“According to the record, you have been an undergrad here […] for approximately thirteen years”
Doorways in the Sand
By Roger Zelazny
I get the impression that his star has dimmed somewhat since his untimely death in 1995, but during his prime — from the 1960s to the 1980s — Roger Zelazny was considered one of the great authors of science fiction. Corner a group of SF fans of the right age, reveal the implements of questioning,and they will fall all over themselves revealing which of Zelazny’s works they admire most.
My great shame is that not only did I miss some of his most famous stories — it took me until the 2000s to get around to “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” — but I didn’t care for such later-considered-classic books as I did encounter (like the early Amber novels). Worse yet, due to a quirk in my memory, I’ve forgotten almost entirely the contents of many of the books on my Zelazny shelf . Lord of Light: forgotten! Creatures of Light and Darkness: forgotten! Nine Princes in Amber, except maybe for that first chapter: forgotten! But there are a few books that for some reason, I both liked and remembered.
First among them is Doorways in the Sand.
Fred Cassidy is considered a likeable guy by most of his fellow students, but a thorn in the side by his alma mater. When his rascally uncle ceased active metabolism (the exact situation is somewhat complicated), the old fellow left Fred a sizable annuity … which would end as soon as Fred earned his first degree . Fred saw the obvious loophole and for the last thirteen years he has been living comfortably and well, carefully accumulating a variety of course credits, no combination of which adds up an undergraduate degree.
Fred’s self-indulgent ramble through academia begins to fall apart when he returns home to find that his apartment has been ransacked. Shortly thereafter, a pal named Paul Byler drops by to deliver what turns out to be less of an explanation and more of a beating. Paul believes that Fred may be possession of a model of a star stone that Paul desperately needs to recover.
The original star stone was a gift from a recently encountered galactic community. In the course of diplomatic nice-nice, we gave them culturally significant items (the British Crown Jewels) and they gave us culturally significant items which included a machine whose purpose is unknown at the beginning of the book and very clear by the end of it, as well as a gem called the star stone. As far as Fred knows, even the original star stone is only valuable for cultural reasons; why Paul is making such a fuss over a copy is inexplicable.
Also, as far as Fred knows, he doesn’t have the copy. When it becomes clear that the robustly built Paul is willing to go to extremes to assure himself that Fred is telling the truth, Fred escapes out a window.
As Fred soon learns, Paul is neither the only nor the most scary of the people on the trail of the missing copy. He is certainly not the most determined. Running halfway around the world (field trip for an art-history course) doesn’t shake Fred’s pursuers. It gets worse: authorities, both terrestrial and galactic, are also convinced that Fred knows more than he is admitting, perhaps even more than Fred himself knows he knows.
And then there’s the disturbing matter of the voice in his head Fred has started hearing.…
This is a cheerfully slight little adventure but it moves along very nicely. Zelazny has a rare talent for feeding the reader just enough information about the background that it all makes sense, without providing so much that the narrative stumbles to a halt. The novel is clearly science fiction, but it also a close cousin to the sort of detective novel where the detective provides a stream of snappy patter on his way from one beating to the next.
Zelazny also regales the reader with diverting stylistic pirouettes: from time to time chapters begin with Fred on the point of impending death or injury, then sit down to tell us how Fred got into those situations. There’s also a chapter that ends with Fred being shot point-blank in the chest. The next chapter rambles on about other matters before clarifying his fate. OK, it is unlikely that a first person protagonist is going to get killed, but it’s not completely impossible. Just ask Joe Gillis.
Speaking of the word “cheerful” — I was struck by the fact that this IS an upbeat book, even though Fred is playing for some fairly high stakes (personal continuity and the fate of the Earth as a whole). In fact, Doorways is one of the rare SF novels whose setting seems pleasant for anyone not caught up in the plot. Sure, there’s a galactic community out there and yes, their power politics seem to get violent from time to time, but the violence is retail, not wholesale and the rougher stuff is in no way sanctioned; even the fate of the world stuff is comparatively low key, a matter of status rather than whether or not the aliens will drop Earth into another dimension or sell Earth’s children on the psionic FTL-drive market. On the whole (aside from the fact people smoke like they are in an H. Beam Piper novel and the absence of certain items of personal consumer electronics), this isn’t even all that badly dated .
Edition neepery: I reread my old Avon mass market paperback edition, the one with the Ron Walotsky cover. I am not a judgmental person and if someone wants to be perverse enough to prefer a different edition, that’s technically legal, just like eating peanut butter and live wasp sandwiches is legal. You just won’t find me doing it.
Speaking of editions, if there’s a recently edition I completely failed to find any evidence of it. Surely someone, somewhere has a current edition? It was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula! How could it be out of print?
1: You might ask “Why would someone who says they don’t particularly like someone’s work have a whole shelf of their books?” The answer: it was the 1970s and there wasn’t so much SF available that I could afford to pass up books just because the author wasn’t one of my favourites. Of course, we were made of sterner stuff back then. There’s a whole community of contemporary SF readers who apparently suffer intense distress when confronted with any kind of novelty. I pity them.
2: After which the capital would be handed over to the Irish Republican Army. It was the 1970s and a surprising number of people found the IRA’s habits of kneecapping people and mailing out the odd nail-bomb quaintly charming. You don’t want to know which groups Lawrence Block’s Evan Tanner was financing.
3: I somehow got the impression that Zelazny’s female characters tended towards the slight or the dreadful, but in this novel, the main female character, Mary Sidmore, acquits herself reasonably well for someone who is being held hostage for most of the time she is onstage.