Beautiful, poetic, and experimental: Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand

Roger Zelazny was a demented genius who could squeeze words until they sang. I first read Doorways in the Sand when I was thirteen years old. It blew my head off. I’ve read it a couple of times since then, but it isn’t in my frequent rotation, like Isle of the Dead and This Immortal. Like those books, it has a typical Zelazny first-person smartass protagonist, like them it has aliens and shiny SFnal ideas, but unlike them it is written in an experimental way, where almost every chapter starts in the middle and then goes back to get you up to speed just in time for a new chapter and a new reverse-cliffhanger lurch. I didn’t like this when I was thirteen, though I thought it was clever, and I don’t like it now. It seems like grandstanding, and it gets in the way of my enjoyment of the story. It isn’t possible to read the book without spending a lot of time thinking “Huh? How did that happen?” and waiting to find out. It makes it easy to identify with a protagonist who doesn’t know what’s going on either, but it’s irritating. However, the Zelazny I really like is getting too familiar for me to read, so it’s time to turn to the less favourite and therefore still readable.

The too-clever story shaping aside, there’s a lot here to like. There’s the way Zelazny invented this awesome system of education whereby you can take courses in whatever you like, and learn about absolutely everything without ever graduating and getting a degree. He explains it was invented by a Harvard professor called Eliot, in typical science fiction as-you-know-Bob explanation. I was astounded when I found out (too late) that it was real. Fred Cassidy has been a full time student for thirteen years without graduating. He has a hobby of climbing on buildings, which he dignifies with the name acrophilia. He knows quite a lot about a vast range of subjects. By the terms of his uncle’s will, Fred gets a comfortable monthly income until he graduates, so Fred has bent the rules and stayed in school. Meanwhile, we’ve discovered aliens and are part of an alien cultural exchange ring—the Mona Lisa and the Crown Jewels have left Earth in exchange for a very odd machine that reverses stereoisomers and the mysterious Star Stone. The Star Stone goes missing and lots of people and aliens seem to think Fred’s got it. Fred thinks he hasn’t.

Things get weird from there on, but Fred wisecracks his way unflappably through the plot from crisis to crisis, climbing on things from time to time for recreation or escape. It’s a future without technology or social mores having changed much from the mid-seventies when this was written (published 1976) but apart from the way everyone (even the aliens) smokes cigarettes all the time, you almost don’t notice. There’s an alien that disguises itself as a wombat, and another than looks like a Venus flytrap, after all.

In some ways this is like a very simple adventure story. In other ways, it’s like a story of humanity glimpsing the complexities of a galactic civilization. What it’s really like is the stereoisomer of both of those stories, the inverse inside-out twisted version of them. The whole twisted-chapter thing is a meditation on the stereoisomer theme. It really is very clever, and fortunately, very beautiful.

Sunflash, some splash. Darkle. Stardance.

Phaeton’s solid gold cadillac crashed where there was no ear to hear, lay burning, flickered, went out. Like me.

At least, when I woke again it was night and I was a wreck.

Lying there, bound with rawhide straps, spread-eagle, sand and gravel for pillow as well as mattress, dust in my mouth, nose, ears and eyes, dined upon by vermin, thirsty, bruised, hungry and shaking, I reflected on the words of my onetime advisor Doctor Merimee: “You are a living example of the absurdity of things.”

Needless to say his speciality was the novel, French, mid-Twentieth century.

Since this is the beginning of a chapter, you have as much context as any reader for why Fred is tied up, and he doesn’t get around to telling you for pages and pages. If this is going to drive you mad, don’t read this book. If you can bear it, then you have the pretty words and the promise of aliens and a machine with a moebius conveyer belt running through it and the taste of bourbon and fries when you’ve been reversed by the machine. Nobody, but nobody else, could juxtapose all the things in those five little paragraphs and make it all work.

Zelazny could certainly be very odd, and this is a minor work, and not where I’d recommend starting. (That would be with his short stories, presently being reissued in gorgeous editions by NESFA.) But it’s short—I read it in about an hour and a half—and it’s got the inimitable Zelazny voice which will keep singing in my mind when all the details and the irritation have sunk back into oblivion.

There is a man. He is climbing in the dusky daysend air, climbing the high Tower of Cheslerei in a place called Ardel beside a sea with a name he cannot quite pronounce as yet. The sea is as dark as the juice of grapes, bubbling a Chianti and chirascuro fermentation of the light of distant stars and the bent rays of Canis Vibesper, its own primary, now but slightly beneath the horizon, rousing another continent, pursued by the breezes that depart the inland fields to weave their courses  among the interconnected balconies, towers, walls and walkways of the city, bearing the smells of the warm land towards its older, colder, companion.

Yup, that’s definitely one of the ways science fiction can make you long to be there. Nobody ever did it better.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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