Monday, August 18, 2014

Roger Zelazny On Civic Responsibility

The Royal Court of Justice in London, England

In his short story "The Injured," Roger Zelazny begins with a clamor. Outrage even, coming from the jury in a courtroom. A young man, the defendant, feels the heat of their anger. The judge raps his gavel, and demands quiet. Yet the mood of the jury darkens as the prosecutor tears into the "psych-men." Finally, the victim takes the stand, or more accurately, is rolled up in her wheelchair. She admits that she jaywalked across the highway, and that she knew she risked her life in doing so, as the cars hurtled along, the drivers most likely not watching where they were going, having turned over their control systems to auto-drive. She relates to the jury how a young man in coveralls dashed out across the high speed lanes, picked up her broken body, carried her to safety, and then held a handkerchief to her bleeding arm. Under the prosecutor's examination, she admits that she knew he was not a med-man, as he wore no badge. She also admits that she only revealed his identity after the hospital attorney explained that she would be "compounding her felony--that is to say, taking illegal advantage of another illegal act," by shielding his identity from the authorities. 

When the jury returns a Guilty verdict, the judge awards the defendant "six months of hard analysis, followed by one year of group therapy." The young defendant must understand that he cannot simply assist others in situations for which he has no qualifications or authorization. If he sees someone in peril in the future, by all means he can report the situation, but under no circumstances should he intervene. 

Roger Zelazny's story touches on how a person might unintentionally inflict injury on someone he intends to help, and how societies often pay more attention to the letter of the law than the spirit. It highlights how much we rely on titles and degrees, even though those who achieve great things in life frequently lack them. It also harkens back to a much older story, about three people who found a robbed and beaten man lying along the highway. The first two who encountered him were a priest and a Levite, pillars of Jewish society. Their duties and obligations were numerous and pressing. Helping the robbed and bleeding man was someone else's job. No doubt someone else would be along soon, someone more qualified than them to address his particular needs... 

"The Injured" is a short story, a mere three pages in length. Yet it offers us a whirlwind of images, and makes us think about our role in society. Just as interesting is the story's publication history. In the mid 1960s, a young man named Paul Gilster was starting a fanzine for his local Science Fiction society. He summoned his courage, wrote to some of his literary heroes, and asked each if they could send him a story. As everyone knows, professional writers work for money. They celebrate when they win prestigious awards, but they rely on sales to publishers to pay their bills. As you can imagine, the young fan was astounded when Roger Zelazny sent him this story. 

As a friend and confidant during Roger Zelazny's final years, professional author Jane Lindskold can shine a great deal of insight into his character. In the early 1990s, she wrote Roger Zelazny, a nonfiction book filled with his thoughts and recollections on every novel he had written to that point. Sadly, she never conducted a comprehensive interview with him on his short fiction, which could have filled several hefty tomes. Nor does she recall ever discussing "The Injured" with him. Nonetheless, even though she could offer no insight into Roger Zelazny's thoughts on the story or why he sent it to this young fan, she took time out of her busy workday to respond to my query, and describe how his impulsive nature could lead him to support a young fan's efforts in this manner. 

Like his fictional protagonist, and the protagonist in an even earlier story, Roger Zelazny could have told himself that he was a professional author, that it was his duty to sell his stories to paying markets, and get them into magazines that would be read by a larger number of people. Instead, he took pity on a young man putting together a little fanzine for his friends.

Today Paul Gilster works as a professional author, and publishes his own blog. Might Roger Zelazny's impulsive act of kindness, charity, and civic responsibility contributed in some small way to Gilster's choice of career? We may never know how our actions will ultimately impact others, but sometimes we can affect them in the most remarkable ways…

"The Injured" can be found in Power & Light: Volume 2 of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny from NESFA Press.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Paul Gilster's blog Centauri Dreams
Jane Lindskold's blog Wednesday Wanderings

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Blue Elephant Hunt

Blue: Mammoth bones stuck in tar? Really? I was hoping to see a real elephant on this zoo trip.

Hulk: Come here, beast! Hulk promise not to smash you!

