Sunday, October 31, 2010

My weekend: A fine and private place

I like cemeteries. I always have. Not for any mordant reason; just that they're peaceful and picturesque.  I'll talk about this a little more in an upcoming post. Laurel Hill Cemetery was really such a nice little visit. I'd like to return someday soon. Like Disney World, you just can't see the whole place in one day. Jen commented that it was like a small town.

Some of the mausolea (plural of mausoleum, hey you learn something every day, reading my blog) were bigger than my first apartment.

Lily really is my daughter.  When I asked her what she thought of Laurel Hill, without any prompting, she answered, "It's the best cemetery...EVER!" ("X is the best whatever...EVER!!" has been my catchphrase for years.) She's terrified of someone she knows dying, but she hasn't made the connection with cemeteries yet. She recently told me: "Sunnybird is going to die some day, but I love my pillow pet because she's just a stuffed animal and that means that she will never die."

But Lily loved the statues and what she thought were "stone fairies". (When I was recounting the story later, a friend thought I had said "Stoned fairies" and wondered what kind of places I was taking my daughter.)

We were supposed to meet my Philly friends there, but they all wimped out.  Apparently people get murdered here all the time, but I consider that a feature, not a bug. I mean, if you gotta go, how convenient is being murdered in a cemetery? My friend Tom is a huge fan of Firefly, Neil Gaiman and the Phillies and he missed Mal Reynolds and Neil Gaiman showing up at Harry Kalas' monument.

Pictures don't lie, baby

We met them at IKEA instead, and that was quite nice. It was Tom, Jen and Karen. I was reading back through old blog posts on the printed and bound version that I have. (You know, like normal people do) and I noticed that Tom and Jen and Karen had all been part of Lily's life before she was even born. All three of them are really great people for whom I have endless affection. Plus, Tom is a fan of the Sandman, which makes him EXTRA AWESOME! 

I was recounting all of Lily's habits to a friend: "When she was a little baby and still used a pacifier, we had a skull with LED eyes on top of a cabinet. I was holding Lily so it was at about eye level for her. She took her pacifier out and offered it to the skull. Also, she learned her letters by reading tombstones. She consistently claims grey is her favorite color. I can understand that sentiment from the Counting Crows, but from a four-year-old girl?"

My friend replied: "What have you done to your daughter? You're going to have a goth kid on your hands."

And I was like "She was like that when I got her!"

I think the highlight of IKEA was Lily telling Karen that Lady Gaga gave her the "Little Monster" shirt after Karen told her that Lady Gaga calls her fans little monsters.

After that, we went to UU church. They were having a Halloween party and the place looked like a den of inequity. However, since it's a UU church that's what it usually looks like.

The children's sermon

Halloween is the High Holy Day for Unitarians, so I thought they'd do up their church, but it looked pretty much like it always does.  

Business as usual

It was a nice little Halloween party (it had a tray of DIY cookies, with a bunch of frosting tubes and sprinkles.)

Lily was kind of naughty at the party. A little kid reached for the markers Lily was using and she pulled the whole tray away. I asked her how she would feel if she were a little kid and a big four year old girl pulled away the markers from her. She said "Happy!" in that petulant voice four-year-olds use when they're telling pissy, unconvincing lies.


Ah well. Still a little monster.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: And Call Me Conrad/This Immortal Bonus Material

Is Conrad the Great God Pan?

 I was going to bundle this in with the second part of the Call Me Conrad review, but I decided to give it its own post in hopes of sparking some debate.

No less an authority than Roger Zelazny himself has said,  “I wanted to leave it open to several interpretations…either Conrad is a mutant or he is the Great God Pan. The book may be read either way.” If this had come from anyone else but Zelazny, I would have discounted it immediately and said it was just scattered metaphor. I mean, it's not like Pan was renowned for smashing robots apart. I never really thought about why Conrad is as he is, but when I read it this time, I was looking for the Pan connection.

So what evidence is there?

I'll leave Conrad's strength and odd appearance and pseudotelepathic wish-fulfillment out of the equation, because they don't support one interpretation over the other.

There's the exchange with Diane.

"I thought all the gods had left the Earth."

"No, they didn't. Just because most of them resemble us doesn't mean they act the same way. When man left he didn't offer to take them along, and gods have some pride, too. But then, maybe they had to stay, anyhow—that thing called ananke, death-destiny. Nobody prevails against it."

So we seem to have evidence of the presence of other surviving gods, and as Faust tells us (as he tells Ananke, actually, in a rather amusing coincidence) "If one imaginary thing exists, then all imaginary things must exist."

But did they really exist, or was Hasan simply transported by the smoke of blossoms of the strige-fleur?

There's the bit with the fauns, where Conrad mesmerizes them with the Pan pipes and one later arrives to deliver him from captivity in the Hot Place.

Myshtigo writes him a message that says

I commend the Earth into the hands of the kallikanzaros. According to legend, this would be a grave mistake. However, I am willing to gamble that you are even a kallikanzaros under false pretenses. You destroy only what you mean to rebuild. Probably you are Great Pan, who only pretended to die.

Even reading it now, in light of the ambiguities, Myshtigo's comment strikes me as something that was not meant to be taken literally. He could have said "You are Alexander the Great returned to life", and I would have taken it to mean that he is someone who embodies Alexander's traits, not someone who is actually Alexander reborn.

Conrad does give it some weight, however, so there may be something there.


Machines don't talk that way, do they?

I hope not, anyhow…

Conrad claims that his parents left him exposed on the hillside when he was a baby, as was the custom as the time,  and when they went to retrieve him, he says "Their baby had been a satyr, they said, and they figured that perhaps some Hot creature had had a sort of human child and had abandoned it in the same way we do them—making a swap, actually."

Well, Pan had goat legs, like a satyr, but if he really is the Great God Pan, then he obviously predates the Three Days War (and Hot creature) by several hundred years. It's possible that he's referring to mythological creature with more modern nomenclature, so I'll give that one a pass. More problematic is the village priest who half-baptized him. Pan would have come well before Christianity and the custom of baptism.

What do I think? On the strength of Conrad's recognition and on authorial word of god, I'm not willing to dismiss the Pan theory outright, but if I had to make a choice, I would pick the mutant explination myself.

Roger Zelazny Book Review: And Call Me Conrad/This Immortal Part II

Welcome to the second half of my review of "...and Call Me Conrad". The first part is here.

This one will have spoilers, so continue at your own risk.

One thing I like about Roger Zelazny is how ably he subverts tired tropes. Something that I tend not to like in fiction is a protagonist bluffing outrageously credulous enemies on the flimsiest of pretenses.

Disguised Hero: "So, how is that thing we're working on coming along?"

Villain: "Oh, I'm glad you asked, fellow villain, let me explain, in exhaustive detail-"

Disguised Hero: "Great, but first, what are our weaknesses and how can our enemies best exploit them?"


