Creatures of Light and Darkness – Roger Zelazny

creatures1This text is a translation from Bulgarian. The original can be found here.

Putting Creatures of Light and Darkness into categories is a difficult task. From the point of view of genre, form, style, anyhow. Its text is seemingly messy (and remains messy under careful scrutiny), as if under the influence of light drugs. The text itself – if I can be allowed this heavy-handed personification – and not the author who produced it, as underground fan legends sometimes have it.

Creatures of Light and Darkness strikes me as a science-fictional poem. I initially attempted to bolster this argument with the kind of discursive and formally elaborate writing associated with academic literature. Then I decided against it. The reader just needs to read the first chapter – in the House of the Dead – to see the poetry, shining through, crisp and clear.

The text flows, not in verse really, but it certainly scans too easily for that to be a mere incident; the sentences are long, rhythmical, as if written to be read aloud. The poetic mode is further underwritten by the content: rather than dramatic narrative, this is equal parts ritual and metaphysical dialogue, through which Anubis unravels the great unknowns of Life, Death, Ego and Existence in front of the nameless man (later Wakim). The imagery runs dense, purposefully (or purposelessly) coiled unto itself: fuelled by hedonism and lust for the carnivalesque. Point of view, dramatic structure and genre grammar are not the supporting pillars here. The architecture is rather predicated on the accumulation of arguments – towards culmination, or volta – steeped in a heady haze of sensual description.

All these features are tightly associated with the language of poetry and I seriously doubt Zelazny was unaware of that. Especially if we trust his own words that the book was written as a writerly exercise (according to one curious rumor the author modeled the story on the office environment where he worked at the time).

Historically, metaphorical writing has dominated poetry, and largely for this reason poetical language resembles, rather frequently and markedly, a code that must, or at least can, be cracked. There is a common enough understanding among the interpreters of poetry that what they do is a kind of knowledge game. The book (more generally, the poem) is a thinking machine, in the words of one famous critic. I find it true that Creatures of Light and Darkness can be read most productively exactly thus. The other option, just as valid, is to go with the flow of literary imagery, without plumbing for depth. Synthesis, as always, remains the most challenging and rewarding form of understanding. In the following paragraphs I will try merely to provide a few broad strokes. Leveraging the poetic code is a tough and prolonged process, I’m just providing some fuel.

Zelazny’s work is marked by the presence of two tightly coupled motifs. On the one hand stands the instrumentalization of humanity and human civilization, framed in his trademark mythologizing. Just as the Hindu deities in Lord of Light derive their divinity from Attributes and authoritarian ideologies, Anubis, Osiris and Thoth here rule via the techno-magical Tides, according to the religious and metaphysical scriptures of the Life-Death duality. In the House of the Dead Anubis successively deprives his nameless servant of his human arms, legs, manhood and thought, replacing each of these with mechanical counterparts, one at a time. In the end he asks him: where among all that was the spark that allegedly makes you human? How can you be sure you didn’t start your existence as a machine that I only later furnished with a human body? It is, allegedly, written in the metaphysical writings of Saint Jakes the Mechanophile that man is “the sexual organ of the machine which created him” and his “existence is necessary to fulfill the destiny of the mechanism”. Man is not conceptualized even as a collection of organs and faculties, man is merely an organ.

On the other hand stands the aestheticized faith that Zelazny harbors in humanity’s imperative towards freedom. The nameless servant of Anubis is dismembered and restitched together, and then christened – Wakim; despite that, his essence eventually resurfaces and he recalls his true name. Not unlike the Steel General, who has been destroyed countless times, but continues to struggle against the oppressors of free will. Or Sam from Lord of Light, who returns from the state of Nirvana, his soul scattered in space, to bring down those from whom he suffered defeat. In Samuel Delany’s words, to whom Creatures is dedicated by the way, this is the Faustus/Prometheus archetype, key to Zelazny’s body of work.

The enemies against whom Zelazny’s protagonists rise, in general and here in particular, are the arrogant gods and masters of the universe. After Anubis has explained to Wakim how the Tides of Life and Death determine the fate of all the millions of worlds, and how they are regulated from the Stations, Wakim asks the Dog in turn:

“And whence come you, Anubis – and Osiris – that control it?”

“There are some things that are not for you to know.”

“And how do the Middle Worlds accept your control?”

