"What do you think is going on, anyway?"
"Some horrible Wagnerian thing", I told him, "full of blood, thunder, and death for us all."
"Oh, the usual."
"Exactly," I replied.
A writing career which spanned over thirty years and changed the face of science fiction came to an untimely end during the summer of 1995 when Roger Zelazny died of cancer at the age of 58. As writers, we should all be so prolific: Zelazny had his first short story published in 1962, and over the next 30+ years went on to publish fifty books and more than 150 short stories, and was hard at work on yet another novel when he died. His well-deserved plaudits included six Hugo awards, two Nebula awards, and a nomination in 1979 for the Gandalf award for Grand Master of Fantasy.
Although I had never really been an enthusiastic fan of "New Wave" science fiction, Tim turned me onto Zelazny the year before the author's death, first sparking my interest with Damnation Alley, his only book ever to be made into a (very bad) movie, then making me a fan with Isle of the Dead. New Wave science fiction, which began to be popular around the time that Zelazny started writing, puts a lot of concentration into delving into a character's psyche, and projects characters into bizarre, futuristic scenes - a far cry from the worlds of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, on whom I had cut my literary teeth. But it was impossible not to be won over by Zelazny's incredibly vivid and moving descriptions of even the simplest things, his clever way of putting together a story, and the "New Wave" feel of knowing his characters - feeling as though his characters could be people you might meet in everyday life, rather than from a time long ago or the pages of a book.
As I read more about him and more of his works, I find that in some ways, Zelazny reminds me of Tim - his love of the Southwest and its cultures and his choice of Santa Fe, as his home, his enjoyment of gaming and the fact that he was something of a computer geek. Zelazny often liked to work the mythology of various cultures into his books: Navajo folklore found its way into Eye of Cat, Egyptian deities were featured in Creatures of Light and Darkness, and Lord of Light was based on the Hindu pantheon.
No doubt Zelazny's best known works include his Amber series. This series, which houses ten books split into two five book chronicles, began with Nine Princes in Amber in 1970 and ended with Prince of Chaos in 1991. They feature Amber, the one, true world from which all others are based.
But especially for me, not to be overlooked are Zelazny's short stories. I feel that "Unicorn Variations" has to be one of the cleverest stories ever written, while such missives as "The Graveyard Heart" and "The Furies" showed me a power of portrayal using witty phrasing, sharp scenes, and funny, memorable characters that left me in awe of such skill and intelligence.
Some writers are fortunate enough to enjoy popularity in their own time; others achieve earthly immortality only after their deaths. Roger Zelazny deserves both.
I never knew Roger Zelazny personally. I'd met the man, in passing. He used to bring his kids up to the ski basin when I was running the rental and repair shop up there. And I'd seen him around town from time to time, at Nick Potter's used book store, or at one or another of the downtown galleries. That's not unusual in a town as small as Santa Fe.
It seems very strange to have had a nodding acquaintance with a man who had told me stories for 25 years. I looked at him and saw a man who had spun his dreams and filled me with his visions since I was a student in high school. He looked at me and saw a man who had set his kids up with skis a time or two. It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. I couldn't tell him what his work had meant to me without damaging his privacy, and so I never did. All I know of Roger Zelazny as a person is what he revealed of himself in his work; and that, perhaps, is as it should be.
The thread of physical immortality binds nearly all of Zelazny's works. He returns so often to the idea that it seems to verge on obsession. Yet, what comes through his prose is not, at least wholly, a sense of morbid preoccupation with death, but the joy of a life filled with the richness of experience - "...but every hour is saved from that eternal silence, something more, a bringer of new things..." spoke Ulysses through Tennyson's pen, and it is true of Zelazny's immortals, as well.
Experience of life has a humanizing effect - the more you have, the more intensley human you are. You come to realize that you are not the center of everything, that others have their own hopes and volitions that must be respected. It goes beyond acknowledgement of the "golden rule" or the fear of reprisal, to an understanding that without empathy, you can not grow beyond a certain point, that there are aspects to being human that cannot be explored. Not everyone arrives at this knowledge.
The paragraph I have just written states baldly a well known truth. It can have little impact - one reads it and thinks "Well of course! That's called growing up!". The knowledge has a depth that can not be told, but only indicated. As Jack Vance's Navarth would say, "A meaning must be uttered idly, without emphasis. The listener is under no compulsion to react; his customary defenses are not in place, the meaning enters his mind." Reading Zelazny's works imparted to me an understanding of this truth in all of its depth, all unsuspected at the time.
The humanity of Zelazny's immortals is intense, and is most vividly portrayed in what I feel to be his finest novel, Isle of the Dead, first published in 1969. The story is told as a first person narrative by a man, Francis Sandow, who has survived several centuries, and has gained much experience of joy and grief. "I watched the spinning stars, grateful, sad and proud, as only a man who has outlived his destiny and realizes he might yet forge himself another, can be."
It is in Isle of the Dead that Zelazny talks about what it means to find yourself dying. Sandow has just helped a mortally injured man to die painlessly: "There's a book and a man I respect: Andre Gide and his Fruits of the Earth. On his death bed he knew he had only a few days left and he wrote like blue blazes. He finished it in about three days and died. In it he recounts every beautiful thing about...things that he loved, and you could tell he was saying goodbye and did not want to go, despite everything. That is how I feel about it...I would rather have lain there, broken-boned and all, feeling the rain come down on me and wondering at it, regretting, resenting a bit and wanting a lot."
Roger Zelazny died Wedensday afternoon, June 14, 1995 of complications resulting from cancer. One of his friends posted a notice on the internet the day he died and, from what was said, he faced his last days as did Andre Gide before him. He has written his stories with gentle humor and lyrical strength, and now there will be no more, but I am profoundly grateful for the jewels he left.
"Where there had been darkness, I hung my worlds. They were my answer. When I finally walked that Valley, they would remain after me."