I like that Conrad was more subtle and even has a few specifics to feed Myshtigo and still got caught: "No! It is obvious that you are trying to elicit more information, so I do not think you know very much. What I am doing is still confidential."

Our travelogue continues further into Greece, where Conrad briefly meets with his son Jason. It reminded me very strongly of the Sandman story in the Fables and Reflections TPB that featured his son Orpheus.  Hasan refuses to stand down on his contract against the Vegan, and is stopped only in the nick of time when Conrad dashes the shotgun he had been cleaning from Hasan's grip before it could "accidentally" discharge.

Hasan sat there cleaning his aluminum barreled shotgun. It had a plastic stock and it was real light and handy. As he worked on it, it tilted forward, moved slowly about, pointed itself right at Myshtigo.

He'd done it quite neatly, I must admit that. It was during a period of over half an hour, and he'd advanced the barrel with almost imperceptible movements.

I snarled, though, when its position registered in my cerebrum, and I was at his side in three steps. I struck it from his hands.

It clattered on some small stone about eight feet away. My hand was stinging from the slap I'd given it.

Hasan was on his feet, his teeth shuttling around inside his beard, clicking together like flint and steel. I could almost see the sparks.

"Say it!" I said. "Go ahead, say something! Anything! You know damn well what you were just doing!"

His hands twitched.

"Go ahead!" I said. "Hit me! Just touch me, even. Then what I do to you will be self-defense, provoked assault. Even George won't be able to put you back together again."

"I was only cleaning my shotgun. You've damaged it."

I like Hasan as the phlegmatic killer. He reminds me of Sam as the Buddha in the Lord of Light, when speaking to Yama atop the rock. He takes no offense when Yama calls him a false Buddha, because he knows what he is. Likewise, when Conrad seeks to provoke Hasan into a foolish confrontation by calling him a coward, Hasan answers calmly, "No, I am not."

If you'll forgive a momentary digression, I enjoy the work of Stephen King, but he's a very different writer than Roger Zelazny.  He tends to be more about expressing something so that you remember the scene as a whole, rather than getting you to dwell on the individual sentences that he uses to describe it. Not so with Zelazny. I love his concepts as much I love to the set pieces that illustrate them and the phrases  ("So long as we live there is the great peacock-tail of probability, growing from out of the next moment.") that compose those pieces.

I really enjoy the way Zelazny can distill the essence of a concept and then brew what remains into poetry. Consider this brief passage, especially the bolded part:

Everybody knows that there are some people with an aptitude for music. They can hear a piece once and sit down and play it on the piano or thelinstra. They can pick up a new instrument, and inside a few hours they can sound as if they've been playing it for years. They're good, very good at such things, because they have that talent—the ability to coordinate a special insight with a series of new actions. Hasan was that way with weapons.

Hasan continues to rock with a Princess Bride Shout Out!

"I do not want to kill you, Karagee," he said.

"I share this feeling. I do not wish to be killed.''

The incidental wordplay in the book is great. When Doctor Moreby, an anthropologist who had gone native when studying a cannibalistic tribe (It's a small part, but he's a great villain), captures Conrad's party, he says to them. "I wanted any prisoners whom they came upon brought back alive. Your identities are, shall we say, condiments."

Lorel Sands smokes a meerschaum pipe. That's not remarkable in itself, except for the fact that meerschaum pipes were a minor plot point in Isle of the Dead.  And as long as I'm discussing things that appear in other books, Diane quotes from Book of the Dead, which must have served as a specific inspiration  the Creatures of Light and Darkness, though I didn't realize that until now

" 'In the Great House and in the House of Fire, on that Great Day when all the days and years are numbered, oh let my name be given back to me,' " it said.

"Good for you," I said softly. "Appropriate quote. I recognize the Book of the Dead when I hear it taken in vain."

It's a very good book, right up there with Lord of Light. I can't think of anything I would change about it. I'll end with a passage from the book, because it fits.

"No. I told you that you were heading into danger before, and you were, but you didn't believe me then. This time I feel that things should go well. That's all."

"Granting your accuracy in the past, I still feel you are underestimating that which lies before us."

She rose and stamped her foot.

"You never believe me!"

"Of course I do. It just happens that this time you're wrong, dear."

She swam away then, my mad mermaid, out into the dark waters. After a time she came swimming back.

"Okay," she said, smiling, shaking down gentle rains from her hair.


I caught her ankle, pulled her down beside me and began tickling her.

"Stop that!"

"Hey, I believe you, Cassandra! Really! Hear that? Oh, how about that? I really believe you. Damn! You sure are right!"

"You are a smart-alecky kallikanz— Ouch!"

And she was lovely by the seaside, so I held her in the wet, till the day was all around us, feeling good.

Which is a nice place to end a story.

Isn't it?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: And Call Me Conrad/This Immortal Part I

Welcome back to my Roger Zelazny book reviews. Today I'm looking at the first half of "...And Call me Conrad"/"This Immortal".

I think I owned This Immortal for a good six months before I read it. I bought my first copy when we moved to New Hampshire and lived in proximity of a wonderful specialty book store that carried nothing but sci-fi and fantasy. It had more Zelazny than I had ever seen in one place and I scooped up one copy of everything I didn't have (and often one copy of everything I did have because these were two dollar used book store paperbacks)

I looked at it and kind of shrugged and put it on my bookshelf and forgot about it. It looked slim and lightweight, and the title? This Immortal? It's a Roger Zelazny book. Aren't they all about this or that immortal anyway? It sounded like the name of a Roger Zelazny parody.

I know better now, of course. This Immortal (Like me, Zelazny preferred his original title, "...And Call Me Conrad") is not only a highly enjoyable read,  but also a work of tremendous sophistication from an author who was not yet thirty at the time and not incidental to these two facts, a Hugo award winner (having tied with Dune in 1966).

So that is the tale of how I came so late to one of the strongest works of my favorite author.

It is the story of an earth was devastated in a long ago war. Humanity was largely wiped out (global population is about four million), though many humans live as expatriates on Vegan worlds.

What's a Vegan? They "partake not in the meat, nor the breastmilk, nor the ovum, of any creature, with a face" which allows them to use all of their brainpower because the other 90% is no longer filled up with curds and whey.

Scott Pilgrim shout out!

I have the audio book of this and he pronounces it Vee-gan rather than Vay-gan, and while this in fact is the correct pronunciation, it makes me think of people who eschew any kind of animal in their diet every time I hear it. Vegans in This Immortal are friendly blue aliens who helped humanity after we almost wiped ourselves out, but they engendered some bad will in certain segments of humanity by adapting certain sections of the world for tourism and resorts.

Our lead is Conrad Nomikos, who has gone by other names in his time. He is the Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives for the planet Earth. He's a big man, and strong, like most Zelazny protagonists, but not a handsome one.