“They live with it, and they die with it. It is above their objections, for it is necessary for their continued existence. It is become a natural law, and it is utterly impartial, applying with equal force to all who come beneath it.”

You cannot know this, mortal person, the law is beyond you and it cannot be questioned. This is none else than ideology’s ugly head rearing itself, unbeatable within its own edifice, masquerading as universal law. Against it is poised the flame of the individual, inextinguishable and spontaneously manifested, according to Zelazny.

This faith in mankind’s nature to fight back is patently romantic and in a sense naive, some would say. There is another thread of revolutionary thought woven in Creatures of Light and Darkness though, which is much more postmodern than it is romantic. The Prince Who Was a Thousand, even though sparingly sketched out as a character, hints at a pluralist model, where he is chiefly an equalizer and interpreter of the Tides. Not accidentally, his other name is Thoth (corresponding to Hermes in Greek mythology) ­ – the god of the written word, science, magic, and justice even. It is Hermes that gives one of the interpretative “sciences” its name ­– hermeneutics. Unlike the supposedly neutral ideologies of Anubis and Osiris, who gained their power thanks to a knack for statistics and numbers, the Prince embodies a perspective that is more human, driven by love, free choice and experimentation. His twisted kinship with Seth – his father and son – could perhaps be interpreted as some deep metaphor for civilization. Or perhaps not.

Creatures is simply too polyvalent and ambiguous in its potential for meaning-making, like many great poems. It is anchored conceptually, though, by the typically SF tropes of which it abounds. Again in chapter one, for instance, Anubis offers the following analysis of the interaction between Life and Death:

“Some worlds have too much life,” he says. “Life – crawling, pullulating, fecundating, smothering itself – worlds too clement, too full of the sciences which keep men alive –worlds which would drown themselves in their own semen, worlds which would pack all of their lands with crowds of big-bellied women – and so go down to death beneath the weight of their own fruitfulness. Then there are worlds which are bleak and barren and bitter, worlds which grind life like grain. Even with body modifications and with world-change machines, there are only a few hundred worlds which may be inhabited by the six intelligent races. Life is needed badly in the worst of these. It can be a deadly blessing on the best. When I say that life is needed or not needed in certain places, I am of course also saying that death is needed or not needed. I am not speaking of two different things, but of the same thing. Osiris and I are bookkeepers. We credit and we debit. We raise waves, or we cause waves to sin back again into the ocean. Can life be counted upon to limit itself? No. It is the mindless striving of two to become infinity. Can death be counted upon to limit itself? Never. It is the equally mindless effort of zero to encompass infinity.”

Et cetera, et cetera. With just a little imagination the reader can use this metaphysical model to derive a mountain of SF subgenres.

The relationship between man and machine is central and at certain points it seems that the pivotal issue of the book is namely this: is thecreatures2 capacity for meaning in the Universe finite, could it be unambiguously computed? If so, what is then man’s role in all of it? Is man merely an organ for machine pleasure that self-proclaimed gods manage through their book-keeping? The world of Blis and its erotic machines, the semi-mechanical warrior Dargoth – a chassised centaur, the carpet woven out of a human nervous system and trodden over by Osiris – the aesthetics of fusion and transformation is deeply ingrained in the text, which is wonderfully exemplified by the Bulgarian cover of the book that I can’t help but share here.

The book contains a machine for mass destruction (the Hammer That Smashes Suns), describes a black hole (the Skagganauk Abyss inside of Typhon the horse) well before the term gained popularity, explores space-time travel (temporal fugue), tells of the enigmatic Thing That Cries In The Night. There are heaps of more techno-miracles dressed in wonderful ’60s pulp. Still, what I find most intriguing about it is precisely that poststructuralist playfulness of the text, embodied by the poet-anarchist Vramin, the indescribably brilliant Agnostic Prayer, the blind Norns and many more of Zelazny’s inventions. His absurdist sense of humor here is an elemental force.  Just ponder the scene with the two rival augurs and their heated argument over the spilled guts of one of them. “These are my innards! I will not have them misread by a poseur!”

Chances are this review is just hotchpotch. Probably it is, but, realistically, the same can be said of the novel itself. It is namely the cross-purposes of its vivid images – beads on a string – that largely make Creatures of Light and Darkness what it is. I still prefer the more conventional Lord of Light, but Creatures without doubt stands out as one of the boldest experiments in genre history.

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