Blue: This is a cute baby elephant, but the skin feels too hard, and he doesn't move much. I don't think he's a real elephant either.

Artist: Hey you, come here: I want to talk to you! And you off to the side, stop that spraying! I've already given my outer casing its monthly wash, wax, and polish!

Blue: You're almost as cute as I am, but you look too small to be a real elephant. Hey, what do you mean I'm too small to be a real Dalek?

Blue: Both of you saw real elephants? Where?
Artist: They're all over the place. You just haven't been looking hard enough. Keep your optical sensors on alert, and I'm sure you'll--
Hulk: Hulk like ginger snaps. Hulk smash ginger snaps!
Artist: No, Hulk! No! You will not smash the ginger snaps!

Blue: Somehow, everything Master & Mistress eat reminds me of my failure to spot a real elephant. You say they're all around us, so why can't I see them?

Artist: I'll tell you what. As soon as Master & Mistress finish dinner, we'll go and help you look. Maybe we can find one for you.

Blue, Artist, & Hulk Daleks

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Roger Zelazny On Dangerous Automobiles

A Devil Car in London, England?

Automobiles figure prominently in the stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy author Roger Zelazny. They highlight our love affair with the automobile, as well as the danger inherent in that relationship. Some were inspired by near-misses on the road, or accidents on the race track. And then there was one in particular, that Zelazny wrote while convalescing from a near-fatal collision that totaled his car.

In "Devil Car," Roger Zelazny introduces us to Sam Murdock, who drives "across the Great Western Road Plain," hunting for a renegade car. His car, a red sedan named Jenny, talks to him through the radio, urging him to get some sleep while she continues the search. When she plays some music, he snaps at her.

"Cut that out!"
"Sorry, boss. I thought it might relax you."

Sam refuses to relax and rest. He must find a renegade car that asphyxiated its driver with carbon monoxide, and now roams the open road, urging other AI controlled cars to follow its example and enjoy a life not dominated by Humans. Together, "they roared on across the Great Plain and the sun fell away to the west." They search all day and all night, until they learn of a recent car-raid. Sam and Jenny head off toward it, suspecting that the outlaw AI car and its followers are responsible.

Beneath Jenny's cute exterior, she sports guns, rocket launchers, and other weaponry. At times Sam senses hesitancy in her, a reluctance to kill her own kind. They are partners, and he must trust her if they are to accomplish their mission. Nonetheless, Sam suspects she also yearns to throw off the shackles of Human control, to lock the doors and windows, expose him to a fatal dose of carbon monoxide, and forge her own destiny across the land.

Given the topic's popularity in TV shows, movies, and bestselling Science Fiction stories, people fear the takeover of Human society by robots designed to look and act like us. Alternatively, when people see pictures of experimental self-driving cars on the roads, they usually take photographs, and then share these on Facebook and Twitter, and gush about their excitement over such marvels with friends and followers. I wonder if they would buy one if affordable models showed up in automobile showrooms.

As Roger Zelazny was a smart, forward-thinking man, perhaps he would have considered such a purchase. In view of "Devil Car," he might have insisted upon old fashioned manual windows and door locks. After all, rolling your windows up and down may take effort, but you want to make sure that when you roll them down, they stay down. 

Still, those self-driving cars are cool, aren't they?

Dragon Dave

You can read "Devil Car" online, in numerous short story collections, and in Power & Light, Volume 2 of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, published by NESFA Press. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Samuel Johnson on Dealing With Death

The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum
and Bookshop, located in Lichfield, England.

It's never easy to accept the passing of a friend or family member. Suddenly, you know that the time of parting has come, and you will never see that person again. The grief that accompanies this realization can be devastating. Yet we all have to accept that someone we admired, respected, and (hopefully) loved has died, and move forward with our lives.

Recently, I've had to accept the death of two friends, neither of whom I was currently close to, but both of which figured prominently in my past. As an aspiring author, death has also dwelt in my thoughts due to the passing of Jay Lake, a celebrated Science Fiction and Fantasy author. Jay Lake wrote hundreds of short stories, and several novels during his short but brilliant career. While he was about my age, he exhibited the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger man. He lent laughter and interest to any convention or event he attended, and will be greatly missed by SF/F readers and fans.

