Roger Zelazny’s Unicorn Variations

I’ve been collecting and reading this author for well over twenty years now. (Today, I received A Checklist of Roger Zelazny, a chapbook that Christopher Stephens did in 1991. Bliss — more reading to look forward to!) Even though he passed on rather young, there are more than enough novels and collections that he did over his career to keep me happy for many more years. Most of what he published is still surprisingly affordable; Unicorn Variations, a collection of some of his short works, will set you back as little as a US$ 25.00 online these days. Not bad at all for one of the best fantasy writers of all time. And though I like his novels very much, he was often at his best when writing short works of fiction. Unicorn Variations contains enough of these gems that any Zelazny fan should own it!

If you haven’t encountered Zelazny before, I’ll quote the Harper Collins bio for him: ‘Roger Zelazny burst onto the SF scene in the early 1960s with a series of dazzling and groundbreaking short stories. He won his first of six Hugo Awards for Lord of Light, and soon after produced the first book of his enormously popular Amber series, Nine Princes in Amber. In addition to his Hugos, he went on to win three Nebula Awards over the course of a long and distinguished career. He died on June 14, 1995.’ This dry and less than exciting precis of him and his career leaves out far too much of who he was as a writer, from the fact that the Amber Series consists of nine short brilliant novels that are better than almost all fantasy that has ever been written to, as A Checklist of Roger Zelazny confirms, the fact that he has written more short fiction than I can scarcely believe exists! (Some of his short fiction would become part of novels, i.e. ‘The White Beast’ published in Whispers 13 and 14 became a part of his Dilvish, the Damned novel Likewise’ Pattern in Remba’, later part of Nine Princes in Amber, first existed as a transcribed reading in Kallikanzaros.) He’s certainly not the only prolific short fiction writer of that period (’60s to ’80s) as the money for writers of his ilk was very much coming from the magazines that were quite prolific at that point.

As Zelazny started publishing in 1953 with ‘Conditional Benefit’, a short story for the Thurban zine, it can said that the material in Unicorn Variations in covering from the late ’60s to the early ’80s represents him as a fully developed writer over a twenty year period. Though I have more than a fair amount of his later collections, the material here is, as near as I can tell, generally not reprinted later. (Some has — I recognise ‘Home is the Hangman’ (1975) and ‘Fire and/or Ice’ (1980) as showing up in other collections.) Critics in general, and most Zelazny fans, tend to favored his longer works such as The Dream Master and This Immortal, both published in 1966. His short fiction such as collected here tends not to be what they really, really like. Ironically, one slam against Jane Linskold’s completion of the Donnerjack work was that it was too detailed!

In addition to the stories I just noted, this collection has these selections: ‘Unicorn Variation’ (1982), ‘The Last of the Wild Ones’ (1981), ‘Recital’ (1981), ‘The Naked Matador’ (1981), ‘The Parts That Are Only Glimpsed: Three Reflexes’ (1978), ‘Dismal Light’ (1968), ‘Go Starless in the Night’ (1979), ‘But Not the Herald’ (1965), ‘A Hand Across the Galaxy’ (1967), ‘The Force That Through the Circuit Drives the Current’ (1976), ‘Exeunt Omnes’ (1980), ‘A Very Good Year’ (1979), ‘My Lady of the Diodes’ (1970), ‘And I Only Am Escaped to Tell Thee’ (1981), ‘The Horses of Lir’ (1981), ‘The Night Has 999 Eyes’ (1964), ‘Angel, Dark Angel’ (1967), ‘Walpurgisnacht’ (1981), ‘The George Business’ (1980), and a non-fiction piece, ‘Some Science Fiction Parameters: A Biased View’ (1975). By any standards, it’s a lot of short fiction. The question, is how good is it? As with any collection, it’s an up-and-down affair. You get some good ones, you get some mediocre ones, and you get some bad ones. It’s just the normal course of things as no writer is ever consistently good.

The best story in the collection is the longest, a well-known novella called ‘Home Is the Hangman.’ In ‘Hangman,’ an artificial intelligence named Hangman is driven quite insane when, during its learning days, it commits murder at the command of its creators. That causes the AI to break contact while on deep space exploration. When it comes back, one of its controllers is murdered. Did Hangman do it? And if so, why? ‘Home Is the Hangman’ shows Zelazny at his very best grappling with questions of what is good and evil, what makes something truly alive. ‘Home is The Hangman’ is part of a series of novellas where the premise is that when the world databases are unified, a programmer takes the opportunity to completely erase his existence. He pursues a career as a trouble-shooter, taking on those assignments no one else will do. In a series of stories he investigates a case of sabotage at a top-secret nuclear project, ‘The Eve of RUMOKO’ (1969), defends a group of dolphins accused of murder, ‘Kjwalll’kje’koothai’lll’kje’k’ (1973), and tackles the Hangman problem. All three are collected in ‘My Name is Legion’ (1976).

Some of the best pieces here are very short. Weighing at only slightly over two pages (!), ‘Fire and/or Ice’ is a story of Ragnarok when Loki gets the last laugh. Well, sort of. Now some of the pieces here are as bad as any of the self-indulgent New Wave science fiction of the time could be — the Hemingway pastiche that is ‘The Naked Matador’ is just plain awful. You no doubt will find much you like here, and some that you can’t stand. What do I recommend besides what I’ve already noted? ‘The Last of the Wild Ones’ is a quirky look at feral living cars, ‘The Horses of Lir’ plays off that Celtic myth, and the brilliantly punning mediation on Death, ‘Angel, Dark Angel ‘. I should note that this story shows Zelazny did have one bad point as a writer — names that border on being bad jokes! I won’t tell you what Death is named here!

The bottom line’s simple — if you like Zelazny, go buy this book. You’ll want it. If you’re not a Zelazny fan, this is probably not the place to start as the new collect, Manna from Heaven, which just came out (and which we’ll have reviewed shortly), is much stronger as a collection; it includes all 5 previously uncollected Amber short stories, plus a half dozen other uncollected works.

(Timescape, 1983)

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.