Paul Weimer Review: The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny, Volume Four, Last Exit to Babylon

The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny, Volume Four, Last Exit to Babylon (NESFA Press, 2009)

Review by Paul Weimer. Last Exit to Babylon is the third of the six-volume NESFA collection of the work of Roger Zelazny.

Again, to get an overview of the project in progress and my thoughts on it, I commend you to my first three reviews, of Threshold, Volume One, and Power and Light, Volume Two., anThis Mortal Mountain, Volume Three.

Volume Four takes us into the later 1970’s and across the threshold into the early 1980’s. Once again, Christopher Kovac’s literary biography, toward the end of the book, gives the framework for the man whose stories and works we read in the course of the volume. And again, as acknowledged in the previous volumes, the copious noting and footnoting of the stories and poems often reveal parts of Zelazny’s life and career, as well as the more usual literary models.

The late 70’s and early 80’s were very much a switch to novels as the primary writing format for Zelazny. That does mean there are fewer stories in this volume, and Kovac’s discussion of Zelazny focuses a lot on his novels. Amber starts looming large in Zelazny’s life in this discussion and at this point, but so, too, his collaborations with Dick, Saberhagen, and other works.  I learned a lot about the later Zelazny and was particularly struck by a what-if that could have occurred.

Back when the world was young (okay, it was the early 1980’s), Robert Asprin put together what is for me still the definitive shared world anthology series: Thieves’ World. Thieves’ World brought together a plethora of writing talents to write stories in a secondary world set in a out of the way city at the edge of an Empire. Think Lankhmar if it sat far away from Rome and Rome had conquered it sometime ago, but Lankhmar simmers with resentment at being under Rome’s boot, and you can see what Thieves’ World and the city of Sanctuary are meant to invoke. It turns out that Zelazny HAD been invited to write for Thieves’ World, had initially accepted, but had to withdraw because of his schedule. I would have loved to have read a Zelazny story set in Sanctuary.  (To be fair, Zelazny missing out on Thieves’ World meant that when GRR Martin started Wild Cards, Zelazny made sure he turned in a story). But still, Zelazny writing in the world of Sanctuary is a what-if I would have loved to have read.

As far as the prose in this volume, it revolves mainly around three axes

The first is the “Legion” stories. I had only read the most famous of these. “Home is the Hangman”, but all three of the stories are collected here. For those unfamiliar, our nameless protagonist, when all the people in the world were being computerized and put into a worldwide database, managed to escape being included. As a result, he can’t use credit cards and a lot of modern conveniences, and has to live on cash and cash alone. But what this also means is that he is very much invisible to the system. As a result, he can go and do jobs that others can’t, he can slip in and use his skills (which are very much tied into engineering and computers) to solve problems and get answers. “Home is the Hangman” revolves around an interstellar telepresence (Waldo) robot which may have gained sentience, and its controllers and operators are suddenly all being killed upon its return to Earth. Is the robot gaining some sort of revenge? And if so, why? The previous two stories, which I had not read, are “The Eve of RUMOKO”, first in the trilogy and  “’Kjwalll’kje’k’koothaïlll’kje’k”.  The first story has to do with a rather audacious bit of geoengineering, trying to engineer the creation of a new undersea volcano and a new island chain. In a world where there are undersea habitats on the continental shelves, this turns out to be a spectacularly dangerous idea, and there are those who would sabotage the project, and cause chaos thereby.  The second story is also aquatic based and features our protagonist trying to figure out if a dolphin can be a murderer.  This story was clearly influenced by the work of John Lilly and dolphin intelligence and has a really solid feel of life in the islands. Having all three of the Legion stories, what I am reminded of is, strangely enough, is Buck Rogers in the 25th century. At the end of the pilot episode, it is pointed out to Buck that all the interstellar governments have all the files on people in all the others.  But Buck, being from out of time, is a complete cipher, and could thus be used as a spy and agent that no one knows anything about, and get things done that others can’t.

The second axis the prose runs around is more Dilvish the Damned stories. There are a couple of pieces here I’d not read before, and now I feel that I’ve read the entirely of the corpus. I’d only previously read some of the stories, and the novel, The Changing Land. Dilvish is one of Zelazny’s most driven and focused characters, his desire to find and confront Jelerak his overall obsession and desire. But when someone manages to throw you into hell for two hundred years, I guess you’d want revenge, too?  Most of the stories revolve around him getting ever closer to the sorcerer for a confrontation, running into former allies, apprentices, victims and other random people along the way. The style is pure Zelazny, with elements and touches that particularly make me think of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth.