His wife is the lovely Cassandra. She can see the future, but no one believes her. The book was written 45 years ago before this kind of thing became a cliche, so I'm willing to give Zelazny a pass on this. (But seriously, when I encounter a character in a more modern genre work named Cassandra, the big surprise is if she's not psychic)

In his capacity as Commissioner, Conrad is retained by a visiting Vegan dignitary in order to serve as a tour guide. When asked why he was selected for this role, he receives the following answer: "I found that you could have been three or four or five other persons, all of them Greeks, and one of them truly amazing. But, of course, Konstantin Korones, one of the older ones, was born two hundred thirty-four years ago. On Christmas. Blue eye, brown eye. Game right leg. Same hairline, at age twenty-three. Same height, and same Bertillion scales."

I was familiar with the Bertlillion system because of a footnote in a criminal justice text when I was working towards my degree in forensic chemistry. It was one of the precursors to modern biometrics and it's no longer used. Zelazny's works do remain remarkably topical, and I think that the occasional anachronism does nothing to diminish them.  (I can even forgive the punch cards that make up the the Central Database in My Name is Legion.)

I like Conrad. My favorite character, however, is Hasan the assassin, with his scarred hands and who "could still face any barrier without blinking those sun-drenched, death-accustomed, yellow eyes…" He's ostensibly along as a bodyguard to another traveler, though Conrad believes he's been retained to eliminate the Vegan also.

"Have you been working for Mister Dos Santos very long?" I asked him.

"For about the period of a month," he replied.

He threw his knife. It struck five inches below the center.

"You are his bodyguard, eh?"

"That is right. I also guard the blue one."

"Don says he fears an attempt on Myshtigo's life. Is there an actual threat, or is he just being safe?"

"It is possible either way, Karagee. I do not know. He pays me only to guard."

"If I paid you more, would you tell me whom you've been hired to kill?"

"I have only been hired to guard, but I would not tell you even if it were otherwise."

"I didn't think so. Let's go get the knives."

The concept of a principled assassin is a bit of a cliche nowadays, but Hasan was subverting the archetype before it was archetypal. He also knows Conrad, of old, when Conrad was Karaghiosis, "the killer, the defender of Earth". He calls "Karagee" in private on several occasions, to which our hero replies "...and call me Conrad," thereby naming the book.

So they embark on their tour. Hasan travels with Rolem his Robot Golem, a kind of mechanized sparring partner. This comes in handy when Conrad receives word of his wife's death and flips the fuck out. He's quite capable of killing the entire party with his bare hands, so Hasan turns up Rolem to maximum (setting him "five times the strength of a human being" and "the reflexes of an adrenalized cat") disables the failsafes, and sets him loose.

I really like the description of how Conrad perceives the events through the filter of his madness:

I looked around. They had stopped coming at me, and it wasn't fair—it wasn't fair that they should stop then when I wanted so badly to see things breaking. So I raised up the man at my feet and slapped him down again. Then I raised him up again and someone yelled "Eh! Karaghiosis!" and began calling me names in broken Greek. I let the man fall back to the ground and turned.

There, before the fire—there were two of them: one tall and bearded, the other squat and heavy and hairless and molded out of a mixture of putty and earth.

"My friend says he will break you, Greek!" called out the tall one, as he did something to the other's back.

I moved toward them and the man of putty and mud sprang at me.

Conrad beats the robot apart with his bare hands and afterward, recovers his wits. It's such a gorgeously written scene. Afterwards his companions offer their condolences in their various ways.

The story was originally edited down and printed in two parts for its original publication and this is about where the first part of the story ended. This part of the review shall now do the same.Come back soon for part 2!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Looking for a new show

So, we've decided to cancel our cable. We've got Netflix and the few shows we watch are generally available for streaming, so no great loss and we save a couple bucks each month. And now we're looking for a new show.

I like "Dead Like Me" and Jen will watch it, but pretty much only because she loves me. And I want to find a show that we can both enjoy. As readers of this blog know, I'm a geek, but I like any show as long as it's got engaging writing.

So are there any gems out there that we're overlooking?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: A Farce to Be Reckoned With

Welcome back to my Roger Zelazny book reviews

A Farce to be Reckoned with is the third and final book in The Millennial Contest series. The first one was was entertaining, the second one was outstanding and the third is actually magical.

However, it's not the good kind of magic. It's Fairy Ring-Christine O'Donnell-Voodoo Doll-Black Magic. How else can you explain the fact that I am completely unable to remember the contents of the book moments after reading it? Was the ink infused with waters from the River Lethe?

Even with the most banal book, I can usually remember the gist of the plot. This is even more true for Zelazny books, from which I can often recall long passages more or less as written. I had reviewed the first two, but in thinking about this one, I couldn't remember how it played out.

Now I know I bought my current copy on May 23 of 2006 from Amazon. I still have the confirmation email. The book itself was right there on my shelf. Logic would suggest that I had read it at some point. But as I progressed through it, things weren't becoming any more familiar. It was as if the book had been described to me, rather than I having read it at some point in the past. But I knew that couldn't be the case either, because it's impossible to describe the plot of this book out loud without be overcome by a sudden attack of narcolepsy. So armed only with a thermos full of coffee and a stout heart, I embark upon this review.

The thing I liked about the first two books was the crazy pace. It never let up and Faust and company were careening from one adventure to the next. The third book is paced like a fight scene in a Zack Snyder movie. We start in SLLOOWWWWWWWMOTION- thenitgoesreallyfast -THEN...WE...SLLOOWWWWWWW...DOWN...AGAIN.

The main plot doesn't get underway until halfway through the book. And padding your work isn't great craftsmanship, but it's certainly not the worst sin a writer can commit. However, coupled with the extremely uneven pacing, it really brings down an already weak book.

Reading a little more, I had a vague memory of drinking heavily to scrub my memory of the book from my mind after I finished it the first time. Reading further, I'm convinced the authors did the same thing after finishing each chapter.

Before I bleach my brain entirely, I'll give the general outline. Azzie embarks upon a convoluted scheme to write an "immorality play", which will be performed away from mainline reality, but when it is reinserted, it will take on a life of its own. Or some such shit. I really can't be bothered to pay more attention to the plot that the authors did. Everyone thought that Azzie's plan was terrible idea. It almost destroys the universe, so looking at it objectively, I think it's safe to say it was a pretty bad idea.

Far too often, the book tells instead of showing. In Faust, Mephistopheles materialized in the Court of Kublai Khan "employing an entire panoply of fireworks and causing various prodigies of vision to appear in the air.."  and Azzie "rose into the air,spinning like a fiery whirligig, and then streaked off like a rocket, casting brilliant red and white spots."

In Farce, we are told "He made a striking exit." Wow. It's like I was RIGHT THERE watching it!

It manages to be absurd without being entertaining or amusing. I'm trying to think of something good to say, because I really enjoyed the second book, but I'm drawing a blank.

I think the critical mistake was casting Azzie as the hero of the piece, rather than as simply the protagonist.

