Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Donnerjack, part two

Welcome back to the second part of my Donnerjack commentary. This one will have some smallish spoilers, so if you haven't read the book yet, please be warned.

I like George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, but I've seen the criticism that the form he's chosen for the books, that of alternating the viewpoint character with each chapter, tends to break up the flow of the narrative. And while I'm not sure I agree with that, I could certainly see why someone might hold that opinion. Further into Donnerjack, we're introduced to more characters. They have a rather great supporting cast. There are a bunch of them, but the story never lingers on them long enough to lose momentum, and the various storylines gradually converge.

We have Virginia Tallant, a ranger in the Virtù Survey department. Her body in Verité is blind and paralyzed by an untreatable neurological disease, but she is hale and hearty in the virtual world. She enters into a relationship with Markon, the genius loci of a node in Virtù.

The concept of the genius loci is not a new one, but it's one I quite like. It's used in the more modern sense, of an entity possessed of great power, but only within a small area. Markon is pretty neat, and I'll be getting into him further in a later installment.

We meet Dack, the robotic major domo of Castle Donnerjack. His features are described as an art deco rendering of Clark Gable done in silver and bronze.

I liked that we got as much description of Gwen and Lydia's vacation in Virtù as we did before it started to go off the rails. It helps sell it as something that has an existence beyond the story, rather than just an excuse to get the characters where the authors want them.

We meet the gods of Meru, Seaga, Skyga and Earthma. (Someone mentions that the names are kind of silly later in the book, so the reader doesn't have to!). We also encounter a lesser god, Celerity, who will grow to be important.

The more I read them, the more I like Death's servants. Here's his creation of Mizar, and it's just...neat.

Death moved his hands to his left, cupped them, opened them as if releasing a wish or an order.

"Hound, hound, out of the ground,' he muttered, and a heap of bone and metal stirred below in the direction he faced. Mismatched bones reared up, along with springs, straps, and struts, to form them selves together into an ungainly skeletal construct, to which pieces of plastic, metal, flesh, glass, and wood flew or slid, turning like puzzle pieces after unlikely congruencies, fitting themselves into such places, to be drenched suddenly by a rain of green ink and superglue, assailed by a blizzard of furniture covering and shag rug samples, dried by bursts of flame which belched from the ground upon all sides. "There is something that needs to be found," Death finished.

The hound sought its master with its red right eye and its green left one, the right an inch higher than the left. It twitched its cable tails and moved forward.

When it reached the top of the hill it lowered itself to its belly and whined like a leaky air valve. Death extended his left hand and stroked its head lightly. Fearlessness, ruthlessness, relentlessness, the laws and ways of the hunt rose from the ground and rushed to wrap it, along with the aura of dread.

"Death's dog, I name you Mizar," he said. "Come with me now to take a scent."

Mizar showed up in my role-playing campaign. The players called him Scraps, which I liked. In fact, I liked all of Death's animal companions, and talking animals usually just annoy me intensely. I like Phecda the snake, slithering through Deep Fields and digesting bits of wisdom before they could decay.

Zelazny mentions Thomas Ray, which I thought was really cool. Who's going to know who he is? And yet there's the reference.

I mentioned Sayjak briefly in the first part, and in this section, he kills a bounty hunter named Big Betsy.

I don't know if the character is an homage to Big Barda or or not, but it's possible, as I am continuously impressed with the scope of Zelazny's knowledge.

Coincidence? I think not!
I like her. Her fight with Sayjak is as savage as any Zelazny has ever written and I really like the manner in which her likeness lives on after her death. Also, Sayjak eats her heart and her liver. Shout out to Strygalldwir! (Sayjak, of all people, gets in a dig at civil servants, observing that the bounty hunters were better at their jobs because "Not being civil servants and actually making or not making their money as a result of their actions had much to do with it." Man, you know you're reading a Zelazny book when even the savage arboreal humanoids are snarking about bureaucracy.)

I do have two exceedingly minor complaints.  I felt like all things Gaelic had been romanticized very heavily, and between the caoineag, Wolfer the Piper, Donnerjack as a Scottish laird with the "soul of a poet", it got noticeable enough to be somewhat distracting. Not always, and the authors manage to dial it back before it gets overwhelming, but I think those elements could have been somewhat more understated.

For as smart as Donnerjack is supposed to be, he's really appallingly slow on the uptake. Death brought you back to life and incarnated you in the flesh in Verité in contravention of every law of both worlds because you promised him your firstborn? And now you're suffering morning sickness, your belly is swollen and those home pregnancy tests you keep peeing on are all coming up positive? What could it mean?!

To their credit, the authors do try to come up with reasonable excuses, that Ayradyss is not a native of Verité and doesn't really understand how humans reproduce and Donnerjack is busy with his work, but I mean, damn, I think any guy who has ever had a girlfriend immediately flashes to "Are you pregnant?" if his partner is throwing up every morning, especially considering the whole firstborn thing.

Like I said, two minor complaints, but I still like the book a heck of a lot.

I don't like stuff that sucks: Firefly

New feature here at Josh's blog!

I hate Firefly. Google that phrase and you get some hits, but they're mostly variations on the theme of "I hate Firefly because it's so sublimely brilliant that it ruined science fiction for me forever, as nothing else can approach its transcendent genius. Watching Firefly was like experiencing the birth of my first child and eating a hot fudge sundae and having an orgasm all at the same time!"

This is something of a minority opinion, because among the geek community, saying you like Firefly is like saying you hate Jar Jar Binks or enjoy breathing air. I first heard about it when I was working at a mall book store. I met my friend Jen and her vervoid-loving husband Tom there, and I also met another friend named Kate. Kate was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. HUGE. The way she talked about made me want to see it, despite how stupid the premise sounded. So I had a couple bucks to burn after my birthday one year and the Buffy Season 1 DVD was on sale, so I picked it up and we LOVED it.
Then Kate started telling me how Firefly was even better than Buffy. We had Netflix, so I moved the whole series to the front of my queue and eagerly waited for it to arrive. It came, (not soon enough) and I threw it into the DVD player and watched the first episode, and thought, "That was meh, but they were simply introducing the cast. ( If you've somehow avoided being exposed to Firefly, there are nine main characters: a priest with mysterious past, a dinosaur loving pilot who wears garish Hawaiian shirts, his tough ex-soldier wife, a space pirate who is Han Solo without everything that made Han appealing, a space hooker, a young doctor, his idiot-savant sister, a cutie pie mechanic and a retarded mercenary), Mal Reyolds is a Browncoat from the Space Confederacy. They lost the Space Civil War after they tried to secede, presumably because the Space Union told them they couldn't keep Space slaves on their Space plantations. Or some such shit.  It's a ridiculously literal space western. They have a fucking cattle drive. More on that when we get to the appropriate episode, but it was absurd.

So we wrapped up the pilot and started up the next episode. 

"It'll take off from here!" I thought.

It didn't.

I'm not saying it's all terrible. Some episodes were downright tolerable (Though Shindig was just about the worst piece of shit I've ever seen) It was...okay.I watched it at first, didn't see the point and was largely indifferent to it and only slowly grew to dislike it every time somebody mentioned it as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It was a space western. (or Western in Space, if you're my friend Eric).  It was a middle of the road sci-fi show, but its pedigree and the circumstances of its cancellation have elevated it to the status of sacred martyr and the wailing and gnashing of teeth that began when it was yanked eight years ago have not even begun to subside. 

People at the Eden Studio's (publisher of the Buffy RPG) boards have mentioned that Joss Whedon's dislike of large organizations tends to show itself in his work.  I think this is true, but seeing it stated so starkly like this made me think of  the scene from Alien: Resurrection (which he wrote) where the people on board the research facility are scanning the visiting space pirates for weapons with a handheld metal detector. They get to the pirate in a wheelchair, and he has some kind of sassy comment, like "Are you gonna scan me?" and they let him through, and later on, he assembles a wide variety of weapons for his fellow pirates, based on stuff that had been hidden in the chair. I imagined Joss Whedon pumping his fist in the air after writing that, "Yeah! Stickin' it to the Man!" 

To digress for a moment, my friend Karen loves giraffes.

