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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Conjunction of Roger Zelazny & Stephen R. Donaldson

I always start the New Year full of ambition. Sadly, life has a way of whittling down my grand plans to size. Such proved the case this year, with my desire to recognize the birthday of every author I admire. In the past thirty days, I've missed out on celebrating the birthdays of Mystery authors Bernard Knight and Reginald Hill, Science Fiction and Fantasy authors Larry Niven, Terry Pratchett, Avram Davidson, Cressida Cowell, and Dan Simmons, Doctor Who story editor, writer, and novelist Terrance Dicks, and classic author Charlotte Bronte. So many great authors, all deserving of recognition, and little time for all the blogging I'd love to do. But when I glanced at my list this week, and noted two particular authors who shared the same birthday, I couldn't let such an auspicious event pass unrecognized. So today I wish to honor Roger Zelazny and Stephen R. Donaldson. Both were tremendously important in my past, and inspired my desire to write Fantasy and Science Fiction. 

The first milestone was a series of five novels, entitled The Chronicles of Amber, published in two hardcover volumes by the Science Fiction Book Club. These were some of the first novels I purchased from SFBC, and proved a powerful introduction of Zelazny's unique brand of Fantasy. Imagine waking up in a hospital, and not knowing your name. The protagonist soon realizes that the staff are holding him there, and he executes a bold escape. As he runs, reality begins to warp around him. It's as if he's traveling through different realms, where different laws of physics apply. Eventually he ends up in a place called Amber, where he walks a particular pattern in a room in a castle. To deviate from the pattern means death, and it takes great strength to complete it. But when he succeeds, his faculties and knowledge are restored. He is Corwin, a prince of Amber, the one true realm. All other realms, including that of our own Earth are but a reflection or shadow of Corwin's Amber. He stands in line to inherit the throne of Amber, and thus rule all the realms of existence. But to do so, he'll have to battle his brothers and sisters (one of whom sent him to be held hostage in that hospital) if he wishes to claim his destiny. 

Once I read that first novel, I had to read the second, the third, and the fourth and fifth in the series immediately. I still remember reading those five novels the first time, while on a family trip to San Diego in my teens. Later, Roger Zelazny would write a further five Amber novels, but this time I would be forced to wait, ever so impatiently, for each novel's publication. At least by this time, I was married, and my wife had read the earlier novels too. So it was a joy to read these later books together, and discuss the various aspects of this sequel series.

Another series I discovered as a teen was Stephen R. Donaldson's trilogy of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. In the Bible, Jesus heals people with leprosy. It sounds like a terrible disease, and indeed people in Biblical times shunned lepers. These ailing people had to cry out "Unclean, unclean!" wherever they went, so the healthy could get out of their way, and thus limit the chances of contamination. In these three novels, Donaldson introduces us to Thomas Covenant, a man living in modern times who has contracted this ancient disease. His wife and child have left him, and no one will hire him. He has little contact with the outside world, and those around him treat him very much like the lepers of two thousand years ago. So imagine his surprise when he suffers an injury, loses consciousness, and then awakens to find himself in another land. 

Unlike Corwin, Covenant finds himself in one realm, but it is just as fantastic as any Zelazny ever dreamed up. There the people see him as a religious figure, a messiah who will deliver them from Lord Foul's despotism. He also meets a pretty girl, to whom he's attracted. Before he knows it, he's suddenly taken over by all the impulses and feelings leprosy robbed him of back on Earth. They rush in upon him, and as he believes he's living out a dream (It's simply too fantastic to be real), he gives into his feelings, and takes her. Afterward, as he travels through The Land to confront Lord Foul, the world becomes more real to him, and he grows increasing plagued by the guilt that accompanies his actions. 

Like Zelazny, Donaldson wrote a sequel series. Unlike Zelazny, he followed up his first trilogy rather quickly, so I was able to read that second series of books before I graduated from High School. But again, as with Zelazny, there came a time when my wife and I read them together. We were spending lots of time on the road, driving between visits to family. As I drove, she would read Thomas Covenant's adventures to me, and when she took over the driving duties, I assumed the role of reader. In this way, the miles passed quickly, and even bumper-to-bumper traffic was made more pleasant by following Covenant's adventures together.

Like other writers of my youth, Roger Zelazny and Stephen R. Donaldson proved important to me in numerous ways. Having enjoyed the adventures of Corwin and Covenant, I would go on to read other stories and novels by Zelazny and Donaldson, and those proved enjoyable and memorable as well. But these two series proved particularly inspiring in my youth, and entertained my wife and me early in my marriage, in a way few others did. Thus, they will always claim a special place in my heart.

Happy Birthday, Roger Zelazny and Stephen R. Donaldson. 

Dragon Dave

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