Author: F. Brett Cox
Title: Roger Zelazny
Series: Modern Masters of Science Fiction (University of Illinois Press)
A brand-new critical monograph on one of my favourite SFF authors – how could I resist? 😉 It also came out in an opportune time, when I was quite unhappy with the flat fun of A Master of Djinn after the highs of The Lords of the North, and needed something different to cleanse my palate.
Cox’s monograph delivered on both accounts; his writing is simple and informative, and very approachable considering the inherently academic character of his book. There’s obviously a long, quite exhaustive bibliography and a satisfactory amount of footnotes, but the language throughout is intentionally focused on communication instead of erudite fencing with other specialists on Zelazny’s work – maybe because, as Cox indicates, there are no other Zelazny pros and very little academic output concerning his work. It may be, as Cox suggests, that the necessary condition of passage of time has not been yet fulfilled – Zelazny’s untimely death in 1995 might seem like aeons past, but it really wasn’t that long ago 😉. And while the genre itself has undergone several changes since then, it is still difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and conclude, with a degree of certainty, what can be considered a modern classic and what was just a work accident.
And indeed, Zelazny’s works are so varied in terms of style and themes and worldbuilding that it’s not a surprise some of his books are better than others – and with the author of Lord of Light, the good books are among the best of what SFF has to offer, and even the weaker offer a dazzling profusion of amazing ideas and impeccable, evocative language. It seems, however, that in the US-UK SFF circles there is even a longstanding consensus of considering Zelazny an unfulfilled promise who after a strong start became a commercial writer with no ambition. Frankly, remaining far removed from this little world of authors and critics I was surprised to learn about this piece of “conventional wisdom” – to me, some of Zelazny’s latest works are among his very best. And that’s basically what Cox is trying to prove in his monography: going chronologically through Zelazny’s work, the author of the monograph attempts to refute this stereotype and show that Zelazny conducted ambitious literary experiments in his writing to the very end, delivering varied books, but not generally worse than at the beginning – but as to whether Cox’s arguments are successful, you probably should ask someone else, since I never doubted this assertion😉.
Cox’s monography is well-researched and not too prying, never straying too far into the autobiographical field, instead focusing on the literary aspects of Zelazny’s life. It’s also short, by necessity limiting itself on all aspects: there is a bit of literary criticism, but not too much; there is a bit of analysis of Zelazny’s own academic literary knowledge and writing chops, his love of poetry and writing beginnings as a poet mentioned, but not overly dissected; there is also a rather exhaustive synthesis of what other authors and critics thought of Zelazny’s work at the time, peppered with often intriguing quotes. I have no doubt that Cox admires Zelazny’s works and skill, far more than he felt he can show it in his monography – after all, academic work should at least strive to remain objective, which often renders it a bit lifeless. And this is what happened to Cox’s book, I’m afraid. Writing in a dry, impersonal way about the best SFF poetic novelist makes the topic itself a bit dry. Admittedly, it must be very difficult to show and analyse Zelazny’s mastery of language, his consummate skill in creating intuitive, evocative, poetically perfect descriptions and moods, clinically precise dialogue achieving exactly what he intended, his bold, rampant imagination, and the constant sense of savage fun, of loving the life itself. (Have I mentioned I’m a fan? 😉) Just check out Doorways in the Sand, or Roadmarks, both full of literary references, tongue-in-cheek allusions, laugh-out-loud moments interspersed with sudden instants of introspection, and overarching joyful mayhem.
Indeed, if there’s something that I missed in Cox’s very appropriate monography, it’s this: the depiction of Zelazny’s sense of fun in creation and life as it is. Cox writes about Zelazny’s personal happiness, about his satisfaction from his own work, yes. He can wax lyrical about some of his favourite Zelazny’s books, and dutifully write something positive about those that he doesn’t like that much. And let’s be frank here, there are some Zelazny’s books I don’t like (and even more I haven’t read yet, especially his collaborative books). But I’d argue that even in Zelazny’s lesser works there’s still this sense of wonder, of adventure that stems from creating something new. Even the critically reviled five subsequent books set in Amber retain some of the creative magic – in the hypnotic descriptions of the chaotic warrens (I wonder how much Erikson lifted from Zelazny, btw), in the hallucinogenic travel from one reality to another, with the idea of reality being shattered and reassembled in front of our eyes. His most-known literary experiments, such as Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969), admirably ambitious if not entirely successful, or Eye of Cat (1982), full of poetry and fragments of broken narrative, ultimately sharing the predecessor’s fate in being very imperfect and yet laudably bold at the same time, span over a decade, and both are ultimately topped by one of Zelazny’s best books and a highly experimental one, too, A Night in Lonesome October (1993) which came nearly a quarter of century after Creatures…
Did Zelazny write commercial books? Sure. Does it mean they are inherently worse that the “artistic” sort? I feel like that’s the biggest misconception of all, stemming from that funny and largely false division between high and popular culture. Yeah, there are the unending mediocre series we all know about, the airport type of books that go in easily and even more easily go out afterwards, with a few hours of our lives irrevocably lost. But a book written with commercial success in mind doesn’t necessarily have to pander to lowest instincts – or at least, it didn’t use to, back in Zelazny’s days. The Dream Master might be a failed novelization of a good novella, He Who Shapes, but it’s still intriguing and full of novel ideas – the most important of which was the bold decision of implementing the classical structure of tragedy into a SF setting. It doesn’t work as well as Dune, but not many books do, anyway. Plus, its underlying foundation seems to have inspired one of my favourite movies, Inception. Moreover, I’ll be the first to admit that I love the first Amber pentalogy and Corwin is one of the best fantasy protagonists ever created. Is it straightforward sword-and-sorcery fantasy? Yes! And it’s great! 😀 Heck, even the tired amnesia trope works like magic under Zelazny’s treatment, and the overarching ideas of the series, from the Platonic ideal world being mirrored by lesser worlds, its “shadows,” and the concept of Pattern, are as far from commercial as they can be – and still, they turned out hugely popular. I guess the testament to Zelazny’s continuing influence in the field is the fact that plenty of modern authors are deeply indebted to him, whether they know it or not. Cox mentions some of them, starting with Jo Walton who directly references Zelazny in one her books, but believe me, there’s plenty of others.
All in all, with my rant over, I’ll conclude this lengthy impression on Cox’s monograph about Roger Zelazny by saying that it definitely achieved its underlying goal: it made me want to pick up another Zelazny novel or a short story collection, and once again immerse myself in the delightfully crazy ideas of the late SFF master. Cox is trying his best to convey both his admiration and some objective criticism toward Zelazny’s works, pinpointing many of the key components that form the basis of Zelazny’s literary uniqueness. It’s an accessible book, not overly academic, and based on a wealth of material. Would I enjoy a more in-depth, enthusiastic take on Zelazny, dissecting his mythological obsessions, love of archetypes, and his penchant for imbuing his characters with his own traits? Absolutely! But again, I may be in an admittedly very small minority here – and Cox’s book, short and succinct and written with apparent love for the source material, fills in an important gap.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.