So I read Isle of the Dead mostly because I’m dating two Zelazny fans who rightly want me to read more Zelazny, and what is polyamory even FOR if not to gather a wider range of book recs?
The prose is amazing: exploring ideas, playing with language. A grandiose epic of godhood and worldbuilding is framed in an action-driven story of petty personal jealousy and revenge. The main character, Frank Sandow, is this cool, anti-heroic worldbuilder who may or may not be literally inhabited by a god, and who smokes and drinks and deals and survives like a motherfucking rock star. And seriously, the writing is such a joy to read! In the same book, you get moons called Flopsus, Mopsus, and Kattontallus and descriptions like this:
“Dwelling beside a body of water is a tonic for the weary psyche. Sea smells, sea birds, seawrack, sands–alternately cool, warm, moist and dry–a taste of brine and the presence of the rocking, slopping bluegraygreen spit-flecked waters, has the effect of rinsing the emotions, bathing the outlook, bleaching the conscience.”
My favorite writing styles involve sentences that make me grin. This book has them, and is fun. On the other hand, though, I was bothered by it.
When I was about halfway through Isle, and talking with someone about the difficulty of finding video games I can relate to, I realized why I’ve mostly skipped reading the really great older sci-fi. It’s all men. I mean, it isn’t *all* men, obvs, but there’s just so much where women don’t exist as people. Modern bookshelves do a much better job of satisfying my desires as a reader, so that’s where I stay, and I’ve often felt like I’m not doing my duty as a proper fan, but I’m going to feel a lot less guilt about that from now on.
Characters in Isle are interesting, flawed, dynamic…. and all dudes. I wouldn’t so much call the women characters. There’s a space-courtesan at the beginning. Sandow’s spacesecretary gets to marry him** and then she gets to die — twice! — for his character development, and at the very end there’s an ex-lover of his who will die (a second time) unless he has enough positive character development to save her (spoiler: he does).
None of them are characters. They don’t have emotions, dreams, or fears like the men do. There’s nothing for me to relate to. Normally I’d be all over self-inserting with a spacewhore or a spacesecretary, but it would be like relating to a wind-up toy. There’s no hook. This is a story about a future where immortality and godhood are achievable — unless you’re like me, and then you’re there to fuck the people who get to do the cool stuff.
So yes, this is a great book, and no, I don’t particularly recommend it. As much as I like fucking people who do cool stuff, I also like to think I have a little more purpose in life than that.
*alternately-alternately titled: I guess I’m just going to use this blog to write about books I’m reading and post recipes that no one else needs, and you could probably read something about my mental state into that, or you could assume that I like my mental privacy as much as I like blogging.
** I had a tiny fit reading the scene where he recalls the beginning of their relationship, where she’s overeducated as a secretary, so he takes her in hand and manfully fixes/vintagizes her. (Part of me wants to take this not as a condemnation of educating women but as a condemnation of complications arising from modernization, which I can totally get behind, but I have to work to interpret it that way.) He falls in love with her and they get married and a few years later she dies. How did she feel about any of this? The reader has no idea, although Sandow’s recollections of male characters generally include some sketching of their emotional landscapes, so I don’t think this is a way of showing an indifference to people around him.