Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Isle of the Dead

Another from the now-questionable "forgotten classics" list, this Roger Zelazny novel proved the worth of the list. I couldn't put it down. Between the brisk pace and the characterization, I didn't want to stop reading, and when I was done, I wanted to find more about this character, this setting.

In many ways, this novel felt like the best of Iain Banks, making me wonder how much influence Zelazny had on such works as Against a Dark Background and Player of Games. The setting is a universe of the far future with an apparent easy intermingling of humans and other races. Technology is very advanced, so much so that it generally sits in the background and just provides whatever is necessary to advance the plot. Thus it is the characters and their interaction which drives the story, as well as the tour through the distant future. Unlike Banks's works, however, Zelazny's use the voice of the protagonist, offering even more insight into the mind of the inhabitants of the future as well as providing a source for humorous moments based on the character rather than just on the action. This subtle difference provides a wealth of depth to the story even though the plot is fairly simple.

Francis Sandow is perhaps the oldest human in the galaxy, though this has little explicit effect on the story other than providing an even deeper foundation for crotchety humor. Having a twentieth-century narrator in the 32nd century also gives the reader a familiar accessibility point. Part of his longevity comes from his study as a worldscaper, a group of artists apparently able to craft worlds from scratch. Due to his skill, he joins the Named, a group of alien worldscapers and is somehow given the power of one of the divinities of that alien race. Along with the potency comes a longer lifespan, but it also brings him tremendous amounts of money, such that he is one of the wealthiest sentients in the galaxy and thus also one needing the tremendous security of that future technology. Zelazny does not really spend much time talking about power and process of worldscaping, though it seems an exciting jumping-off point for speculative fiction. Instead, Isle of the Dead concentrates on danger of wealth and the use of godlike powers. For Sandow appears to sometimes be the incarnation of the Thunder Rouser, able to call down storms.

The novel begins as Sandow receives the latest in a series of photographs (in some ways the technology of the novel is awfully dated—here they are in a place where people can create worlds, but they still use photography. I note this while adding that such a discrepancy did not occur to me as I was reading but only now; the story moved too quickly for me to care about "datedness"), a provably recent photograph of yet another of Sandow's long-dead friends. It just so happens that this photo is of his first love and wife, Kathy. The series of photographs only intrigues him somewhat until he receives a visit from a bureaucrat from an investigative agency on Earth, who informs him that the life-tapes—downloads of the personality and memories of people—and genetic samples of several of his dead friends and enemies have been stolen, which explains the photographs he has been receiving. Unworried when receiving an abstract threat, the knowledge that colleagues of his have been brought back to life, apparently solely to harass him and lure him into a trap, is enough to force Sandow to start his own investigation.

Sandow's extreme wealth and power allow the investigation to move quickly. Some time is spent investigating part of the culture of the Pei'ans, the race of worldscapers that has adopted Sandow and trained him. We see their culture as Sandow goes to visit his mentor on his deathbed, from which he tells Sandow that his hunter is Gringrin, a Pei'an who is extremely jealous of Sandow becoming a worldscaper and becoming one of the Named. Gringrin does not believe that humans should ever take the positions, especially when Sandow has taken the last vacant one, keeping Gringrin from receiving a Name for himself. Sandow knows from the photographs that Gringrin is on a planet named Illyria, one that Sandow himself has designed and built, so he takes precautions before voluntarily walking into the trap.

It turns out that there is not a lot of depth to the themes of this Isle of the Dead: jealousy and intolerance are what drive the story, though Sandow's advanced age actually provides him with a fair amount of wisdom that causes the reader to reflect on the decisions that Sandow makes along the way. Sandow does not lecture his contemporaries, like Heinlein's Lazarus Long, but he does take some time to lecture his audience, including a particularly crotchety ramble about the unfairness of tipping service staff. The plot mostly provides the opportunity for a quick jaunt through a fascinating setting, not taking time to alight and examine any one thing fairly closely. It is in this informal and fast-moving style that Banks most reflects this kind of writing. Both authors provide the reader with a tremendous sense of wonder at all the things that are passed rapidly by without detail. The biggest differences are that of voice already noted and the sheer size and complexity of Banks's plots. The reader gets to see a lot more of the future with Banks and the plots are usually fascinating, sometimes even experiments in form and function.

Nonetheless, I have long enjoyed Zelazny's works and am pleased to have read this one for the first time. It further delights me to see reflections of it in another favorite author. However, the end result is that I want to go back and read more Zelazny, reviewing some of the things I read before I ever knew about Banks…and I also want to go back and reread Banks as well. Not very long, Isle of the Dead is a great summertime read, though it seems to me to offer a significant waypoint for the issues and ideas of some of the best contemporary writers: Banks, of course, but also those who do similar things with post-Singularity novels. Taken lightly or seriously, I really recommend taking a few hours to enjoy this significant novel.

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