The two best things I got out of my dreadful year of college at the University of Santa Clara were an unquenchable desire to be a writer and a love for science fiction. Both came about because I enrolled for a science fiction literature course on a whim. The anthology that was the main text was a collection of brilliant stories both classic and contemporary. One of them was “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, the reading of which made me realize there was nothing in the world I wanted to do more than produce memorable works of fiction.
When I returned to Seattle, I sought out the science fiction shelf at the local public library, and they had several volumes of the Nebula Awards anthologies, all of which I devoured. In volume one were two stories, “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “He Who Shapes” by a writer I had never heard of named Roger Zelazny. As I read them I was immediately struck by his idiosyncratic style, his vivid descriptions, his liberal use of metaphor, and his spare effective dialog.
Nobody writes like Roger Zelazny.
Since then I have read a fair amount of his work, and I have enjoyed most of it. He’s like any prolific writer, even some of my favorites: in my estimation, some of his work is brilliant, some is excellent, some is readable, and some is so-so. His best work is some of the finest science fiction ever written. My favorites include some of his earliest stories and his first novel, “This Immortal”, also known as “…And Call Me Conrad”.
In my perusal of the mountains of books at the recent yearly book sale of the Seattle Public Library, I came across the first hardbound volume of a set of complete stories by Roger Zelazny, and besides some of his early short shorts, some of which were published in high school and college literary magazines, were my three favorite Roger Zelazny short stories. And here they are.
“A Rose for Ecclesiastes“. This is the first major short story Zelazny ever wrote and published, and it became such a classic that it was chosen for the Science Fiction Writers of America Science Fiction Hall of Fame. It concerns a famous poet who accompanies an expedition to Mars to study the Martian language. As he becomes enmeshed in their culture he falls in love with a Martian woman and discovers that a plague of infertility has doomed the Martian race. However, the woman becomes pregnant with his child, and he uses the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible in Martian translation to convince the Martians to let the child live. The story is told in such precise, beautiful language that it tugs my heart and brings me to tears every time I read it. Truly one of the great classics of science fiction.
“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth“. Another wonderful science fiction classic. The title is from the description of the leviathan in the Book of Job in the Bible. In chapter 40 of the King James version it says, “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?…Who can open the doors of his face? His teeth are terrible round about…Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.” The Bible passage continues with a long description of a fearsome sea creature. The story is set on Venus, where in the deep ocean lives the largest sea creature in the solar system, a monstrous fish with fearsome fangs and incredible strength. A team goes out on a specially-built platform to hunt the beast, and the protagonist is a baitman who must dive into the water when the beast is sighted to manually trigger the lure. This is the first Zelazny story I ever read. It highlights his lean style perfectly, has amazingly nuanced characterization, and is a rousing adventure at the same time.
“He Who Shapes“. This is a longer work, a novella. It is more intricate than it first appears, and I have to admit I didn’t really get it, at least not all of it, the first few times I read it. It concerns a special type of psychiatrist who enters his patients’ minds and helps them by shaping their dreams. He encounters a woman blind from birth and begins to help her discover what sight is, but becomes drawn into the fantasy world of her psyche. There have been many imitations since this first appeared, but none have had the depth or insight of this wildly original story.
Many other Zelazny stories have given me intense pleasure, among them “Devil Car”, “Home is the Hangman”, and “This Moment of the Storm”. He was a great writer who died much too young in 1995 at the age of 58.