The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny: Volume 1—Threshold; Volume 2—Power & Light; Volume 3—This Mortal Mountain; Volume 4—Last Exit to Babylon. Edited by David G. Grubbs, Christopher S. Kovacs and Ann Crimmins. NESFA Press. $29 each.
Roger Zelazny would have been one of the Grand Old Men of the SF genre if he had lived long enough: he died of colorectal cancer at age 58 in 1995. Old he may not have been, but grand he most certainly was. Although best known for The Chronicles of Amber (10 novels and a batch of short stories), Zelazny was in fact a very wide-ranging and deep-thinking writer with a specific philosophical and authorial bent. Myth was his specialty: he mined numerous mythic traditions (Greco-Roman, Norse, Hindu, Native American and others) for stories filled with gods or people becoming gods – a sort of casual supernaturalism that is uniquely his. Other elements of his work were less unusual – the frequent conflict between sons and (usually absent) fathers or father figures, for example – but Zelazny always gave his own twist even to these more-familiar themes.
Zelazny was showered with all the awards typically given to outstanding SF writers, including six Hugos and three Nebulas (he was nominated for these pinnacle-of-the-genre awards a total of 28 times). And now he is receiving a posthumous award: a set of all his short fiction, being published in handsome hardcover volumes by NESFA Press, a small but scrappy outfit whose collections of SF are inevitably well-made and very classy. The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny will eventually run to six volumes – he wrote a lot of short pieces – and will take up something in the neighborhood of 3,500 pages. The first four volumes are now available, and they are an absolute must-have for Zelazny fans, superb gifts for readers who know Zelazny only casually, and a revelation for those who (for whatever reason) know him not at all.
In fact, the phrase Collected Stories is something of a misnomer for this massive undertaking, because the set also includes poems, some nonfiction, and occasional comments by Zelazny about his writings. The editors have thoughtfully included publication and award-related information on the title page of each item, and there are many notes to explain Zelazny’s numerous allusions and, in some cases, his vocabulary. All this is exemplary; less so is the organization of the books, which are only vaguely chronological and not clearly organized along any particular principle. This has the advantage of making any single volume a wonderful standalone gift (to one’s self if not to others), but the disadvantage of making it impossible to follow Zelazny’s stylistic development. Not that Zelazny himself made that easy: the exact provenance of his short works is not always easy to determine, and in many ways his style remained remarkably consistent from his earlier works of the mid-1960s until his death (one odd exception: Zelazny was a longtime pipe and cigarette smoker, but stopped smoking in the 1980s – at which point his characters, many of whom had been heavy smokers in his earlier works, also quit).
Indeed, it is Zelazny’s consistent quality and consistent style that are among his hallmarks. Mixing bits of ancient myths with deliberate anachronisms, poetic sensibilities with hard-boiled dialogue, Zelazny created a series of mythic worlds of his own, using science-fiction settings primarily as backdrops for works that were essentially fantasy. The four Collected Stories volumes include tributes to this and other elements of Zelazny the writer and Zelazny the man from such fellow authors as Robert Silverberg, Walter Jon Williams, Neil Gaiman and Joe Haldeman. But more importantly, they contain a wonderful mixture of material that invites serendipity. The justly famous “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is the first entry in Volume 1, which also includes “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” – and previously uncollected items such as “Circe Has Her Problems” and “Moonless in Byzantium.” Volume 2 includes, for example, “Death and the Executioner,” which became part of the novel Lord of Light, and “Auto-Da-Fé” – and four mid-1960s stories never before published at all. Volume 3 has “Here There Be Dragons” and “Angel, Dark Angel,” plus “Add Infinite Item” and “Tomorrow Stuff” and other previously uncollected or unpublished works. Volume 4 contains all three novellas from My Name Is Legion, several short works from various series, and previously uncollected essays such as “The Balance Between Art and Commerce” and “Amber and the Amberites.” Taken together, these four volumes – never mind the two yet to come – give readers tremendous insight into Zelazny’s worlds, thought patterns, interests, mythmaking and stylistic approach. More importantly, whether they are taken together or separately, they give a huge amount of sheer reading pleasure, brought to you by one of the most interesting stylists and most unusual thinkers that the SF field has yet produced.