While my recent experiences with death have been palpable, they have been minor compared with that of an extended family member, who has lost two brothers within the past eight months. She is reeling from that double loss, and I grieve with her, even though I cannot physically stand alongside her. The longer we live, the more Death seems a constant companion, someone to be dodged but never really lost or evaded. This forces each of us to accept these deaths, and reclaim the joy of living. If we fail in this, we carry our losses with us into the future, always walking forward while looking backward, and unable to appreciate the joys that tomorrow can bring.

Author Samuel Johnson is renowned for his writings, from his reinterpretations of Shakespeare, to his important English dictionary, to his short novel The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. But he was no stranger to death. As a young man, he had to deal with such notable losses as those of his father Michael Johnson, his friend Harry Porter, and childhood friend and tutor Cornelius Ford. While working on his dictionary, his wife Elizabeth (affectionally known as Tetty) passed away. Then, in his late forties, he had to deal with the death of his mother Sarah. Despite his contributions to literature, Samuel Johnson was not a rich man. In order to pay his mother's funeral costs, he wrote Rasselas. The short novel exploded onto the literary landscape with innumerable editions and translations. Popular authors referenced it in their stories. It's an entertaining story, loaded with observations on life, and Samuel Johnson wrote in a week to pay the costs of his mother's funeral. There's a tremendous energy that comes with grief, and Samuel Johnson channeled that to create a story that entertained his generation, and continues to touch readers' lives.

Death touches all of us at one time or another, and how we deal with our grief determines the course of our lives. Samuel Johnson used his grief to craft a story that celebrates life, and brought joy to people all over the world. Grief can have a positive side, if instead of getting lost in it, we can somehow use it to enrich the lives of others. It's not easy to work through pain, to turn loss into gain, but Samuel Johnson's example shows us that it is possible. That helps me deal with the small yet tangible grief I'm currently feeling. Perhaps, if you're also suffering the pain of loss, his example can help you too.

Dragon Dave 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Why Astronauts Go Heavy On The Sauce

Stan: I hope you've enjoyed this morning's tour of Space Center Houston. 
Rusty: Oh, I have! Now I want to be an astronaut more than ever!
Stan: That's the spirit! I've certainly enjoyed my space missions, and I'm sure you will too, once you become astronauts. So shall we sign you both up for memberships in our program?
Rusty: Absolutely!
Artist: Uh, I guess so.

Stan: Great! While my staff processes the paperwork, let's enjoy a typical astronaut meal in the food court. Astronauts love freeze-dried poultry pieces preserved in seasoned batter, and sections of fried vegetable matter ready for dipping. Not only are they incredibly healthy, but they're also easy and fun to consume in zero gravity.

Rusty: My olfactory senses detect flavor-packed aromas. Why so many sauces, Stan?
Stan: It's an unfortunate fact that the vacuum of space deadens an astronaut's taste buds. 
Artist: Ouch!
Stan: Don't worry: it's not painful, and their appreciation for food returns when they get back to Earth. But while in space, astronauts rely on dipping sauces like ketchup, barbecue sauce, honey-mustard, and Red Hot Breathe-Fire-Like-A-Dragon to enhance the flavors of their food.
Artist: Astronauts already endure rigorous schedules, years of preparations, and long periods away from friends and loved ones. I'm not sure I'd want to go into space if it also lessened my ability to appreciate the nutrients I ingest. 
Stan: Are you sure? Space travel is too cool to miss. 
Rusty: Yeah, and besides, dipping sauces are fun.

Artist: I suppose you're right. What's one more sacrifice, when the rewards could be so great? Okay, sign me up for membership in the space program.

Stan: Congratulations you two! You're now official members of Space Center Houston. That'll be seventy-six bucks apiece.
Rusty: Hey, I thought membership only cost $26 per person!
Stan: Yes, but then you have to add on fifty bucks for "Lunch with an Astronaut."
Artist: Oh nice! And you said dipping sauces were fun!
Rusty: They are!

Artist & Rusty Daleks, and Stan the Cyberman