Saturday, January 21, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Elegy for Angels and Dogs

This is an interesting footnote in the history of Roger Zelazny's stories., a sequel to a Zelazny story, written by another author, Walter Jon Williams.

I first learned of the existence of Elegy from Walter Jon Williams' afterword in Lord of the Fantastic,  and it seemed so improbable that I couldn't be sure that it wasn't some kind of weird joke. I loved The Graveyard Heart but a sequel seemed so unnecessary that I could scarcely fathom its existence. And while it was called a sequel, I figured that it would be some kind of "set in the world of the Graveyard Heart" type bullshit that had so disappointed me as a kid. When somebody advertised a Star Wars story, I expected it to feature Han and Luke and Leia, not be about a day in the life of a random stormtrooper. So, I was rather surprised and somewhat delighted to find that it was in fact a direct sequel, even featuring some returning characters.

At his blog, the author talks about how the story came about. It's really kind of interesting. It was part of the Tor SF Double series, which featured short works by established authors, followed by sequels written by newer writers specifically for the series. It's a pretty cool idea and one which I'd been previously unfamiliar. It's pretty good, and it reads like a Zelazny story. Unfortunately, the story it reads like is Changeling.

We're saddled with a loathsome prick of a protagonist and he brings down what would otherwise be a superb story. From his interview to join the Set. The Doyenne is the first speaker and Lamoral is the second.

"Can you give it up? The family, the traditions, all dozen or so of your castles?"

"All twenty-three to be precise. And no, I have no intention of giving it all up."

"You'll have to."

"I think not. After all, I'll have to resign and produce and heir at some point."

She fixed her legendary scowl on him. Lamoral avoided being intimidated. "For a member of the Party Set, there is no other existence. There is no choice in the matter. Any occupation outside the Set becomes irrelevant - one's family ties crumble away, one's specialized knowledge becomes obsolete, one's occupation ceases to exist."

Lamoral gave her a practiced smile. "I like to think of my occupation as timeless."

"You'll see," she said darkly. By which Lamoral took it to mean he'd been accepted.

As he knew he would, even if he'd spent his interview gnawing on human bones. The Party Set, a
nouveau media aristocracy, would have happily slit a thousand throats for a hint of validation from the Lanadadel, and both he and the Doyenne knew it.

"You'll have to take my brother Alexander as well," he said.

"I hardly think so. More than one member of a family is quite-"

He gave her his most charming smile. "He'll just get into trouble without me to look after him. No, it's both of us, I'm afraid."

He's fantastically unctuous and I kept expecting him to get his comeuppance, but the more I read, the more I realized that the reader was expected to admire this glib Mary Sue. Everyone else in the story certainly did.

The complex and nuanced Doyenne of The Graveyard Heart is reduced to the role of mere adversary, and an ineffectual one at that. Mary Maude Mullen didn't do the research about how many castles he had? That's bullshit.

And it might be reasonable to conclude that I didn't like the story but that's actually not the case, because beneath those two problems there's a really good story here. I liked the concepts Williams explored in Lethe and he shows the same vivid imagination here. Augmented reality spectacles foresaw similar smartphone apps twenty years in advance. Eurydike Ichimonji-Apostolidis is a fascinating and compelling character, marred only by her interest in Lamoral We even get a mention of Diane Demetrios, who had a very small part in the first story as Moore's first wife. That's some fine continuity porn right there, and I think it's because of the author's love and respect for the source material that I can't bring myself to dislike it, no matter how much I hate Lamoral.

We open on a Set party on a facility orbiting Uranus, the "castrated Creator", a turn of phrase that evoked Zelazny for me. The participants return to their cold sleep and on awakening, they learn two things. The first is that there has been a system-wide war and they have been asleep longer than intended because of it, and the other is that the most hated member of the Set, who is surprisingly not Lamoral, but a man who went by the alias of Cao Cao, failed to awaken because a saline solution had been substituted for the enzyme prep shot that would allow him to survive the freezing process.

There's a bit of a murder mystery, but that's almost incidental, for this is a work where the enjoyment is more in the telling than the tale. Lamoral schemes to usurp control of the Set from the Doyenne, but there's little tension there, not only because I hate him and want him to fail, but because the Doyenne as so amazingly incompetent. That bit I quoted above, where he runs circles around her, is characteristic of every time they interact. Her Investment Intelligence lost millions in the Crash of 2130? "My own I.I. did very well in that, by the way," Lamoral smugly informs her.

At the end of the story, we shift gears and get a climax atop a mountain peak that channels both
This Mortal Mountain and Corwin and Brand's confrontation in the box canyon in The Courts of Chaos. We also get a last minute twist that grows logically out of both events in this story and alludes to speculation in the early part of The Graveyard Heart.
Though I can't recommend it wholeheartedly, it makes an interesting coda to The Graveyard Heart and after reading this and Lethe, I'm eager to read more from Walter Jon Williams.

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