Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Eye of Cat - Revised Review

Okay, I said I would return to Eye of Cat and here I am.

I still don't particularly care for the story, but I'm not at all happy with my first review, so as promised, I'm revising it. This site is supposed to be a celebration of Zelazny's work and it didn't deserve the snark.

Here's where I'm coming from with the story. I think it's an okay Zelazny story. Not Lord of Light, but not Lord Demon either. In any body of work, you'll have some stories that are better than others, and this one lands squarely in the middle.

For a couple of reasons, my opinion has been colored by some factors in place during the time when I first encountered the book, and because of those, I had a very different experience than I would have otherwise, and I think, these factors really diminished my enjoyment of the book.

A big part of it is that I saw the man behind the curtain before I even read it, by dint of having read Zelazny's essay (Constructing a Science Fiction Novel) about its construction. Seeing how the sausage was made shattered the illusion for me.  That's not to say that the same deliberation didn't go into his other works.  Of course it did. I'm reminded of a line I always liked from Creatures of Light and Darkness, where Horus is speculating on Wakim's identity "Such champions do not spring full-grown from the void." Zelazny, was one of the most accomplished writers of his generation, and doubtless leveraged all the tools available to an author to craft a compelling story in his other books.

The word artificial has a number of different definitions, but the one that comes closest to describing the word as it was originally used is "Created by humans". Forgive me if I belabor this point, but Eye of Cat strikes me as artificial in that sense, and lacks the verisimilitude of Zelazny's other worlds.

I wrote in my review of the Stainless Steel Leech, of all things, that I felt that "there is something in Zelazny's writing that lets me believe that his characters live in a real world, and things happened as they happened because his characters made the choices they did, and had they chosen differently, their stories would have unfolded in a complete different direction."

He also expressed the opinion that the author should know more than he states in the body of the text, and that's another thing that bothered me about Eye of Cat. There's no mystery to it.

And, I'm the first to admit, that this is an issue with me and not with the story. Yes, Zelazny was effusive in talking about the techniques employed in the book, but one presumes he was happy about how it came out and wanted to share them. It's silly to fault him for that. However, having read all that stuff before I read the book itself, I could see the seams and the solder that made it up, and consequently, it seemed artificial in a way his other books didn't.

All this adds up to a book I was unlikely to enjoy. I've returned to it several times, but, once you see the picture hidden in an optical illusion, you can't go back to not seeing it, and whenever I encounter the techniques employed in the book, such as the data dumps on the psychics, it takes me out of the narrative, because I'm acutely aware of why they are there.

This tells you a lot about me and next to nothing about the book. Briefly, William Blackhorse Singer is a Navajo shaman and tracker, who grew up in a neolithic environment, went to the stars and on his return, found there was no longer a place for him.

Those are interesting elements, though I like how they were handled in This Moment of the Storm a bit more.

Billy is called out of retirement to protect an alien ambassador from an assassin. To do so, he releases Cat, a shape-shifter which he initially thought of as merely a cunning animal, but which he later realizes possesses telepathy and true intelligence.

Cat only wants one thing, and his death, and Billy offers it in exchange for Cat's service. Cat comes through and protects the alien secretary-general and then comes to kill Billy, but pauses on seeing that Billy will not fight back.

If that is what it takes, yes. I see now that there would be small pleasure in slaying you like some brainless piece of meat that waits to be slaughtered. My full revenge requires the joy of the hunt. So I will make you an offer, and I will have you know that my promise will be as good as yours, Billy Singer - for I cannot let you beat me even in that thing.

Go. Flee. Cover your trail, tracker.I will give you what I judge to be an hour- and I am fairly good at estimating time - and then I will pursue you. You tracked me for nearly eight days. Let us call it a week. Keep alive for that long and I will renounce my claim upon your life. We will go our ways,
free of one another.

And what will be the rules? Billy asked.

Rules? If you can kill me before I kill you, by all means do so.In any manner.Go anywhere that you wish by any means that you choose. Anything is fair. There are no rules in the hunt. Live out the week and you will be rid of me. You will not make it, though.

Who can say?

What is your answer?

I do like that exchange. Perhaps another thing that threw me is how much it subverts the Zelaznian Revenger's Tragedy model.

Zelazny has described Jack as "a wrongfully punished man whose character was twisted by the act"  which is a common enough theme in his works that it made it into my Roger Zelazny drinking game.

Cat is the wrongfully punished being, injured not through Billy's malice, but his ignorance. Cat hates what it has become through Billy's actions.