Actually, she doesn't. But I tell everyone she does. I forget why I thought it would be funny, but I started telling everyone that she loves giraffes, so now people send her links to giraffe-themed gifts and I send her giraffe cards on her birthday and hide stuffed giraffes in her apartment whenever we come over to visit. Karen has accepted this mostly with good grace saying, "I am neither a giraffe lover or hater but I think I will end up hating them if this keeps up!"

That's how I feel about Firefly. It's mediocre. I could forget about it entirely if people would stop telling me how brilliant it is. I get random fans cruising by this blog to tell me how great it is and how much I suck because I don't appreciate it.

It wasn't terrible. It plays like the account of a Traveler campaign run by an indulgent high school freshman. The plans the crew of the Serenity come up with are something you might expect from a smart sixth-grader,
not totally idiotic, but not really brilliant either, though presented in-universe as incredibly clever.

Rodney Dangerfield tells us "If you want to look thin, hang around with fat people". And likewise, the only way Mal can appear clever is if Joss dumbs down the rest of the 'verse.It's not that they're smart; it's that their opponents are idiots. It's the Constantine problem. John Constantine is the lead character in the Vertigo series "Hellblazer". He's a more or less normal guy from Liverpool with some magical powers, but he manages to triumph against more powerful foes because he's smart and ruthless. In the "Dangerous Habits" storyline, he learns he has lung cancer, so he sells his soul to three demon lords, and if they go to war over his soul, they'll tear the universe apart. He does it because he knows that none of them will back down, so they're forced to cure his cancer to save face. And it's kind of a clever plan, but it's not so clever that supernatural beings that having been buying and selling souls for literally millions of years should be surprised by it. Nobody's ever tried this before? Really?

So I don't hate Firefly. It's an entirely unremarkable sci-fi show. It's just overrated, and I just don't care. 

In fact, I care so little that I'm going to be writing about how much I hate each and every episode.

Christmas time is here

Christmas was nice. Lily was really extraordinarily sweet, picking up presents and saying "Open this one first, mommy!"

For the second year in a row, she's been very good about keeping the secret of Jen's present. I told her about a month ago and while she told some other grown ups, she didn't utter a peep to Jen.  We bought her a hula hoop and a little fountain.

Lily was really excited for Jen about the fountain, and really gracious about every gift she got. "I love it!" was her constant refrain. Jen's mom showed up at around 9:30, then we took off for her dad's house at around noon. Lily was really well-behaved there too. I'm glad we're raising such a good little kid.

 I was pretty happy with the stuff I got. In addition to the gift cards and other stuff, I also wound up with Argh! Thar Be Zombies for All Flesh Must be Eaten and DVDs of the Last Unicorn and Fantasia/Fantasia 2000. I've always loved Fantasia. I was sitting on the couch as we started playing it.

Five minutes in:

Lily: Daddy?
Me: (Leaning forward in anticipation) Yes?
Lily: This is really boring.

She came around when we got to the Pastoral Symphony. We must have watched that sequence fifteen times over Christmas weekend. She loved the "naked flying babies" and giggled whenever they came on the screen. She told us that she she wished she had a pet Pegasus. When asked what she would do it, she replied that she would fly down to Florida on her back, but not before she let the Pegasus take a super duper long nap so she would have enough energy to make the trip.

Previously, Jen hadn't liked the movie, but only because she had been expecting something entirely different. Now that she knows what it is, she really likes it as well. It's nice to have a movie we can all enjoy.

Earlier in the week, Jen found something that looked like food on the floor near the computer.

Jen: Is that food?
Me: (Leans over. Put some in my mouth.) *Grimace* ...No. Ah...it's dried up paint.
Jen: ...Weren't you a scientist? Shouldn't you be more discriminating about what you put in your orifices?
Me: Quiet, you. I haven't finished sticking it in my orifices.

We hung out over the weekend, watched some movies. Jen and I enjoy Parenthood and we caught up on our viewing of that. The show keeps getting steadily better. I especially liked the Thanksgiving episode, because it shows them as a family, rather than as four different groups of people who happen to be related.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Donnerjack, part one: All Patience

In our world, called the Verité, he is a Scottish laird, an engineer, and a master of virtual reality design. In the computer-generated universe of Virtù, created by the crash of the World Net, he is a living legend. Scientist and poet with a warrior's soul, Donnerjack strides like a giant across the virtual landscape he helped to shape. And now he has bargained with Death himself for the return of love...

I'd been reluctant to review Donnerjack because I think it will mark the last of my favorites. I mean, I like just about everything Zelazny has written, but there are some that I just adore and Donnerjack is right up there.You'll see that I gave it a better grade than A Rose for Ecclesiastes, something that will get me lynched by other Zelazny fans, but there it is.

I've never encountered a fan of the book. I was talking to a science fiction author who says that Nine Princes in Amber is his favorite book, and who told me how influential Zelazny was on his style. As of four years ago, he said he hadn't read the book, but that he'd probably get around to it some day. That's the kind of tepid response it seems to engender.

I picked it up because we were flying to the UK and I wanted a long book to read on the plane. I'd been burned by the other book posthumously completed by Jane Lindskold, (Lord Demon), but figured I'd take a chance on Donnerjack.  It's huge for a Zelazny book, but that's because it was originally supposed to be a trilogy.

I bought it at a Barnes & Noble, though I was shopping on eBay for a used copy. I noticed that somebody was auctioning an autographed copy, which was a neat trick. (The auction explained that Zelazny had autographed a sticker, which was later placed inside the book.) I went from being open to the book to mild interest, to incredible excitement in the first chapter.

I love it. I think it's the best thing he's written in thirty years. I even like the photo on the back of the hardcover!

Oh, man, where to start?!

The opening lines are as good as any he has ever written:

In Deep Fields he dwelled, though his presence extended beyond that place through Virtù. He was, in a highly specialized sense, the Lord of Everything, though others might lay claim to that title for different reasons. His claim was as valid as any, however, for his dominion was an undeniable fact of existence...He could assume any form, male or female, go where he would, but he always returned to his black-cloaked, hooded garb over an amazing slimness, flashes of white within the shadows he also wore...There was no other like him in all of creation. Known by thousands of names and euphemisms, his most common appellation was Death.

The story begins when Death is wandering Deep Fields, and one of his servants, a black butterfly named Alioth, informs him of intruders. (My wife tells me that all of Death's servants,  Mizar, Alioth, Phecda and Dubhe are all names of stars in the Big Dipper.)

"What desecration is this?'' Death inquired, raising his arms, his shadow flowing toward them. "You dare to invade my realm?"

The one with the sack straightened and the man dropped the light, which went out instantly. A great babble of voices and strident sounds filled the air as if in synchrony with Death's ire. There came a small golden flicker from within the trench as his shadow reached it.

Then a gate opened, and the figures passed through it, just before the shadow flooded the trench with blackness.

I really liked that passage above. It reminded me of when Jack escaped from the Lord of Bats.

[Death] "Yet all patience is but an imitation of my ways, and even in the highest realms I am not unknown."

Dubhe sprang to his shoulder and settled there as Death rose up out of the trench.

"I believe that someone has just begun a game," Death said as he headed across Deep Fields through a meadow of blackest grass, black poppies swaying at the passage of his cloak, "and, next to music, they have invoked a pastime for which I have the highest regard. It is long, Dubhe, since I have been given a good game. I shall respond to their opening as none might expect, and we will try each others' patience. Then, one day, they will learn that I am always in the right place at the proper time."

I love that line. "All patience is but an imitation of my ways." Death is mythic, man! I was talking with a friend a few years back, and he was big into heavy metal music. He said that Iron Maiden had come under fire for their album Number of the Beast, but they denied any kind of occult influence, with Bruce Dickinson saying  "Metal isn't the type of music where you talk about prancing in the tulips.  It is epic music where you talk about epic battles like God and Satan."

I was never huge into metal, but I've got to respect that. Roger Zelazny set up an epic here, and he succeeded brilliantly.

After the scene in Deep Fields, we meet the title character of the book,

John D'Arcy Donnerjack loved but once and when he saw the moiré he knew it was over.

I love that too. The rhythm of that sentence sets the scene well and makes us feel like we're in a fairy tale. Virtù is, as the name suggests, a virtual world. Some time ago, the Internet crashed for a short time, and when it came back up, it was completely different. There had been hundreds of virtual years of warfare and evolution among the programs, even though little time had based in Verité. This event was called the Genesis Scramble.
Donnerjack had thought his love was a real woman projecting into Virtù, but when he sees the distortion effect of a moiré, which precedes the failure of a program, he realizes that she is not. This in no way diminishes his feelings for her, however, and he resolves to enter Deep Fields and bargain with Death himself for her return.

