The Best Wild Cards Character (That I Didn’t Create): Roger Zelazny’s The Sleeper

When George R.R. Martin assembled the original nest of writers for the Wild Cards project, he cast a wide net. Some were old friends, like Edward Bryant, Steve Leigh, and Howard Waldrop. Some were non-writers who nevertheless had worthwhile ideas to contribute, like Royce Wideman and Parris. Most were ambitious new writers, like myself, Lewis Shiner, Melinda Snodgrass, Victor Milán, and William F. Wu.

But among them was one honest-to-Jesus science fiction god, Roger Zelazny.

By the time the Wild Cards series was conceived, Roger had been working in science fiction and fantasy for twenty years, and in those two decades he’d produced some amazing work. “…And Call me Conrad,” “For a Breath I Tarry,” “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” “He Who Shapes,” “Unicorn Variation,” “The Game of Blood and Dust,” “The Last Defender of Camelot”—work original in concept, poetic in execution, and so unlike anything else being written at the time, that they not only stirred readers and won awards and made Roger’s name, but they sort of rewrote science fiction itself, made it more in Roger’s own image…

And ladies and gentlemen, I’ve listed only a small percentage of the short fiction.

The novels were equally stunning: Isle of the Dead, Lord of Light, Dream Master, Creatures of Light and Darkness, Isle of Cat, A Night in the Lonesome October, and of course his vast Amber sequence.

I envy any of you reading these works for the first time.

Fortunately, as gods go, Roger was quite approachable. He lived in Santa Fe like George, and he was amenable to collaboration. He had collaborated before, with writers as diverse as Philip K. Dick and Fred Saberhagen, and would continue working in Wild Cards and with other writers to the end of his life. (In fact he and I planned a collaboration, nothing less than an 18th Century epistolary science fiction novel. We had the work plotted, but we both thought there was plenty of time to write it, and neither of us anticipated the cancer that would take Roger from the world at the age of 58.)

It’s clear that Roger enjoyed working with other writers, and his relations with the rest of the Wild Cards collective were harmonious. In fact I can remember only one occasion in which he displayed anything like temper.

This was early in our Wild Cards adventures, when the New Mexico writers were having an informal meeting in George’s living room. Howard Waldrop, it will be remembered, insisted that Wild Card Day had to take place on his birthday, September 15, 1946.

Roger’s first Wild Cards story, “The Long Walk Home,” featured Croyd Crenson walking home from public school on Wild Cards Day. Since public school isn’t open on weekends, Roger needed to make sure that Wild Cards Day was on a weekday, and he checked with Howard to confirm what day of the week he was born. Howard assured him it was a weekday.

So Roger wrote his story, and at some point in that meeting at George’s house, someone looked up the date on a perpetual calendar, and discovered that September 15, 1946 was actually a Sunday, and that Croyd’s walk home could never have happened.

Roger was smoking his pipe and sitting in a curled position on a hassock, one knee crossed over another, his hands wrapped around his knee. In one swift move he took the pipe from his mouth, hurled it into the fireplace, and shouted “Shit! SHIT! SHIT!!!”

We all stared, our reaction staggering between shock and hilarity. Shock, because nobody had ever seen Roger lose his cool before; and hilarity, because it was just so freaking funny. Yet we somehow restrained any impulse to laugh, and George subsequently ruled that since Wild Cards took place in an alternate universe, September 15th could be on a weekday. Problem solved.

(As an aside, Roger should never have taken Howard’s word in the first place. Howard’s mind is a wonderland filled with glittering facts and fancies, but we can be reasonably certain he hasn’t memorized a perpetual calendar. And as for the day itself, Howard was busy being born and didn’t have time to look at a calendar.)

Possibly Roger didn’t quite know what sort of character he wanted to write about, so he created a character that could be anybody. If so, he had terrific instincts. In creating Croyd Crenson, Roger showed himself to be the smartest one of us all.

