Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny

This is my favorite book by one of my favorite writers. I haven't read it in a couple of decades.

For some people, those would be contradictory statements: a favorite is something they return to again and again, to revisit to keep it all-but-memorized. But I'm not like that. My favorite books are the ones that bulk large in the back of my mind, the ones that influenced some way of thinking or reading -- generally long ago. That's the kind of thing that can never happen a second time; the Heraclitean river has moved on.

But how do you know you never can go home again if you don't try? So I finally came back to Roger Zelazny's weirdest novel Creatures of Light and Darkness, published the year I was born, which I first read as a teenager looking for more things by the guy who wrote the Amber books.

Creatures is a novel legendarily written not to be published -- as a writing exercise, or a series of exercises. As I've heard it, it was Chip Delany who urged Zelazny to publish it -- whether that's true or not doesn't really matter. It's a good story -- the novelist coming off The Einstein Intersection telling the novelist coming off Lord of Light that this new SF novel inspired by mythology is worth pushing out into the world. It's a short book, in that old style: crammed full of stuff, leaping forward and rarely slowing down to do more than sketch descriptions of everything. But these are all gods anyway, right? You don't need Zelazny to tell you what Anubis looks like.

If Lord of Light was a SF novel with fantasy trappings based loosely on mythology, Creatures is all of those things amplified and purified. It's essentially SF, but of the variety set so far in the future, and so devoid of techo-talk, that it doesn't read as SF. So it comes across as fantasy...but it isn't. Whoever these people are, whatever race they may have once been part of, however much they may call themselves gods, they're still part of a rational, law-based universe. But all of their relationships with each other and the wider universe are wrapped up in those mythological names -- Anubis and Horus and Osiris and some that Zelazny palms for later, calling them Wakim and The Prince Who Was a Thousand. Their conflicts are legendary -- literally. They've been fighting each other, one way or another, for more time than we can count. And the tools they have to fight with can shatter planets...which Zelazny will describe quietly, obliquely, offhandedly.

What I love about Creatures is its fearlessness: this is a kitchen-sink book to beat all kitchen-sink books, partially written in poetry and chamber drama, smashcutting from wry humor to bleak horror, presenting the myth of Horus sideways as baroque space opera, and slyly implying the mysterious nameless ancient god they're all trying to keep contained has a name we also might find familiar.

It throws a large number of characters at the reader quickly: an unnamed Man, resident in Anubis's House of the Dead for a thousand years, his master, The Steel General and Madrak and Vramin, all of those other gods and demi-gods. It cuts to quick portentous scenes that it won't explain for a while. It charges forward, burning through a dozen literary forms as it goes, daring the reader to keep up. It's the novel of a writer at the top of his game, writing purely for himself and trying every last thing he can think of -- and, to me, all of it works, and all of it works brilliantly.

Creatures is one of the great examples of what a novel of the fantastic can do -- make its own way, smash through genres and preconceptions and ideas almost at random. It is a weird, quirky, bizarre book and I still love it.

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