Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Sleeper

It's funny that I never got around to commenting on Roger Zelazny's Wild Card stories. I like Roger Zelazny (obviously).  I like super heroes (also obviously). I'm even kindly disposed towards shared world books.

I think part of the problem is that the series occasionally reads like an account of somebody's RPG campaign, perhaps because that's how it got its genesis. Years working in a comic book store have given me an almost visceral revulsion to the words, "Let me tell you about my campaign..."

If you're not familiar with the Wild Cards series, it's a shared world created by George R.R. "Song of Ice and Fire" Martin, originally based on his Superworld RPG campaign, though it grew beyond that. A number of writers contributed characters and stories and subsequent volumes built on the earlier ones. The gist is that in 1946, an alien virus was unleashed that killed 90% of those exposed, transformed 90% of those who survived the initial exposure into hideously mutated Jokers, and made the rest into super-powered Aces.

Zelazny's contribution was Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper. All the best Superheroes have alliterative secret identities. Just ask Clark Kent, Bruce Banner or Peter Parker.

I used to watch Smallville and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in each show, the main character would occasionally whine about his or her lot in life and I would think, "Oh, poor healthy attractive teen with super powers." Croyd has a legitimate grievance. His case is unique and described as something like malaria, in that it periodically re-infects him every time he goes to sleep, (a sleep that can sometimes last for months), and upon awakening, he has new powers and a new appearance.

To digress for a moment, I feel that authors are public figures, but they're entitled to privacy just like anyone else. So I try to keep a respectful distance with these reviews. I don't like to speculate about personal details in an author's life that might have influenced the writing, unless they're a matter of public record (like Zelazny writing Divine Madness and Comes Now the Power during his self-described darkest day, a fact which I think is essential to understanding the stories.)

So I try to refrain from long distance psychoanalysis. However, as soon as I started rereading Sleeper for this review, I immediately thought back to Carl Yoke's fond reminisces of his childhood with Roger Zelazny in the Collected Stories. Croyd begins the story as a fourteen-year-old ninth-grader in 1946, and Zelazny would have been eleven nine years old that year. I can't help but imagine that descriptions of Croyd's class is informed by Zelazny's own. I think that because Zelazny did grow up in that postwar period, he brings an unusual verisimilitude to his depictions of classroom life in that era. When the air raid sirens go off, one character says to the other:

"Do you think the war started again?" Charlotte asked.

"I don't know," Leo said.

I don't think that's an exchange that would have occurred to an author who grew up at another time. I like the kids he wrote in A Dark Traveling and I like the kids he writes here.

Entries about Croyd usually begin with the opening line from the story, which I like for a number of reasons. One, it sets up the premise very quickly. Two, it seems so characteristically Zelaznian that I think that I would have been able to identify the author from that brief excerpt alone.

He was fourteen years old when sleep became his enemy, a dark and terrible thing he learned to fear as others feared death. It was not, however, a matter of neurosis in any of its more mysterious forms. A neurosis generally possesses irrational elements, while his fear proceeded from a specific cause and followed a course as logical as a geometrical theorem.

This is why I love his work. He couldn't resist putting his twist on the Wild Card concept, and it resulted in one of the most enduring characters in that series.

I like how he conveys the weirdness of the initial outbreak:

Croyd saw a man perform a series of dancelike movements, tearing at his clothing. Then he began to change shape. Someone back up the road started howling. There came sounds of breaking glass...Far up the street, a man raced from a doorway screaming. He seemed to grow larger and his movements more erratic as he moved to the center of the street. Then he exploded....He halted again beneath a tree. There came a moaning from overhead.When he looked up he realized that it was not a tree. It was tall and brown, rooted and spindly, but there was an enormously elongated human face near its top and it was from there that the moaning came...He had long yawning spells now, and the remade world had lost its ability to surprise him. So what if a man flew through the skies unaided? Or if a human-faced puddle lay in the gutter to his right?

Croyd gets home, passes out, wakes up and eats a lot. This bit reminds me of Corwin. Perhaps "hungry hero" should be an entry in my Roger Zelazny drinking game:

There was a half-loaf of bread in the breadbox and he tore it apart, stuffing great chunks into his mouth, barely chewing before he swallowed. He bit his finger at one point, which slowed him only slightly. He found a piece of meat and a wedge of cheese in the refrigerator and he ate them. He also drank a quart of milk. There were two apples on the countertop and he ate them as he searched the cupboards. A box of crackers. He munched them as he continued his search. Six cookies. He gulped them. A half-jar of peanut butter. He ate it with a spoon.

