Speculative fiction is a harsh mistress. Her greatest scribes are forgotten, or read by a vanishing fraction even of those who profess themselves fans of the genre. When the geniuses of the field are remembered at all, they’re often remembered for their lesser work, and it’s rare to see justice done.
For now, though, I get to rejoice: Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness is back in print.
People remember Zelazny primarily for his Amber Chronicles, which are great fun and should be read by anyone who thinks themselves a fan of sword and sorcery or film noir, but there is another Zelazny, a poet of divine and mythic scope, of subtle humor and epic confrontation. This is the Zelazny who wrote Lord of Light, one of my top three favorite books for about 15 years now. Lord of Light has long been recognized as a classic for its mixture of humor, action, and philosophy, and its willingness to abandon the European context traditional to science fiction; in recognition of this, it won the Hugo and was reprinted years ago in a handsome Eon books edition.
Meanwhile, Creatures of Light and Darkenss, Zelazny’s other triumph of mythopeic style, languished in ever-shrinking numbers on used bookstore shelves. I was lucky enough to find a copy at Book Man in Nashville about eight years ago, and I’ve never seen another in the wild, infuriating because this is one of those books you read and want immediately to recommend to everyone you know who shows the slightest interest in speculative fiction.
The setup: It’s the far future. Man has colonized a swath of settled space, within which the vagaries of fate and chaos are controlled by a number of border stations, each ruled by a godlike “Angel” – posthuman or deity? The book is ambiguous on this point – most of whom are also characters recognizable from Egyptian mythology: Anubis, Osiris, Set, Thoth. Yet there has been war between the gods, and only Anubis remains in the House of Death, and Osiris in the House of Life, from which they coarsely manipulate the world with horrendous plagues and blooms of fertility. Anubis has one desire: he must kill the mysterious Prince Who Was A Thousand. Osiris has the same need, and each has dispatched assassins into human space to accomplish this task before the other.
In the middle of all this we have a wandering, militantly agnostic priest, a raving immortal poet who sends his poems through space as waves of green fire, a cybernetic warrior who plays the banjo and has been the leader of every doomed rebellion in history, blind Norn engineers, a rabid fanatical cult in the center of the galaxy that worships the Holy Shoes, posthuman deities so vicious they weave the nervous systems of their enemies into rugs while leaving them alive in excruciating pain, and, most importantly: temporal kung fu.
“The Art of Temporal Fugue,” it’s called in the book. If you liked the idea when Terry Pratchett used it thirty years later, you owe it to yourself ninety times over to read this book, because you’ve never seen anything like this. Zelazny takes it upon himself to choreograph a martial arts battle between two people who can travel in time just by thinking hard. The result is, literally, planet-shattering.
And that scraping of the plot’s surface above doesn’t even begin to describe the book’s structural complexity. Zelazny wrote Creatures to test his own proficiency with tense and perspective and voice; he didn’t intend to publish it until Samuel Delaney made him. The structure here is amazing: apparently disparate, haiku-length lines weave together into shocking relevance; some chapters are written as stage plays, others as stream-of-consciousness, others in potent, zen-like minimalism.
It’s amazing how much of modern science fiction and fantasy spring from Zelazny’s ground. The recent obsession with the line between gods and men in fantasy (The God Engines by Scalzi, 100 Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemesin, Warbreaker by Brian Sanderson) and in science fiction, where it masquerades as discussion of post-humanity (Hyperion by Dan Simmons, Dust by Elizabeth Bear, lots of Charles Stross’ work) has deep roots in speculative fiction’s history, but there has never been an SF author more interested in the line between the mortal and the divine as Zelazny, nor has there been one who had as much fun playing hopscotch over it, and encouraging his readers to do the same.