Even Immortals Have Their Bills to Pay, Composing, 07/11/2013

As I’ve mentioned a few times, my novel Under the Trees, Eaten has been available for about a month. I haven’t mentioned it a lot lately, because most of my work outside my Communications program has been taken up with preparing and promoting You Were My Friend. The play debuts tonight at the Pearl Company Theatre, and I’ll also have a table set up to sell copies of the novel before and after the show. 

Under the Trees, Eaten is a different beast in a lot of ways, though it shares some similarities to the play. Its central protagonist is a woman, and it touches on some of the same themes in that regard, but it’s mostly, as I’ve discussed before, rooted in a science-fiction and weird fiction heritage. 

I’ve read science-fiction all my life, though my interests has a writer have developed in a very different direction than what I first read in the genre as a teenager. There, I was mostly reading Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, some Larry Niven, authors who worked very much in the Golden Age model of science-fiction, where character development and political themes often took a backseat to world-building and puzzle-solving. I had read some William Gibson during this time as well, but didn’t quite get it at the time.

Probably my first glimmer of what science-fiction literature could do beyond these constraints was when I first read Ursula K. Le Guin. This was for an introductory political science course, of all things, an analysis of The Dispossessed as the depiction of a genuinely anarchistic and broadly communist society where everything went according to plan and there was no military dictatorship or police state. Following up with Phillip K. Dick, Doris Lessing, the Strugatsky brothers, and Iain Banks (with whom I share a birthday) years later showed me much more of what that genre of literature could do. And I think Under the Trees, Eaten is a solid contribution to that model: putting ordinary people, with all their complexity, in sci-fi situations.*

Roger Zelazny, quiet literary revolutionary.
* I’m also indebted to Phil Sandifer and the TARDIS Eruditorum for guiding me conceptually through how such stories work, introducing me to the specific mechanics. Once I knew the tools well in isolation, I could use them even better together.

This is why it was fortuitous a few months ago that I picked up This Immortal, one of Roger Zelazny’s most legendary novels. I didn’t know anything about Zelazny when I was first discovering sci-fi as a teenager, even though he wrote during the same Golden Age period that I falsely believed at the time was the pinnacle of literary sci-fi. Once I was sure of what he did historically, and how it feeds into the tradition of literature to which I want my work to contribute, I think I can appreciate him much better.

This Immortal is about, well, an immortal. The scene is an Earth that is still largely irradiated after a nuclear war, having produced strange mutants that resemble mythical creatures, as well as our protagonist who hasn’t aged in several centuries. It also resulted in Earth’s economic and cultural colonization by a race from Vega.** The storyline of the book is about our immortal protagonist showing a wealthy Vegan around several important historical sites of Earth, and the adventures they get into along with the other members of their party, all of whom have conflicting agendas.

** Unintentional humour from historical juxtaposition. These aliens are called Vegans (pronounced like the star, Vay-gans). Zelazny never could have predicted how that word would develop in pop culture. Don’t let it interfere with your experience of the book.

The deftness of the book comes in the casual ease with which all the cultural and historical context comes out. There is never really an exposition scene for any of the historical backstory. We just watch events in the present unfold, and the history of Earth and all the individual characters flow organically through conversations as events take their course. 

What’s remarkable is that this book came out in 1965, one of the last peak years of the Golden Age of sci-fi literature. This Immortal shared the Hugo award that year with Frank Herbert’s Dune, probably the highest expression of epic world-building sci-fi light on characterization. Zelazny’s story, however, is filled not with royals and tribesmen played at a register so high that the novel may as well have a Greek chorus, as Herbert’s novel was. 

What impressed me was how ordinary all the characters were. They had their politics, their rivalries, their grubby day jobs, and their petty resentments. Even after such an epic event as a nuclear conflict that nearly destroyed the planet, and the other anti-colonial wars that play pivotal roles in the characters’ histories, the most moving moments are when one character breaks down on learning that his wife may have died in an earthquake while he was on this tour.

I mean, it didn’t impress me at the time. When I was reading it a couple of months ago, it struck me as a book quite a lot like most of the science-fiction literature, television, and film that’s produced today. Its technology and world is at an epic register, but the characters are muddy, complex, contradictory. But in 1965, when literary sci-fi was still so predominantly filled with archetypes or plot functions instead of people (and it’s not as though we don’t still have this problem, though it isn’t quite as bad as before), such characterization was revolutionary. 

So I think I can say that, even though I had never read Roger Zelazny until long after I finished the manuscript, Under the Trees, Eaten firmly exists in his tradition of literature.

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