You always get asked, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” And, of course, there’s no answer, or a thousand answers that are all equally valid. But I usually say, “In high school, when I read Zelazny’s Lord of Light.”
You see, until then, I had never known you could do that. I never knew you could make someone feel all those different things at the same time, with all of that intensity, just by how you used 26 characters and a few punctuation marks. What was it? Well, everything: Sam and Yama were the most compelling characters I’d come across; it was the first time I’d ever stopped reading to just admire a sentence; it gave me the feeling (which proved correct) that there were layers I wouldn’t get without a few rereadings; and, above all, it was when I became of what could be done with voice—how much could be done with just the way the author addressed the reader. I remember putting that book down and thinking, “If I could make someone feel like this, how cool would that be?” Then I started reading it again. And then I went and grabbed everything else of his I could find.
One of the first ones that fell into my eager hands was This Immortal, the novelization of “…And Call Me Conrad.” And there is a moment in that book. (The rest of this paragraph is a spoiler, so skip it if you want.) There are hints from the very beginning that our hero may be a kallikantzaros, a Greek demon. We are introduced to the folklore: the sawing away of the tree of the world, other bits and pieces. One of them is the riddle of the kallikantzaros: “Feathers or lead?” You have to guess, and if you guess wrong, it kills you, and the answer is whatever the kallikantzaros wants it to be. All of this, because Zelazny was a master of voice, is conveyed in a slightly ironic, “Isn’t it an amusing story?” sort of way—up until our hero finds himself tied to stake in a radioactive pit with his enemy about to slice him open to see how far his intestines will stretch, at which point our hero says, “Feathers or lead?”
My heart dropped into my stomach, and started pounding, and what I felt can only be described as awe. I said to myself, “If I could write a scene that would do that to someone, how cool would that be?”
One could argue (hat tip to Teresa Nielsen Hayden) that the central challenge of all fiction is solving the problem of exposition—that is, what information to convey to the reader, and how best to do so. That argument aside, certainly exposition is one of the biggest challenges in science fiction and fantasy, because we need to explain, in essence, the difference between the world the reader is reading about and world the reader is living in, and we need to do it in such a way that said reader doesn’t get bored or confused or irritated and go back to that real world.
There are many ways to handle this problem, and many ways to screw up if you don’t do it well, but I’ve never seen anything like what Zelazny did in Isle of the Dead. He throws concepts at you, and bits of business, and characters, and purely on the strength of the narrator’s voice, carries you to a point about a third of the way into the book, where he stops cold and fills you in on everything you’ve been missing in what ought to be a boring monologue, but somehow isn’t. At the end of this, you are so caught up in the plot (that you didn’t even know was going on a few pages ago) that you can’t put the book down. I don’t know how he did it. I just shook my head and said, “If I could manage something like that, how cool would that be?”
Bridge of Ashes is a fun book, though not, by Roger’s standards, one of the best. But—read the prologue. Disjointed first person scenes, interesting, because just the way Zelazny writes makes you want to keep reading—but unconnected. Several of them. Wait, is that something that all have in common? I’m not sure. What? A longer scene, that explains a few things, but leaves the big question unanswered: What is going on? I’m intrigued, I keep reading. Another short scene, and somehow it comes together. “Oh … I get it now.” Suddenly I’m proud of myself for having solved the puzzle. And the next sentence I read is, “At last I begin to understand,” and I find myself holding the book, staring, going, “How did he do that? Man, if I could get so far into the reader’s head to be able to pull off something like that, how cool would that be?”
I had a strange relationship with Creatures of Light and Darkness. I didn’t much care for it the first time I read it. I read it again a few years later, probably about 1976 during a periodical total reread, and decided that, weird and disjointed as it was, there was some Cool Stuff there. I mean, the Steel General has to be one of the most remarkable characters in fiction, and then there’s Madrak’s Possibly Proper Death Litany, or the “agnostic’s prayer” as it has come to be called. The third time I read it I was blown away: the use of language, poetry imbedded in prose, the over-all sweep of the narrative finally hit. And the fourth time it had me in tears. This keeps happening, because every time I read it, I find layers and resonances and nuances I’d missed before. I remember thinking, “If I could write a book that kept getting better every time someone read it, how cool would that be?”
Pretty cool, I think. Pretty cool.
Steven Brust is the author of 26 novels, including the Vlad Taltos series and the Khaavran romances. His latest, The Skill of Our Hands (co-written with Skyler White), is available from Tor Books.