Thursday, September 22, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Love is an Imaginary Number

After a long delay, my Zelazny reviews are back!  ;

I'm not the first to observe that Godfrey Justin Holmes was something of a proto-Sandow, and similarly the character in this story has a number of attributes that would later become codified in Corwin and his kin. (There's more than a little of Sam in there too.)

I've been fascinated by imaginary numbers every since I heard of them in about fifth grade, though I haven't thought about them in ages.  Normally, when you square any number, you always wind up with a positive number, however, the square of an imaginary number is always negative. A quick trip to wikipedia confirmed what I remembered from grade school, that imaginary numbers are used in the calculation of electrical resistance.

(You know, when I was younger, I was this smart kid who hated school, and here I am, writing book reviews in my spare time. This one even has a math lesson.)

Like Corwin, the nameless narrator is a man who awakens one day to his birthright after a long period of quiescence. He was bound by his fellows, most recently for the crime of introducing gunpowder where it didn't belong.

They should have known that they could not keep me bound forever. Probably they did, which is why there was always Stella.

He awakens to strange music, and wanders through the house as it goes stronger.

Then I descended the stair to the living room, moved to the bar, poured out a glass of wine, sipped it until the music reached its fullest intensity, then gulped the remainder and dashed the glass to the floor. I was free!

I like that. It's a bit corny, but a nice visual.

Stella is his wife and warden. He flees her and others of their kind, slipping through worlds and manipulating probabilities. An exchange between the narrator and one of his adversaries mirrors the one between Brahma and Sam at the beginning of Lord of Light.

"Fool! There is no such thing as progress! Not as you see it! What good are all the machines and ideas you unloose in their cultures, if you do not change the men themselves?"

"Thought and mechanism advances; men follow slowly," I said, and I dismounted and moved to his side. "All that your kind seek is a perpetual Dark Age on all planes of existence. Still, I am sorry for what I must do."

He is the greatest of their kind and dispatches his adversary, and is then confronted by Stella. He leaves her, flees his fellows in many forms, and is overwhelmed and captured.

"I pleaded with them to give you a chance at peace, but you threw that gift in my face."
"The peace of the eunuch; the peace of lobotomy, lotus and Thorazine," I said. "No, better they work their wills upon me and let their truth give forth its lies as they do."

In the end, he is bound again, this time where

All day long a bound serpent spits venom into my face, and she holds a pan to catch it. It is only when the woman who betrayed me must empty that pan that it spits into my eyes and I scream.

But I will come free again, to aid long-suffering mankind with my many gifts, and there will be a trembling on high that day I end my bondage. Until then, I can only watch the delicate, unbearable bars of her fingers across the bottom of that pan, and scream each time she takes them away.

It's a nice story. Is the narrator Loki? He's a shapeshifter, as Loki was, and is bound in a similar fashion, but he also had a vulture ripping at his side in punishment for his gifts to humanity and you don't see me asking if he's Prometheus. My personal opinion is that Zelazny was just playing with mythology and archetypes and he drew upon those myths to lend some heft to the story, but not to populate it.


  1. I read it yesterday and my first impression was that it was an eternal cycle of Prometheus being bound and unbound, but then again I haven't read much of Zelazny.

  2. The pan and the serpent spitting venom was Loki from Norse mythology. The idea being that the one who shares knowledge with man against the Gods' will is a universal theme, despite the specific mythology. Lucifer in the Garden of Eden being another type, etc.

    "Love is an Imaginary Number" reads like a throwaway piece with a simple mythological gimmick, but it is important in the Zelazny canon because so many of his ideas are first realized in this short piece.

    Of course Zelazny's most fully realized version of this archetype is the accelerationist Sam in Lord of Light. It probably works best there because it removes the literalness of the mythology by both being a more obscure mythos (to western readers) and by the mechanism of removing the divinity from the deities by making them merely me with sufficiently advanced technology.

    I'd be curious to know whether Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" came before or after Lord of Light, and if it influenced Zelazny or vice versa. I suspect in the context of Clarke's three laws ('s_three_laws) he was thinking more about the Space Opera trope that Zelazny was turning on it's head by explaining the magic.

    And I can see my comment has strayed to the point where it should be in the Lord of Light thread.