Roger Zelazny burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1960s with a series of ground-breaking stories that combined a pulp sensibility with allusive, pyrotechnic prose. One of his many admirers is writer F. Brett Cox, who just published a book about the author.
“It’s kind of hard to overstate the impact that his work has on the people who really love it,” Cox says in Episode 467 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “In my own fiction, I’ve arguably spent my entire career just trying to write something that would affect anybody as strongly as the last sentence of ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ affected me the first time I read it.”
In the ’70s and ’80s, Zelazny achieved phenomenal success with his 10-volume Amber series, but critics felt that the sword and sorcery tale was a waste of his talents. Cox believes that the critical consensus about Amber is, at best, an oversimplification.
“There is often a gap between what we as academics or critics want literature to do and what literature actually does,” he says. “And I think that the Amber series is a very good example of what literature can actually do. It gives the readers a world to lose themselves in and be a part of. It just hooks them.”
And while Zelazny’s critical reputation may have declined over the years, his brisk, playful storytelling style has had an outsized influence on several generations of fantasy writers. “I quoted from a few younger writers at the end of the book about how Zelazny had influenced their work,” Cox says, “and I know full well that with at least one of them, and maybe all of them, that Amber was the gateway—the Amber books are what brought them in.”
Zelazny remains mostly unknown outside of science fiction, but Cox is hopeful that a film or TV adaptation could make him a household name, as happened with Zelazny’s close friend George R. R. Martin.
“A few years ago now there was talk that Robert Kirkman, who did The Walking Dead, was wanting to do a miniseries of The Chronicles of Amber,” Cox says. “So there have been hints that maybe that would lead to some kind of larger awareness.”
Listen to the complete interview with F. Brett Cox in Episode 467 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
F. Brett Cox on Zelazny’s personality:
“[Zelazny] was always linked with Samuel R. Delany, and he was also good friends with Harlan Ellison. It’s an interesting contrast, because they were strong contemporaries and very well known. And of course we all know how much Harlan Ellison has written about himself, and Delany has done extensive memoir writing. But Zelazny just didn’t. … I talked to people, as much as I could, who knew Zelazny—among people I know or had access to, and it really was a strikingly universal consensus how well-regarded he was personally. Nobody had a bad word to say about him, and that was very nice to learn. But also several people did note that, as the saying goes, he kept himself to himself. There was always a little bit of distance there.”
F. Brett Cox on Zelazny criticism:
“In terms of monograph studies of Zelazny, there was an early one from Carl Yoke, who was a longtime academic in science fiction studies, and was also a close friend of Zelazny—they grew up together in Ohio. And then there was Krulik’s book, and then there was Lindskold’s book. There’s a quote from Lindskold in her introduction to one of the volumes of the NESFA Press collected stories, and her assertion is that Zelazny wrote some of these seemingly more conventional sword and sorcery tales because he liked that stuff. He grew up reading it, he genuinely loved that particular branch of genre fiction, and he wrote it because he wanted to.”
F. Brett Cox on literary reputation:
“The issue of literary reputation is endlessly complicated and endlessly fascinating. … Certainly Bradbury is still the science fiction writer people know even if they don’t read science fiction, and Philip K. Dick has joined that company as well. But also if you look at [Zelazny’s] contemporaries, people like Delany, like Ursula Le Guin, like Joanna Russ, preeminently like J.G. Ballard, [they all] gained reputations outside of science fiction—Michael Moorcock is very well known within contemporary British literature—and Zelazny just really didn’t. And I don’t have a set answer for that.”
F. Brett Cox on Zelazny and Moorcock:
“When Moorcock was editing New Worlds and they serialized Norman Spinrad’s novel Bug Jack Barron, it was denounced in Parliament for publishing obscene material. And Zelazny was caught up in that too. He published a good bit of Creatures of Light and Darkness in New Worlds, and some of his short fiction there. A very interesting moment in the correspondence I read at the libraries between Zelazny and Moorcock was where Moorcock was just saying, ‘Give me more. Write something.’ It’s stunning how highly the other writers of his day regarded his work, how the other writers in the 1960s were just absolutely astonished at what he was doing.”
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