Monday, February 25, 2013

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Doorways in the Sand - Revised Review

My intent was always, upon finishing my main body of Roger Zelazny reviews, not, as a casual reader of the blog might assume, to review increasingly more obscure stories about which nobody particularly cared (Go Starless in the Night and Deadboy Donner and the Filstone Cup, I'm looking at you guys), but rather, after a sufficient period of time had passed, to return to the major works, in order to see if I could glean anything new from another reading, or simply to revisit those reviews in which I was disappointed.

My goal was also not the writing of astoundingly convoluted run-on sentences, but one could certainly be excused for thinking so.

Among these disappointing reviews is Doorways in the Sand. I like the book, but you'd never know if from reading my review, which focuses too much on trivial details and endless digressions about me. And these elements are present in most of my commentaries, and I think they work towards making an entertaining review to a greater or lesser degree (I'm entertained, at least) but I feel that they overwhelm this one, so I'm going to give it another go.

DeVito wrote in the comments something I wish I'd said: "One of the things that makes Doorways in the Sand so appealing to me is that it does NOT have the Huge Theme, the Saving of Humanity or whatever, you know, all those Deep Thoughts; it's simply and unabashedly about one very intelligent but somewhat flawed and shallow character who becomes a bit less flawed and shallow over the course of the novel. I wish Zelazny had written a sequel."

The entry for Doorways on Wikipedia is phenomenal (98 references as of this writing, plus some analysis of the Lewis Carroll references that I had missed entirely!), but it also notes that the book was poorly received. I think that's a real shame. A Night in the Lonesome October is frequently cited as an underrated Zelazny book, but I don't think that's entirely accurate, in that it's almost universally beloved by those who have had the chance to read it, but the number of people who have read it is not nearly as great as it should be. Doorways, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have gotten the respect that I think it merits. It was different from his earlier works, certainly, and may have been judged by the critics not for what it was, but for what it wasn't. Not finding another Sam or Corwin, they were perhaps harsher than it deserved. 

It's the story of Fred Cassidy, eternal student, thirteen years and counting as an undergraduate . His uncle had set up an endowment that would provide Fred with a hefty allowance, but only for as long as he was a full-time student working towards his first degree. Fred, being lazy, but no dummy, decided to milk this as long as he could, as illustrated in this exchange with his new adviser.

"An acknowledgment would be redundant. Mister Cassidy. The record speaks for itself. Once you had all the general requirements out of the way, it was still relatively simple for you to avoid graduation by switching your major periodically and obtaining a new set of special requirements. After a time, however, these began to overlap. It soon became necessary for you to switch every semester. The rule concerning mandatory graduation on completion of a departmental major was, as I understand it, passed solely because of you. You have done a lot of sidestepping, but this time you are all out of sides to step to. Time runs, the clock will strike. This is the last interview of this sort you will ever have."

"I hope so. I just came to get my card signed."

Heh heh. Good old Fred. His adviser is determined to graduate Fred, but Cassidy will have none of it:

"The hours are wrong."

"No. I need twelve and there are twelve."

"I'm not disputing that, but-"

"Six hours, personal project, interdisciplinary, for art history credit, on site, Australia in my case."

"You know it should really be anthropology. But that would complete a major. But that's not what I'm-"

"Then three hours of comparative lit with that course on the troubadours. I'm still safe with that, and I can catch it on video-the same as with that one-hour current events thing for social-science credit. Safe there, and that's ten hours. Then two hours' credit for advanced basket weaving, and that's twelve. Home free."

"No, sir! You are not! That last one is a three-hour course, and that gives you a major in it!"

"Haven't seen Circular fifty-seven yet, have you?"


"It's been changed."

"I don't believe you."

I glanced at his IN basket.

"Read your mail."

He snatched at the basket; he rifled it. Somewhere near the middle of things he found the paper.

Clocking his expressions, I noted disbelief, rage and puzzlement within the first five seconds. I was hoping for despair, but you can't have everything all at once.

