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In Memoriam: Roger Zelazny

THE LORD OF LIGHT

He was a poet, first, last, always. His words sang.

He was a storyteller without peer. He created worlds as colorful and exotic and memorable as any our genre has ever seen.

But most of all, I will remember his people. Corwin of Amber and his troublesome siblings. Charles Render, the dream master. The Sleeper, Croyd Crenson, who never learned algebra. Fred Cassidy climbing on his rooftops. Conrad. Dilvish the Damned. Francis Sandow. Billy Blackhorse Singer. Jarry Dark. The Jack of Shadows. Hell Tanner. Snuff.

And Sam. Him especially. “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.”

Lord of Light was the first Zelazny book I ever read. I was in college at the time, a long time reader who dreamed of writing himself one day. I’d been weaned on Andre Norton, cut my teeth on Heinlein juveniles, survived high school with the help of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, “Doc” Smith, Theodore Sturgeon, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I read Ace doubles and belonged to the Science Fiction Book Ciub, but I had not yet found the magazines. I’d never heard of this Zelazny guy. But when I read those words for the first time, a chill went through me, and I sensed that SF would never be the same. Nor was it. Like only a few before him, Roger left his mark on the genre.

He left his mark on my life as well. After Lord of Light, I read every word of his I could get my hands on. “He Who Shapes,” And Call Me Conrad . . ., ”A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” Isle of the Dead, “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” Creatures of Light and Darkness, and all the rest. I knew I had found one hell of a writer in this fellow with the odd, unforgettable name. I never dreamed that, years later, I would also find in Roger one hell of a friend.

I met Roger several times in the mid 70s; at a writer’s workshop in Bloomington, Indiana, at cons in Wichita and El Paso, at Nebula banquets. By then, I had made a few sales on my own. I was surprised and thrilled when Roger knew my work. He was at first blush a shy man, always kind, often funny, but quiet. I cannot say I knew him well … not until the end of 1979, when I moved to Santa Fe, fresh from a divorce, near broke, and utterly alone.

Roger was the only person I knew in town, and him not that well. We were colleagues and con acquaintances, no more, but from the way he treated me, you would have thought we had been the closest of friends for years. He saw me through the worst months. We shared dinners and breakfasts and endless shoptalk. He drove me to Albuquerque for the monthly First Friday writers’ lunch. When a local bookstore asked him to do a signing, he made sure that I was invited as well. He took me with him to parties and wine tastings, even asked me to share Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family. If I had to fly to a con, he drove across town to pick up my mail and water my plant. And when my money was running low at the end of my first year in Santa Fe, he offered me a loan to tide me over until I could finish Fevre Dream.

It wasn’t just me. He did as much, and more, for others. Roger was as kind and generous as any man I have ever known. He was the best kind of company, often quiet, but always interesting. Sometimes it seemed he had read every book ever printed. He knew something about everything and everything about some things, but he never used his knowledge to impress or intimidate. In an age when everyone is a specialist, Roger was the last Renaissance Man, fascinated by the world and all that’s in it, capable of talking about Doc Savage and Proust with equal expertise and enthusiasm.

Those who saw him only from a distance sometimes came away with the impression that Roger was serious, grave, dignified, never dreaming how funny the man could be. No one who heard the Chicken Effect Speech at Bubonicon will ever forget it. Wild Cards fans still grin at the memory of Croyd and the decomposing alien. During the last year of Roger’s life, Jane Lindskold introduced him to roleplaying, and he took to it with the glee of a small boy, mischievous and ever inventive. I will always cherish those people too, although only a few of us were fortunate enough to meet them. His Chinese poet warrior, declaiming thunderingly bad poems as he walked down an endless muddy road. His spaceship chaplain solemnly explaining evolution and ethics to an increasingly confused alien. And Oklahoma Crude, roughneck oilman, chewing tobacco and swapping jokes with space pirates and musketeers alike.

A few months ago, when Howard Waldrop was passing through Santa Fe, I threw a party. Howard wound up sitting on the floor, while Roger read a musical comedy he’d just written, about Death and his godson. Roger sang all the parts, sort of chanting them, a little off-key maybe … well, okay, maybe more than a little. One by one the other guests interrupted their conversations and drifted over to hear him read and sing, until the whole party gathered around Roger’s feet. By the end, there was a smile on every face.

He was fighting Death himself then, though only Jane knew it. And that was very like Roger too, to keep his pains private, to take fear and shape it into art, to transform illness and death into a song, a story, and a roomful of smiles.

“But look around you…” he wrote in Lord of Light. “Death and Light are everywhere, always, and they begin, end, strive, attend, into and upon the Dream of the Nameless that is the world, burning words within Samsara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty.”

— George R.R. Martin
June 1995

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© 2014 George R.R. Martin. All rights reserved.