So the Navajo in the velveteen shirt fled across the desert, and the torglind metamorph followed. The psychics who had been gathered to help protect the alien ambassador stick around to help Billy.

Billy runs from Cat and struggles with his own death wish, reverting to a more primitive mindset as he does so. Cat pursues him, Billy overcomes it and may or may not be dead by the end of the book.

I'll never be a fan of the book, but hopefully I've articulated the reasons for that a little more clearlythis time. There are certainly elements in the book that I enjoy and, while it's never going to be one of my favorites, at least I can say I enjoyed it this time around.


  1. I've read this one several times, but it's been five years or more since I last read it. I still recall my strong impressions from when I first read it, immediately after it came out. I thought that the build-up to the search for Cat was well set up and suspenseful, but then the search was over all too soon. The psychics had been introduced at length and for seemingly little purpose. Then the novel changed into the struggle for Billy to escape Cat, but I thought it wasn't as well done as what the novel has been set up to become. And so I was disappointed. But with re-reading, I found that I can appreciate it more. There are some great passages in there, some beautiful writing. It has an ambiguous ending similar to Jack of Shadows where you don't know for certain if he's alive or dead at the end, but if you understood what the finger painting meant, you know that he's at peace. The poetry adds a certain level of meaning and flavor to it. And so I think it's become a satisfying novel after several re-readings, perhaps because I understand it better now, or maybe because I'm not unexpectedly disappointed by the early end of the chase, and the familiarity from re-reading makes it more enjoyable.

    1. CK: I thought that the build-up to the search for Cat was well set up and suspenseful, but then the search was over all too soon. The psychics had been introduced at length and for seemingly little purpose. Then the novel changed into the struggle for Billy to escape Cat, but I thought it wasn't as well done as what the novel has been set up to become.

      I'm inclined to agree. I made a similar complaint about Italbar, where we're essentially *told* about the climax of the book by Shind, but my thoughts about Cat's account of the encounter with the adept were "That sounds great! I wish we could have seen it!"

      I brought too much baggage with me to ever really be a fan of this book. Had circumstances been different, I might have enjoyed it more.

  2. I must have been half-asleep when I wrote "build up to the search for Cat" because of course the first part of the novel is the build-up to search for the other alien with the assistance of Cat. And that's what abruptly ends.

  3. Now that I'm finally done reading all of Roger's novels (with the exception of a few collaborations I couldn't make it through, and one I never even tried), I'm excited to start re-reading some of his other books. AMBER will be first (just because it seems fitting to re-read the thing that started it all for me, now that my project has come to a close), then I want to hit things like THIS IMMORTAL and Josh's beloved ROADMARKS. But, soon enough, EYE OF CAT will be up again.

    The thing I remember about Cat most is that I was pretty convinced I'd like it more on a re-read, so it'll be interesting to see if I was right. The thing I remember about it second most is that it gave me the idea to use a telepathic animal in a novelette I wrote, which just recently garnered a custom rejection from the editor of FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION. (Yes, a rejection is generally considered a bad thing, but I still consider it an accomplishment worth celebrating if I can make it to the final round of evaluation at my dream market and get a custom letter in reply.)

    And, with that, Zach's weird brand of bragging about something that was actually a failure comes to an end.

  4. (Part 1 of 2)

    I re-read EYE OF CAT yesterday and had a completely different experience than the last time I read it. I started reading it without looking at any of the jacket blurbs about what the book is supposed to be about. And what I discovered was a novel about a man coming to grips with his past. He's made some very serious mistakes (the arrogant act that led to the death of his wife, knowingly caging a sentient creature in a zoo and trying to forget about it), he's a loner, due to his travels in space all of the people he once knew are dead (including the Navajos to which he belongs), and he's disillusioned and depressed. This is how the novel begins, and it's some 40 pages before we even meet Cat, and Cat is abruptly dead some 40 pages before the end. Because the book isn't about Cat, except in so far as Cat serves to focus Billy's attention on what the real problem is: that Billy is depressed and welcoming death, instead of facing his mistakes and problems and fighting to live. And once Cat is gone, Billy continues to fight those things in the personified form of his personal demon, his chindi. He wins, is reconciled with himself, and is happy at the end of the book. He's also probably alive, a conclusion I base on remarks made in some of the concluding poetry as well as in the news snippets. And at the same time, the telepathic group of six get to resolve their own personal battles and come out better than they started (I daresay even the one who died).

