Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Halfjack

Nobody says "Halfjack is my favorite Roger Zelazny story!" It's pretty forgettable and I would never cover it here except for two reasons. 1.) I always get it confused with The Engine at Heartspring's Center, because they both open with a cyborg walking on a beach, and 2.) It's one of the few Zelazny stories that strike me as being tied to a specific era.

I think that Zelazny is among the best of science fiction authors in that his stories are largely timeless. Stories about the future are always informed by the era when they written, so you never have "the future" as much as you have "the future as seen from 1966." Zelazny largely manages to avoid this and set his stories in the timeless now. The oldest of his published works are approaching the half-century mark, and while there are occasionally anachronisms, he's no worse than most authors and better than many. 

In the introduction, Zelazny writes:  One day, I saw a nice, slick, pretty, new magazine called Omni and was overcome by the desire to have a story in it, so I wrote this one and did.

I grew up in the 80s and my dad had a subscription to Omni, so I'd sometimes read it, and Halfjack strikes me as the absolutely archetypal Omni short story. There's the popular science, the human element and the twist at the end, all in the space of a few pages. 

The main character is Jack, a cyborg pilot who usually keeps his cyborg parts covered with a fleshy bodyglove that gives him a human appearance.  His girlfriend not only tolerates his cyborg parts, but she kind of likes them. Jack breaks up with her and returns to his ship, where he undresses and interfaces with the computer.

Blue-and-pink world below him, black sky above, the stars a snapshot snowfall all about, he bade the shuttle pilot goodbye and keyed his airlock. Entering the Morgana, he sighed and set about stowing his gear. His cargo was already in place and the ground computers had transferred course information to the ship's brain. He hung his clothing in a locker and placed bis body glove and hairpiece in compartments.

He hurried forward then and settled into the control web, which adjusted itself about him. A long, dark unit swung down from overhead and dropped into position at his right. It moved slowly, making contact with various points on that half of his body.

They have a conversation, where it seems the ships computer Morgana is a better match for Jack than the human woman had been.

Several hours later, when they lett orbit, he had already switched off a number of his left-side systems. He was merged even more closely with the vessel, absorbing data at a frantic rate. Their expanded perceptions took in the near-ship vicinity and moved out to encompass the extrasolar panorama with greater than human clarity and precision. They reacted almost instantaneously to decisions great and small.

—It is good to be back together again. Jack.

——I'd say.

Morgana held him tightly. Their velocity built.

I don't think it's Zelazny's best work, but it's a quick enjoyable read.

Bonus: Cyborgs on the beach

Okay, Zelazny fans, which is which? Engine or Halfjack?

Story One:

He walked barefoot along the beach. Above-the city several of the brighter stars held for a few final moments against the wash of light from the east. He fingered a stone, then buried it in the direction from which the sun would come. He watched for a long while until it had vanished from sight. Eventually it would begin skipping. 

Story Two:

Upon this day, he walked beside the water, poking with his forked, metallic stick at the things the last night's storm had left: some shiny bit of detritus useful to the weird sisters in their crafts shop, worth a meal there or a dollop of polishing rouge for his smoother half; purple seaweed for a salty chowder he had come to favor; a buckle, a button, a shell; a white chip from the casino.


  1. For some reason, I feel like I can remember the "forked, metallic stick" in the Bork's hand. So I'm gonna venture a guess and say #2 is Engine.

    As a side note, I remember really liking Halfjack when I read it in the Collected Stories earlier this year. It certainly wasn't anything that made me think it was the best story EVER, but it was an enjoyable little piece.

  2. Halfjack feels, to me, like a pale reflection of the vastly more powerful and affecting "Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith.

    --Chris DeVito

  3. CDV: Halfjack feels, to me, like a pale reflection of the vastly more powerful and affecting "Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith.

    You have me intrigued, because I do consider this story something of a trifle, in that once you take away the twist, there's not that much too it. I think I'll have to seek out that story, simply because I can't imagine what Halfjack would be like with more heft.

  4. Also, Zach, you're right, as you probably guessed. #1 was Halfjack, #2 was Engine.

  5. Game of Rat and Dragon is available at Project Gutenberg:


    If you like the story and want to read more Smith, NESFA Press collected all his short sf in The Rediscovery of Man.


  6. Okay, I read the story over the weekend, and it was superb. Right up until the end, I was thinking, "This is a really good story, but I don't see the connection to Halfjack. I think DeVito is losing it," and then I read the ending and it all fit together like pieces to a puzzle.

    I think Zelazny had much more modest objectives and a different audience in mind, but I have to agree with your original assessment, that Rat and Dragon is a better version of the same story.

  7. Cordwainer Smith (his real name was Paul Linebarger) was a truly unique writer. Scanners Live in Vain, his first sf story, is his acknowledged classic, in the SFWA hall of fame and all that, and it deserves it (and it's one of my all-time favorite stories); but almost everything he wrote had that touch of familiar-strange timelessness about it. Haunting stuff.

    --Chris DeVito

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  9. I just re-read "Halfjack" as a part of a personal project I'm doing, and after spending more effort thinking about it than I normally would (as necessitated by the mysterious project), I came away with a greater appreciation for the story.

    You mention that, at the end of the story, the ship is shown to be a better match for Jack than the human woman was, but I'm not certain that's true. I think the ship feels like a better match for Jack in that *particular moment,* because he'd just spent three months interacting with a human. But the vibe I get from the story is that, after three months on the ship, Jack's going to start yearning for some human companionship again.

    And that's why I think the story is sorta sad. Jack underwent this procedure so he'd be able to fly a particular type of ship, and now he doesn't really belong *anywhere*. He's too cyborg to live with humans for long, and too human to live alone on his ship.

    There's even a part where, when Jack is walking through the city without his partial skin-suit on, we see how the locals react to him. They're certainly aware of cyborg pilots, but they still give him some curious looks because cyborgs are so rare in that area. I don't think this is just a throwaway line; Zelazny could have easily had the people react to Jack as if he's a freak, or not react to him at all because cyborgs are standard there. Instead, he had Jack sort of fit in, but sort of not--thus illustrating the point that Jack doesn't really belong anywhere.

    Anyway, I agree that it's still not on the level of Zelazny's higher-tier fiction, but it was nice to see how much story he was able to fit into such a short piece.

    1. Sorry it took me so long to reply. I wanted to reread the story before I did When I was reading it with your interpretation in mind, the line that struck me was that the planet was "a good place in which to rest and immerse the neglected portion of himself in the flow of humanity...". I agree it could go either way.