When he's recruiting for his play, he spins his pitch to a bunch of pilgrims, culminating with:

"But will a person not be punished for having anything to do with Bad? My friends, that is mere propaganda on the part of Good, and not a true statement of the position at all. If it is all right for Bad to exist, then it must be all right to serve it."

Azzie took a sip of wine and looked at his audience. Yes, he had their attention.

I originally assumed that that this was supposed to illustrate his sophistry here, gulling a bunch of rubes with a specious argument, but I think that after reading the book to its conclusion, that the authors had some sympathy for this viewpoint.

They were going for some sort of moral at the end, but damned if I know what it was. I guess "Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do" or "reach for your dreams" are decent if trite morals, but they're rather at odds with the tone of the rest of the series. However, Ylith does seem to be be speaking as the voice of the author in the passage below, and the impression I get that is that they want us to think Azzie has done something noble.

"We should all be grateful to you, though I'm afraid that you're going to find a lot of people angry. The Council of Evil is considering issuing you a reprimand for staring the whole thing in the first place. But I still care for you. Always will, I'm afraid."

Yeah, he cleaned up the mess of his own making, but only because it was his ass on the line too. And by "cleaned up the mess" I mean "was present when the demiurge he invoked self-destructed". Is that where they're setting the bar for heroism these days?

It's a shame, because I really enjoyed the first book and loved the second. I've read that the relationship between Sheckley and Zelazny was not that good at the end, and it looks like they just gave up for this installment.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: If at Faust You Don't Succeed

I wrote earlier that I didn't think that Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming was influenced by Good Omens (and indeed, the authors may have taken pains to steer a similar plot in different directions once they learned of it), but I can't say the same can't be said of If At Faust You Don't Succeed.

It's a much richer work, and my favorite of the trilogy. The Philadelphia Inquirer said of the original: "A foolish field day…Silly names fly, bureaucracy foils evil, and it's all cute as the dickens." That's a good summation. It has no pretensions as anything greater than a silly romp and I think it succeeds outstandingly. Faust sets its sights higher and it also succeeds outstandingly.

I briefly commented in the first part of my review of the Hand of Oberon that the Chronicles from Brand's point of view would have been a really fun read, and we almost get a more-sane Brand as one the leads in Faust.

I'm always looking for authors like Zelazny, and other fans occasionally recommend Steven Brust, and while a fine writer, he never engaged me like Zelazny did, simply because Zelazny's work has such a penetrating, almost predatory intelligence to it, though not necessarily in his characters. Corwin is no dummy, but he's not an intellectual.  Brand is and so is Faust and they are both fun to read.

Zelazny and Sheckley have given conflicting accounts of their collaboration, but according to my Collected Works of Roger Zelazny, their relationship was starting to sour at this point, because Sheckley was rewriting Zelazny's contributions, much to his annoyance. That's funny, though, because Faust reads more like a traditional Zelazny story than Prince Charming did. I did like Charming, but reading Faust so soon after it makes me realize that it doesn't really have the complexly layered prose that I enjoy about Zelazny's work.

For instance, observe here, Mephistopheles' temptation of a former divinity student and petty criminal named Mack the Club, whom Mephistopheles believes is Faust.

"And where am I to enjoy my new lifestyle with unlimited wealth 'and boundless women?"

"Why, where you please," Mephistopheles said. "But if none of the present divisions of the world please you, we can take you elsewhere in time, to any moment in any place anywhere, even the ones that do not yet exist, because there is a law that says that that which is conceived must exist from the moment of its conception. And we can set you up in such a place as a great doctor of learning, or a prince of your own state, or a wealthy churchman, or what you please. We like to think of ourselves as occupational therapists, too, so you may do what you will in this new place, and if the job does not exist, we create it for you. We can find you a purpose in life that will suit you down to a T, no matter what kind of a T you are. And, with potions and simples that we supply free with our offer, we ensure you a long, happy life and a decline so gradual that you don't even notice it."

"Until the end, of course," Mack said.

"Of course. You could hardly miss noticing that."

Mack considered for a moment and then said, "You don't by any chance offer immortality, do you?"

"You drive a hard bargain, Faust! No, we don't offer immortality. Why should we? This new enhanced package of ours, limited as it may be in terms of what is possible to the imagination, is still enough to buy a trillion like you for the least part of it."

"How well you know us!" said Mack. "How wise you are!" But actually he thought that Mephistopheles was pompous, stuck-up, and more than a little silly. Mack felt he could handle this spirit, not knowing, of course, that he was falling for one of Hell's subtlest delusions.

As entertaining as it was, Prince Charming only works as a comedy. Faust works as an actual story and a very good one at that. It may be my second-favorite of Zelazny's collaborations (Donnerjack being the first), and my second-favorite of Zelazny's retelling of Faust (For a Breath I Tarry being the first there)

Mack has taken the place of Faust in a "temporal-moral" contest, where the participant will be transported to a specific time and place for each episode. At a certain point, he will be have to make a moral decision and mankind will be judged on his actions.

The real Faust arrives just in time to see Mack signing on for this contest in his place. Outraged that an impostor without even a casual knowledge of alchemy thought he could come in and steal his long-awaited pact with the devil, Faust gives pursuit. And the game is on!

Faust is fun to read and Marguerite, the goosegirl turned serving wench plays amusingly off of him.

Marguerite said, "One thing bothers me. We were taught the Styx didn't really exist. So how can you ask directions to it?"

Faust smiled in a superior way and asked her, "Does the Archangel Michael exist?"

"Well, of course."

"And what about the Holy Grail? Does that exist?"

"So they say," Marguerite said.

"Well then, believe me, the Styx exists, too. If one imaginary thing exists, then all imaginary things must exist."

Marguerite sniffed. "Well, if you say so."

"Of course I say so," Faust said. "Who's the autodidactic thaumaturge around here?"

The book has the same frantic pace as its predecessor, and even minor characters like Rognir the dwarf return.

The episode in Constantinople in 1210 reminded me of Ben Bova's Orion and I really dig the exchange when Faust finally catches up to Mack.

"We seem to be at cross-purposes here," Mack said. "I doubt not that you are Faust. Yet I am Faust, too, on the authority of no less a person than Mephistopheles." .

"Mephistopheles was mistaken!"

"When the great ones make mistakes, those mistakes become law."

Faust drew himself to his full height, which was rather shorter than Mack's, and said, "Must I listen to this casuistic palaver from one who speaks in my name? By the powers, I'll have vengeance if you don't vacate immediately and leave this game to the player for whom it was intended, namely, me."

"You think highly of yourself, that much is evident," Mack said. "But as to who was chosen, it seems to, be me. You can argue till kingdom come and you won't change that."

"Argue? I'll do a lot more than argue! I'll blast you with spells of greatest puissance, and your punishment will be most hideously condign."

"Will be what?" Mack asked.

"Condign. It means fitting. I intend to give you a punishment worthy of your transgression."

"You know a lot of words honest folk never use," Mack said hotly. 