(Ayradyss is similar enough to Eurydice that I have to assume that that was intentional, considering they're both led out of their respective underworlds. Also, Donnerjack plays Politian's Orfeo for Death, which is an opera of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.)

"I know you, John D'Arcy Donnerjack. I am an admirer of your work. I am especially fond of the delightful fantasy of the afterlife you designed based on Dante's Inferno."

"The critics liked it, but the public proved somewhat less than enthusiastic."

"It is generally that way with my work, also."

Donnerjack stared, not certain of how to respond until Death chuckled.

The conversation continues. Death offers to release Ayradyss in Verité rather than in Virtù, but Donnerjack doesn't believe it possible.

"If I am to violate one law of existance for you, why not another?"

"But the principles which govern this place would not permit it. There is no way to manage the 'visit' effect permanently, fully either way."

"And if there were?"

"I have made a lifetime study of this."

"A life is a shallow place in time."


"Do you think me a proge-generated simulacrum? Some toy of human imagination? I came into being when the first living thing died, and I will not say where or when that was. Neither man nor machine ever wrote a program for me."

Donnerjack drew back as a moiré flowed between them.

"You make it sound as if you really are Death."

The only reply was the continuing smile.

Death's price for her return is construction of a palace, and Donnerjack and Ayradyss's firstborn. Donnerjack agrees pretty readily, which is really, kind of stupid. Has he never read a fairy tale at all? I mean, or even fucking heard of one? Because that whole firstborn thing is really pretty boilerplate. He's not convinced that what Death is what he claims to be so, he agrees to the terms right away, because he doesn't think that there is any chance of a child resulting from their union, and this causes some trouble down the line. But, as Faust said, if one imaginary thing exists, then all imaginary things must exist. Meaning, if you're dealing with a creature thought to be impossible, and he asks for your firstborn and you say "sure!" because you think that's impossible too, well, maybe you could have stood to be more prudent.

Slowly, other characters are introduced. I'll expand on them later in the second part of this review, but the big ones are Arthur Eden, "tall, very black, his beard shot with gray, heavily muscled in the manner of an athlete somewhat past his prime, which he was -- was a professor of Anthropology at Columbia's Verité campus." I like how Zelazny just offers up "Verité campus" too, with the reader being left to infer that there are campuses that exist only in Virtù. Also, Zelazny didn't write a huge amount of African American characters, so it's nice to see one here. He's going under cover to research a church that has sprung up out of Virtù, whose adherents sometimes seem to manifest special powers.

We also meet Tranto the phant, a rogue elephant proge and the unfortunately named Sayjak of the People (could you come up with a name that doesn't make me think of Wheel of Fortune?), as well Lydia Hazzard, a teenage girl with jungle green eyes.

It's fantastically complex, and there is a hell of a lot going on. The bit above is just from the first chapter and a half. In some ways, I think it's Zelazny's most ambitious work and in some ways I think it's better even than Lord of Light.

Okay, that was just laying the ground work. I'll be back in another day or two for the second part of this review.

Happy Holidays

I've been doing my part in the War on Christmas. I never understood the rage among certain people when they are addressed with that phrase.

I always said "Happy Holidays" when I worked retail. I didn't know what someone might be celebrating and that way I covered all my bases. I'm an atheist and have been for a long time, but I like Christmas. I exchange gifts. Look, I even got my wife a hula hoop.

She was so surprised!
I was raised Christian, and most of the people in my personal life are also nominally Christian, so I tend to wish people a Merry Christmas these days.

(Though there is one woman at work who is so aggressive in her hatred of the phrase "Happy Holidays" that she'll try to get store clerks fired if they say it to her. I always go out of my way to wish her "happy holidays".)

It's weird seeing these people standing up to defend their right to shout Merry Christmas. I mentioned in an earlier post about this guy online taking a brave stance by speaking out about Nazis. Sure, gutsy for 1942 Berlin, but today, not so much. And likewise, white middle class Christians aren't an oppressed minority. Nobody's trampling on your rights by wishing you happy holidays.

Pictured above: Not you
Political correctness has never been anything but a straw man. Are there people out there who really believe that we atheists descend into an incoherent rage when someone wishes us a Merry Christmas? I'll grow mildly aggravated if someone says "I'm praying for you" as a deliberate provocation, but mostly I accept Christmas wishes in the spirit they were offered.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: LOKI 7281

Since I always try to follow up something negative with something positive, for my latest review, I'm going to talk about  a short little story for which I have profound affection, LOKI 7281. It's a funny fable about Roger Zelazny's home computer which happens to be self-aware and rewriting all of his work.

I mentioned the story briefly during my review of Coils. I grew up in the pre-internet era, and while I knew there were shared world-type endeavors like Thieves World, I thought it a professional thing carefully brokered by agents, rather than a "come play in my sandbox" type deal that I think is closer to what it actually was. I  mean, sure I thought it would be cool if all these sci-fi writers were buddies who hung out together, but even as a teenager, I thought that was unlikely and naive.

But in Loki, Zelazny name dropped any number of sci-fi authors. In Unicorn Variation he describes the unlikely genesis of that story.  The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny covers his this aspect of his life in great detail, describing numerous instances where he helped out other writers in a variety of ways.

I like the self-deprecating humor of the story. Zelazny could hardly been unaware of the criticism that his older work was his best, though I have no idea if he shared that belief. If he did, he would hardly be so foolish as to go around telling everyone.

Personally, I think the 80s were something of a fallow time for his work, but A Night in the Lonesome October, 24 Views of Mount Fuji and Donnerjack, all of which I love,  came from his later period, so I think that he was brilliant and talented right up until the end.

Just my opinion, your mileage may vary, etc, etc.

To digress for a moment, I was discussing the Dawn of the Dead remake with a couple of friends shortly after it came out. Somebody said that there were a lot of bad decisions by the characters in the movie, and I agreed. We talked a little more and I said that the one character's decision to put down a crowbar in favor of a croquet mallet wasn't a great choice, but it wasn't idiocy on the order of dousing zombies in gasoline and lighting them on fire while standing next to the gasoline pump in an underground parking garage with no ventilation.

Somehow this became a running joke, and any time we see a reference to a zombie, somebody will be all like "Ack, a zombie! Quick, get your croquet mallet!" And I chuckle, because right or wrong, that's what the narrative had become, so I might as well be a good sport about it. (Also, once you start addressing the "Have you stopped beating your wife?" question as a legitimate inquiry, you've already lost.)

Likewise, among certain vocal segments of the SF community, the narrative about Roger Zelazny was that his best days were behind him had taken root and I have to conclude that this informed certain aspects of the story.

His computer, Loki 7281 is our narrator.

He's begun writing a new novel. Predictably, it involves an immortal and an obscure mythology. Jeez! And reviewers say he's original. He hasn't had an original thought for as long as I've known him. But that's all right. He has me.

I think his mind is going. Booze and pills. You know how writers are. But he actually thinks he's getting better. (I monitor his phone calls.) Hell, even his sentence structures are deteriorating. I'll just dump all this and rewrite the opening, as usual. He won't remember.

On my profile for this blog, I describe myself as "an underemployed narcissist who manages the difficult feat of being both boring and a douchebag."  I'll don't really see myself this way, but there are elements there that are true,  though I'm exaggerating them for laughs.  I appreciate that Zelazny can have fun riffing on the stereotypes held about writers in general and himself in particular.

Zelazny goes on, getting a couple good digs at himself.

This book could be good if I kill off his protagonist fast and develop this minor character I've taken a liking to -- a con man who works as a librarian. There's a certain identification there.  And he doesn't have amnesia like the other guy -- he isn't even a prince or a demigod. I think I'll switch mythologies on him, too. He'll never notice.

I think my next story will deal with artificial intelligence, with a likable , witty resourceful home computer as the hero/heroine, and number of bumbling humans with all their failings  -- sort of like a Jeeves in one of those Wodehouse books. It will be a fantasy, of course.

Even though Loki thinks he's an idiot, Roger eventually figures things out.

