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Monday, August 18, 2014

Roger Zelazny On Civic Responsibility

The Royal Court of Justice in London, England

In his short story "The Injured," Roger Zelazny begins with a clamor. Outrage even, coming from the jury in a courtroom. A young man, the defendant, feels the heat of their anger. The judge raps his gavel, and demands quiet. Yet the mood of the jury darkens as the prosecutor tears into the "psych-men." Finally, the victim takes the stand, or more accurately, is rolled up in her wheelchair. She admits that she jaywalked across the highway, and that she knew she risked her life in doing so, as the cars hurtled along, the drivers most likely not watching where they were going, having turned over their control systems to auto-drive. She relates to the jury how a young man in coveralls dashed out across the high speed lanes, picked up her broken body, carried her to safety, and then held a handkerchief to her bleeding arm. Under the prosecutor's examination, she admits that she knew he was not a med-man, as he wore no badge. She also admits that she only revealed his identity after the hospital attorney explained that she would be "compounding her felony--that is to say, taking illegal advantage of another illegal act," by shielding his identity from the authorities. 

When the jury returns a Guilty verdict, the judge awards the defendant "six months of hard analysis, followed by one year of group therapy." The young defendant must understand that he cannot simply assist others in situations for which he has no qualifications or authorization. If he sees someone in peril in the future, by all means he can report the situation, but under no circumstances should he intervene. 

Roger Zelazny's story touches on how a person might unintentionally inflict injury on someone he intends to help, and how societies often pay more attention to the letter of the law than the spirit. It highlights how much we rely on titles and degrees, even though those who achieve great things in life frequently lack them. It also harkens back to a much older story, about three people who found a robbed and beaten man lying along the highway. The first two who encountered him were a priest and a Levite, pillars of Jewish society. Their duties and obligations were numerous and pressing. Helping the robbed and bleeding man was someone else's job. No doubt someone else would be along soon, someone more qualified than them to address his particular needs... 

"The Injured" is a short story, a mere three pages in length. Yet it offers us a whirlwind of images, and makes us think about our role in society. Just as interesting is the story's publication history. In the mid 1960s, a young man named Paul Gilster was starting a fanzine for his local Science Fiction society. He summoned his courage, wrote to some of his literary heroes, and asked each if they could send him a story. As everyone knows, professional writers work for money. They celebrate when they win prestigious awards, but they rely on sales to publishers to pay their bills. As you can imagine, the young fan was astounded when Roger Zelazny sent him this story. 

As a friend and confidant during Roger Zelazny's final years, professional author Jane Lindskold can shine a great deal of insight into his character. In the early 1990s, she wrote Roger Zelazny, a nonfiction book filled with his thoughts and recollections on every novel he had written to that point. Sadly, she never conducted a comprehensive interview with him on his short fiction, which could have filled several hefty tomes. Nor does she recall ever discussing "The Injured" with him. Nonetheless, even though she could offer no insight into Roger Zelazny's thoughts on the story or why he sent it to this young fan, she took time out of her busy workday to respond to my query, and describe how his impulsive nature could lead him to support a young fan's efforts in this manner. 

Like his fictional protagonist, and the protagonist in an even earlier story, Roger Zelazny could have told himself that he was a professional author, that it was his duty to sell his stories to paying markets, and get them into magazines that would be read by a larger number of people. Instead, he took pity on a young man putting together a little fanzine for his friends.

Today Paul Gilster works as a professional author, and publishes his own blog. Might Roger Zelazny's impulsive act of kindness, charity, and civic responsibility contributed in some small way to Gilster's choice of career? We may never know how our actions will ultimately impact others, but sometimes we can affect them in the most remarkable ways…

"The Injured" can be found in Power & Light: Volume 2 of The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny from NESFA Press.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Paul Gilster's blog Centauri Dreams
Jane Lindskold's blog Wednesday Wanderings

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