The second episode is in the court of Kublai Khan, during Marco Polo's time there. As I said, the story is more coherent than the one in Prince Charming, but it's still full of the absurdity I enjoyed there. Mack is posing as an ambassador from Ophir. Marco Polo is trying to get a feel for this stranger.

"Tell me, what are your principal products?" he asked.

"We export a lot of stuff," Mack said, "but our main products are gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks."

"Apes! That's interesting," Marco said, "The great Khan has been looking for a good source of apes."

The description of the mirror prison where Ylith confines Mack reminds me of the Lord of Bats' gem prison.

Mirror Prison:

He was in a small room with mirrors. There were mirrors on all the walls, floor, and ceiling. There seemed to be more mirrors than the number of walls would accommodate. They formed reflecting quicksilver tunnels and precipices, a baroque topography of mirrors. He saw himself reflected and re-reflected in a hundred mirrors at a hundred angles. He turned, and saw himself turn in a myriad of surfaces. He took a tentative step forward and saw his doubles do the same, though some seemed to go backwards. Another step, and he bumped into a mirror. He recoiled, and his many likenesses did the same, except for a few who hadn't bumped into anything. Mack found it strange and somewhat sinister that some of his mirror images weren't doing what he was or what the others were doing. One of those aberrant images was sitting in an armchair reading a book; he looked up and winked at Mack. Another  appeared to be sitting on a riverbank, fishing. He didn't look up. There was even one who was sitting backwards on a chair, legs stretched out, grinning into Mack's face. At least Mack assumed it was his face. Suddenly he was no longer sure what the front of his face was wearing.

Gem Prison:

     He was on his knees in a place of brilliance, and the multitudes mocked him. No.

     Those who mimicked  his every movement were other versions of himself.

     He  shook his head to clear it, realized then that he was surrounded by mirrors and brightness.

      He  stood, regarding the confused prospect. He was near to the center of a large, many-sided chamber. All of the walls were mirrors as were the countless facets of the concave ceiling and the gleaming  floor beneath him. He was not certain as to the source of the light. Perhaps it had its origin, somehow, in the mirrors themselves. Part way up the wall to his right, a table was laid. As he approached it, he realized that he was walking up an incline, though he felt no extra strain upon his muscles nor any disturbance of his sense of equilibrium. Hurrying then, he passed the table and continued on in what he deemed  to be a straight line. The table was behind  him, then above  him. After several hundred  paces, it was before him once again. He  turned in a right angle from his course and repeated the walk. The results were the same.

I enjoyed how Odysseus and Achilles were woven into the story. (Azzie conjured up Helen to tempt Faust, and the pair leaves Hades to get them back.)  What could have been a throwaway gag actually contributes to the overall narrative. I really like their portrayal of Hades as a gloomy place where the dead go through the motions of being alive because they have nothing else to do. The temperature is "just chilly enough that you weren't comfortable sitting outside, but not cold enough to be invigorating." Sisyphus had been set free long ago, but he still pushes his rock, because it gives him something to do. This corresponds to my understanding of the Greek afterlife.

When they finally catch up to Faust, they unleash the Furies upon him:

The door of the tavern was suddenly blown open by a blast of ill-smelling air. The Furies flew in. They came as three big crows with dusty black feathers, screaming and squawking and bombarding everyone with smelly excrement. Then they transformed themselves into their human shape—three old women, long-nosed and red eyed, wearing ragged, dusty black garments. Alecto was fat, and Tisiphone was skinny, and the third, Megaera, was both fat and skinny, but in all the wrong places. All the sisters had eyes like fried eggs after the yolk has run. They danced around Faust, screeching and cackling, laughing and hooting, leaping and capering, and Faust tried to maintain a dignified silence, but it was difficult with these ancient harridans carrying on so.

At length Faust said, "This behavior will do you no good, my dear ladies, because I am not of your time and construct and so it is unlikely that your presence will fill me with pious horror."

"Pious, schmious," Tisiphone said. "Maybe we can't coerce you physically. But you will find it difficult to carry on a conversation with us screaming in your ear all the time."

"This is ridiculous," Faust said.

"But that's the way it is," Tisiphone said. "Maybe you'd like to hear us sing a particularly irritating folk song with several hundred choruses? All together, girls."

The finale is rather different in tone than the rest of the book, and I'm still not sure if that's a bug or a feature, but it does an effective and entertaining job of tying everything together.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Roger Zelazy Book Review: Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming

Stop me if you've heard this one.

In the early 90s, two renowned genre authors collaborated to write a farcical take on the conflict between Heaven and Hell.

And who didn't love Good Omens?

That's the problem. Judged on its own, Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming is a fine book. Entertaining, even. However, Gaiman and Pratchett got there first and did it better. I could end the review here.

But I won't, because I think it's a good enough book to stand on its own. Good Omens saw print in May of 1990, and Charming came out in December of 1991. That's close enough together that I'm inclined to think that the similarities are just coincidences. The plots are similar in some ways, though hardly identical and BMtHoPC is a broader, less subtle work.

It moves briskly and there is a lot of story in there. I'm not that familiar with Scheckley's works, but this economy of story reminds of Zelazny's earlier novel, Doorways in the Sand, which was also packed to the brim with all the story the pages would hold.

I liked the cover art. Too often in genre works, you wind up with cover art where the artist was clearly never provided with appropriate reference materials, but Azzie has a distinctive imagined look and he appears much as he's described in the book.

It's a cute little premise. Every thousand years, there comes the time when the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness hold their great contest to see who shall dictate the essence of human destiny for the next thousand years, and whether it shall be for good or for evil. Our protagonist is Azzie Elbub, and comes up with the plan to create a prince and princess who will act out the Sleeping Beauty story, and "Their conclusion to the tale, arrived at by their own free will, with only a minimum of behind-the-scenes tampering on my part, will show conclusively, to the enjoyment of our friends and the confusion of our enemies, that given a free hand, evil must inevitably win in the contests of the human spirit."

It has some some fun random exchanges:
"Felixite!" Rognir gave a small, unconvincing laugh. "What makes you think there's any around here?"

"A little mouse told me," Azzie said, making a clever allusion to Hermes' former occupation as Mouse god, before he was abolished or transformed along with the rest of the Olympians. This was completely lost on Rognir.

I enjoyed the interaction between Babriel the Angel and Azzie.

"What a nice place this is! I especially like the symbols on your wall." He indicated the right, or west, wall, where, set in niches, were a series of demons' heads done in black onyx. The demons had various aspects, including ape, falcon, asp, and from the New World, a wolverine.

"Those aren't symbols, stupid," Azzie said. "Those are busts of my ancestors."

"What about this one?" the angel asked, indicating the wolverine head.

"That's my uncle Zanzibar. He emigrated to Greenland, arriving with Erik the Red, and stayed on to become a graven image."

I like the abundant absurdity. I like that a village has grown up around Glass Mountain with bookstores filled with books about climbing glass mountains. I like that Azzie went to be college and had the chance to take a class on Human Tergiversation, but didn't because it was an elective and False Dialectic had seemed more interesting at the time.

