ISLE OF THE DEAD
Ace (SF Special)
Leo & Diane Dillon
A paperback original of an early novel by Roger Zelazny: Isle of the Dead. This epitomizes my conception of him as a writer of legends, and is one of the books that made his reputation. It was a Nebula award nominee in 1969. This is one of my favorite books by Zelany, and makes my "top 100" list for sure.
[some books I've read recently enough to write a decent plot summary, but this time I'm relying on excerpts from a review in Galaxy November 1969, where the reviewer shows the kind of enthusiasm that I feel about this book. I use excerpts since Budrys wasn't always talking about just this book in his column.]
"...Take a man like Roger Zelazny. Sometimes he writes better than others. In fact, sometimes - please don't send me letters about this - he writes rather poorly. It's hard to see that, because he writes with such talent that what he has to say while ignoring the story he claims to be telling is far better, and far more indicative of a good mind grasping beauty... Zelazny just sits there, smiling gently, dreaming his next satisfactory reply to the angel, and when the replies are more than satisfactory - which is better than Thee and Me have been doing, I'll bet you - they are zingers.
...But some people are ready for the angel any time. So. Take Isle of the Dead, a paperback original by Roger Zelazny, either by first intention or because it fell through the market (which I at least doubt), is not like your run of the mill example. I've brought us all this verbal way in an effort to do the impossible - to transmit the effect of experience. Parents can't do it with their children, teachers can't do it with their students, but if we each of us sit down and remember the tingle that comes over you when you do your job right, whatever that job is... that moment when you realize that this time it's not just okay, or the cracks won't show for a long time, or what the hell, it'll do at the price, but that, instead, this time, without regard to the price, or the acuity of the purchaser, or the specifications, this time, not because we choose to, but because we couldn't help it, it came out beautiful. Okay? So what if it's a toilet seat or a can of beans? There it is - and what it is secondary; what it has is everything touchable proof that beauty dwells within us and presses constantly against our limits. There. See. We did the impossible, for a moment. Okay. Now that's what Zelazny has done."
"Francis Sandow. Occupation: God, fancies himself a long-lived ecological positivist; a professional world-designer who is approximately the 80th richest man in the universe, the last survivor of the centuries-gone 1960's, commander of financial, technological, and personal resources so powerful and so deft that he is a god. Neither time nor space nor the power of his rivals can stay him; love and hate are very much the same, and in the fullness of time come 'round at the same hands and lips. His every move makes and breaks uncountable millions. And since the rocks of his worlds were drawn together by his mind, and the living things upon them are sprung from the flesh of his own body, the very birds and bears of his own worlds come to love him as he passes, and the rain and rivers are his on his mountains.
All technology, of course. All explicable, or forseeable, in the light of our own present accomplishments. No miracles, no mysteries. True, he did learn his trade at the hands of the Megapeians, and among the Megapeians a person who can create worlds, life and light is a god, with a god's powers and attributes... but this, of course, is only a convenient mental set which makes the manipulations easier. And the rituals are soothing, even when clearly hallucinatory. And when an unknown enemy begins reviving his dead enemies and his dead loves... often the same, as we've said... it's purely a matter of knocking the enemy's head clean off. Right? Climactic battle at the edge of the world while the fate of the Universe awaits to be awakened... Well, I see you're ahead of me. It turns out Francis Sandow is a god, not just a good craftsman. Even when he creates a wart-bear, there's a difference between his wart-bear and another man's wart-bear. Isle of the Dead, charted on some sort of blueprint paper, would disassemble into rather plain parts, I guess. I just thought I'd tell you that, just as I've presumed to try to show you why you might never realize that mundane fact while reading this story. Zelazny just sits there a lot of the time, a slight smile on his face. He seems to be dreaming." [-Algis Budrys]