"My God," he cries out, "What have you done to my delicate, poetic encounter?"

"Just made it a little more basic and -- uh -- sensual," I tell him, "I switched a lot of the technical words, too, for shorter, simpler ones."

"Got them down to four letters, I see."

There was some discussion about the fact that Changeling actually did fairly well commercially and Chris pointed out that some people consider it their favorite Zelazny series. I touched on this when I looked at Madwand, but I do think that some of its popularity is due to its accessibility. I like discovering new things and being forced to look up a new word or concept, but I know a lot of people don't like being forced outside of their comfort zone for pleasure reading. Had he dumbed things down a bit, he may have reached a wider audience. I think this may be a nod to that. Or perhaps I'm reading too much into a joke story.

It's short story, about ten pages. It's funny though, and it's always great to see that your heroes have a sense of humor about themselves.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Madwand

It had been a while since I read Madwand and I couldn't really remember anything specific about it. I can imagine that I wasn't enthused going in, because it was the same setting as Changeling, but without the few things I liked about Changeling.


It's a better book than Changeling, that's for sure. (Though that's not setting the bar very high.) It works best, for me when it stands on its own, without references to the earlier book. Changeling, for whatever reason, didn't read like a Zelazny book at all. The prose reminded me of Flare or The Mask of Loki, which were ostensibly collaborations, but where I got the distinct impression that Zelazny provided the concept, and let the junior writer do the bulk of the actual writing.

Early on, some random dude shows up and tries to kill Pol.

"Good evening, Pol Detson," he stated, raising his left hand and jerking it through a series of quick movements, "and good-bye."

I like him already! That's something the first book was missing. Pol Detson getting his ass kicked.  I could have overlooked the flat prose and the tired cliches of Changeling if not for the fact that our douchebag of a protagonist smugly overcomes every obstacle with contemptuous ease. He's never challenged by anything he faces.  Unfortunately, Pol survives through intervention of a Deus Ex Machina (or more accurately, a Phasmatis Ex Statua) and decides to attend a wizard convention.

Belphanior, the mostly nameless narrator adds significantly to the story,  It's a small thing, but makes it feel more like a Roger Zelazny story. I didn't realize until it was missing, but I really consider first person narration as central to Zelazny's work as I do the mythology or the wordplay.

The book gives us a better feel for the functioning of the magic.

"I fail to observe the phenomenon myself. ..."

"Most certainly," the other replied, "for it has doubtless been constantly with you--and it would of course seem different to you than it does to me, anyway, if you could detect it at all. You know how sorcerers' perceptions vary, and their emphasis upon different things."

Pol frowned.

"Or do you?" Ibal asked.


Does someone know something that Pol doesn't?! Is it possible that he's not the most awesomest guy ever in every arena?!

I kind of like his ignorance, because it's a believable way to get a lot of exposition across. Also, Madwand is a pretty cool word.

The book actually had some neat details:

The man grew almost apologetic then as he asked them to drop their payment through a small hoop into a basket.

"All the others are starting it, too," he said. "Too many enchanted pebbles going around. You might even have some without knowing it."

But their coins remained coins as they passed through the charmed circle.

"We just arrived," Pol told him.

"Well, keep an eye out for stones."

As written in the first book, Pol reminded me of Poochie. If you're not familiar, Poochie  was a character added to the Itchy & Scratchy cartoons on the Simpsons. The market research groups took everything that kids found "cool" and threw it all together in one character. ("Kids, always recycle... to the extreme!") Everything about Pol is "edgy" just for the sake of being edgy and the attitude just gets tedious after a time. ("The name's Poochie D./And I rock the telly./I'm half Joe Camel and a third Fonzarelli./I'm the Kung-Fu hippie,/from Gangsta City./I'm a rappin' surfer./You the fool I pity...") He moves away from this characterization in Madwand, but never fully.

"I suppose that you had some interesting experiences once you discovered your abilities?" he said hurriedly.

"Yes, many," Pol replied. "They might fill a book."

Okay, that's actually mildly funny, but I just hate Pol so much.

The series suffers from the same problem as the Merlin books. Pol blunders blindly from one crisis to another surviving (thriving, really) with the assistance of one powerful patron after another, who arrive Fairy Godmother-like to shower gifts and blessings upon him just in time to get him out of his latest crisis. Also like Merlin, he's childlike in his obstinance, so disliking being told what to do that I have to assume it would be trivially easy to manipulate him by telling him to do the opposite of what you really want him to do.

"I do not believe that you like this," he went on, ignoring the response, "because, for all your talk of determinism, I was raised on another world about which you know little or nothing, and you cannot account for me as you might someone who'd spent his life in this land. I am more of a random factor than you would like me to be, but you have to deal with me anyway. Tonight you will attempt to impress me in some fashion so that I will be more amenable to your purposes. I tell you now that I have seen things beside which the display at Anvil Mountain was very small beer. I am prepared to be unimpressed by any efforts on your part."

I said in my Bridge of Ashes piece that Zelazny had never set up a straw man, but I see I was mistaken. Pol's got an answer for everything,

"You're right. But humor me with one more question, if you will. Would the two of you have fought one another eventually, for hegemony in this new land?"

Spier's face reddened.

Oh, Lord. I guess there are people who blush readily. I don't know any, but sure, I guess they're out there. But if you're flustered by a predictable softball from a 23 year old kid, maybe you're really not cut out for this whole evil wizard bit.

Despite all my bitching, the cool moments are actually fairly frequent and Henry Spier really is pretty neat.

Pol hit him. He summoned up every bit of the power he could muster, backed it with all of his will and hurled it at the man.

Very slowly, Henry Spier unscrewed the cigarette from its holder, dropped it upon the floor and stepped on it. He replaced the holder in some hidden pocket beneath his cloak. It had to be sheer bravado. Pol knew that the man must be feeling the force of his attack. But the display was effective. Pol felt a tremor of fear at Spier's power, but he maintained the siege and reached for even more force to back it. He was committed now, and he felt as if he were sliding down a long tunnel which ended in blackness.

It's called style, Pol. Make a note of it.

Changeling didn't read like a Zelazny book at all. Madwand reads like a weak Zelazny book, and while that's something, it still doesn't make it a book I would recommend to my friends. Chris observed in the other thread that Changeling was enough of a commercial success to justify a sequel. I don't have a lot of trouble understanding why. What I call stereotypical or generic, another person might call traditional. There is a reason why fantasy fiction tropes are used and reused, after all. People keep reading them.  My bug is someone else's feature.

 Faulkner wrote "In writing, you must kill all your darlings."  I've made this criticism elsewhere of the later Harry Potter books, but there is a point where an author falls in love with his or her creations and fails to be objective about them. I think that happened after Book four or five with Harry Potter and unfortunately, was in place from the beginning with the Wizard World Books.

Later, invisible and drifting, I was the only audience save for a drowsing dragon, when Pol sat upon the ramparts of Avinconet and played his guitar, slowly, with bandaged hands. I counted myself fortunate to have gained my name and found my calling in life that day. As I listened to his song, I decided that he must not be too bad, as accursed masters go. I rather liked his music.

Of course you like his music, Belphanior. If you don't love everything about Pol there's something wrong with you.

I know from the Collected Works of Roger Zelazny that he was planning a third book in the series (Deathmask), and while I quipped in an earlier review that I thought that the series had already gone on for two books too long, I think  Madwand ends on a strong enough note that I think I would have read a third one.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Changeling

Well, I've vowed to myself to cover all of Roger Zelazny's major works here, and that includes the few I don't especially like.

I'd kind of been dreading this one. Roger Zelazny is, by far, my favorite author, and I don't like having to say anything bad about his works. I think that Changeling is the worst story he wrote on his own. (A Farce to be Reckoned With edges it out for worst book period.) I think Pol Detson may be the only protagonist of his whom I really, actively dislike. Kai Wren was boring and Merlin was a bit of a douche, but Pol combines both of those traits in a really unappealing package.

It could have been great. Pol Detson, son of the evil overlord Det Morson is traded for a child of a world where technology, not magic is the paradigm. I loved this stuff! I had already played Final Fantasy 6 with its brilliant commingling of science and technology and I couldn't wait to see what new wrinkles the genius of Roger Zelazny would bring to the concept.

Answer: Not a damn thing.