But aside from Vance,  Dilvish really reminds me of Erekose, one of the aspects of Moorcock’s The Eternal Champion, given his part-Elvish nature and heritage, and that (in the novel The Changing Land) he does go up against “The Old Gods”.  I have gone on the record that I make it as headcanon that Dilvish is indeed one of Moorcock’s Eternal Champions and these stories, and now having the entire corpus of the series read at last, feel confident in my statement. (Concurrent with reading this volume, I also listened in audio to a collection that included some Dilvish stories)

And the third axis is The Last Defender of Camelot. Given its importance in the Zelazny corpus and canon, it deserves discussion in and of itself. The Last Defender of Camelot is the definitive story of the return of members of the Round table coming back, the main character being Launcelot du Lac. Launcelot has, thanks to some spell or curse or both, been living ever since Camelot working as a soldier and a fighter. He’s lost a step or two, but his skill and experience are unmatched. But why he should be living all this time and for what purpose comes clear when he runs into, unexpectedly, Morgan Le Fay.  Morgan helps Launcelot figure out who and why Launcelot has been living all this time, and for what purpose.  Merlin has plans, and they are ill plans indeed.  The thing about the story, when I first read it (and saw the Twilight Zone episode) is that it introduced me to the idea of Merlin as an antagonist, and it also gives an absolution to Launcelot.  Le Fay patiently explains to Launcelot that his idylls with Guinevere are, in her opinion, not the mortal and horrible sin that Launcelot thinks it is, because her arrangement with Arthur is, in the end, a political marriage and that Launcelot has been beating himself up unnecessarily for nothing. The story does also play on “The one last fight” trope of the aging warrior called upon to get into the ring one more time against fearful odds, and it plays that trope rather well. The story makes Launcelot the most human of all the people in Camelot. He’s not the perfect knight that his son is, he’s not the almost alien Merlin, he’s not Arthur, trying to keep the sandcastle of Camelot from being washed out by the tide. Launcelot is a good, excellent fighter who winds up falling in love and that love leads to tragic consequences.  It’s a brilliant story and one of Zelazny’s best works.

In addition to these three axes, we get poetry, some apocrypha (some of which, no surprise, is Amber-related), and a little bit of nonfiction, and appreciations as well. One of the most interesting of these to me shows Zelazny’s catholic and insatiable interest in things, and that is a previously unpublished nonfiction piece called “Black Is the Color and None Is the Number” .  Written in 1976, it is Zelazny discussing and thinking about something far afield from most of Zelazny’s work and interest — Black Holes. The footnotes and notes at the end do point out, and I had forgotten, that nearly two decades later, Zelazny did write a story about someone encountering a Black Hole in “The Three Descents of Jeremy Baker”.  But to read Zelazny’s collected thoughts and knowledge about Black Holes, something far removed from history and mythology, was a treat.  There are also notes, elsewhere in the volume, that he was interested in manned spaceflight and was disappointed in the end of the Apollo missions.

In the end, this fourth volume brings us to the early 1980’s, and shows Zelazny at the height of his popularity. There are definite tensions as Zelazny encountered and had to face people who had the opinion that he was past his prime and that he should return to the short stories of the 1960’s, but really, although not stated in the volume itself, given the realpolitik of making a living writing, it is no wonder that his focus at this point and here on out is to be able to write full time and that meant novels. (Zelazny also moved to Santa Fe at this point because he could write anywhere and he wanted to live near mountains). But even if the sheer output of stories is not in this volume (and I suspect in the last two volumes), this book remains the definitive collection on Zelazny.

Oh, and what does the title of this volume mean, you might ask? Well, the original title of Roger Zelazny’s novel Roadmarks (a favorite of mine) was, in fact, The Last Exit to Babylon. Given Roadmarks was written during this period, it is a very fitting title for this fourth volume in the NESFA collection.

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4 thoughts on “Paul Weimer Review: The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny, Volume Four, Last Exit to Babylon

  1. Thanks for another great review!

    The anecdote about his withdrawal from the Thieves World series is among the many interesting bits that I gleaned from perusing the university archives of his correspondence, and also old interviews. So too the story behind the plagiarized cover of the original hardcover of Trumps of Doom, the editorial comment that Zelazny’s cat made on the manuscript of Deus Irae, and how his story “The George Business” was plagiarized by a high school student and won first place in 1985 at the Detroit Auto Show program.

  2. I’m enjoying this multi-installment review of a multi-volume collection.

    I have my own set. I’ve read the first two volumes, really need to get back to and read the others. (I’m one of the people who always found Zelazny’s shorter fiction, overall, more enjoyable than his novels.)

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