the creation of The Collected Stories.

The book opens with an introduction by Fred Saberhagen, who unfortunately did not also a contribute a story to the collection.

The first story is "Lethe" by Walter Jon Williams.

I can clearly see the Zelaznian touches in the story. The story opens with a man named Davout, whose body is being broken down by nanorobots and whose mind is being uploaded in preparation for later reconstitution elsewhere. The narration suggests that this is in no way an unusual procedure, but rather just the way things are now.

He awakens on Earth and learns that there was an accident and that all hands were lost, among them his partner Katrin. The story goes on and we learn that Davout and Katrin had sibs, or slightly modified clones of themselves. (We have Fair Katrin, Dark Katrin, Red Katrin, Davout the Conquerer, Old Davout, and Davout the Silent) Sibs would upload their experiences to be shared with their sibs.

I like how the people in this culture supplement their spoken communication with mudras. It's a neat detail and makes this society seem more alien.

I like it. Davout remembers how he met Katrin:

On their first meeting, attending a lecture (Dolphus on "Reinventing the Humboldt Sea") at the College of Mystery, they looked at each other and knew, as if angels had whispered into their ears, that there was now one less mystery in the world, that each served as an answer to another, that each fitted neatly into a hollow that the other had perceived in his or her soul, dropping into place as neatly as a butter-smooth piece in a finely made teak puzzle - or, considering their interests, as easily as a carbolic functional group nested into place on an indole ring.

They started a relationship and formed a partnership, but their interests covered many disciplines, they cloned themselves so each set could collaborate on one area of study. I thought that was a nifty detail.

Davout is talking with one of Dark Katrin's sibs, Red Katrin, about the possibility of getting ownership of the downloads of her mind that Dark Katrin had made. I had two thoughts about this. 1.) The whole thing reminds me of Isle of the Dead and 2.) This exchange,

"Recent court decisions are not in your favor."

"I'm very persistent. And I'm cash-rich."

sounds like something Sandow would have said.

Also, gratuitous green eyes!

she signed, and turned on him a knowing green-eyed look.

It features a lot of what I like about Zelazny's work, the examination of what possible advances in human achievement will do to the human condition.

...I remember experiencing the download of a master sitting zazan once, and it was an experience of a similar cast."

"It may have been the exact same sensation." Sourly, "He may have just copied the zen master's experiences and slotted it into his brain. That's how most of the vampires do it - award themselves the joy they haven't earned.'

"That's a Calvinist point of view..."

Red Katrin observes, "...I can't help but think that surely after a person is a century old, any problems that remains are her fault," which is another line that could come from any number of Zelazny's characters.

Davout is not adjusting well, and he wonders if he should subject himself to the Lethe procedure of the title, something advocated by Silent Davout, which will replace his memories with facts, and remove the emotional connection.

Later, I will go mad, he sometimes thought. It seemed something he choose, as if he were a character in an Elizabethan drama who turns to the audience  to announce that he will be mad now, and then in the next scene is found gnawing bones dug out of the family sepulcher.

I like that bit, because it seems like it's there as an homage to Zelazny, whose degree was in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

I like it. It's a nice story and a nice tribute.

"The Story Roger Never Told" by Jack Williamson

In this story, a young Roger Zelazny is mistaken for an agent of an alien race, specifically, agent 850-28-3294, and I have to wonder if that is someone's Social Security number.

This story didn't really work for me, but again, the remembrance was nice.

"The Somehow Not Yet Dead" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Isle of the Dead presented a universe in which godlike terraformers reshape worlds to their clients' bidding. In Nina Kiriki Hoffman's tale of ghosts and science, a new player takes a hand in the process.

The intro above implies that this is set in the Isle universe. I don't know that this is the case, while there are certainly similar concepts at work, I didn't notice anything specific tying it to that setting, and Sandow was the only human world-shaper. Still, there is nothing preventing it and this could be set after Isle and Italbar.

It's neat though. The main character is trying to adapt humans to life on a life an alien planet. He tests the adaptations on himself first before propogating them to the rest of the colonists. The last time however, he went too far, and when he tried to eat the alien peaches, they killed him. He was buried three days ago. Then why is up and about, walking and talking? That's the question that drives the story.

It's nice. It's another almost-Zelazny story, and any number of passages would fit in seamlessly with his work

"Hi, Dreen," I said, I stooped, picked up a fallen peach, brushed green-tan dirt off of it, and bit. My mouth filled with an array of flavors and textures - mango, persimmon, peach ice cream, cinnamon applesauce; firm juicy flesh inside an envelope of fuzzy skin. The faint fizzy aftertaste of an intoxicant. "Oh god. You can't believe how good this tastes, Cranston."

I like the resolution to the story, too, that death and incubation in the soil of the world are the final stages in adapting to it.

"Calling Pittsburgh" by Steven Brust

Ah, Stephen Brust. When I make requests for authors like Roger Zelazny, the names that come up most often are Stephen Brust and Neil Gaiman. I like Gaiman, but Brust's work never clicked with me. It's close enough to Zelazny's stuff in some ways that the areas where it's different just make it into something I'm not interesting in reading. And he was apparently a good friend to Zelazny and seems like a decent fellow. I just don't like his stories. (Not that I dislike them especially either, though.)  I suppose he'll have to console himself by reading letters from his millions of fans while sitting in his hot tub full of champagne.

The concept is neat. There is a very high stakes card game going on, with entire cities being wagered. I also liked the note at the end from Brust, where he recounts Zelazny's sage advice that his short stories are simply the last chapters of novels he hasn't written. (This always reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's fifth rule of writing: Start as close to the end as possible)

That's as far as my notes go, so I'll return with part two in another day or two.

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