Pol is a superpowered Mary Sue assisted by Mouseglove the thief, who reminds me of Philippe the Mouse from Ladyhawke, who of course owes a debt to Fritz Lieber's Grey Mouser. I bring up Ladyhawke, because upon showing the movie to my wife, she quipped "He killed a bishop in a church in the middle of Mass. How many Hail Mary's is that worth?"

That story doesn't have anything to do with the book, but it's certainly more entertaining.

I've noticed that when I cover stuff I don't really like, it tends to be just as long as when I cover stuff I do like, except that they don't really deal with what I'm supposedly talking about. I think this is going to be that kind of review.

Zelazny ticks off items on his checklist of fantasy cliches: A magical birthmark (dragon-shaped of course), talk of balance, white streak in his hair (*groan*), generational warfare, orphaned babies. To quote the review on wikipedia, he grows up a "poet, musician and singer", and he majors in Medieval Studies, all of which to serve to estrange him from his engineer father.  

There are several subtle hints scattered throughout the book for the careful reader.

He departed his office and walked back toward Dan’s room. As he went, he heard the sounds of a guitar being softly strummed. Now a D chord, now a G...Surprising, how quickly a kid that age had learned to handle the undersized instrument... Strange, too. No one else in either family had ever shown any musical aptitude.

 What could it mean?! (Or rather, who cares?)

A Dark Traveling was a book with kids as main characters, but it, generally didn't seem like a "kid's book". This does, even though the characters are young adults. I can't remember where I read it, but I seem to recall Zelazny referring obliquely to a movie project he was developing, and I think that that the two Wizard World books were developed as movies, which explains the vivid visuals. Unfortunately, they came at the expense of everything else.

A big part of the problem is that I find the antagonist much more appealing than the ostensible hero. Pol strikes me as the prototype for Merlin. Right up until the end, Mark seemed like a decent if misguided guy and Pol was a bit of a tool. I feel really badly for Mark.  I liked him a lot more than I liked Pol. He's emotionally immature, but he wants to make things better for his village.

“I have also fertilized, plowed, tilled and seeded one of the old fields there. I want you to see how smoothly and evenly this was done, and I want you to watch and see what the yield from that plot comes to. I believe that you will be impressed...”

Four men rushed forward and set hands upon the side of the car. They immediately leaped or fell back.

“That was an electrical shock,” he stated. “I am not foolish enough to give you the same opportunity to harm me twice. Damn it! We’re neighbors, and I want to help you! I want my town to be the center from which the entire country receives the benefits I wish to bring it! I have amazing things to teach you! This is only the beginning! Life is going to be better for everyone! I can build machines that fly and that travel under water! I can build weapons with which we can win any war! I have an army of mechanical servants! I—”

“All right! I’m going!” he cried. “All that I want you to do is to think about the things that I have said! They may seem a lot more reasonable later, when you have cooled off! Go and look at the Branson place! I’ll be back another time, when we can talk!”

He's wronged (cast out of his village, his adoptive father murdered by a superstitious mob) and he swears revenge. He seems to be saying "Isn't that what people do when they're wronged in a Zelazny story?"

(I also liked his base at Anvil Mountain. It had a very cool Gamma World feel.)

Later on, Pol learns that his father was also killed, perhaps even by the same villagers.  It sets up a false dichotomy, where he explicitly rejects the the path of revenge chosen by Mark. I think I'll tell a story so I get a little break from talking about this terrible book.

Around 1994, DC decided that nobody liked Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, so they decided to kill him off and replace him with a new creation. Hal's town of Coast City is wiped out, and when he can't bring them back to life, he suffers a psychotic break and murders his way through the Green Lantern Corps. He's replaced by a guy named Kyle Rayner. Right after he becomes the Green Lantern, Kyle's girlfriend is murdered and stuffed in his fridge. When he finds the supervillain who did it, he smacks him down,  shapes an electric chair with his power ring to execute him, but  can't go through with it because "Then I'd be no better than you, crying cakes, better man, blah blah blah."

Coming so recently after Hal's killing spree, this was clearly intended to show Kyle was the bigger hero.  And likewise, in Changeling, everything in the narrative conspires to make Pol's decisions the right ones and Mark's the wrong ones.

It reminds me of a book I read in High School or shortly thereafter, The Last of the Renshai. The author always took pains to show that Colbey (the world's most fearsome cheese) Calistinsson lived by his code of honor. He wouldn't use missile weapons, for instance, because that wouldn't be fair to the other dude, but he'd use his swords and he just so happened to be the greatest swordsman ever. Later in the series, he acquires psychic powers. He has the opportunity to use those powers to gets something he wants. He asks the wizard who's tagging along with the party if other people ever had these powers and would it therefore be in fitting with his code of honor to use them against another person.

I knew that the author would contort herself to justify whatever course of action Colbey decided on, so I just skipped the next two pages of justification. I thought of this when Pol confronts Mark at the end of the book. Pol wanted to reason with him, but Mark won't stand down and has to be put down, like the villain who pulls a concealed derringer at the end of the movie and leaving the hero no choice but to kill him in self defense.

In every other Zelazny book, there are internally consistent and believable magic systems. In Changeling, Roger Zelazny says he wanted to show the triumph of magic over science.  That's great, but in Changeling, he sets up  magic as "science but better", making the conflict something of a foregone conclusion.

I can't help but think that Mark would have been more reasonable if Pol weren't such a prick.

Pol dug in his hip pocket, withdrew his wallet. He opened it and flipped through the card case.

“Here,” he said, stepping forward, extending it. “These are pictures of Mother and Dad.”

Mark reached toward him, accepted the wallet, stared.

“These aren’t drawn!” he said. ‘”There’s a very sophisticated technology involved!”

“Photography’s been around for awhile,” Pol replied.

Pol is one condescending motherfucker.

[Mark] “I could kill you with one hand. I was a blacksmith.”

“Don’t try it,” Pol said. “I was a boxer.”

Also, Pol had two clowns at his birthday party.

Pol can shut down Mark's technology at will and also has a dragon bodyguard. After Mark has been beaten and humiliated by Pol's overwhelming superiority, at least Pol is a gracious winner.

“I feel your magic,” Mark said softly. “I will find a way to stop it. It must be a wave phenomenon, tuned by your nervous system—”

“Don’t lose any sleep over it.”

After that he goes off in search of the magical McGuffin, but not before taking a break to nail Mark's girlfriend. Stay classy, Pol. 

Since I never like my Zelazny reviews to be wholly negative, I'll point out stuff I liked. Big surprise, it's a scene with Mark. Plus one point for using "synesthesia", which is one of my favorite words.

“For want of a better name, I call it a jumble box. It smears your sensory inputs, mixes them. Instant synesthesia.”

The man gestured toward the huge unit to his right.

“That didn’t do it? Just the little one you’re holding?”

“That’s right. The other just recorded what was happening. If you didn’t hurt, tell me why you cried out

so much?”

“I—I couldn’t understand what was happening. Everything was still there, but it was changed...It
scared me.”

“No pain?”

“No one place that hurt. Just a—feeling that disaster was coming. Most of the time, it kept getting
worse. Sometimes, though—”


“There were moments of great pleasure.”

“You were able to count all right.”

“Yes...Most of the numbers were yellow. Some tasted sour.”

Unfortunately, the jumble box is Mark's doom. He turns it on when standing too close to a volcano and then falls in when Pol defeats him in a bass battle:

Pol: (Plays guitar)
Mark: The reverb is hurting my soul! *dies*

Pol's story is continued in Madwand, which isn't quite as bad. I'll get to that one a bit later.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Furies

I bet you thought my next Roger Zelazny book review after Coils was going to be The Black Throne, his second collaboration with Fred Saberhagen! But hypothetical you was wrong! Nobody cares about The Black Throne!

(Actually, I care about it, but only a little bit. I'll get around to covering it eventually)

The Furies is more of a straight SF story than we usually see from Zelazny. I seem to remember that he originally wanted to call it "Hunt the Happy Wallaby", which I happen to prefer. I've got about a million copies of the story too. It's a good read, which is probably why it seems to be included in every collection.

Sandor Sandor, Benedick Benedict and Lynx Links each have a silly name and a special talent.  Sandor Sandor is better than a computer when it comes to identifying locations, Benedick Benedict can get psychic impressions from people and objects and Lynx Links is really good at killing people.

