[Spoiler for one story below, but it’s like 40 years old, folks.]
It’s interesting, going back and re-reading the classics of science fiction. I mainlined Roger Zelazny recently, re-reading The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, Doorways in the Sand, Keys to December, and A Rose for Ecclesiastes. (With the exception of Doorways in the Sand, all appear in the collection The Doors of His Face, The Lamp of His Mouth.) All of these works have Zelazny’s characteristic command of language – not “flowery”, but poetic. Sometimes it gets a bit too poetic, where allegory isn’t clearly separated from science fiction or fantasy, but those moments are rare.
Doorways in the Sand is a chaotic text. The action jumps and leaps – without bothering to check and see if you’ve kept up. When you’re not sure that chapter three is the same story as chapters one and two, and check for a binding accident (which I did), then that’s jumping about too fast. Zelazny also puts the climax of many of the chapters at the beginning, making those chapters essentially extended flashbacks. While that did make me wonder how they got to that point, it got tiresome after a while. Featuring roof-climbing perpetual students, alien artifacts, and smugglers, the pace reminded me of a not-quite successful Discworld novel. It was just a little too chaotic and surreal.
Keys To December has an interesting premise: What if we genetically engineered our kids to live in a hostile environment… and then that world was destroyed before they reached maturity? There’s some other interesting ideas that bustle around in this story, but it failed to really grip me or give me an emotional hook the way the last two stories did.
The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth and A Rose for Ecclesiastes are easily the most moving of these selections (though not necessarily in that order). Both stories are wonderfully layered with a primary text (a fishing story, a romance), an initial layer of deeper meaning (defining of self), and then something even below that that you can sense, but not truly define. Their use of language and layers of story are excellent.
Yet all are sexist in a way that simply wouldn’t (one hopes) fly today. It’s never really blatant, but it’s there. Women are objectified as sex objects fairly routinely throughout – perhaps in a common way for the1960s and 1970s when these were published, but are more than a bit offputting today. Further, women have secondary roles (at best) in all of these stories. Women are backdrop in Doorways in the Sand, and little more than motivation in Keys To December. Carl is condescending to Jean throughout The Doors of His Face…, even as she manages to acheive what Carl could not. It’s even worse in A Rose for Ecclesiastes: The narrator says that he “know all about [the Martian’s] taboos…don’t worry. I’ve lived in the Orient, remember?” Not that the narrator’s ignorant – he’s a linguist and poet – but he sure as hell is condescending. I wondered for a while if it was just the character being an asshat – because he does grow out of being that asshat by the end of the story.
But then I thought about the central concept of the plot: the Matriarchs of a Martian tribe must be taught the error of their ways by a white man who learns their ways and bests them – by showing the cultural superiority of his own “tribe’s” work, and impregnating one of the Martian women.
It’s really a shame, because I can still see the beauty of the story and language in these stories. Zelazny had a wonderful gift, and uses words in a way I can only hope to. I grew up reading Zelazny’s short stories and many of the Amber books. He, like all of us, was a product of his time. Reading these makes me wonder how we’ll seem in forty years, how provincial our tales will be.
Still, these are excellently written stores. I want to be able to unreservedly recommend these beautiful stories to new, modern readers.
And, quite simply, with these stories, I can’t.