Zelazny, Roger (1937–1995)

Most science fiction writers slowly emerge as major
talents after producing several less interesting

works. Roger Zelazny was one of those rare exceptions who is recognized almost immediately.
His short stories began to appear in the early
1960s, and among his very first efforts were the
classics “A R
Great Slow Kings” (1963), and “The G
HEART” (1964). He was one of a new generation
of writers who were less interested in technology
and engineering and more concerned with psychology and complex narrative styles. From the
outset his work was influenced heavily by mythology and literary references, which he transformed
in new and exotic settings.
His first two novels both won awards. “He
Who Shapes” (1965), a novella, won the Nebula
before being expanded in book form as
The Dream
(1966). And Call Me Conrad (1965) won a
Hugo and appeared in book form as
THIS IMMORTAL (1966). Within a span of four years Zelazny
had progressed from unpublished to one of the
most exciting new authors in the field, one of a
handful of American writers who emerged in parallel with the British New Wave movement, although generally without the extreme stylistic
experimentation common to the latter.
The Dream
is the exploration of the personality of a future psychiatrist who cures his patients by entering
their dreams, examining what he finds there, and
interacting with them in that state. His latest patient has particularly troubling problems, which
trigger his own hidden instabilities. Zelazny’s second novel is set on a future Earth that has been
turned into a kind of tourist preserve, administered
by a man who is a secret immortal.
Zelazny was particularly effective at novelette
length during the next few years.
The Doors of His
Face, the Lamps of His Mouth
(1965) won a Nebula
Award, but
Love Is an Imaginary Number (1966),
For a Breath I Tarry (1966), and This Moment of the
(1966) were all nearly as good. Four of these
novelettes were collected in
Four for Tomorrow
(1967, also published as A Rose for Ecclesiastes), the
same year that saw publication of his Hugo
Lord of Light. The setting this time
is a distant world ruled by a clique of immortals
who use highly advanced technology to establish
themselves as the pantheon of Hindu gods. The ensuing struggle to free the planet from their dictatorial rule is Zelazny’s single best novel, blending
mythic figures with a futuristic setting. He would
attempt a similar synthesis less successfully in
Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969), set in a future
Earth that has become dominated by rationalized
Egyptian gods, and in
Isle of the Dead (1969), in
which a man masters the ability to create entire
worlds but discovers that he still has enemies capable of challenging his nearly godlike powers.
Damnation Alley (1967), which became a disappointing motion picture in 1977, follows the adventures of a petty criminal in a postapocalyptic
America who is impressed into service as a courier
transporting critical medical supplies across a wild
and dangerous section of the continent. It was a
considerably less ambitious effort than Zelazny’s
other novels during that period, though frequently
exciting. In 1970
Nine Princes in Amber appeared,
the first in a series of alternate world fantasies that
would dominate the remainder of Zelazny’s career.
Although he continued to write science fiction,
some of it quite good, his subsequent work rarely
measured up to what he produced during the
To Die in Italbar (1973) is an inferior sequel
Isle of the Dead, and Today We Choose Faces
(1973) is an interstellar adventure involving
telepathy, organized crime, and other plot elements
in a complex story reminiscent of the work of A. E.
A priceless artifact presented to the human
race goes missing in
Doorways in the Sand (1976); a
hapless young man is framed for the crime, and an
exceptionally good chase sequence follows. A
telepath is potentially Earth’s best defense against
an alien threat in
Bridge of Ashes (1976), but his
ability is slowly driving him insane. Zelazny completed a manuscript by Philip K. D
ICK, but Deus
(1976) is uneven and not up to the standards
of either writer. His infrequent shorter pieces during the 1970s and 1980s were usually strong efforts. “H
OME IS THE HANGMAN” (1976) won both
the Hugo and Nebula Awards, “Unicorn Variation” (1981) won a Hugo, as did “Twenty Four
Views of Mt Fuji, by Hokusai” (1985) and “Permafrost” (1986). His novels continued to be interesting, often verging on fantasy.
Roadmarks (1980),
for example, suggests that we live in just one of
many parallel universes, another of which is inhabited by a race of intelligent dragons.
Eye of Cat
(1982) is the best of his later science fiction. In a
future where immortality has made life dull, a man
rescues an intelligent, shape-changing alien in exchange for the prisoner’s promise to hunt him.
Zelazny also collaborated on several occasions.
A corporation attempts to control the development of a revolutionary artificial intelligence in
Coils (1982), written with Fred SABERHAGEN. Flare
(1992), with Thomas T. Thomas, pits a variety of
human habitats sprinkled through the solar system
against universal extinction when the sun flares
Donnerjack (1997), with Jane Lindskold, pits one virtual reality world against another.
When one of these variant worlds tries to absorb
another, a refugee concealed within that reality
must become its protector. Much of Zelazny’s later
work is fantasy, set either within the Amber series
or independently.
Most of Zelazny’s short fiction has been collected in
The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His
(1971), My Name Is Legion (1976), The Last
Defender of Camelot
(1980), The Unicorn Variations
(1983), Frost and Fire (1989), and Gone to Earth
(1991). Zelazny was throughout his career one of
the most skilled prose stylists the field has known,
and his use of larger-than-life characters—often a
risky business because of the difficulty most readers
have identifying with godlike figures—is unequaled
in its effectiveness. He is considered a major writer
of fantasy as well as science fiction, and much of
his work tends to blur the distinction between the
genres. At his best he was an extraordinary novelist, and his shorter work is, if anything, of even
more consistent high quality. Although his later
novels are often considered inferior to his early
work, they remain almost equally popular. Zelazny
was heavily influenced by Jack V
ANCE and
Theodore S
TURGEON, and in turn has inspired another generation of writers.