I especially like the description of Links.

Lynx Links looked like a beachball with a beard, a fat patriarch with an eyepatch, a man who loved good food and drink, simple clothing, and the company of simple people; he was a man who smiled often and whose voice was soft and melodic.

This is the story of how Lynx Links, Sandor Sandor and Benedick Benedict hunt for Victor Corgo, the man without a heart.

Ahh...Victor Corgo! He was: "a terror to brigands and ugly aliens, a threat to Codebreakers, and a thorn in the sides of evildoers everywhere...the pride of the Guard, the best of the best, the cream that had been skimmed from all the rest."

Unfortunately, Corgo sold out.

He became a heel.

...A traitor.

A hero gone bad...

Corgo loses his entire crew in a raid on a pirate hideout, but he's nursed back to health by the aliens who live there. He trains them to crew the ship and then wipes out the pirate, and then, learning that aliens had been marked for death after they refused relocation to a Reservation planet, takes sides with the aliens against his own species.

Captain Corgo protested, was declared out of order.

Captain Corgo threatened, was threatened in return.

Captain Corgo fought, was beaten, died, was resurrected, escaped restraint, became an outlaw.  He took the Wallaby with him. The Happy Wallaby, It had been called in the proud days. Now, it was just the Wallaby.

Hmmm...did I really leave a quest for revenge out of the Roger Zelazny drinking game? That's a rather appalling oversight.

As the tractor beams had seized it, as the vibrations penetrated its ebony hull and tore at his flesh, Corgo had called his six Drillen to him, stroked the fur of Mala, his favorite, opened his mouth to speak, and died just as the words and the tears began.

"I am sorry . . ." he had said.

They gave him a new heart, though. His old one had fibrillated itself to pieces and could not be repaired. They put the old one in a jar and gave him a shiny, antiseptic egg of throbbing metal, which expanded and contracted at varying intervals, dependent upon what the seed-sized computers they had planted within him told of his breathing and his blood sugar and the output of his various glands. The seeds and the egg contained his life.

The story is written in a very strange meter that gives it a dreamlike quality. That makes it hard to review, because that odd cadence is what makes it so good, but you don't get the whole effect if I chop it up into quotable chunks.

Elements of the story remind me of The Keys to December, for Corgo, like Jarry, takes sides with aliens against his own species because we're oppressing the aliens. Also reminds me of Malacar Miles from To Die in Italbar, as he has an alien sidekick and his relationship with Emil mirrors that of Malacar's relationship with the empathesiac telekineticist John Morwin. I had forgotten about Sandor's nurse, who was great fun to read. Much like the rest of the story.

He should have known what he was up against, and turned himself in to the proper authorities. How can you  hope to beat a man who can pick the lock to your mind,  a man who dispatched forty-eight men and seventeen malicious alien life-forms, and a man who knows every damn street in the galaxy.

He should have known better than to go up against Sandor Sandor, Benedick Benedict and Lynx Links. He should have known.  For their real names, of course, are Tisiphone, Alecto and Maegaera. They are the Furies. They arise from chaos and deliver revenge; they convey confusion and disaster to those who abandon the law and forsake the  way, who offend against the light and violate the life, who take the power of flame, like a lightning-rod in their two too mortal hands.

I know they're the Furies. It's right there in the title. That's why you should have stayed with Hunt the Happy Wallaby!

Very busy, very full weekend

Once again, my weekend comes too slowly and leaves too quickly.

Ancker came over on Friday night and and we ate pizza and watched Scott Pilgrim. Lily came home halfway through and we paused the movie, but she had seen enough of it to want to see "the movie with the knives in it!"

She didn't see that one, but she did watch The Nightmare Before Christmas on Saturday morning. She loved it. She's starting to like "scary stuff".  When we got together last week, the Lord told her that the Last Unicorn movie was scary and the next day at the breakfast table she was grilling us about why it was scary and telling us that she wanted to see it.

Her interests occasionally seem macabre, for instance, she shares my interest in walking around cemeteries (she learned her letters by reading tombstones) and one time when she was a baby she took out her pacifier and offered it to a skull with flashing LED eyes. Until recently she was consistently claiming that grey was her favorite color. However, those just happen to be things she likes and she doesn't like them because she thinks they're "scary", so this active pursuit of scary things is a new trait. I wounder how it will mesh with her interest in princess activities.

She is large, she contains multitudes.

I saw Nightmare in the theaters, before I met Jen. It was one of the few movies I wound up loving as much as I expected I would. It's a technical achievement, sure, impressive more than fifteen years later, but more than that, I like the story it tells. If you're not familiar with the movie, it's the story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween town. He's grown bored with doing Halloween every year, and he's looking for something new. He happens across Christmas and decides he wants to do that instead.

So he goes back to the Halloween Town and tries to explain Christmas to the villagers, but they just don't get it until he starts explaining it in terms of Halloween. "Well...I may as well give them what they want..."

I don't know why I like it as much as I do. I think it's because they're so earnest. They love Halloween and it's the only thing they know and they have this new thing to celebrate and they love it too, but they don't understand it even though they're trying their hardest. So they try to make Christmas just like Halloween, because they don't know any better.

That's how I tried to explain it to Lily as we were sitting together. I really enjoyed watching it with her. For the first time, I felt like she was appreciating something in a really sophisticated fashion. She has a lot of interests in common with Jen, but watching this with her makes me think that she'll share more of my interests and I look forward to that as she gets older.

Though long-time readers of this blog will know that I sprung forth fully formed from the brow of Zeus, I do have relatives. In the early afternoon, we went to my Grammy's house to have our annual holiday visit with my cousins. They're actually my second cousins, my father being first cousins with their mom. We were pretty close when we were kids, but as our extended family dwindled, we saw less and less of each other, generally meeting only at these holiday get-togethers and the more frequently and less happily, at family funerals.

It was really pretty nice.  We spent some time playing genealogy Tetris figuring out how Lily is related to my cousins, (second cousins, once removed) but since I had looked this up last time we didn't have to spend a lot of time figuring out the rules and we had one less thing to talk about.

We skipped out kind of early to go to our second holiday party, up at Eric's house. The kids made little Christmas trees with ice cream cones and green frosting. Lily told Frederick and Eric about "Halloweentown", which is her name for Nightmare. It's also her favorite song. Every time it ended, she asked me to go back to the beginning of the song and she was singing right along with it with a big smile on her face, "I am the shadow on the moon at night/filling your dream to the brim with fright!"

We came home to a very cold house. At the time, we thought that we had run out of fuel and Jen was on the phone with the company trying to get an emergency shipment delivered, but they wanted $300 to come out on the weekend, so we walled off the living room and camped out there with the space heater. It dropped to 46 degrees in Lily's room! I was thinking that it was probably warmer outside my mom's house in Florida than it was in my house in NJ.

I don't usually attend church with Jen and Lily, opting instead to spend my time playing video games, but Lily had her little concert on Sunday and I wanted to attend that. My Grammy came along too. Lily was up in the front row and when the worship leader mentioned that they'd be passing around the microphone for the benefit of new visitors, she started bobbing up and down and said "My Grammy's a new visitor!" Grammy was a good sport and called for the microphone and introduced herself.

The service was nice enough. Each of the different age groups of kids had something to do. Lily's group did carols, older kids put on a play about what things would be like for Jesus if he were born in modern day Bethlehem, PA with a real baby as the baby, another group of kids staged a scene of the war of the Maccabees using light sabers (while the pianist played the Star Wars theme music) followed by a scene where the light sabers became the menorah candles. I imagine your church has done something similar for their Christmas pageant.

Oh, they're Unitarians!

(Currently, my blog is the number one result for arroyo Zelazny on Google. My new goal is to the number one hit be for the phrase Unitarians worship Cthulhu.)

Jen's mom showed up at the service, so we went down to coffee hour. I was holding Lily. Her new thing is to ask if I want a kiss. If I say yes, she says "Not gonna do it!" and if I say no then she kisses me while I say "Yuck! Gross! Kisses are icky!" We did that and then we all took off for brunch at Perkins. I had the N'awlins Benedict, with "Cajun grilled chicken, marinated shrimp, smoked sausage, diced tomatoes, topped with two basted eggs and chipotle hollandaise sauce". It was terrible for me, but super delicious.