Heh. I like Fred. He seems like he'd be a good friend. He enjoys his life and has no particular demons driving him. That all changes when the star-stone is stolen. The story is set in the near future and earth is slowly taking its first steps into a larger world. We have swapped the Mona Lisa and the Crown Jewels of England for alien cultural artifacts. Except it's not exactly a trade. One of the characters explains it thus:

The kula is a kind of ceremonial voyage undertaken at various times by the inhabitants of the island groups to the east of New Guinea-the Trobriand Islanders, the Papuans of Melanesia. It is a sort of double circuit, a movement in two opposite directions among the islands. The purpose is the mutual exchange of articles having no special functional value to the various tribes involved, but possessed of great cultural significance. Generally, they are body ornaments-necklaces, bracelets-bearing names and colorful histories. They move slowly about the great circuit of the islands, accompanied by their ever growing histories, are exchanged with considerable pomp and ceremony and serve to focus cultural enthusiasm in a way that promotes a certain unity, a sense of mutual obligation and trust. Now, the general similarity to the exchange program we are entering with the aliens seems pretty obvious. The objects become both cultural hostages and emblems of honor to the trustees. By their existence, their circulation, their display, they inevitably create something of a community feeling. This is the true purpose of a kula chain, as I see it. That's why I didn't like the word 'trade.' "

I like that explanation and the whole concept. 

Fred first learns that the stone is missing when his old geology teacher comes by looking for a replica. He's willing to rough up Fred to get it back. 

Things escalate, but Fred mostly dodges the problem by taking off for Australia for his art history course. He runs into trouble with some hired thugs and meets Charv and Ragma, two alien police officers, my favorite characters in the book, and among my favorite Zelazny characters, period. I mentioned once that I'd really like to see a police procedural with Charv and Ragma and I dearly hope someone is writing one for Shadows and Reflections

We get some more adventures. Much has been made of the flash-forwards Zelazny employed in the book. Each chapter would open with trouble unrelated to the story at the end of the previous chapter, and we'd backtrack a little to see how Fred got into his current mess. I think it is a little bit of a gimmick, but on the whole, one that enriches rather than diminishes the story. It wouldn't save a bad one, or ruin a good one. It's just one of the components that makes Doorways what it is. 

Fred learns that he has accidentally absorbed the star-stone into his body. It is a sentient thing and it convinces him to send himself throw the reversing Rhennius machine so that it may better communicate with him. He does so, and I don't know why I love the Rhennius machine sections, but I really do. They, and Fred's meandering and observations while reversed, are my favorite parts of a great book. 

Fred is awarded  a PhD. in Anthropology in absentia and begins the slow process of taking on adult responsibilities. An alien telepath figures out that Fred has absorbed the star-stone and Fred is instrumental in the climax by thwarting the representative of an alien faction that wished to delay Earth's entry into galactic civilization.

I love the book. I think DeVito hit the nail on the head with his initial comment. Fred's just this regular guy, not this immortal √úbermensch. He's smart, but not otherwise remarkable, save for the circumstances in which he finds himself, and he grows and changes through his reactions to them in a way one doesn't often find in Zelazny's heroes.


  1. I don't think "Go Starless..." deserves its largely indifferent reputation. I find it one of the most eerie and beautiful of Zelazny's short stories. Definitely in my top ten.

    Doorways isn't too bad, either.

  2. I like Starless, and I sometimes wonder how much of that fond sentiment is attributable to the fact that it strikes me as atypical for a Zelazny story, that is, I like it simply because it different from what he usually writes. I wonder how I would received it had it been written by another author about whom I had no particular opinions.

  3. I should have replied to this a long time ago, and now that I finally am replying, I wish it weren't for something sort of tangential. But there it is. (I'm going to re-read Doorways soon and maybe I'll have something at least halfway intelligent to contribute then.) But I just bought MIT Technology Review SF Annual--2014: Twelve Tomorrows, edited by Bruce Sterling, mostly because it includes a feature of John Schoenherr's artwork on glossy paper. Schoenherr did the Analog cover for the original publication of Doorways in the Sand, and it's OK, but I've never been particularly fond of it. But Twelve Tomorrows includes an alternate, completely different cover that wasn't used, and it's awesome! No idea why it wasn't used. My first impression is that it illustrates Fred and the Rhennius machine -- I'll check that on the re-read -- but whatever, it's Groovistica. Worth the $12.95 for the MIT book.

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  5. Oops. Here's the alt. Schoenherr cover for Doorways:

  6. Here's a nice review of Doorways: