Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Three more Roger Zelazny stories

Let's embark on our third foray into my 2001 edition of Roger Zelazny's The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.

"This Mortal Mountain" (1967)

Like the narrator of "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth," Jack Summers, known variously as "Mad Jack" or "Whitey," narrator of "This Mortal Mountain," is a macho extreme sports type who has a failed marriage behind him.  Mad Jack travels throughout the galaxy, climbing mountains.  On planet Diesel he is confronted by the tallest mountain in the known universe.  He has a mysterious encounter with "an energy creature" while scouting out the mountain - somebody does not want him to scale this one.  Undissuaded, Mad Jack and his team, the best mountain climbers in the galaxy, ascend the peak and face its strange protectors.

This is a decent entertaining adventure story, with references to Christianity (Dante gets mentioned) and the psychology of why somebody climbs a mountain.  I thought all the mountain climbing stuff was good; Zelazny gives you a sense of what is going on and what kind of futuristic equipment is used to climb a mountain that actually reaches outside the atmosphere, but doesn't include too much burdensome detail.  I recall the mountain-climbing parts of some of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories being confusing and dull.

"This Mortal Mountain" is also a sleeping beauty story: the "energy creatures" are generated by a computer, and are protecting a woman who lies in suspended animation at the peak, placed there centuries ago by her husband because she suffered from an incurable disease.  Mad Jack's arrival sets the thawing process in motion, and Zelazny leaves us unsure whether the mountain climbers have the means to cure the woman's disease, or whether this woman will be another victim of Mad Jack's irrational ambition to climb mountains.

"This Moment of the Storm" (1966)  

This story is the reminiscences of a 90-year-old man about his days as police officer ("Hell Cop") of a sort of frontier town, Beta Station, on the planet Tierra del Cygnus.  Zelazny seems to have been inspired by the Wild West for this one; we are told "Betty," which is what everybody calls Beta Station, is like a 19th century town in the southwest of the USA because the population and industrial level are low. Our narrator, Godfrey Justin Holmes ("God for short," he tells people) is kind of like the sheriff in a Western movie, and also like in a Western film, everybody in town wears a pistol.

Godfrey sits in a room with 130 TV screens, controlling 130 air mobile cameras ("Hell" is short for "helicopter"), keeping an eye on the town when he is not flirting with the female mayor, whose office is in the same building (the Town Hall.)  The countryside, a little like Harry Harrison's Deathworld, is full of hostile life forms, and the Hell Cops' flying cameras are armed with machine guns to deal with them.  The plot of "This Moment of the Storm" consists largely of Betty suffering a devastating wind and rain storm which causes floods, inspires looters, and drives armies of monsters with names like "stingbat," "snapper," "borer" and "land-eel" into the town.  Godfrey and the mayor lead the emergency management and defense; at one point Godfrey kills a giant worm monster with his electric cane.  We also get Godfrey's memories of his young life on Earth, working various jobs and going to college.

Godfrey is a rare character on Tierra del Cygnus, because of his Earth background, and because he was born centuries before everybody else on the frontier planet.  In this story space ships do not exceed the speed of light, so while on trips between various star systems Godfrey was in cryogenic sleep.  Some of the people on Tierra del Cygnus envy Godfrey's experiences of life on so many planets, others superstitiously believe his advanced age (even though he is physically and psychologically only in his thirties) gives him some kind of wisdom.  They don't know why he has been traveling between planets for so long - to try to forget his dead wife! 

Zelazny gets very poetic in parts of this one, describing the town with lists of colors, employing an extended metaphor in which a storm cloud is like a giant insect striding over the town on legs of electric fire.  He also gets philosophical, asking us "What is a man?" and then providing us examples of brave men losing their lives protecting their friends and knavish men who betray their promises and take advantage of others in their time of need.

This story is OK, but it felt a little too crowded with plot threads and themes.  None of the various characters and ideas got sufficient time to develop enough that I really cared about them.  It is also possible that I am reading too many Zelazny stories in too short a time; they all seem to have a macho man who smokes and knows some martial art and has a troubled marital past and has to prove to himself that he is a real man, etc.  Back in the '60s SF fans would get a new Zelazny story every few months, but here I am reading one or two every day, which makes the similarities a little more obvious.  Maybe I should take a break from Zelazny for a while.    

"The Great Slow Kings" (1963)

This is a brief jocular trifle about the propensity of human beings for civilization-destroying war.  A pair of reptilian aliens have such slow metabolisms that during the course of one of their days hundreds of Earth years pass.  These reptile people fancy themselves kings, but lack any subjects, so they have their robot servant fetch some humans to populate their planet.  Before the aliens, who live deep underground, even have time to alert the human colonists of their presence, the humans have risen from primitivism to an industrial civilization, developed atomic weapons, and exterminated themselves.

This story is fine, I guess, but not really my thing.


These pieces aren't up to the standard of "Rose for Ecclesiastes"or "Keys to December," but they are still definitely worth reading.  I've read nine of the 17 stories in this edition, and think I will lay the volume aside for a few weeks before returning to it.

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