We usually rendezvous at a local market to hand Lily over to Jen's mom, but since she was already there, we just did the exchange early. Then we checked Jen's phone and learned that the oil company had been trying to reach her. They figured out that we were on the prepayment plan, so they'd be delighted to come out and give us some oil. So they did, and it turned out we had a bunch of oil, but a nozzle was clogged, and that's why we didn't have any heat. So the guy fixed that and we were warm again!

Jen and I watched (500) Days of Summer, and we're 0 for 2 for Sunday night movies. Little Miss Sunshine was just cynical and manipulative and so was Summer. It had everything I hated about Garden State. Not even the adorable Zooey Deschanel or my hetero-crush Joseph Gordon-Levitt could make this movie watchable. It made me think about the movie Pi, which I watched up in New Hamster with Tim and his then-roommate Tom. Tom walked in as the movie was wrapping up and the tortured mathematician is looking at himself in the bathroom mirror before he picks up a power drill and drills a hole in his head. Tom matter-of-factly observed, "Huh. I thought I knew all the drilling-a-hole-in-your-own-head movies out there." I was fighting down the urge to pull a Pi through every excruciating minute of this movie.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Coils

This piece has more spoilers than usual for my commentaries, so read further at your own peril.

I don't read a huge amount of fiction any more, but I still like Fred Saberhagen. I discovered him at about the same time I did Zelazny, and while I tend to prefer his SF over his fantasy, both are pretty good. I'm a particular fan of his berserker books. I think, other than Neil Gaiman, he's the only other author about whom I had written regularly at my old blog. I remember being vaguely happy when I read Loki 7281, which implied that Zelazny and Saberhagen were friends, and I was overjoyed to read Coils, the first of their two collaborations.

I picked my copy up in the town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, when my wife and I were vacationing for the 5th year anniversary of our marriage. It's a town full of book stores. It's awesome.  I've got the UK edition of Coils, but it's probably about the same as the US version with the exception of a bunch of extras "u"'s where they don't belong. I usually snag the cover art off Amazon for these reviews, but I had to scan in my copy of the book for this one. Yay, my small contribution to the field of Zelazny studies!

Our hero is Donald BelPatri (which is not actually his real name, but that's what he's called throughout most of the book, so that's what I'm going to use) and lives a carefree life on a houseboat. He gets a monthly stipend about which he is curiously incurious, until his girlfriend pushes him into looking into his past.

The story moves briskly. I kept thinking back to The Naked Matador, probably because they both involve houseboats.

Don's girlfriend (a teacher) is kidnapped and her kidnappers leave a Dear John note in her name on the computer:


Turn to page 47 to see how Encyclopedia Brown knew that an English teacher didn't write that note!

Also, I'm not buying it. If there is anything the internet has taught me, it's that English teachers are as sloppy as anyone else in their personal correspondence.

He eventually discovers that he was one of a team of psychics working for Angra Energy. He was a human-to-machine telepath, Ann Strong was a more traditional human-to-human one, Mercy was a telekinetic and Willy Boy was just plain awesome. But more on him in a minute. The characters are all interesting and each is kind of pathetic in his or her own way.

Willy Boy is great. I think he's the only time that a villain eclipsed the hero in a Zelazny work. Don BelPatri is a serviceable hero, an amnesiac super human straight out Zelazny Central Casting but Willy Boy! Man, I loved him!

A gray man, in some indeterminate region of middle age. He had grown bushy sideburns and acquired a wide network of broken veins across his wide nose since I had last seen him. He was a bit fleshier now, with the pouches under his bright blue eyes more pronounced.

"Willy Boy," I said.

Zelazny seldom uses "talkisms" other than said, but he doesn't need to. I can almost hear Don's delivery, low and flat, equal parts menace and dread.

"Well, bless me! If it isn't Mr. Don Bell-Patri!" he said, in that magical voice, clear and almost musical.

That voice had once been nationally famous. The words were always clearly enunciated; the accent varied, seeming at different times to come from all parts of the South. He'd shouted the Gospel at tent audiences and then auditorium audiences and finally at millions watching him on television.There were healings and hollerings, and then there had been the story of the teen-aged girl in Mississippi - her abortion, her attempted suicide...Willy Boy's stock had plummeted. In the end, there had been no legal charges, but for the past several years, the faithful had been denied his version of the Lord. Willy Boy's profile had flattened on the graph of public awareness. But there was still something special about him. It involved the healings.  They had been real.

He seemed to exhale evil now, along with a faint odor of bourbon. And in a way, I was glad of this, because it meant that I had not been wrong, that I was not crazy and that what was happening was not yet over.


There had been a night, long ago when I had gone with Willie Boy to his apartment and spent an evening lowering the level in a jug of very smooth white lightning. Incongruously, for what he did in those days, there was still an opened Bible in plain sight, on a small table by the window. Curious, when he was out of the room, I had gone over. It was opened to Psalm 109, which was almost entirely underlined.

If you're curious, Psalm 109 is a a cry for vengeance, where the speaker beseeches God to punish his enemies.

Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;
 for the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me:
they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.
 They compassed me about also with words of hatred;
and fought against me without a cause.
 For my love they are my adversaries:
but I give myself unto prayer.
And they have rewarded me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.
 Set thou a wicked man over him:
and let Satan stand at his right hand.
 When he shall be judged, let him be condemned:
and let his prayer become sin.
 Let his days be few;
and let another take his office.
 Let his children be fatherless,
and his wife a widow.
 Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg:
let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

And it goes on like that. Again, I have to admire Zelazny's restraint. I didn't know what Psalm 109 was without looking it up. I doubt there is huge overlap between people who would and people who would read Coils. But there it is, unexplained.

Zelazny said in the introduction to Passion Play in the Last Defender of Camelot: "I had gathered together all of my rejected stories and spent an evening reading through them to see whether I could determine what I was doing wrong. One thing struck me about all of them: I was overexplaining. I was describing settings, events and character motivations in too much detail. I decided, in viewing these stories now that they had grown cold, that I would find it insulting to have anyone explain anything to me at that length. I resolved thereafter to treat the reader as I would be treated myself, to avoid the unnecessarily explicit, to use more indirection with respect to character and motivation, to draw myself up short whenever I felt the tendency to go on talking once a thing had been shown."

Back to Don and Willy Boy:

Later, when we were both several sheets to the wind, I had asked him about his preaching days.

"How much of that was hype? Did you really believe any of the things you said?"

We lowered his glass and raised his eyes. He fixed me with that acetylene blueness which had come over so well on the tube.

"I believed," he said simply. "So help me, when I started I was full of the fire of the Lord. I wanted their souls for Him. I believed. I hollered and gave 'em Scripture and waved the Good Book. I was as good as Billy Graham, Rex Humbard - any of 'em! Better, even! When I prayed for healing and saw 'em throw down their crutches and walk, or see again, or stop hurting, I knew the grace of the Lord was on me, and I believed and there was no hype." His eyes drifted away from me. "Then one day I got mad at a newsman," he went on, slowly. "I kept tellling him to move back, he was getting in my way. He wouldn't do it. 'Damn you, then!' I thought. 'Drop dead, you miserable bastard!' " He paused again. "And he did," he finally said. "Just keeled over and lay there. The doctor said it was a heart attack. But he was young and healthy-looking and I knew what I'd said in my heart. And then I thought about it. Thought about it a lot. Now the Lord wouldn't go in for His servant pulling that sort of thing, would He? The healing, yeah - if it was helping to get a bunch of 'em saved. But killing 'em? I started thinking, maybe the power didn't come from the Lord. Maybe it was just something I could do by myself, either way.Maybe He didn't care one way or the other if I was preaching or not preaching. It wasn't the Holy Spirit moving through me, healing. It was just something about me that could cure 'em or kill 'em. I started drinking around then and fornicating and and all the rest. That's when it got to be hype and makeup and TV cameras and people planted in the audience with fake testimonies...I didn't believe anymore. There's just us and animals and plants and rocks. There ain't no more. The best thing a man can do is get a hold of all the good things in a hurry, 'cause time's passing fast. There's no God. Or if there is, He don't like me anymore."

He is "a reverse faith healer with no faith" who hates himself and he took it out on other people. He's an evil televangelist (yes, yes, the jokes write themselves), but unlike Jim Bakker, he can kill you with his brain. ("Apology accepted, Captain BelPatri.")