The Sleeper can look like anyone, and he can have any wild card power. His personality, as he goes through his cycle, can be anything from a mellow glutton just risen from his slumbers; to the sharp-eyed, caffeinated thief who laments the fact he never learned algebra; to the jittery speed-rapping pill-popping amphetamine user; to the raving, suspicious, violent paranoid he becomes before he hits the wall and collapses into slumber and transformation. He can be whoever the story requires.

When I needed a giant, hairless bat for my story in Jokertown Shuffle, I turned to Roger and Croyd. When for Marked Cards I needed a telepathic insect-like creature who talked like a Star Trek computer, Croyd was there to oblige. Roger was the most amiable collaborator in the world, and always willing to let us do things to his character. (Though as far as I’m concerned, top honors to go Steve Leigh, who let me turn his key character, Senator Gregg Hartmann, into a miniature bright-yellow joker with a sausage-shaped body and the voice of a ruptured countertenor…)

Croyd isn’t just my favorite Wild Cards character, he’s everybody’s favorite Wild Cards character. Just look at the Croydwatch page on Wild Cards Online, and check out the number of times Croyd appears in the series. Then check the number of Croyd appearances in which Croyd is written by a writer other than Roger.

See? We all love him.

Croyd seems not only to have the power of ubiquity, but of centrality. In the first volume, the horrifying “Long Walk Home” is the first glimpse we have of the Wild Card, and Croyd is the first victim to be a point-of-view character. Present at most of the twists and turns of Wild Cards history, Croyd remains a player throughout, albeit often in minor roles.

However, he took center stage again in Down and Dirty, when he morphed into Typhoid Croyd, spreading the Wild Card plague throughout Manhattan, even to those who had already been infected once. My character Modular Man managed to capture him and deliver him to the Jokertown Clinic for observation, but Croyd was super-strong and kept punching his way out of confinement.

We—the New Mexico crew—were discussing this one night, probably again in George’s living room. We hadn’t managed to solve the problem of confining Croyd, until Roger had one of his elliptical brainstorms.

“I’m thinking about… cows,” he said.

“Cows?”

“Cows. You know how cattle guards are built to keep cows from traveling along the road?”

“Yes.”

“And cattle guards are steel bars laid across the road, with spaces between them, so that the cattle are afraid of falling between the bars?

“Sure.”

“Well sometimes, if ranchers can’t afford cattle guards, or can’t build them in time, they just paint a cattle guard on the road, and the cattle think it’s real.”

We were baffled by Roger’s oblique style of reasoning. “And this has to do with Croyd how?”

“Install ordinary bars on Croyd’s cell,” Roger said, “and tell him they’re super-special alloy bars impervious to all his powers.’’

Uh… Right. And so that’s what was done, and Croyd stayed peacefully in his cell until Tachyon released him during a Werewolf attack.

I should point out that Roger’s mind worked like this more or less all the time. He always seemed to come at a subject through a perspective slightly askew, as if he viewed reality through a glass lightly. (That’s a very Zelazny-esque analogy, by the way. I pat myself on the back for it.)

Though Roger passed away over twenty years ago, Croyd is still alive, and his story is still being told by a new generation of Wild Cards writers. Croyd is one of two aces (the other is my own Golden Boy) who remember that first Wild Cards day, and who are functionally immortal—Golden Boy because he’s eternally youthful, and Croyd because he regularly regenerates into a new incarnation. And unlike Golden Boy, Croyd hasn’t retired from the ace business. His story will entwine with Wild Cards as long as Wild Cards exists.

He’ll still be my favorite Wild Cards character. And I won’t be alone in that.

Article originally published at Wild Cards World.

impersonations-thumbnailWalter Jon Williams is an award-winning author who has been listed on the bestseller lists of the New York Times and the Times of London. He is the author of more than two dozen novels and collections of short fiction, including Impersonations, a new Praxis novel out now from Tor.com Publishing.

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