I'll go into greater detail with the later books, but I think this is fine, lightweight entertainment. Not the best of Zelazny's works, but hardly the worst.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: A Night in the Lonesome October

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere--
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year;

This is revised and expanded from an earlier post several years ago.

We are now well into October, so I expect I should get along with my review of Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October (It's not to be confused with a bog standard novel of the same name, though both obviously take their title from Poe's Ulalume).  The book has thirty one chapters, each corresponding to a day of October in 1887. Before our daughter was born, my wife and I used to read a chapter a day in October and I'm sure we're not the only ones to do that.

A Night in the Lonesome October is narrated by Snuff, the dog who is Jack the Ripper's familiar. (I lent the book to a friend when we first met, and he said "If anyone asks, the narrator is Jack the Ripper's dog, okay?")  
  Snuff says early on: "I fetch things for Jack on occasion, his wand, his big knife with the old writing on the sides.  I always know just when he needs them because it is my job to watch and to know.  I like being a watchdog better than what I was before he summoned me and gave me this job." The last part is the subject of some debate in certain circles. Was Snuff a regular dog before Jack called him or was Snuff something else entirely before the summoning and only exists in dogform now? I tend to lean towards the former, but I do like the ambiguity.

I thought it would make an excellent board game. I even tried sketching out some rules, based on how Snuff had described it to Larry. There were different roles characters could take, Watcher, Anticipator, Diviner, Calculator. You'd play the animals. It would be a blast if properly done.

It is revealed as the story progresses that once every few decades, when the moon is full on the night of Halloween (Apropos of nothing, apparently I was born on a Halloween of the full moon, something I learned just now.), the fabric of reality thins, and doors may be opened between this world and the realm of the Elder Gods. When these conditions are right, men and women with occult knowledge may gather at a specific ritual site, to either hold the doors closed, or to help fling them open. Should the Closers win, then the world will remain as it is until the next turning... but should the Openers succeed, then the Elder Gods will come to Earth, to remake the world in their own image. The Openers have never yet won. These meetings are often referred to as "The Game" or "The Great Game" by the participants. I think Zelazny called it that specifically for the purposes of the following exchange:

Last night we obtained more ingredients for the master's spell.  As we paused on a corner in Soho the Great Detective and his companion came out of the fog and approached us.

"Good evening," he said.

"Good evening," Jack replied.

"Would you happen to have a light?"

Jack produced a package of wax vestas and passed it to him.  Both men maintained eye contact as he lit his pipe.
"Lots of patrolmen about."


 "Something's afoot, I daresay."

Get it? Get it?!

Anyways, it is just such an enjoyable book. Zelazny reads it on the version I have, and while he seemed incapable of getting through a sentence without parsing it on the Amber audiobooks, he sounds like he's having a blast reading this one. I wouldn't say it's his best written book, though it's certainly the most fun. I'd say it even beats out Neil Gaiman's Study in Emerald for the best Sherlock Holmes/HP Lovecraft/Jack the Ripper crossover (which admitedly is not the most crowded field.)

The thing
that makes it work is the interaction between Snuff, Jack's dog, and Graymalk, Jill's pet. It starts as guarded admiration and matures into the genuine respect and friendship over the course of the month.

The cat Graymalk came slinking about, pussyfoot, peering in our windows.  Ordinarily, I have little against cats.  I can take them or leave them, I mean.  But Graymalk belongs to Crazy Jill who lives over the hill, in towards town, and Graymalk was spying for her mistress, of course.  I growled to let her know she had been spotted.

     "About your watching early, faithful Snuff," she hissed.

     "About your spying early," I responded, "Gray."

     "We have our tasks."

     "We do."

     "And so it has begun."

     "It has."

     "Goes it well?"

     "So far.  And you?"

     "The same.  I suppose it is easiest simply to ask this way, for now."

     ". . . But cats are sneaky," I added.

     She tossed her head, raised a paw and studied it.

     "There are certain pleasures to be had in lurking."

     "For cats," I said.

     ". . . And certain knowledges gained."

     "Such as . . . ?"

     "I am not the first come calling here today.  My predecessor left traces.  Are you aware of this, faithful watcher?"

     "No," I replied.  "Who was it?"

     "The owl, Nightwind, consort of Morris and MacCab.  I saw him flee at dawn, found a feather out back.  The feather is tainted with mummy dust, to do you ill."

     "Why do you tell me this?"

     "Perhaps because I am a cat and it amuses me to be arbitrary and do you a good turn.  I shall take the feather away with me and leave it at their window, concealed amid shrubs."

     "I prowled last night after my walk," I said.  "I was near your house beyond the hill.  I saw Quicklime, the black snake who lives in the belly of the mad monk, Rastov.  He rubbed against your doorpost, shedding scales."

     "Ah! And why do you tell me this?"

     "I pay my debts."

     "There should not be debts between our folk."

     "This is between us."

     "You are a strange hound, Snuff."

     "You are a strange cat, Graymalk."

     "As it should be, I daresay."

     And she was gone amid shadows.  As it should be.

Is that not awesome? I remember reading somewhere Zelazny discussing the book, and he said something about how dogs love their masters uncritically, and even Jack the Ripper would be loved by his dog if he were nice to it.  Jack does seem like a decent master. Another of my favorite scenes is when he's rescuing Snuff from the vivisectionists.

     I could see it now, like a black tornado, surrounding Jack, settling inward.  If it entered him completely he would no longer be in control of his actions.

     "I've come for my dog," he said.  "That's him on your table."

     He moved forward.

     "No, you don't, laddie," said the beefy man.  "This is a special job for a special client."

     "I'll be taking him and leaving now."

     The beefy man raised his scalpel and moved around the table.

     "This can do amazing things to a man's face, pretty boy," he said.

     The others picked up scalpels, also.

     "I'd guess you've never met a man as really knows how to cut," the beefy one said, advancing now.


     It was into him, and that funny light came into his eyes, and his hand came out of his pocket and captured starlight traced the runes on the side of his blade.

     "Well-met," Jack said then, through the teeth of his grin, and he continued to walk straight ahead.

It's not the easiest book to find any more but any book that throws together Jack the Ripper, "The Count", "The Good Doctor" and his "Experiment Man" a Werewolf, a Witch, a crazed Vicar, a druid, and a Mad Monk, each with their animal companions and works as a serious novel is really worth seeking out. It's my nature to have tiny little complaints even about my favorite works, but there is absolutely nothing I would change about it. The Vicar in particular is a wonderfully vile villain, the count is alien and strange, but standing with the angels for this time:

Then the moon went out.  We all looked upward as a dark shape covered it, descending, rushing toward us.  Morris shrieked shrilly as it fell, changing shape as if dark veils swam about it.  And then the moon shone again, and the piece of midnight sky which had fallen came to earth beside Jack, and I saw that vision-twisting transformation of which Graymalk had spoken, here, there, a twist, a swirl, a dark bending, and the Count stood at Jack's side, smiling a totally evil smile.  He laid his left hand, the dark ring visible upon it, upon Jack's right shoulder.