Back when I was still in high school, I took a job working the graveyard shift. I was having trouble staying awake, so for my second night, I bought some extra strength No Doz, took double the recommended dosage at half the recommended intervals and washed it down with black coffee and Jolt Cola. I stayed awake for my shift...and the next thirty hours after it. To this day, I can't ever remember feeling that sick. Reading the account of Croyd employing increasingly desperate efforts to prolong his waking moments brought that all back.

It was quite sudden that he found himself weak and shaking. He realized what it was and he took another pill and set a pot of coffee to percolating. The minutes passed. It was hard to remain seated, to be comfortable in any position. He did not like the tingling in his hands. He washed them several times, but it would not go away. Finally, he took another pill. He watched the clock and listened to the sounds of the coffeepot. Just as the coffee became ready the tingling and the shaking began to subside. He felt much better. While he was drinking his coffee he thought again of the two men in the doorway. Had they been laughing at him? He felt a quick rush of anger, though he had not really seen their faces, known their expressions. Watching him! If they'd had more time they might have thrown a rock....

It's a pretty lightweight story, but it has everything I like about Zelazny's work. He quickly establishes the premise, then works on variations. I love how he thinks things through and thinks about probable consequences and then writes about them:

At about four in the morning he stopped in an all-night diner off Times Square, where he ate slowly and steadily and read a copy of Time magazine which someone had left in a booth. Its medical section contained an article on suicide among jokers, which depressed him considerably.

Little details like that really enrich it.

Croyd wakes up and goes to sleep several times over the course of the story, changing powers and appearance each time. His final awakening in this story comes shortly before his sister's wedding. Unfortunately, it's also somewhat premature, and his body is not yet finished with its transformation. The last third of the story deals with Croyd's attempt to stay awake long enough to see the wedding.

The inhuman and still-mutating Croyd enters the church, drawing strange looks from those assembled.

Through perspiration-beaded lashes he saw the priest enter. He wondered why the man was staring at him so. It was as if he did not approve of non-Episcopalians sweating in his church.


The ending is bittersweet. There are a few more Croyd stories after this one, and I can't tell if Zelazny intended this one as the first in a series, or a standalone piece. I think it works either way.

By dint of sheer will he was able to hold himself steady through Mendelssohn's "March." He was unable to focus on what the priest was saying after that, but he was now certain that he was not going to be able to remain seated through the entire ceremony. He wondered what would happen if he left right then. Would Claudia be embarrassed? On the other hand, if he stayed, he was certain that she would be. He must look ill enough to justify it. Still, would it become one of those incidents that people would talk about for years afterward? ("Her brother walked out...") Perhaps he could stay a little longer.

There was movement on his back. He felt his coat stirring. He heard female gasps from behind him. Now he was afraid to move, but the itching became overpowering. He unclasped his hands to scratch, but in a final act of resistance he seized hold of the back of the pew before him. To his horror, there came a loud cracking noise as the wood splintered within his grip. There followed a long moment of silence.

The priest was staring at him. Claudia and Sam had both turned to stare at him, where he sat clutching a six-foot length of broken pew-back and knowing that he couldn't even smile or his fangs would show.

He dropped the wood and clasped himself with both arms. There were exclamations from behind as his coat slipped away. With his full strength he dug his fingers into his sides and scratched cross-body.

He heard his clothes tear and felt his skin rip all the way up to the top of his head. He saw the hairpiece fall away to his right. He threw down the clothing and the skin and scratched again, hard. He heard a scream from the rear and he knew that he would never forget the look on Claudia's face as she began to cry. But he could no longer stop. Not until his great batlike wings were unfurled, the high, pointed vanes of his ears freed, and the last remnants of clothing and flesh removed from his dark, scaled frame.

The priest began speaking again, something that sounded like an exorcism. There came shrieks and the sounds of rapid footfalls. He knew that he couldn't exit through the door where everyone else was headed, so he leapt into the air, circled several times to get a feeling of his new limbs, then covered his eyes with his left forearm and crashed out through the stained glass window to his right.

As he beat his way back toward Manhattan he felt that it would be a long time before he saw the in-laws again. He hoped that Carl wouldn't be getting married for a while. He wondered then whether he'd ever meet the right girl himself. . .

Catching an updraft he soared, the breezes sobbing about him. The church looked like a disturbed anthill when he glanced back. He flew on.

I think this is the best of the Croyd stories, before the Wild Card books became bogged down in an increasingly snarled continuity, but I might review the others, as I'm kind of on a superhero kick lately.

1 comment:

  1. Just a quick correction. I screwed up the math. Zelazny would have been nine in September of 1946 and not eleven.