The Story Of …

My Meeting with Roger — 

 Many years ago now, I had the privilege of spending the better part of a weekend with sf&f great Roger Zelazny.

It was back in the early ’nineties, and the Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium (CALICO), of which I was a member and occasional chair of its Artificial Intelligence special interest group, was holding its annual convocation in Monterey CA. And Roger was to be the Guest of Honor.

(Roger wasn’t actually the CALICOfest organizers’ first choice — They had tried to get Isaac Asimov, unaware that the Good Doctor’s fear of flying ruled out a transcontinental trek).

in any case, it’s safe to say that Roger was not nearly as well known as Isaac would have been to the crew of college professors and other assorted language instructors who frequented CALICOfests back in the day. In fact, I was probably one of the few in attendance who even knew who he was, much less had read any of his work. As to that, I had been a fan ever since encountering The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth and Lord of Light — a fan-fetish that kicked into hyperdrive with the first Chronicles of Amber pentalogy.

All of which worked out splendidly as far as I was concerned, because it meant I basically had Roger all to myself for the weekend. It was like a WorldCon for one!

At the same time, although Roger doubtless would not have realized it when he got the GoH invitation, I was in all likelihood the blip that put him on CALICO’s radar.

It happened like this:

A couple of years prior to the event in question, I had been casting about for an appropriately evocative name for a small company I was forming in hopes of commercializing Herr Kommissar (Mr. Commissioner), an instructional game for students of German that I’d coded (more about that here). As luck would have it, at that same time time I was also re-reading The Hand of Oberon, the fourth book in the first Amber Chronicles series. And it was there that I came upon (on page 52) the brief scene where Corwin, the hero of the tale, meets its author — his maker, so to speak — who’s standing guard down in Castle Amber’s dungeon. It goes as follows:

“Good evening, Lord Corwin,” said the lean, cadaverous figure who rested against a storage rack, smoking his pipe, grinning around it.
“Good evening, Roger. How are things in the nether world?”
“A rat, a bat, a spider. Nothing much else astir. Peaceful.”
“You enjoy this duty?”
He nodded.
“I am writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity. I work on those parts down here.”

Until I (re)read that last line, it had never occurred to me that The Amber Chronicles was a work of philosophy. Thereafter, I could never forget it. Because the work as a whole is shot through not only with “elements of horror and morbidity,” but even more so with Roger’s personal outlook on life, the universe, everything, which I’d been unconsciously absorbing all along. It’s a view which sees everything in flux (did Roger’s panoply of Shadow worlds anticipate the Multiverse of String Theory?), where our understanding, not just of the present, but of the past as well, is not firm and fixed, but subject to shift at a moment’s notice, where, in navigating the riptides of underlying chaos, we must find our lodestar within us.

It’s a philosophy, I dare say, that may have enabled him to contemplate his subsequent all-too-early death with some measure of equanimity.

More to my immediate purpose as well, that line illuminated how Roger had managed to instruct while seeming merely to entertain — the very model of what I was, in my own small way, trying to accomplish with Herr Kommissar. Was it any wonder, then, if I went and named my startup “Amber Productions”?

… Or if I came prepared for the meeting with Roger bearing a rare hardcover copy of The Hand of Oberon , which he obligingly signed on page 52, right next to the passage quoted above.

Suffice it to say, we talked a good deal over that weekend in between the language-learning presentations and panel discussions. And I even got an answer to a question that had been bugging me ever since reading Amber Book II, The Guns of Avalon — namely: “Did you always know the truth about Ganelon?”

Saturday night, I was called on to introduce Roger for his after-dinner speech at the CALICO Banquet. Ironic in a way, because as far as the CALICO audience was concerned, I was the celebrity — they all knew Amber Productions and Herr Kommissar far better than the Amber Chronicles that had given my little company its name.

As the centerpiece of his banquet remarks, Roger related the story of a discussion he’d had with a British sf&f writer about human genetics, and what traits to select for, assuming you could accomplish such selection. (This was in the early nineties, remember — at a time when Jennifer Doudna’s Nobel Prize for CRISPR still lay far in the future.)

Anyway, Roger and his friend quickly rejected physical beauty and money-making ability as desirable attributes to breed for, because, in either case, how could you be sure if people really liked you for yourself? Intelligence was on the table, but then lots of intelligent people seemed to be pretty miserable pretty much of the time. Finally, perhaps harking back to how Larry Niven’s two-headed Puppeteers messed with Earth’s Birth Lottery, they settled on luck as the best genetic legacy one could bestow on one’s progeny.

Which left them, however, with the problem of how to do the bestowing? How do you select for luck?

No problem, said Roger’s friend: Put a clutch of fertilized chicken eggs on a platter and throw them up in the air. Pick out the unbroken eggs and let them hatch, grow to maturity, and lay their own eggs. Rinse, repeat. After not too many generations, you’d have bred a strain of the luckiest chickens alive!

“And so,” Roger summed up, “As I look out at the CALICO audience here tonight, I see a group of folks doing what they most want to do in this world, engaged in the work they love the best.

“As am I.

“And so I think we are, all of us, lucky chickens.”

That was the last time I saw him — had to leave early Sunday morning for the drive down to San Diego. We corresponded a little over the next couple of years. I recall him being very excited about his collaboration with Gahan Wilson on A Night in the Lonesome October — a project he’d been thinking about since the 1970s.

Oh, and somehow along the way, he inspired me to try my own hand at writing.

Well, Roger’s been gone over a quarter century now. He is still much missed.

He was indeed a lucky chicken!

* * *

PS: You can read a recent retrospective on Roger’s work here.