     "I stand with him," he said, "to close you out."

     Vicar Roberts stared at him and licked his lips.

     "I would think one of your sort more inclined to our view in this matter," the vicar stated.

     "I like the world just the way it is," said the Count.  "Pray, let us begin."

The Count doesn't get a lot of screen time, but just about every appearance is filled to overflowing with awesome. Bubo is great, the Body Parts man is wonderful, the Sherlock Holmes bits are superbly crafted.

More so than anything Zelazny has ever written, this novel is begging for a sequel. Set it in 1955 with a mix of more modern monsters and some returning favorites and it would be be incredible.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Adventures of Charlie Brown, Kitty Clock and Princess Pretty.

We were carving pumpkins today and I said, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!"

Lily said "My name's not Charlie Brown!"

Me: What would your name be if you were a boy?
Lily: (Thinks for a moment, laughs) Charlie Brown!
Me: What would mommy's name be if she were a boy?
Lily: Mmmm...Kitty Clock!
Me: And what would my name be if I were a girl!
Lily: Princess Pretty!

Awesome! That's absolutely going to be the name of my next character for City of Heroes

I was watching the Secret of Kells with Lily and there is a scene where the little girl gets knocked over and Lily looks over at me and says "I think she's dead." I swear, she thinks about death and dying an awful lot for a four-year-old.

I was talking to a friend about my weekend and she mentioned that I lead an interesting life. We were having this conversation over email, and at first I assumed that she had accidentally emailed me with a comment meant for someone else. I'm just about the most boring person in the world. What I am, however, is a halfway decent writer, and I'm able to recount semi-interesting activities in a somewhat engaging fashion to give the illusion that I occasionally do something entertaining. Also, Jen is very good about scheduling fun things to do, and I've become somewhat better since Lily was born in sometimes getting out of the house to do fun stuff.

Yesterday, after dinner Lily was telling us what a narrator does, and she really does remember everything she sees and hears. She's going to be a smart adult.

She's going to be a sweet one too. I was pretending to walk into the door frame to be silly, but Lily thought I was really going to hurt myself, so when I went to do it again, she stepped in my path with her arms upraised and said, "No, daddy! You'll hurt yourself!"

I'm kind of concerned that she's going to be a good liar on top of that. She wanted to "trick" mommy into thinking that she was wearing her jammies to bed, but she was really getting dressed in the clothes she would wear tomorrow, which is a time-saving technique we employ from time to time. The thing was, she kept up a completely fictional running commentary about "Now I'm putting on my jammie pants" and "I'm getting dressed in my fuzzy slippers", and she seems aware of the fact that if you can convince someone that they already know the truth, they're not going to go searching for it. Something to keep an eye on.

In happier news, here is a photo of the first picture she made for my desk at work.

 (She had drawn one previously, but decided that she liked it so much that she was going to keep it.)  She told me, "If you ever get sad at work, you just take a look at the picture. It will remind you of me, and you'll be happy again!" And you know what? She's right!

A friend sent me a link to a cool story because she knows how much Lily loves riding on escalators. The Levylator has a modular design that allows it be arranged in an endlesss loop. (Mechanized Penrose Stairs, anyone?)

I showed it to Lily and she said "Oh, boy! You'd never have to get off of it!"

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Today we Choose Faces

Today we choose Today We Choose Faces for our latest Roger Zelazny book review.

Today We Choose Face
s is thoroughly middle of the road for a Zelazny book. I can snark about Lord Demon all day and night, but I find it hard to drum up any kind of enthusiasm for Faces one way or another. (Except for the title, which is just sheer poetry.)

I heard an old Writer's Voice interview Zelazny gave shortly after the book was published in the early 70s and he seems really enthusiastic about it. I don't know if he was trying to gin up a little publicity for his new book or just felt affectionate towards it or what. I feel the same sense of confusion when he talks about Eye of Cat being one of his favorites. I guess I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that such a talented author has such affection for one of his most quotidian efforts. (Then again, he talked about writing a third Wizard World novel and that's one series that went on for two books too long already)

I remember when I saw it on the shelf of a friend who had discovered Roger Zelazny separately from me. He once told me that his mother was the schoolteacher for one of Zelazny's children when she lived out west. The cool part about the story is that she met him during a parent-teacher conference and she was the authority figure! I have no way of knowing if this story is true, but I'm inclined to believe it, because why tell such a trivial and specific lie?

His had the cool cover art. I like it better than the version I have now. Google Image Search is failing me, though. (Or perhaps my memory is failing me, because I am utterly unable to find a version of the cover I remember. It had a gangster in a trenchcoat.) My paperback copy has the image I'm using for the review.

It's better in concept than in execution. I was trying to decide which story to review next and I came across the article for the book on Wikipedia. "Hey! That's more exciting than I remember! I'll do that one next!"

The main character is Angelo di Negri, "Angie the Angel". It's Italian for Black Angel. Remember that, because it's important down the line. The book was published shortly after the release of the Godfather. I was never especially interested in romanticizing organized crime. Sure I'll click on the link to send you some forges to build your weapon depot in Mafia Wars on Facebook, but it's not something that has a lot of appeal for me like it does some folks.

In 1973, the concept of a hitman who only kills bad people was novel, but that's not the case anymore. (Thanks for ruining that for us, Grosse Point Blank! Also, it's bullshit that John Cusack could beat up Benny Urquidez )

I want to stress that it's not bad. It's a great concept. The narrative just never comes together like it does in almost every other Zelazny novel. Click over to the page I linked to on Wikipedia, because they do an excellent job of summarizing the plot. So much so that it's more interesting than the actual book. There is a fair amount of stuff I do like here (For instance, I really dig the fact that all the clones have names that somehow relate to Angelo di Negri, each of them being translations or anagrams of Angel or Black or references to fictional angels), and I'm aware that my complaints must seem picayune. It did have some neat concepts, and I really dug Styler, the man with the machine mind. (Not to be confused with Courtcour Bodgis, the man with the computer mind from Isle of the Dead.) He gets all the good lines. ("Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this." The quote from Pascal continues: "All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.") But there are just a million tiny imperfections that weigh down an otherwise decent fable.

Originally, Part I, which deals with Angelo's awaking in the future and the subsequent raid on Styler and founding of the House was supposed to have been a flashback, but it was changed at the request of the editor to appear at the beginning. Zelazny says he lacked the confidence or the status to argue with his editor, but he preferred it the way he wrote it. I don't really have much of an opinion either way.  I don't think it would have improved what I perceive as the shortcomings of the book.

