Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: King Solomon's Ring

Wow, two consecutive Zelazny posts. It's been a while since I've managed that (even if the other one was one of those "Who could beat up who?" fights that is only Zelazny-themed in the sense that it happens to feature one of his characters.)

I've heard several people advance the opinion that King Solomon's Ring is among the worst stories that Zelazny ever had published.  My opinions occasionally diverge from the majority of Zelazny fandom. I liked To Die in Italbar okay, disliked Eye of Cat, and while I didn't care for Damnation Alley, I was able to appreciate it as a well-crafted story.

Reading Solomon again for the purposes of this review...I don't know if I would call it the absolute worst but well, compared to his other work, I do find it lacking.

It's the story of Billy Scarle. Billy is a paraling, possessing the telepathic ability to understand and translate languages. He is recruited into the Circle of Solomon (a group of individuals with similar talents, and if you think my use of parenthesis in this review is excessive, I look positive restrained when compared to their use in the story) to expand human hegemony, but as he begins to have doubts, he is persuaded to talk on one final mission and things go all aft agley.

I like the first two sentences, but the last one in the paragraph just seems off somehow, like it was a placeholder that was never amended.

King Solomon had a ring, and so did the guy I have to tell you about. Solomon's was a big iron thing with a pentagram for a face, but Billy Scarle's was invisible because he wore it around his mind. The two rings did serve similar purposes though.

I enjoy the conversational tone of the piece. However, it goes off the rails as early as the third paragraph

I am writing this letter, Lisa, because you are the one who managed to recruit him, and I think he was in love with you. Maybe I am wrong. If so, I can only ask pardon for the intrusion and trust to your sense of humor to put things in perspective.

Now, I suppose it's possible that someone would choose those words when writing a letter, but it does strike me extremely unnatural. It reminds me of an example given of bad exposition in a book on writing I read years ago, where the author implores the reader to never have one character say to another, "You should call Ben, your brother, and have him come over here."

The whole story reminds me of To Die in Italbar, which I enjoyed, but which did strike me as unfinished, and almost unique among Zelazny's work in not being the best version of the story it could be.  It has some memorable images like "The Seal of Solomon became a hot scalpel in my mind..." It has some interesting details, like "Dozens of the worlds on the Exploratory Perimeter are no more than encyclopedia entries followed by a couple sentences..." but nothing comes together. Take this for instance.

After his apprehension on Martin VIII, it was his ratty luck to be shipped Earthward in the custody of an old Guardsman ready for retirement. As you know, the cop decided along the way that the arrest had been out of jurisdiction, and he also decided he did not want a black mark on his record at that stage in the game. So he changed a couple log entries and elected himself judge, jury, and executioner -- as you may not know. He never said a word while he made the preparations, but of course Scarle knew.

I suppose it would be interesting to tell you the details of the cop's not being able to pull the trigger and Scarle's smashing him to pieces with his arm collars, but I'd rather not be that interesting. I've heard the story too many times.

There's the kernel of an interesting story there, but it's never cultivated beyond that. Likewise, I like the description of Billy Scarle, particularly the last part: He was about five-ten, with that premature frost on his hair that comes of pushing poorly shielded cruisers too far; nervous fingers, light eyes, a preference for nondescript clothing; and when he talked, all his sentences seemed like one long word.

But the Ring metaphors are forced and there are just too many elements in the story. In the end, Billy is convinced that humanity's policies are destructive, so he works on changing the minds of policy makers with his newly augmented talent. This reminds me more than a little of Angel,Dark Angel, which did the same story a lot better.

Is it his worst work? Well, if you're ranking things from best to worst, something has to occupy that place at the bottom.  I personally think it's the weakest out of the stuff I've covered here, but I've loved Zelazny's work so dearly for so long that it feels like a betrayal to call "the worst" outright, so I will forebear.


  1. Dude, this isn't a great story, but it's way better than "Song of the Blue Baboon."

    1. I had to go reread Blue Baboon to refresh myself because I can never remember what that one's about. And having done so, it didn't struck me as "bad" as much as it did kind of pointless without the image that inspired it.

      Though while we're on the topic, Circe Has Her Problems might be one of the few Zelazny short stories for which I have a real dislike.

    2. I seem to recall "Blue Baboon" being in the same boat as _To Die in Italbar_: Zelazny himself was unhappy with both stories, but when I read them, I didn't think they were bad.

      Mind you, I can't really remember what "Blue Baboon" was about, but I distinctly recall going in with low expectations and then wondering what all the fuss was about once I was done.

      (Side note: I'm pretty sure I liked Circe Has Her Problems, though I'll try to re-read it soon to verify. I'm curious, Josh: why did you dislike it so much?)

      Oooh, there's an idea for a post, Josh--your five least-favorite Zelazny stories, and WHY. Go!

    3. I don't have specific recollection about why I disliked it; I'm left with only that impression. I'll have to re-read it too to remind myself why.

      I'm not sure I want to dedicate an entire post to my least favorite stories. This site is much a "celebration" (as much as I dislike using that word in this context) of Zelazny's work and even though I'm occasionally uncharitable towards what I consider his weaker stuff, he's added so much to my life with his writings that I don't think I'd want to do that.

  2. What is your reaction to Trent Zelazny and Warren Lapine's Indiegogo Anthology project? Feel like taking a swing at a less than perfectly executed story's milieu? Or prefer to look at the popular ones for new angles?

    1. I had never even heard of it until right now, but this is going on the front page!