Monday, November 14, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Game of Blood and Dust

I like The Game of Blood and Dust, but I can never remember if it's "Blood and Dust" or "Dust and Blood". It's got a novel enough concept, nameless players take on the roles of "Blood" and "Dust" and introduce three changes apiece to the time stream as part of their game, and I think he could have just introduced the clever concept and coasted on that, but he didn't.

For such a prolific science fiction author, Zelazny never wrote a huge amount of time travel stories. I think Roadmarks is the only one that deals with it as a central concept, though If At Faust you Don't Succeed, Creatures of Light and Darkness and The Changing Land each touch on it peripherally. (In the introduction to Go Starless in the Night, Zelazny says that story was written as a non-traditional time travel story, though I don't personally don't consider it one. It's about a man who journeys into the future through suspended animation and if we include Starless, we might as well include This Moment of the Storm and Isle of the Dead, both of which deal with a very similar concept.) Maybe I'm overlooking one or two others, but it was never a huge theme in his work, which is a shame, because when he wrote it, he wrote it well. (Oh, I can't believe I almost forgot Divine Madness, possibly the best of his short stories!)

In the story, the players Blood and Dust alter history, saving certain personages, eliminating others, until we get to the end and wind up with a world pretty similar to our own. (Though not identical, as the the past was altered so that the assassination of Lincoln in Chevvy's Theater was a success.) This is something that Zelazny touched on with Roadmarks, where Red was trying to change the timeline so that the Greeks won at Marathon, as they did in the real world.

I really do think that Zelazny was one the best science fiction short story authors of the 20th century, and this one has everything I like about his craftsmanship. We get the concept, he doesn't over explain it, but instead tells enough to explore it, and then quits before we're bored with it. His pacing is simply magnificent. As Brand says in Sign of the Unicorn: "Sequence and order, time and stress! Accent, emphasis."

I've raved before about the notes in the Collected Stories, and this is another story they enrich. During one round of the game, Julius Ambrosius and Abou Iskafar are killed by the contestants, and I never knew if they were historical figures of whom I was unaware or if they were entirely fictional creations made up for the story. (If you're playing at home, they're the latter.)

In the introduction to the story, Zelazny says that story had its genesis in a solicitation by Playboy, where they would run one science fiction story a year and they'd all be illustrated by Philippe Druillet. Playboy never went through with the project, and the illustrations were never made, but Zelazny said he occasionally wondered what form they would have taken. I do too.


  1. Easy tip for remembering "Blood and Dust" vs. "Dust and Blood": the words go in alphabetical order.

    Now you will NEVER FORGET AGAIN!

  2. I first read this story when it was published in the April 1975 issue of Galaxy. I'd just turned 14. Not sure how much of the story I understood back then.

    (". . . its two and a half billions of people . . ."? And here we are now approaching seven billions, no nuclear war [not yet, anyway!], no soylent green, no malthusian nightmare, not even a cyberpunk smorgasbord. Sci-fi writers gotta stop imagining yesterday's futures.)

    Hey, I posted the story's original illustration, from Galaxy, on my Facefuck page. A blast from the past.

    --Chris DeVito

  3. Zach, you're trying to trick me! I'm going to use that as a mnemonic device and then Blood and Dust are going to rewrite history again, and in the new world, D will come before B!

    Chris, is that a public fan page or your personal page?

  4. Josh asked: "Chris, is that a public fan page or your personal page?"

    Both, more or less. I don't really take Facebook very seriously. My wife keeps me from posting anything TOO inappropriate, though. (She has the nuclear option: "If you post that, I'll unfriend you!")

    --Chris DeVito