Review: Isle of the Dead / Eye of Cat, by Roger Zelazny

Isle of the Dead / Eye of Cat, by Roger Zelazny. IBooks, May 2014 (Eye of Cat, original publication 1982) (Isle of the Dead, original publication 1969)

Isle of the Dead/Eye of Cat is an omnibus of two short novels by Roger Zelazny. They each feature a solitary adventurer, who faces a new enemy and a world that has changed around him over his long life. William Blackhorse Singer is a 20th century Navajo, a hunter and tracker who lived long enough to make a career of stocking interstellar zoos, extending his life still further by relativistic travel. He learns the Navajo are no longer his Navajo people, and one of the “animals” he caught for a zoo is a person who wants to hunt him.
Francis Sandow is also a 20th century man, an adventurer and entrepreneur, who has built conglomerate in which the key component is his work as a worldscaper—building and shaping worlds to suit the client. He’s had enemies over his thousand years of life, but now he has an enemy whose identity and grievance he doesn’t know, a missing friend, and an alien mentor who taught him his art and is now dying—and has something important to tell him first. Sandow is going to confront his values, beliefs, and very identity.

By Lis Carey: The protagonist of the first short novel in this omnibus — which is in fact Eye of Cat — is William Blackhorse Singer, a Navajo born in the 20th century, and still alive, and fit and healthy, almost two centuries later. This is at least in part due to Singer making use of his tracking skills to hunt and capture alien animals to stock interstellar zoos, as soon as that became a possibility, and thus spending a good deal of time in relativistic travel. 

But Singer is now retired, and is very, very reluctant when Earth’s government comes calling to recruit him to protect an alien diplomat on her way to Earth, being pursued by a deadly killer from her own world. He recruits in turn one of the last of the alien “animals” he captured; he has realized that this one was actually a person he badly wronged. 

This isn’t the story. The story is that the bargain with the alien, Cat, includes agreeing that after the killer is stopped, Cat will hunt Singer. Singer doesn’t see the problem. All his family and friends from his own time are gone, and the Navajo of this time are the products of almost two centuries of adaptation to a changing world, as the Navajo always have. They’re not Singer’s people anymore, not really. Cat has a challenge just getting Singer to flee so he can be hunted, rather than just killed. As he finally flees, and finds his will to live kicking in, we learn a lot about Singer, his character, his personal demons, and his beliefs and rituals and what they mean to him. Singer grows a lot in the process.

I have no real idea how right Zelazny gets the Navajo and their beliefs, but from the dedication it at least appears he did research, and nothing about this feels disrespectful or ignorant. No warrantees stated or implied!

However, this novel does feel oddly old-fashioned. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Yes, 1982 was forty years ago, but I had the feeling I was reading a book from the sixties (which, to be clear, I do with enjoyment, still, from time to time, but they do have a different feel than more recent works.) And I can’t easily blame it on the portrayal of the few women in the story. They have careers and accomplishments and two have been called in specifically because they have relevant skills. Yet for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it doesn’t quite work for me.

Yet most of the story is William Blackhorse Singer’s contest of survival against Cat, and his personal growth in understanding of himself and the culture he has always given his love and devotion, yet not fully understood the meaning of. And that is extremely well-written, absorbing, and ultimately satisfying.

Isle of the Dead is the story of Francis Sandow, also a man originally of the 20th century, and now around a thousand years old. His great age is also due in part to relativistic travel before the invention of FTL space drives. Sandow is a very different man than Singer; he’s a businessman, a very successful businessman, and the jewel in the crown of his conglomerate is worldscaping. He makes worlds–anything the client wants them to be. He lives on one of his own creations, Homefree, where he’s safe from any enemies because in addition to all the normal forms of security, the world’s own creatures will protect him.

Yes, he has enemies. Over the last thousand years, both friends and enemies have died. Those who died on Earth after the invention of the Recall technology died with a chip in their brains that recorded their entire brains. This was transferred to tape, and stored for thirty days, in case there was a question about events surrounding their deaths. At the end of the thirty days, the tapes were destroyed.

Or that’s the theory. Someone has been sending Sandow pictures of both friends and enemies who died on Earth after the invention of Recall technology. There’s no message, just the pictures.

He has received messages, though, three of which matter. One is from Marling of Megapei, the Pei’an scholar and worldscaper who taught him to be a worldscaper. Marling is old, approaching the end, and wants Sandow to visit him “before the end of the fifth season.” The next is from Earth’s Central Intelligence Department, asking him to come to Earth to consult “on a matter vital to planetary security.” It’s not the first such request, and he’s not going. The last is from an old friend, Ruth Laris, who says she’s facing serious trouble and asks him to come help her. Of the two requests he cares about, Marling gives a time frame that means he has plenty of time to visit Ruth first. So off he goes to Aldebaran V.

It’s on Aldebaran V where he starts to get the first real clues about why the pictures are being sent to him, and who his unknown enemy is. When he moves on to Megapei and his old teacher, Marling, he learns more, and is soon off on a journey to face his secret enemy, to attempt the rescue of his old friends and enemies, and to confront his ideas and beliefs about his worldscaping abilities, where they come from–and who his real friends and enemies are.

While, like Eye of Cat, this also feels like it was written in the Sixties, it’s rather less of a challenge to my ability to enjoy it, because it was written in the Sixties. It’s not that the women in it are handled better; they’re actually handled somewhat worse. But all the skills I developed for reading sf in the 1960s kick in, because it’s legitimately a product of the 1960s. 

You may call this “making excuses for Sixties sexism,” and you wouldn’t be wrong. I offer two arguments in my defense. One, I was a reading-obsessed kid in the 1960s, and it was hard to find enough sf that had genuinely good female characters to properly supply my reading habit. Developing mental work-arounds that let me enjoy otherwise very good stories was essential. And two, this is otherwise a really excellent story.

Recommended.

I bought this book.

8 thoughts on “Review: Isle of the Dead / Eye of Cat, by Roger Zelazny

  1. I was a big Zelazny fan in the early ‘80s, and I really loved two of his novels that came out then – Eye of Cat and Madwand! I’d rate both those amongst his best (although let’s not forget his shorter work).

    A pity that we never got Deathmask

  2. @Cat: The novella with the completely unpronounceable title that makes up one-third of My Name is Legion is one of my favorite Zelazny stories, and features one of his very few great female characters.

  3. ISLE OF THE DEAD is one of my favorite Zelazny novels. (And your review reminds me I should get back to completing my read of the NESFA Press collections of Zelazny’s short fiction. Think I got interrupted partway thru the third volume, and for some reason never got back to it.)

  4. Thank you, Lis! I like both of these. Eye of Car also has four psychics who team up to help Singer, giving Zelazny an excuse for some of his intriguing stream of consciousness writing. Both books have some brilliant descriptions of landscapes.

  5. Pingback: AMAZING NEWS FROM FANDOM: 11/20/22 - Amazing Stories

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