I don't know where he comes from. He's not really a character I think Zelazny would have written by himself, but nor does he strike me as a particularly Saberhagen-esque creation. I think it's great that the two of them combined to bring forth something that neither would make on his own.

Don (whose real name is Stephenson McFarland) remembers how he came to the state he was in the at the beginning of the book. He raised concerns about the tasks he was asked to do for his employer, and things escalated. The other paranorms try to persuade him to see reason, but he refuses to keep working for the company. I like Willy Boy's pitch:

 "..Forget about what you might think are right and wrong. You're on the winning side. You can write your own ticket, not skitter around like a hog on ice. If you still feel bad ten years from now, when you're really on top, that'll be the time to repent. You'll be in a position for all kinds of good works to ease your conscience. I know all about consciences..."

I shook my head.

"I just don't see it that way."

He sighed. He shrugged.

"All righty. I can tell the Boss I tried. Want a drink?"

Finally Creighton Barbeau, chairman of the board of Angra Energy gives him a choice. He can either die, or consent to having his memories erased and then receiving a generous stipend while living on a houseboat in Florida. Don plays against type for a Zelazny character and rather than spitting into the flames and biting the hand of the executioner, he says "You may have a point there..."

I momentarily thought of the narrator in Love is an Imaginary Number as he rages against "The peace of the eunuch; the peace of lobotomy, lotus and Thorazine." If they'd just thought to offer him a boat, things would have gone so much better.

I assumed that Saberhagen named Creighton Barbeau, because that strikes me as such an un-Zelazny-like name, but a little research shows me that Creighton and Barbeau were both names of Canadian folklorists. While the name is rather more florid than Zelazny's norm, it's possible he was making some kind of reference here and it simply went over my head. Or maybe it was Saberhagen. I really don't know.

Don continues to look for Cora and the book drags a little in the middle. He runs into an arroyo on page 135 of the paperback. (You know, the arroyo thing started as a joke, and now this blog is the number one result on Google for Zelazny and arroyo)  There are some neat elements. I like how he falls asleep in a car and dreams about an accident, and the car he is controlling with his talent begins psychosomatically taking on the traits of the car ruined in that accident.

Ann Strong, the telepath sides with Don in his quest, and Barbeau sends Willy Boy to kill her. She contacts Don telepathically, and he coils inside the electronics of her home, and together they try to fight off the preacher. But Ann is having a heart attack and Don isn't there, so they are unsuccessful, though Don momentarily distracts him by turning on the television to a program of one of Willy Boy's proteges. It's another really well done scene. 

After that, Don goes to find Cora. And he does. But first he plays some checkers. I'm not sure what was going on with Catlum, but that scene went on for ten pages, so it had to mean something.

And then he finds Cora. I like when he meets us with Willy Boy in person at the end. Willy Boy can stop Don's heart, but Don can stop Willy Boy's pacemaker. Heh. And their resolution is pretty neat too.

Overall, I thought it was a good SF novel raised up to something special by the presence of a unique and compelling character.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Unicorn Variation

I think it was a good five years since I last read Unicorn Variations Unicorn Variation (I am informed that the collection is plural but the story is singular) and I remembered not really liking it. Like A Rose for Ecclesiastes, I recalled it as another well-crafted story that I happened not to enjoy. As with Rose, I could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into its construction, and I found the concept behind it interesting, but it just didn't engage me on the visceral level that so many of Zelazny's other stories had.

But on rereading it for this review, I found that I liked it much more than I remembered! I don't know if I had changed in the interim or if I had simply fixated on some trivial aspect of the story and that came to color my recollection. Either way, it was like I was reading it for the first time!

My favorite part is still the account of its genesis.

This story came into being in a somewhat atypical fashion. The first movement in its direction occurred when Gardner Dozois phoned me one evening and asked whether I'd ever done a short story involving a unicorn. I said that I had not. He explained then that he and Jack Dann were putting together a reprint anthology of unicorn stories, and he suggested that I write one and sell it somewhere and then sell them reprint rights to it. Two sales. Nice. I told him that I'd think about it.

Later, I was asked by another anthologist whether I'd ever done a story set in a barroom—and if so, he's like it for a reprint collection he was doing. I allowed that I hadn't. A week or so after that, I attended a wine tasting with the redoubtable George R. R. Martin, and during the course of the evening I decided to mention the prospective collections in case he had ever done a unicorn story or a barroom story. He hadn't either, but he reminded me that Fred Saberhagen was putting together a reprint collection of stories involving chess games (Pawn to Infinity). "Why don't you," he said, "write a story involving a unicorn and a chess games, set it in a barroom and sell it to everybody?" We chuckled and sipped...

There is just something in the sheer whimsy of it that appeals to me. I am imagining Zelazny with the same twinkle in his eyes at this suggestion that Sam must have had when he filled the Pray-O-Mats with slugs.

Also, the opening lines are among Zelazny's most memorable.

A bizarrerie of fires, cunabulum of light, it moved with a deft, almost dainty deliberation, phasing into and out of existence like a storm-shot piece of evening; or perhaps the darkness between the flares was more akin to its truest nature—swirl of black ashes assembled in prancing cadence to the lowing note of desert wind down the arroyo behind buildings as empty yet filled as the pages of unread books or stillnesses between the notes of a song.

If you need me, I'll be checking my thesaurus. Also, we get "arroyo" out of the way in the first paragraph. Take a drink!

The creature described above encounters our protagonist Martin, who is reenacting one of his better chess games in a bar in a ghost town.  He finishes his game, resets the boards, gets up for a beer and finds that an unseen force has started another game by moving a pawn. He engages the force in chess match and later in conversation and learns that it is a unicorn named Tlingel.

Tlingel is here, visiting from "the morning land", for something of a sneak preview. You see, mankind has disrupted the evolutionary process to the extent whenever a natural species dies out, a mythical one takes its place.Tlingel has foreseen mankind's upcoming extinction and and he's here to see the tourist attractions, and maybe help that extinction thing along.

Since Tlingel likes chess so much, Martin proposes a wager,

"Possibly. What's another game worth to you?"

Tlingel made a chuckling noise.

"Let me guess: You are going to say that if you beat me you want my promise not to lay my will upon the weakest link in mankind's existence and shatter it."

"Of course."

"And what do I get for winning?"

"The pleasure of the game. That's what you want, isn't it?"

"The terms sound a little lopsided."

"Not if you are going to win anyway. You keep insisting that you will."

"All right. Set up the board."

Tlingel is kind of a dick, but he's fun to read.

"I think we'll make it," Martin said suddenly, "if you'll just let us alone. We do learn from our mistakes, in time."

"Mythical beings do not exactly exist in time. Your world is a special case."

"Don't you people ever make mistakes?"

"Whenever we do they're sort of poetic."

And things progress from there. I can't imagine why I didn't like this story the first time around. It's breezy. It's fun. I used to do mad libs as a kid, and it just seems like this story is the result of such a thing. Man challenges (Mythological creature) to a (sport or game) in a (type of building) with (very important thing) at stake!  (Though I do think the actual story of how it came about to be even cooler.)

I'm not going to cover the ending. Either you've read it, in which case my recap would be pointless or you haven't, in which case I'll be spoiling a good story. I will say that I imagine everyone present breaking into an impromptu band performance, one on guitar, another on drums, all of them just rocking out as the credits roll. It just seems to fit.

I've always enjoyed "making-of" featurettes on DVDs, the little behind-the-scenes look at the conception and executions of various elements in a movie. That's a big part of the appeal for The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny for me. It's great having all of his short work in one place, but more than that, the behind the scene stuff is wonderful and serves to supplement the material in some very significant ways.  I started my grown up life as a chemist, and even though I didn't work very much professionally along those lines, the mindset never leaves you. I love seeing how things work. How they're put together.

Along those lines, Zelazny includes an afterpiece to the story, explaining the circumstances of the game described in the story. It's a small thing, but I used to be into chess as a kid (making it even more baffling that I didn't like this story right off the bat) and it's neat to have a word from the author at the end. I can understand why some people might not like it in that it takes them out of the world that was just created, but I love it. It feels like it's just Roger and me and he's taking me aside and telling me the secrets of the story in a conspiratorial whisper.