Monday, December 24, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Song of the Blue Baboon

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed King Solomon's Ring, which tends to be ranked as one of Zelazny's worst stories. That post got a couple comments:

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

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

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

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

Song of the Blue Baboon
(I always want to call it "Ballad of the Blue Baboon", for that added alliterative appeal) is a bit of an oddity.

Have you ever played Taboo? As part of the game, you get some cards with a word or a phrase on top of it, and five words/phrases below it. You're trying to get your partner to guess the top word without mentioning it or any of the taboo words.

If there were a Taboo card for Song of the Blue Baboon,  "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" would be the first forbidden word, because this story pretty much is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".

And that's fine. I happened to like "Nine Starships Waiting" (even if nobody else did) and Zelazny was pretty frank in admitting that it was just a sci-fi retelling of the Revenger's Tragedy.

So, nothing wrong with that, in itself.

In the future, Earth has been occupied by blue aliens. Was our hero really a quisling, helping the blue baboon-like aliens? Or was he an undercover resistance agent, working to undermine them?

The one thing we know is that he's dying, and the medication he's been given will stretch out the perception of his final moments, and the sights he imagines in his final moments will reveal his true loyalties.

These visuals are drawn from the cover illustration that was supposed to accompany the story.

In Angel, Dark Angel, Zelazny talked about how the cover illustration inspired the story. Baboon is the same deal, only moreso. I would go so far as to say that the illustration is a vital component of the story.

Unfortunately, there was a mixup and the story was not published in the magazine with the cover that inspired it.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that tying the story so closely to a particular image was probably a mistake, because it just doesn't have much impact without it. The word I used initially was "pointless" and that seems apt. Zelazny described the image as the "scaffolding" for the story, and I think that fits even better.

As of this writing, I haven't actually seen the picture that goes along with the story. I assume it's in the Ides of Octember somewhere, but actually opening the book is more effort than I'm willing to put out for a review of Blue Baboon.

Ultimately, while I don't think the story "works", I can't bring myself to hate it. Zelazny was an experimental writer and he took a lot of risks with his writing. Sometimes they worked, such as Creatures of Light and Darkness and Doorways in the Sand. Other times they didn't, but I don't begrudge him the fruits of a failed experiment. Not everything is going to pan out. I'd certainly rather read the occasional failure than the works of an author who never took any chances. I think that Blue Baboon is a failure, but an instructive one.


  1. The painting that inspired this story isn't in THE IDES OF OCTEMBER because I couldn't find it. I looked through several years of cover paintings for WORLDS OF IF (where this story was published) and the related SF magazines, but no painting depicting something like a blue baboon was ever published as a cover.

    1. That's interesting. My reading of the Pohl's note was that the cover was used, just not to accompany this story. This makes me wonder if it ever got used at all and or if it was sidelined for some reason and spawned a second orphan story.

      I'm more intrigued now by what the cover looked like, where it was used and what the other story that went with it was like.

  2. I think this is the cover in question, from the August 1968 issue of Galaxy:

    The relevant connection from Zelazny’s story (published in the August 1968 issue of IF): “Then he remembered his tower group in the sea, so large a destroyer looked like a toy beside it.”

    The Galaxy cover, by Vaughn Bodé, is “from” Robert Silverberg’s “Going Down Smooth.” Here’s what Silverberg said about this story, which was commissioned to be written based around an already-drawn cover: “Fred Pohl asked me to do a cover story for Galaxy sometime in late 1967 ... [based on a painting] by a gifted young artist named Vaughn Bodé. It was a typically perplexing write-a-story-around-THIS-one sort of thing, showing an ocean-going vessel with a cluster of colossal periscopes rising from the water behind it. Bodé had deviated from the usual cover-rough format, though. Galaxy’s traditional cover format for decades made use of a white panel down the left side of the page in which the names of stories were printed. Bodé had not only drawn that panel into his painting, but had gone to the prankish extent of making up a bunch of bizarre story titles. I went right along with the joke, picking out the least implausible of his titles and using it for my story. (I think I lost my photostat of the Bodé rough in the fire that swept my home in February 1968; otherwise I’d list the other titles here. I’ve forgotten them, but they were fine crazy ones.)” [From Galaxy: Thirty Years of Innovative Science Fiction, p. 260.]

    So the blue baboon thing had nothing to do with the illustration itself, but probably Bodé’s list of “crazy” titles. Note, also, that the August ’68 Galaxy also included a Mack Reynolds story called “Among the Bad Baboons” -- likely another “crazy” title, or maybe a variant on the one Zelazny used (or vice versa).

    Anyway, that’s my theory.

    1. I think you've found it. The quote from the story fits that painting exactly. And Zelazny's story appeared in the August 1968 IF while Silverberg's story appeared in the August 1968 Galaxy, both edited by Pohl, who had assigned the painting to both writers. I had previously been looking for a painting with a blue baboon!

      The thing that puzzles me still is Zelazny's insistence that the story didn't make sense without the cover painting, that it was a miserable failure without the cover art. Looking at that painting now, and rereading the story, I don't think it makes a difference. It's an illustration of a small scene that is clearly enough described in that sentence you quoted.

    2. Dunno . . . it's a puzzler. Maybe something subtle in there that Zelazny was trying to get at?