Roger Zelazny’s Isle of The Dead

Roger Zelazny’s Isle of The Dead is a prequel of sorts to To Die in Italbar, though you don’t really need to read it first. It amuses me that, as I noted in reviewing thItalbar, Zelazny considers it be his worst novel, as it’s stylistically identical to this novel — he wrote them both in the same year. I could make the argument that they’re really one novel published in two pieces. Certainly I would suggest that it’s worth reading both of them in a single go as they form in a continuous narrative.

The title refers to the several paintings done by Swiss-German painter Arnold Böcklin. In this novel, Francis Sandow, the world shaper, refers to “that mad painting by Boecklin, The Isle of the Dead.” Sandow has created a physical Isle of The Dead for a client, which figures into this story.

Written in 1969, the novel is about Francis, the oldest human alive in the 32nd century, as he was born in the 19th century. He’s a terraformer, having learned the skills for a member of a deliberately dying race called the Pei’ans. There are only twenty-seven existing worldscapers; Sandow, bound to Shimbo of Darktree, Shrugger of Thunders, is the only non-Pei’an among them, a fact deeply hated by a Pei’an who was judged unsuitable to be a worldscaper by his fellow Pei’ans and plans to kill Sandow for that slight.

Sandow, the oldest and wealthiest being in the Galaxy, has been receiving messages showing proof that friends and enemies he thought long dead are alive. Are they really alive? If so, who resurrected them and why? Is the Pei’an who hates him? Or is it someone else?

You get a fair amount of Zelazny pontificating in a thinly veiled manner on the American society that existed when the novel was written, and perhaps just as much of a look at what I’d say are his small ‘l’ liberation views. Nothing that, if you’ve read any amount of sf from that period, you’ve not encountered before. The story itself is good enough to overcome the preachiness in places.

It’s a quick, interesting read that, despite his belief that its sequel is his worst novel, is exactly like that novel in terms of both how it reads and certainly the quality of the story. Has he done better work? Oh most certainly. Lord of Light, his Hugo winning novel with its take on Hindu mythology, is fantastic, and “He Who Shapes“, the Hugo winning novella that got got expanded into The Dream Master is superb. But this is a great read too.

(Ace, 1969)

About Cat Eldridge

I’m the publisher of Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog.

My current novels are listening to Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds, and reading Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on Cat-net and Anthony Boucher’s Murder in the Morgue My current graphic novel is Spider-Gwen: Most Wanted..

I’m listening to a whole bunch of new Celtic and Nordic new releases but I’ll dip in my music collection for such artists as Blowzabella, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and Frifot as the weather goes colder.