Isle of the Dead, by Roger Zelazny

pub 1969, Prix Apollo Award (French Translation)
Review by Tim

Zelazny has an enviable knack for mixing fact and fancy, which has been known on occasion to irritate the literal minded. The hard edges of science are softened as they pass through the filter of the human mind, and what breaks through those weakened walls is frequently stunning. As Francis Sandow, in whose words the story is told, comments:

"No matter what your scientific background, emotionally you're an alchemist. You live in a world of liquids, solids, gases and heat-transfer effects that accompany their changes of state. These are the things you perceive, the things you feel. Whatever you know about their true natures is grafted on top of that."
Isle of the Dead is a story that touches both the rational and chaotic elements of humanity. The novel is told in the first person, a deceptively difficult literary mode of which Zelazny was a master. Francis Sandow is a worldscaper - one who practices the craft of creating worlds from the rubble of space, seeding them with complex ecologies derived in part from his own DNA. He learned his craft from the Pei'ans, a star-faring race many times older and more advanced than humanity.

So far so good - we are still within the realm of science, albeit a science that is incredibly complex and interdisciplinary. Here comes the catch - in order to wield this god-like power, the worldscaper must be able to think like a god! To this end, after a decades long apprenticeship, the aspiring worldscaper must be confirmed with the name of one of the Pei'an gods. Some practitioners think of this as a psychological device used to release creative potential, while others regard the rite as actual contact with a living god. Throughout the story it is never quite certain which explanation is the truth.

At the beginning of the story, Sandow is confronted with a mystery. Someone has been sending him recent pictures of old friends, enemies and lovers, all long dead, some of them for centuries. His search for the explanation takes him far afield, to the world of his old master, and eventually to a confrontation on Illyria, a world he had crafted as a resort long ago. On this world he had created the Isle of the Dead, patterned on the strange, dark painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin. This same painting was the inspiration for Sergei Rachmaninov's powerful symphonic poem "The Isle of the Dead", to which Zelazny also alludes.

Isle of the Dead represents Roger Zelazny at his peak. I feel that it is his seminal work, defining him not only as a writer, but also philosophically. The prose is often lyrical, affecting, sometimes razor sharp, and intensely humanizing. Incidentaly, it is also a damned fine adventure!

Böcklin's The Isle of the Dead