    I then looked back on the essay Josh referred to earlier, the one titled "Constructing a Science Fiction Novel." Zelazny described this book as a character novel, one that focuses on Billy who has rejected a lot of his past and become overwhelmed as a result. The book is about Billy having "an opportunity to come to terms with everything in his life." And this is key to understanding Zelazny's intent: it was a character novel, and not a plot-driven novel.

    As a character novel I think it works very well. The poetry can't be skipped over because much of what Zelazny wanted you to learn about Billy and his people are contained within those lines. (I know some people hate this book because any lines of poetry cause their gorge to rise, and this book has a LOT of poetry.) And as a character novel the chase to find the alien shapeshifter assassin is a minor incident that leads into Cat's chase to kill Billy, which is also only a minor part in the bigger path that Billy has to follow from the start to end of this novel.

    If I were to give this novel an accurate but unimaginative title it would be BILLY CONQUERS SELF. Or something like that. EYE OF CAT is a misnomer in that it draws undue focus on the chase in which Billy flees Cat. I think EYE OF CAT is supposed to mean Cat's wise perception of what Billy's true problem is. Plus I think the title echoes the phrase "eye of the needle" because Billy has to go through a very difficult situation at the end to come out whole or die in the attempt.

    There's also a lot of interesting symbolism. Is the human skull at the end, which Billy destroys, the skull of his wife? Therefore, does the final battle with the chindi take place where she fell to her death, and is that why Billy felt it was the most fitting location to end this journey? If not, the skull is certainly there to remind us that his wife died in a fall due to Billy's hubris.

    1. (PART 2 of 2)

      What this brings me to is that I think the novel was marketed incorrectly, beginning with the artwork and dust jacket blurbs which made this out to be a novel in which a man is on the run from a shapeshifter. It isn't about that. But I can also see how the publisher had a problem because how do you market a novel that is about a man battling depression, or his personal demons, and deciding whether to kill himself, be killed, or survive? The publisher ignored all that and focused on the chase sub-plot, and in turn that made readers expect something quite different from what this novel was really about. I remember the first time I read the book, I couldn't wait for the chase and was stunned when it was over as an anti-climax well before the book had ended. My expectations were quite different from what Zelazny had intended.

      I suppose the other way I could explain this is to say that despite the cover art and blurbs, this novel is not the equivalent of ALIEN or INDIANA JONES or MAN FLEES MURDEROUS SHAPESHIFTER or any chase novel/movie. Instead, it's probably the equivalent of a character movie like LEAVING LAS VEGAS where not a lot happens but the main character is coming to terms with himself as he deliberately drinks himself to death. You might even despise the characters (as I did) but still acknowledge at the end that it was a good movie.

      I like the parallel that Josh drew to the story "This Moment of the Storm." That also features a character who has been battling personal demons and history, and who is a loner because he's outlived everyone he knew due to his space travels, etc. And at the end he's still battling his demons because the woman that he loved has been killed through a series of events that he caused through inaction or could have prevented. That story works as a character story, and it works as a plot-driven story. Not surprisingly, it was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula. I think it's far more successful than EYE OF CAT, which works as a character story but not as a plot-driven story.

      I wonder what I'll think about this book the next time I read it? I certainly enjoyed it much more this time around than ever before.

      And now I have an idea for an essay to be titled "Eye of Storm," drawing on the parallels between the novel EYE OF CAT and the novelette "This Moment of the Storm." I'll think about this a bit more and maybe write it sometime in the next few months. If I do, I'll probably have to read the novel again, soon, and take some notes.

  5. Eye of Cat is one of my favorites, but I haven't been able to articulate why I'm so intensely drawn to it. Fortunately, now I don't have to. Thanks, Chris K.!

  6. And so it was almost two years ago that I wrote those comments and said that I might write an essay titled "Eye of Storm." I didn't forget but finally came back to that idea a few weeks ago. And then with a bit of unplanned research into Navajo writings, I stumbled upon something that seems to be a key to understanding what this novel is really about. Zelazny said that it wasn't necessary to understand the allusions in order to enjoy any story he'd written, but this one certainly changes things for me. I think you'll agree.

    Anyway, I finished the essay a few minutes ago and emailed it to The New York Review of Science Fiction. If they like it, it will appear there in a few months. Until then, I'll unmercifully keep you in suspense about what I discovered and concluded from it.

    I also acknowledge Josh at the end for making the comparison to "This Moment of the Storm."


  7. ...and it has been published already! It's in the just-released May 2015 issue (#321) of The New York Review of Science Fiction. Complete with seven color figures.

    1. It's now available on-line for free: