Roger Zelazny

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Roger Zelazny (1937 - 1995) was a science fiction and fantasy writer whose widely-loved and multi-award-winning (including six Hugo awards and three Nebula awards) works include the Chronicles of Amber series, A Night in the Lonesome October, Creatures of Light and Darkness, Damnation Alley, Doorways in The Sand, Lord of Light, My Name Is Legion, Lord of Dreams and This Immortal.

Zelazny started writing during a fashion in sci-fi/fantasy for psychological focus and experimentalism known as the "New Wave" [1]. His early short story He Who Shapes describes a doctor able to enter the dreams of his patients by technological means to confront and ease their neuroses. The story moves right out of conventional territory, the very narrative voice itself being progressively overwhelmed by the deep tides of myth and symbology that the overreaching doctor founders in.

Zelazny himself never cared for the "New Wave" label, let alone the notion that he led it. But he did continue in the expansive, risk-taking spirit of the time, developing an extensive array of fictional worlds and narrative approaches. He's the kind of writer who can get computers and deities into the same work without it seeming dissonant.

His Master of Arts was in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Zelazny's career management was very thorough. He made the decision not to publish until he felt he knew enough of life to draw characters. Once writing, he progressed from short stories to novellas to novels. Even when he was being published, he didn't give up his day job as a civil servant before it was clear writing would pay.

His early work attracted the bulk of the critical attention, particularly by the literary community. His greatest commercial success and best known work is the (later) Amber series. It is a tale of princes locked in rivalry around the claim for a throne. The princes are gods, but Zelazny loved to mix genres: these immortals, these primal forces in human form initially have the morals and at times the style and speech of gangsters out of a hard-boiled detective novel.

While the bulk of the Amber series marks Zelazny settling down to a more straightforward prose style, there are stream-of-consciousness sequences and touches of poetry. The best dialogue is eloquent yet unornamented.

The influence of Zelazny forms a baseline to modern sci-fi and fantasy: he is one of those writers other writers read and love. Neil Gaiman dedicated The Wake to Roger, who died of cancer during its production, aged only 58.

His later works were not as well received by critics. The Amber series in particular has been dismissed as a straightforward power fantasy.

Unusually for a writer interested in deep psychology, Zelazny tended to steer away from the "destructive testing" of characters. Rather than habitually showing us how characters come apart under pressure, his characters have integrity. This maturity is perhaps also part of their willingness to engage with their enemies in extended and meaty conversation where other writers would give up and put in a fight scene.

Roger engaged in several collaborations, including works created with Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley and Alfred Bester.

His novel Damnation Alley lent its title (but little else) to a 1977 film. His short story "The Last Defender of Camelot" was adapted (by George R. R. Martin) for an episode of The New Twilight Zone.


Roger Zelazny's other works provide examples of:[edit | hide]

  • After the End: Several of his short stories, including For a Breath I Tarry, and The Stainless Steel Leech, among others, are set in various post-human world, amongst the robotic servants who have inherited the Earth.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: In Home is the Hangman, a space-exploring AI returns to Earth and a scientist is sent to investigate whether it's out to murder its programmers. Far from it.
  • All the Myriad Ways
  • And I Must Scream
  • Animated Armor: Merlin's servitor in "The Last Defender of Camelot"
  • Author Appeal: In quite a few books (Chronicles of Amber and Lord of Light among them) people smoke a lot-- usually cigarettes, sometimes a pipe. Zelazny was himself a heavy smoker until middle-age when he gave it up for health reasons. Whenever he got stuck as to where to go next, he would have a cigarette to think about things, and would put this activity into the text. When he stopped smoking during the second set of Amber books, he also stopped writing about his characters smoking.
  • Author Existence Failure: Donnerjack and several other works were incomplete at his death. It is moving that Zelazny himself finished off several books of other authors who had died.
  • Automated Automobiles: Devil Car, and other stories.
  • Balance Between Good and Evil: The pantheon Zelazny created for Isle of the Dead [2] balances creative against destructive gods.
  • Bring News Back
  • Carnival of Killers: In Roadmarks the antagonist hires the "Black Decade," ten highly skilled assassins/hunters from the entire range of Earth's history have been hired to eliminate the protagonist. This includes an assassin robot, a genetically enhanced and cybernetic super soldier, and a martial arts master.
  • Character Name Alias
  • Dead Man Writing: Played with in Roadmarks: A character writes a note to his employer explaining why he intends not only to resign but to kill his employer before he departs. He ends it with a postscript -- "By the time you read this, you will already be dead."
  • Deus Ex Machina: The bottle that Kai Wren creates at the start of Lord Demon has the power to grant him any three wishes. At first, he doesn't want to use it, preferring to solve his problems the old fashioned way, but when the fight starts turning against him, he uses the first wish to boot his enemies to their home dimension.
  • Disappeared Dad: Sandow to his son; Randy's father in Roadmarks. Zelazny's own father died early.
  • Doomed Moral Victor
  • Excited Show Title!: "Horseman!"
  • Gentle Giant: Mondamay in Roadmarks.
  • Flowery Elizabethan English: in Creatures of Light and Darkness, the immortal Prince Who Was A Thousand tends towards this style of speech, especially when conversing with his bodiless love, Nephytha. Other immortals and gods speak normal modern English, for the most part.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Justified for Francis Sandow, on the planets whose ecosystems he designed. It's a plot point in one novel when an animal is frightened of him, since it means he's entering enemy territory, and identifies him in a short story.
  • Have We Met Yet?: Played with in Roadmarks -- on several occasions, people reminisce about a previous meeting with the time-travelling protagonist then add that they're not sure if it's happened to him yet, because he looked older then. It turns out that he's growing younger instead of older as time goes on.
  • Historical Domain Character: The time-travel novel Roadmarks has significant cameos by several, including the Marquis de Sade and a small German man named Adolph.
  • Human Popsicle: In Permafrost characters are frozen solid and remain... alive.
  • Humanity's Wake: For a Breath I Tarry is set in a post-human world inhabited by our robotic servants. They regard mankind as godlike figures from a golden age.
  • I Have Many Names: A series of short stories, collected in My Name Is Legion, about a secret agent whose real name even his employer didn't know, whose aliases were always the names of obscure-but-notable historical figures. (In a break from the usual procedure, the historical figure always had nothing whatever to do with the job at hand; for instance, on his first appearance he was undercover as an engineer, but using a name whose original owner was a doctor.)
  • Journey to the Center of the Mind: He Who Shapes, see the main text.
  • Like a Badass Out of Hell
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: Psychoshop, a remarkably mobile shop where you pawn elements of your mind!
  • Mechanical Horse
  • Merlin Sickness: In Roadmarks, certain people start out as old men (or women) and grow younger over time. The question of what they have in common and why this happens is central to the plot.
  • Mugging the Monster: "The Last Defender of Camelot" begins with a trio of muggers picking on a harmless-looking old man who turns out to be the last surviving Knight of the Round Table -- and not just any knight, but Sir Launcelot du Lac, who never lost a fight in his entire life.
  • No Man of Woman Born: The sword from The Bells of Shoredan
  • Plot Coupon: Inverted in Forever After.
  • Psychic Powers
  • Public Domain Character: Merlin, Sir Launcelot and Morgan Le Fay in "The Last Defender of Camelot"
  • Reality Is Out to Lunch
  • Really Seven Hundred Years Old: Many characters.
  • Rebellious Spirit
  • Sapient Steed: Dilvish's steed, a steel horse that's the embodiment of a demon, in Dilvish the Damned.
  • Sleight of Tongue
  • Sophisticated As Hell: In Lord Demon, the title character Kai Wren meets an Irish Sidhe. After exchanging the appropriately formal official greetings, Kai Wren tells the Sidhe his name. The response? "Lord Demon? Holy shit!"
  • Talking Your Way Out: Characters are often very chatty -- a feature that saves the skin of more than one of them.
  • The Unpronounceable
  • Unusual Chapter Numbers:
    • Roadmarks, which involves time travel, begins with "Two", followed by "One" -- then another "Two", another "One", and so on through the book. The chapters numbered One follow the protagonist through the story; the chapters numbered Two contain related scenes in other times and places, and are not in chronological order.
  • Virgin Sacrifice
  • We Can Rule Together: Subverted in "The Last Defender of Camelot"
  • What Is This Thing You Call Love?: The demons in Lord Demon can't truly feel it, nor can they truly hate. Except main character Kai Wren.
  • You Didn't Ask: Used against one of the villains in Roadmarks. A character is placed under a compulsion to obey the villain's orders; the villain's plan fails due to a fact the character knew all along but chose not to volunteer; the villain asks why he didn't warn him, and the character replies, with exact truth, "You never asked me."
  1. simplifying the movement greatly.
  2. and To Die in Italbar