Friday, December 7, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: No Award

I like trivia. It is by definition, trivial, and knowing a lot of it is not to be mistaken for intelligence, but I like learning random facts, because chasing them down the rabbit hole and learning if they are true, and how the circumstances that conspired to make them so is often an interesting trip.

Last month I send my best friend an email that said "Did you know one of the blue dudes in Akira was supposed to have polio?" (He replied with "I love it when you say the most incredibly nerdy things to me.")

The thing I liked about Zelazny is that he seemed to have the same enthusiasm, but in his case, he went further, and on reading something interesting, he seemed to say, "Hey, I could write a story about this!"

(Or perhaps I'm projecting here, though a number of the remembrances in the COLLECTED STORIES speak of his boundless curiosity, so I don't think it's a huge stretch, and if is, it's a positive enough trait that I hope I'm not disparaging his memory with this line of speculation)

No Award strikes me that it could have come about in such a way. It's the story of a Manchurian Candidate by way of a corpus callosotomy.

Our narrator enters the hall where the president will be giving a speech.

I glanced at my watch. Still some time. Some other people were smoking. Seemed like a good idea. As I reached for my cigarettes I remembered that I had quit, then discovered that I still carried them. No matter. Take one. Light it- (Trouble. Use the other hand.) I felt some- what tense. Not certain why. Inhale. Better. Good.

The thing that dates this story is not the smoking, but just how small the venue seems. Modern campaign rallies are attended by tens of thousands of people, and the impression I get here is that there are a couple dozen people. It takes place in a "hall" as opposed to a stadium.

Anyways, our narrator, Mister Mathews had been kidnapped, brain-surgeried and brainwashed into becoming the perfect assassin to elude the president's telepathic security.

It's kind of a silly idea for a story (that is one Rube Goldberg assassination attempt) but I admire the effort Zelazny puts into making it seem at least plausible, with the second half of the story being concerned with explaining how the first half could have come about.

All right. I feel like—myself—at any rate. Why did they do this to me?"

"To turn you into the perfect modem assassin," Arthur said. "Half of the brain can be put to sleep while the other hemisphere remains awake. This is done simply by administering a drug via the carotid artery on the appropriate side. After the surgery had been performed,  you—the left hemisphere—were put to sleep while the right hemisphere was subjected to hypnosis and behavior modification techniques, was turned into a conditioned assassin—"

"I had always thought a person could not be hypnotized into doing certain things."

He nodded.

"Normally, that seems to be the case. However, it appears that, by itself, the emotional, less rational right hemisphere is more susceptible to suggestion—and it was not a simple kill order which it received, it was a cleverly constructed and well-rehearsed illusion to which it was trained to respond."

"Okay," I said. "Buying all that, how did they make what happened happen?"

"The mechanics of it? Well, the conditioning, as I said, was done while you were unconscious and, hence, unaware of it. The conditioned hemisphere was then placed in a state of deep sleep, with the suggestion that it would awaken and perform its little act on receipt of the appropriate cue. Your hemisphere was then impressed with a post-hypnotic suggestion to provide that cue, in the form of the phrase you spoke, at a particular time when the speech would be going on. So they left you out in front and you walked into the hall consciously aware of none of this. Your mind was perfectly innocent under any telepathic scrutiny."

Most reviews of Zelazny's work focus on the poetic imagery or the fantastic concepts in his work, but something that seems less appreciated is how meticulously he explored the ramifications of his "What If?" stories.

I can't imagine anyone saying "No Award is my favorite story!" (or even "No Award is my favorite story by Roger Zelazny!" but it's fun and quick.


  1. It may be fitting to comment on the "No Award" story with remarks about Zelazny's work ranking highly on the new Locus All-Time Poll for best sf and fantasy novels. This was a web-based survey in which votes were cast for all-time best novels in four categories: 20th century sf, 20th century fantasy, 21st century sf, and 21st century fantasy.

    Complete results are here:

    Several Zelazny novels placed within the 20th century categories.

    LORD OF LIGHT ranked 23rd as SF novel and 66th as fantasy novel. Rather fitting to see it rank highly in both categories since Zelazny intended it to straddle the boundaries of sf and fantasy. If the votes were combined into one category it would have ranked much higher.

    NINE PRINCES IN AMBER placed 5th as fantasy novel and 221st as sf novel. It's remarkable to see what it ranked above in the fantasy category.

    THIS IMMORTAL ranked 102nd as SF novel.

    CHRONICLES OF AMBER placed 89th as fantasy novel, although voters were instructed to vote for individual novels and not series. If these votes were combined with the individual votes for NINE PRINCES IN AMBER, the rank would still be 5th overall for NINE PRINCES.

    JACK OF SHADOWS placed 119th as fantasy novel.

    A NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER placed 166th as fantasy novel.

    ISLE OF THE DEAD placed 338th as sf novel.


    1. I remember reading an interview with Neil Gaiman where he was described as "The most famous writer you've never heard of," in that he was very well known and extremely well-regarded within his field, and almost unknown outside of it. The same thing seems to apply to Roger Zelazny and his works, possibly to even greater extent. Lonesome October seems almost universally beloved amongst the comparatively small number people who know about it.

      And, aside from their own virtues, this is why I'm so favorably inclined towards the Collected Stories and projects like Shadows & Reflections, because they keep in the public consciousness the works of a writer who should not be forgotten.

    2. The short fiction results have also been released. Zelazny did really well in the 20th century novella and novelette categories:

      #24 – 24 Views of Mt. Fuhi, by Hokusai
      #30 – He Who Shapes
      #47 – Home Is the Hangman

      #3 – A Rose for Ecclesiastes
      #25 – The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth
      #31 – For a Breath I Tarry
      #40 – The Keys to December
      #55 – Unicorn Variation
      #96 – The Last Defender of Camelot
      #119 – This Moment of the Storm

      Once the ranking gets to around #100, there are only a few voters for each item.

      The main results are shown at this link: