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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Reflections on Roger Zelazny

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I had a good day pounding away at Hawk, and then learned that my short story, “Playing God” has sold to this anthology.  So, I’m feeling pretty good, and I’m thinking about Roger Zelazny, and I’m reflecting.

Anyone familiar with his work and mine knows that the term “influence” is a drastic understatement.  As I’ve said in other places, I knew I wanted to be a writer when I first read Lord of Light and realized that what I wanted more than anything was to make other people feel the way I felt when reading that book. (It just occurred to me that it was my friend David Dyer-Bennet who first suggested I read that one, and I’ve never said thanks. So, thanks.)

Once I got to sit around a small table in a bar at a World Fantasy Con with him and Neil Gaiman and we talked about writing for hours.  Oh my fucking god.  During that conversation, I asked him how to write a short story.  He got a mildly startled look on his face, and said, “Write the last chapter of a novel.”  I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do that, but it’s been going around in my head and generating little baby ideas ever since.

I love the way he used words–I can stop and reread a sentence of his  just for how the words make me feel.  I love his characters–I am willing to follow them around a book just to see what they’ll do.  I love his sense of structure–his story that feels balanced, that feels right even aside from how it resolves.  I love his touch for the bittersweet ending that leaves one feeling, “well, it was worth the struggle, but it didn’t come without a price.” I love his ability to humanize myth, and to mythologize humanity.

I am a process geek.  That is, I can think and talk about how writing works–and ought to work–for hours.  I love making generalizations about writing, and then testing them.  And I believe the source of that, or at least a huge part of the source, is reading Roger and saying to myself, over and over, “How does he do that?”  The fact that I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer has done nothing to alleviate my desire to try.  After all, I’ve only been at it thirty-five years or so.  Maybe in another ten I’ll get somewhere.

I’m so glad I knew him.  I’m so glad I can still read his work.  I miss him so much.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

31 Comments

  1. Congratulations!

    My only regret is that I did not know of the existence of the fundraiser; I would have been honoured to support it.

  2. *pours out a bottle of Lord Rein’s wine on the ground*

  3. I will always treasure having lunch with you and Roger and my copy of To Reign in Hell that you both signed that day.

  4. Its a terrible thing to do ask but.. what would you recommend as your favourite reads?

    I’ve read Jack of Shadows (excellent) and the various Chronicles of Amber (excellent .. I almost wanted to name my son Corwin (or Vladimere of course, but thats another story. Loiosh is right out.))

    I’ve not pursued other Zelazny however yet, but really should.

    (For some reason I’m reminded of World of Tiers by PJF.)

  5. Jeff, the answer is very easy, but not terribly helpful:

    Everything

    I would recommend starting with the ones that are easiest to get, then the others as you can find them. If it is in your budget, NESFA press released a 6 volume set collecting all of his shorter works as well as a biography, remembrances and his speeches, when they could find them. You can get read their copy at http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Zelazny-Project.html

    It is a bittersweet experience if you got to meet Roger or even simply waited impatiently for his next work to appear. I made it to a couple of conventions that he attended, and I have yet to hear a writer read his stories with the skill that Roger did (sorry guys…) Hearing him read a little story he had just finished, about a unicorn playing chess in a bar (well before it was published) may have spoiled me that way.

    I have to admit, I am a little envious of you, getting to see them for the first time. But there are a lot of his stories I still enjoy reading for the Nth time.

    ps: While I agree with Steve that Lord of Light is a MUST READ, in honor of the many people I’ve argued with over the years, I will point you also at ‘Creatures of Light and Darkness’, which many consider better. They’re wrong, but…

  6. ‘Lord of Light’ has been my perfect single novel since I first read it.

    The copy on my shelves at the moment is in its sixth incarnation since they take quite a bit of wear and tear from me insisting on re-reading them regularly. Plus, they get stolen a lot by friends who cannot part with them.

    I’m so thrilled about the new book that I am starting to gibber so I had better stop. Possibly I might make some sense when the manic glee subsides…

  7. skzb

    Not that I’m bragging, or anything (well, okay, I am), but I wrote one of the intros for that anthology Vnend mentions. And Trent Zelazny liked it. (*preen*)

    *Creatures* is a weird one for me. The first time I read it, it was the only thing of his I didn’t like. But during one of my Reread Everything He Ever Wrote binges I read it again and went, “Okay, not so bad.” Then I read it a third time and went, “Holy fuck. This is brilliant.” I still don’t think it’s as good as Lord of Light, but it’s right up there.

  8. Ditto with the sentiments and thought. I’ll always regret not meeting him.

  9. Also don’t forget the short story collections. The superficial qualities of Zelazny’s style always pleased me so much that I enjoyed even his lesser works more than the best stuff from many other writers — like say the sometimes maligned “Wizard World” books — but I don’t think he ever wrote any “lesser” short stories.

    But of the novels, yeah, of course Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness are standouts. I agree Lord of Light is perhaps the best. But there are so many other very good ones too. For example Doorways in the Sand, high quality SF humor, an extreme rarity in the genre, or some other one-offs like Roadmarks or a Night in the Lonesome October. The only books of his that I actually disliked were some collaborations with someone named Thomas which I had the feeling he didn’t contribute much to besides his name.

  10. skzb

    Not to mention Isle of the Dead, which is, by itself, a master class on exposition. And This Immortal which contains one of the greatest moments I’ve ever read: “Feathers or lead?”

  11. I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon an (apparently unconscious) allusion to Isle of the Dead in your work, Steve (as we discussed here: http://bit.ly/Zwhan8). Any others I might encounter?

    Someday, I hope to craft a story that might be considered a tenth as moving and enlightening as “For a breath I tarry”. I didn’t think I’d care for A.E. Housman (whose poem evidently inspired the piece), but much of “A Shropshire Lad” was quite appealing, as was the “Queen of Air and Darkness”.

    Also: A Rose for Ecclesiastes, 24 views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai (this tribute to the novella is lovely: http://bit.ly/ZXQayX ), that scene in Amber where a cadaverous guard in the dungeon describes his “philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror” (paraphrasing from memory), that other bit where Corwin alludes to Nabokov (Ah, Carmen, voulez-vous venir avec moi? Lolita, rather apt given the age gap w.r.t. Dara), who was in turn alluding to Bizet and Mérrimée, Corwin’s claiming to have invented “Aupres de ma blonde” and meeting mad, bad, sad Vincent van Gogh.

    I first read RZ when I was perhaps 14, having found a copy of “The hand of Oberon” in a local library. Talk about In Media Res, but I was hooked! Would that I could have met him…

  12. skzb

    Well, the short story I mention above has allusions to Isle of the Dead as well, but neither unconscious nor subtle. 🙂

  13. The reason I first bought Jhereg and Yendi way back in 1984 was because of this cover blurb on Yendi – “Watch Steven Brust. He’s good. He moves fast. He surprises you.” – Roger Zelazny

    While I have not read nearly enough of Zelazny’s work, I absolutely love pretty much everything I have read, and Lord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness, and the Chronicles of Amber will always be at the top of my “Favorite Books” list. Zelazny was the first author I ever wrote a fan letter to, and the postcard I received in reply has been cherished for years. (the brief message regarding the soon to be published Trumps of Doom was cause for celebration way back then)

  14. I haven’t read enough of his work. I adored the Chronicles of Amber and have been meaning to read Lord of Light for a while now. Must add it to my birthday list.

  15. All the stories mentioned above are great (well, OK, “Lord of Light” is even better than that), but the one that wallops me right between the eyes every time I read it is “The Keys To December”. Zelazny managed to compress the theme of the price and obligations of Godhead that took him all of “Lord of Light” to express into the second half of a novelette which starts out ostensibly about people who don’t fit making their own home.

  16. I loved Lord of Light enough I once bought 20 odd copies to share with friends. I am a used bookseller now at cons, and I always try to have copies on hand to recommend….

  17. I have never read Lord of Light. It’s almost the only one of his novels I haven’t read.

    How is this possible, you ask?

    Well, you see, for many, many years my preferred way of entertaining myself was to go down to our basement to the room where my dad has a wall of bookshelves, say, six and a half feet high and twenty feet long. The top two-thirds of these books are science fiction and fantasy novels. Pretty much everything Poul Anderson, Steven Brust, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, Robert E. Howard, Fred Saberhagen, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, and Roger Zelazny ever wrote (among many others, of course). I’d pick a book at random, go read it, and come back for another.

    It seems my random walk through the Zelazny section missed Lord of Light. It also seems I must rectify this as soon as possible.

    My dad and I had dinner with Roger Zelazny once; he was the guest of honor at a convention that a friend of my father’s helped to supervise, and said friend arranged for the three of us to take him to dinner. As we got out of the car at the restaurant my dad asked Roger to sign a book for him. This is the only time I have ever seen my father be diffident in interacting with /anyone/.

  18. I hope you dont mind a lurker interjecting on this topic for a minute.

    It is an interesting congruence that this post came up when I was reflecting on Mr. Zelazny over the last few days. I enjoyed lord of light greatly but, for me, the book that was the pinnacle of imagination and the creative process and that germinated my love for fantasy was the original Nine Princes in Amber. I will always remember picking up an old, dog eared paperback from my brother’s shelf and devouring it joyously.

    I was thinking how lucky we are as readers to have the chance these days, through blogs like this one, to get a little window into the life and real person behind the books that we come to love and enjoy so much. I truely feel blessed that I have the opportunity to “get to know” small pieces of the writers I most admire through things like this blog.

    I was also mouring the fact that I will never have the chance to peek into the window on Mr. Zelazny the same way.

  19. I’ve read most of Roger Zelazny’s works and collected most of the rest for future reading. What struck me most, though, was that he wrote stories I wanted to read *and* when he blurbed or introduced stories by others, every one of them was something I enjoyed. His name ANYWHERE on or in a book was a reason to read it.

    In a life filled with regrets, never meeting him is one of the big ones for me.

    (You, Mr. Brust, I met at a tiny convention many years ago and you signed the page with your character in an “Excalibur” comic book.)

  20. Mr. Brust, you have made me feel the way I felt when I read Lord of Light. Thank you.

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  22. Roger Zelazny was one of the greats. I’ve always wondered why more of his work hasn’t been made into movies. The Amber novels would be an outstanding option for HBO.

  23. I very much like his short story ‘The Last Defender of Camelot’, which segues, admittedly not very smoothly, into enquiring whether you might wish at some point to tackle the Authurian legends?

    I’m fond of CJ Cherryh’s take in ‘Port Enternity”, but Arthur’s one of the most compelling myths to be created so there’s an abundance of starting points…

  24. skzb

    I could see myself doing something Arthurian if a particularly cool way to come at it sideways happened to hit me. It isn’t something I’m likely to set out after.

  25. I wonder if anyone has written Elizabeth I as King Arthur? She ruled a golden age and was steeped in magic. Huh. John Dee would be Merlin, Robert Dudley would be Lancelot. That makes so much sense to me that I wonder if it’s been done and my subconscious is dragging it out of memory,

  26. skzb

    Jen: I don’t think it’s been done. Up to you.

  27. Somewhere above, skzb says *This Immortal* “contains one of the greatest moments I’ve ever read: ‘Feathers or lead?’” He’s messing with us, because the line just isn’t that …immortal, either time Conrad uses it. Zelazny is playing on the old trick question about which weighs more, a ton of feathers or a ton of lead. The easy answer is that a ton is a ton, regardless of what it measures. The more complicated answer is that a ton is not always *the same* ton, so it’s important to know what type of ton is the unit of measurement for both items. Zelazny never spells out the whole question, so there are also other variations Conrad might employ to ensure that “The correct answer is whatever the kallikanzaros wants it to be.” “Because your life often depends on the answer, and the kallikanzaros generally wants you to lose.” The first time he pulls it, on Phil, it’s a simple bit of byplay leading up to something else. The second time is a little funnier, as a bound and about-to-be-impaled Conrad tosses it at would-be impaler Moreby, who “knew what it meant.” Too late, alas, for “He spent the last second of his life screaming, as the force of Bortan’s leap pulped him against the ground, before his head was snatched from his shoulders.” Bortan being Conrad’s “hellhound.” Well, Conrad *did* want Moreby to lose.

    But now look at this scene in *Taltos*: Verra disses mate Barlan by calling him “feather-breath,” after which, “They glared at each other for a moment, then vanished in a shower of golden sparks.” Sort of a sound-alike there, feathers-or-lead vs. feather-breath. Bortan, Barlan—again, fairly similar, and his name ends in -en in Jhereg, Yendi, and Phoenix, although Teckla joins Taltos in using the alternate -an. And Barlan *is* a bit of a beast. And the scene is set in the land of the dead, occasionally otherwise known by Vlad as hell. And Vlad himself repeats the epithet with a question mark, further punctuated by Loiosh’s “Sheesh” and Morrolan’s “I think…that we’ve managed to get someone in trouble.” So, although only one appears as a question, the line does get two uses, just as Zelazny’s does in *This Immortal*. We can pretty well picture what form the “trouble” might take; Zelazny’s imagery surrounding “the force of Bortan’s leap” fits right in there. And suddenly “Feathers or lead?” is looking *a lot* funnier.

    Here’s an easier nod that anyone who’s read *This Immortal* should have caught: Zelazny has an unarmed assassin named Hasan “using his hand to parry a sword cut by striking the flat of the blade in an old Samurai maneuver…. Then Hasan, too, had a sword—after another rapid movement—and he was very proficient with it.”

    And in Athyra, we have Vlad explaining the loss of his pinkie to Savn: “If someone is swinging a sword at you, and you are unarmed, it is possible to deflect the blade with your hand by keeping your palm exactly parallel with the flat of the blade. Your timing has to be perfect. Also, you ought to remember to keep your pinkie out of the way.”

  28. There’s a reason, though, why *Isle of the Dead* is nearest and dearest to skzb’s heart. Several, actually, but here are three, to keep it just one ahead of the pair offered for *This Immortal*.

    1_Zelazny introduces a character named Ruth Laris, who’s dangled as part of the bait luring Sandow to a fateful showdown on the isle. (BTW, that’s Francis—or Frank—Sandow, making me wonder if inveterate punster Zelazny was pals with Frank Herbert of *Dune* fame: dune, sand—*ow*. Get it? The timing is good for a *Dune* salute in *Isle of the Dead*, and both authors were with Ace Books back then, but that’s pretty thin for conclusion-drawing.)

    And how does Vlad describe his turf-battling fellow Jhereg boss, Laris, in *Yendi*? As “smart, gutsy, and completely [*ahem*] *ruth*less.” Double pun points for any readers who also know what Sandow eventually learns—*Isle* is essentially Ruth-less, too; she never does put in a personal appearance, Gringrin having decided it would be less trouble to leave her stashed safely away on her home planet. (Confession: I caught Laris on my very first sighting of the name in *Yendi*, but “ruthless” sailed right past me—then, and on repeated re-readings over the years—until I finally dipped back into *Isle* last summer.)

    2_According to Zelazny’s Sandow, “Every world has numerous, shifting points in its gravitational matrix. There, certain machines or specially talented people can plug in and act as switchboards, batteries, condensors (sic). Power-pull is a handy term for such a nexus of energy.” And, later, “When I raised my left hand [the thunders] roared. When I drew it down to my shoulder the flash that followed blinded me and the shock raised the hair on my head.”

    Vlad puts it more concisely in *Jhereg*: “To use sorcery, all you have to do is reach out through your link to the Imperial Orb, grab some power, shape it, and throw it.”

    3_Sandow’s enemy signs himself “Green Green,” but Sandow later learns his name is really Gringrin-tharl. Like Sandow, Gringrin studied to be a Pei’an Name-bearer. Unlike Sandow, he flunked the final exam and was denied entrance to the elite fraternity. When Sandow earned the last available slot, Gringrin never forgave him for that offense, or for the added insult of Sandow not even being a Pei’an to begin with. Grin’s been plotting revenge for “Several hundred years,” because “a good piece of revenge requires adequate preparation.” Turns out, “a piece of vengeance isn’t worth much to a Pei’an unless it’s complicated, carefully planned and put into motion, and occurs with fiendish precision many years after the affront which stimulated it …the fun of it is really in the planning and the anticipation.” First step in Grin’s plot was to build a fortune by taking his skills offworld, where he found plenty of worldscaping demand among other races that didn’t give a damn about Name-bearer formalities. Second step was to buy one of Sandow’s most prized creations, the planet Illyria, including the Isle of the Dead. By the time he brings Sandow into the picture, “Gringrin was not a man; he was not even a Pei’an…. Rather, he was something more than either.” That’s because he has somehow, quite irregularly, managed to acquire for himself a Name. Of course, Gringrin’s plot fizzles in mid-book, on account of, his Name—AKA, by Pei’an tradition, his inhabiting god—bails out in favor of riding Mike Shandon, another Sandow enemy who offers a more violent temperament and less subtlety. With the destructive god no longer coloring his every perspective, Gringrin joins up with Sandow, and the whole game changes. I’ve got just one more matching element after the inhabiting-god thing: Sandow wants to hit Shandon while he’s “still intoxicated with his new strengths,” and to “draw him away from the isle…. I wanted to get him away from the others, if possible.”

    *Jhereg*’s Mellar is also using an alias: his birth name was Leareth. (Swapping around the “a” and the second “e,” a leer is a type of grin, and “L–rath” is a not-quite-backwards spelling of -tharl.) Mellar was born a cross-breed and was initially denied entrance to both House Dzur and House Dragon; he never forgave either House for shutting him out. First step in *his* plot was to build his skills in swordsmanship. Second was to use those skills to buy—okay, win—his way into House Dzur by besting 17 prize-winning House champions. No sooner had he made a name for himself as a Dzur, however, than he threw it over and joined house Jhereg. There, his climb through the ranks was so fast, “It’s almost as if he had the whole thing figured out when he started.” Which, of course, he had. Mellar “isn’t just a Jhereg, he’s also got the bloodlust of a Dragon and the heroism of a Dzur.” His plot is all about “Revenge as courageous as a Dzur, as vicious as a Dragon, and as cunning as a Jhereg.” And his planning goes back three or four hundred years. Vlad, unlike Sandow, is impressed in spite of himself. He knows he needs to “convince Mellar to leave Castle Black of his own free will and then nail him when he does.” The whole hoax “has to happen fast enough for Mellar to act while he’s disoriented and confused.” And he has to be separated from his bodyguards, if possible. I think that pretty much covers everything. Oh—Brust even riffs on the inhabiting-god angle. Only, Verra’s chosen vehicle isn’t Mellar, or even Vlad himself. But we all know that. Right?

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