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Zelazny, Roger

Entry updated 16 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1937-1995) US author, born in Ohio, with an MA from Columbia University in 1962. In 1962-1969 he was employed by the Social Security Administration in Cleveland, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland; from 1969 he wrote full-time. His arrival in the sf world in 1962, at the same time as Samuel R Delany, Thomas M Disch and Ursula K Le Guin, marked that year as a milestone in what seemed at the time to be the inevitable maturing of sf into a complex and sophisticated literature, whose language might finally match its intermittent hubris. Though unlike Delany and Disch he was not significantly connected to the British New Wave, Zelazny became a leading and representative figure of the American New Wave, with Harlan Ellison conspicuously goading all and sundry, where he became instantly well-known for publishing stories whose emphasis had shifted from the external world of the hard sciences to the internal worlds explorable through disciplines like Psychology (mostly Jungian), Sociology and Linguistics. To a greater extent than any of his colleagues, Zelazny expressed this shift by using mythological structures – some traditional, some new-minted – in his work. It has been argued that in true Mythology the voyage into Conceptual Breakthrough of the Hero with a Thousand Faces always climaxes in an Eternal Return, so that any twentieth-century sf tale which retells a myth incorporates, by so doing, ironies and metaphors highly corrosive of any rhetoric of outward thrust, and mockingly dismissive of the reality of breakthroughs; if this was a conscious insight on his part, which seems highly likely, his career as a whole, with its shifts and longueurs and startling epiphanies, makes more sense: for he was a visitor (though a highly honoured visitor) to sf.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Zelazny's sf was language-driven, irony-choked, corrosively playful, and – after the early years of his career – intermittent; by the 1970s he had become best known for his works of fantasy, in particular the two linked sequences making up the ongoing Amber series. The first and finer, the Amber: Corwin sequence comprises Nine Princes in Amber (1970), The Guns of Avalon (1972), Sign of the Unicorn (1975), The Hand of Oberon (1976) and The Courts of Chaos (1978), all assembled as The Chronicles of Amber (omni in 1979 2vols;). The second, the Amber: Merlin sequence featuring Corwin's son Merlin, comprises Trumps of Doom (1985), Blood of Amber (1986), Sign of Chaos (1987), Knight of Shadows (1989) and Prince of Chaos (1991). There is one legitimate pendant, the nonfiction Roger Zelazny's Visual Guide to Castle Amber (1988) with Neil Randall; the title of the unrelated A Rhapsody in Amber (coll 1981 chap) is deliberately (on the publisher's part) misleading. Like the Heaven depicted in the final episode of C S Lewis's Narnia, the land of Amber exists on a plane of greater fundamental reality than Earth, and provides normal reality with its ontological base. Unlike Lewis's Heaven, however, Amber is the Yin in the Yang of Chaos the father, with consequences very far from Christian, for the Universe so defined is both cyclical and eternally insecure; and Amber itself is dominated by a cabal of squabbling siblings whose quasi-Olympian feudings generate vast cat's-cradles and imperfect nestings of Story, out of which fabric lesser realities take their shapes. The Amber books constitute Zelazny's most substantial edifice, though not his finest work, for his early sf was more taxing, more radical, and more fun. His later fantasies and fantasy sequences were never anything but intelligent; nor were they ever much more than that.

Zelazny's first published story in an sf market was "Passion Play" for Amazing in August 1962, though this had been preceded by "Mister Fuller's Revolt" (October 1954 Literary Cavalcade). For several years he was prolific in shorter forms, for a time using the pseudonym Harrison Denmark when stories piled up in Amazing and Fantastic, and doing his finest work at the novelette/novella length; he assembled the best of this early work as Four for Tomorrow (coll 1967; vt A Rose for Ecclesiastes 1969), The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, and Other Stories (coll 1971) and My Name Is Legion (coll 1976). The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth (March 1965 F&SF; 1991 chap) won a Nebula for Best Novelette. The Venus on which "Doors" is set, like most of Zelazny's worlds to come, is fantastical, densely described, almost entirely "unscientific"; the plot intoxicatingly dashes together myth and literary assonances – in this case Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) – and Sex. The introductions and essays attached to individual volumes of the Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny – beginning with The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny 1: Threshold (coll 2009) and ending with The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny 6: The Road to Amber (coll 2009) – argue that his short fiction may have changed, but did not in truth fall off after the visibly exuberant 1960s; the six volumes of the sequence are a necessary source, therefore, for any re-evaluation of his career as a whole.

The magazine titles of his first two books were as well known as their book titles, and the awards given them were attached to the magazine titles. This Immortal (October-November 1965 F&SF as "... And Call Me Conrad"; exp 1966) won the 1966 Hugo for Best Novel; The Dream Master (January-February 1965 Amazing as "He Who Shapes"; exp 1966) – the magazine version was eventually released as He Who Shapes (1989 dos) – won the 1966 Nebula for Best Novella. Taken together, they make up a portrait of Zelazny's central worlds, themes and protagonist, that would be repeated, with sometimes lessened force, for decades. This Immortal takes place in a baroquely described Ruined Earth which has become a kind of theme-park for the Alien Vegans; in this shadowy realm of belatedness and human angst, the Immortal Conrad Nomikos serves ostensibly as Arts Commissioner but turns out to be in a far more telling sense the curator (or Zoo-keeper) of the human enterprise, for he closely resembles Herakles, whose Labours the plot of the novel covertly replicates, despite the US thriller idioms he uses in his personal speech. But over and beyond that identification, Nomikos is clearly both the Hero with a Thousand Faces and the Trickster who mocks the high road of myth; he is redeemer and road-runner and magus and Superman and Secret Master. Under various names, this basic figure crops up in most of Zelazny's later books: wisecracking, melancholic, romantic, sentimental, lonely, metamorphosing into higher states whenever necessary to cope with the plot, and in almost every sense an astonishingly sophisticated wish-fulfilment.

In The Dream Master – for one of the few times in his career – Zelazny presented the counter-myth, the story of the metamorphosis which fails, the Transcendence which collapses back into the mortal world. In This Immortal, he had already evinced a tendency to side, perhaps a little too openly, with complexly gifted, vain, dominating, immortal protagonists, and, as The Dream Master begins, his treatment of psychiatrist Charles Render seems no different. Render is eminent in the new field of neuroparticipant psychiatry (see Dream Hacking), in which the healer actually enters the mindspace of his patient – where a necessarily Freudian focus on the paramountcy of dream analysis is laid out like a Jungian tournament, a Role Playing Game in which the cohorts of the self are the prime players – and takes therapeutic action from within this Virtual Reality. But Render becomes hubristic, and when he enters the mind of a congenitally blind woman, who is both extremely intelligent and insane, his attempts to cope with her intricate madness from within gradually expose his own deficiencies as a person, and he becomes subtly and terrifyingly trapped in a highly plausible psychic cul-de-sac. All the sf apparatus of the story, and its sometimes overly baroque manner, were integrated into Zelazny's once-only unveiling of the nature of a human hero who could not perform the moult into Secret Master of the world.

After these triumphs, Lord of Light (1967), which won a 1968 Hugo, could have seemed anticlimactic, but turned out in fact to be his most sustained single tale, richly conceived and plotted, exhilarating throughout its considerable length. Some of the crew of a human colony ship, which has deposited its settlers on a livable world (see Colonization of Other Worlds), have made use of advanced Technology (including Identity Transfer) to ensconce themselves in the role of gods, selecting their role models from the Hindu pantheon, including a fatally attractive She figure (see Gods and Demons). But where Hinduism flourishes, the Buddha – in the shape of the protagonist Sam – must follow; and his liberation of the humans of the planet, who are mortal descendants of the original settlers, takes on aspects of both Prometheus and Coyote the Trickster. At points, Sam may seem just another of Zelazny's stable of slangy, raunchy, over-loved immortals; but the end effect of the book is liberating, wise, lucid.

None of Zelazny's subsequent sf quite achieved the metaphorical aptness of his first three novels, but the Francis Sandow sequence comprising Isle of the Dead (1969) and To Die in Italbar (1973) replays in a less intricate mode some of the best plot-turns of his earlier work; mythic resonance is evoked, and the language is fluently intense. Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) specifically repeats some of the effects of Lord of Light in a desolate galactic milieu haunted by warring Ancient Egyptian deities, in this case Equipoisally unexplained, a confusingness that F Brett Cox argues in Roger Zelazny (2021) deliberately Parodies the New Wave with which he had been uneasily associated. Damnation Alley (October 1967 Galaxy; exp 1969), a darker and coarser tale, depicts a Ruined Earth motorcycle-trek across a vicious America; it was filmed with many changes as Damnation Alley (1977). Jack of Shadows (1971), set on an Earth which keeps one face always to its sun, has all the tonality and dream-like plotting of a fantasy: a fine one, whose Science and Sorcery dichotomy makes imaginative use of Technofantasy.

But from about this point the Amber sequence clearly pre-occupied Zelazny. From the mid-1970s on, his work maintained a certain consistency, and always threatened to explode in the mind's eye; but did not quite do so. Deus Irae (1976), with Philip K Dick, is uneasy. Doorways in the Sand (1976) is a delightfully complicated chase tale, involving a quasi-sentient McGuffin and an entire galactic community. My Name Is Legion (fixup 1976) – which included the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Home Is the Hangman (November 1975 Analog; 1990 chap dos) – puts into definitive noirish form the Chandleresque version of the Zelazny Hero. Roadmarks (1979) engrossingly fleshes out the notion that the turnings off a metaphysical freeway might constitute turnings in Time rather than space. The Last Defender of Camelot (1980 chap), which became the title story of The Last Defender of Camelot (coll 1980; with differing contents, rev 2002), Unicorn Variations (coll 1983), which included the Hugo-winning "Unicorn Variation" (April 1981 Asimov's), and Frost and Fire (coll 1989) – which contained "24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai" (July 1985 Asimov's) and "Permafrost" (April 1986 Omni), both Hugo-winners – present competent and better-than-competent later short stories, with all collections but the last also including older material from the 1960s onward. Eye of Cat (1982) is a proficient sf thriller with a striking Alien and some effective Navajo venues. A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) is a fantasy with talking animals and various human or humanlike Icon-figures including Jack the Ripper and a Vampire. Most of his last works were collaborative [see Checklist] and were amply competent. His final achievement was the design, with Jane Lindskold, of the graphical Adventure game Chronomaster (1995). Had it not been for the romantic sublimities of his first years, which raised extremely high expectations in his large readership, the remainder of his career would not have seemed anticlimactic, as he continued to produce work to a high standard of craftsmanship.

Despite the arguments (cited above) about the sustained high quality of his short fiction, Zelazny is not, at this point, widely regarded as a writer whose later works fulfilled his promise, and it may be that he has suffered the inevitable price of writing at the peak of intensity and conviction when young: that he may have then put into definitive form the heart of what exercised and intrigued him as a man and as a writer. The plummets into Inner Space, the sensitized baroque intricacy of his rendering of the immortal longings of heroes who all too easily slip into secret-guardian routines, the rush into metamorphosis: all had their cost. Though his Amber books and some other fantasies exhibited a sustained freshness, Zelazny's sf readership, after the genuine glories of the early years, was left with inspired facility, but no compulsion: a superbly intelligent writer who did not desperately need to utter another word. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. [JC]

see also: Ace Books; Amazing Stories; Amnesia; Antimatter; Asimov's Science Fiction; Astounding Science-Fiction; Chess; Comics; Crime and Punishment; Cybernetics; Dinosaurs; Eschatology; Fantasy; Galaxy Science Fiction; Gamebook; Games and Sports; Gothic SF; Identity; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Mars; Matter Transmission; Messiahs; Omni; Parallel Worlds; Paranoia; Parasitism and Symbiosis; Poisons; Precognition; Psi Powers; Reincarnation; Religion; Robots; Science Fantasy; SF Music; Seiun Award; Supernatural Creatures; Telepathy; Teleportation; Terraforming; Time Loop; Time in Reverse; Under the Sea; Weather Control.

Roger Joseph Zelazny

born Euclid, Ohio: 13 May 1937

died Santa Fe, New Mexico: 14 June 1995



Francis Sandow

Amber: Corwin

Amber: Merlin

Changing Land

Wizard World

  • Changeling (New York: Ace Books, 1980) [Wizard World: pb/Esteban Maroto]
  • Madwand (Huntington Woods, Michigan: Phantasia Press, 1981) [Wizard World: hb/Rowena Morrill]

Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming

Collected Stories

individual titles

collections and stories



works as editor

about the author


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