Ultimately, it's an ambitious if somewhat imperfect endeavor, an interesting contemplation on the fundamental flaws of humanity. Perhaps I judge Zelazny's work more strictly than I would another author, because I know the heights of which he is capable. It's still a decent book, even if I feel it falls somewhat short of the goals it sets for itself.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Gallinger is from Mars, Davits is from Venus

I thought I'd bundle these two together, because they occupy a similar place in my mental landscape. They were already anachronistic when they were written, throwbacks to the era of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Zelazny knew this and commented that he'd have just one chance to write a story of this type, so he'd better do a good job. He wrote one story set on Mars and one set on Venus.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes

The story is narrated by a brilliant poet and linguist named Gallinger (though I always misremember it as "Gallagher") He's selected to go to Mars and in order to learn the  language of the Martians and to read their ancient holy books. While in the course of this, he is seduced by Braxa, a Martian dancer, and she becomes pregnant.

This is disturbing to the Martians, because they had resigned themselves to extinction (because all the men of the species are sterile): "Death was decided, voted upon, and passed, shortly after it appeared in this form.  But long before, before the followers of Locar knew.  They decided it long ago.  `We have done all things,' they said, 'we have seen all things, we have heard and felt all things. The dance was good.  Now let it end.'"  Zelazny expresses a similar sentiment about the Pei'ans from Isle of the Dead: "Since their greatest scholars have already written the last chapter in the immense History of Pei'an Culture, in 14,926 volumes, they may have decided that there's no reason to continue things any further."

Gallinger harangues the Martians from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which mirrors the pessimism of the Martian texts. They all live happily ever after, except for Gallinger, who tries to kill himself when his Martian Baby-Mama leaves him.

That's a bit harsher than such a good story deserves. It's almost universally regarded as one of Zelazny's finest works, but it never did it for me. I don't know why. I can appreciate that it's wonderfully crafted story, but it just leaves me cold. Perhaps it's because I never grew up with the pulps and there was never a time where I could take the concept of a humanlike Martian seriously. It's like seeing Laurence Olivier performing Hamlet in a Barney costume. Yeah, he's going to give an awesome performance, but no matter how great he is, my attention is going to be on the fact that he's holding that skull in a big purple paw. And even though I know the problem lies not with the story, but rather, with my perception of it, but I just can't get over that to appreciate it as much as it deserves.

And it's a shame, because I can appreciate the craftsmanship that went into constructing it, but I don't derive much enjoyment from reading it. I mean, I like everything but the Martians, but the problem is, they're pretty central to the story. Still, it was quite a number of beautiful lines:

Go, Gallinger.  Dip your bucket in the well, and bring us a drink of Mars.  Go, learn another world--but remain aloof, rail at it gently like Auden--and hand us its soul in iambics.

-All the truly sacred names of God are blasphemous things to speak!

The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth

Also a pulp story at its heart, but somehow it didn't bother me. I guess it's the absence of humanoid aliens. It takes place on Venus, but the location isn't vital to the story like it is with Rose. If you moved it to a water planet called Poseidon or something, the story would still work today.

Our narrator here is Carlton Davits self-described "playboy fishing enthusiast". He went broke trying to land Ichthyform Leviosaurus Levianthus, generally known as "Ikky".

Though we don't find out until we're well into the story, Carl lost his nerve once Ikky was hooked.

Fresh narco-tanks had been connected. It needed another shot, fast. But I was paralyzed.

It had made a noise like God playing a Hammond organ...

And looked at me!

I don't  know if seeing is even the same process in eyes like those. I doubt it. Maybe I was just a gray blur behind a black  rock, with the plexi-reflected sky hurting its  pupils. But it fixed on me. Perhaps the snake doesn't really paralyze the rabbit, perhaps it's just that rabbits are cowards by constitution. But it began to struggle and I still couldn't move, fascinated.

Fascinated by all that power, by those eyes, they found me there fifteen minutes later, a little broken about the head and shoulders, the Inject still unpushed.

And I dream about those eyes. I want to face them once  more, even if their finding takes forever. I've got to know if there's something inside me that sets  me apart from  a rabbit, from notched plates of reflexes and instincts that always fall apart in exactly the same way whenever the proper combination is spun.

His ex-wife, Jean Luharich wants to land an Ikky, and Carl is hired as the baitman, the guy who swims ahead of the vessel. They eventually catch Ikky and circumstances conspire to place Jean in the same situation that Carl once faced, a partially narcotized Ikky mesmerizing her. He could have pushed the button, but he convinces Jean to do it so she doesn't torment herself the way he did for so many years.

"He's big, Carl!" she cried.

And he grew, and grew, and grew uneasy...


He looked down.

He looked down, as the god of our most ancient ancestors might have looked down.  Fear, shame, and mocking laughter rang in my head. Her head, too?


She looked up at the nascent earthquake.

"I can't!"

It was going to be so damnably simple this time, now the rabbit had died. I reached out.

I stopped.

"Push it yourself."

"I can't. You do it. Land him, Carl!"

"No. If I do, you'll wonder for the rest of your life whether you could have. You'll throw  away your soul finding out. I know you will, because we're alike, and I did it that way. Find out now!"

She stared.

I gripped her shoulders.

"Could be that's me out there," I offered. "I am a green sea serpent, a hateful, monstrous beast, and out to destroy you. I am answerable to no one. Push the Inject."

Her hand moved to the button, jerked back.


She pushed it.

I like that. I was talking to a friend not that long ago, and we agreed that there are some acts that one must do for oneself. If you're deep in a pit, you've got to climb out on your own. Where a good friend comes in is that he can hold the ladder for you. And that's what Carl's doing here. I think now that Carl and Jean are more grounded, they can rekindle their relationship informed by that new maturity.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reservoir Dogs

We had a rather pleasant weekend, though it didn't go exactly as planned. The setup was great. Jen and I would have one night together, one day with Lily, and then I'd get one day mostly to myself. Jen's Sunday plans fell through, so I had a nice little miniature daddy-daughter day with Lily instead and Jen took off to do a little bird watching.

Saturday was a huge amount of fun. Jen and I had our very first date at Merrill Creek Reservoir and ever since Lily was born, we're always sure to make a trip out there every October. Lily was old enough to really get something out of the children's corner in the Visitor's Center, so we spent some time there. Lily declared herself a "Science Kid". I was so proud.

Kilroy was here.

Scoping things out.

Rescuing the Woolly Bear.
Lily was incredibly sweet. She found a little woolly bear caterpillar and decided that he was cold so she made a little house for him, as shown in the video below. It's funny how her voice rises to a falsetto when she's mothering some animal she's found or little kid she's befriended.  (If you're reading this on Facebook and the video doesn't show up, go to to watch it)

I'm a little disappointed with how much blogger degrades my videos, but I'm not too upset, because I figure there are two types of people who read this blog. There are the folks who found it by searching for Roger Zelazny, and don't really care about the personal posts, so they're not going to care if the video is low-def. And there are the people who know me in real life and read the blog when it feeds into Facebook. I already have a much nicer version of the video hosted there, so anyone who wants to see it has it available. Everybody wins! Yay!