Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Nine Princes in Amber

"Miniver loved the Medici
Albeit he had never seen one
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one"

Edwin Arlington Robinson -  Miniver Cheevy

Having run across Zelazny's name at various times during the past couple of decades while looking for new authors I decided to start in on his stuff with the start of the Amber series. That may have been a mistake.

Nine Princes In Amber isn't a terrible book but it suffers from the same fumbling LSD-induced grasping at novel gimmicks as much of  '60s literature. There was a clear obsession with breaking down the walls of reality, and in this as in many cases it comes across as grasping at straws instead of having a grasp on new concepts. Nine Princes' original success probably stems from the same "young adult" appeal as the Elric stories: larger-than-life heroes puffing their chests through poorly-supported plots. It's the sort of half-baked storytelling which seems really amazing when your mind races faster than it can connect, when you don't notice all the gaps in reasoning and missing scenes.

For one thing Corwin falls short, even flat, of Elric's much more memorable persona, despite both being the same princely figure growing out of a magnificent but decadent, oppressive medieval kingdom. Where Elric suffered from a perpetual conflict of internal motivations and external forces, growing as a character with every pact and sacrifice, Corwin comes across as more of a plot device than a character. The mystery of his origin is also, from the standpoint of mystery writing, very awkwardly handled. The characters seem to be playing along with a farce rather than playing into the machinations of a brilliant manipulator, and the constant "here's how I'll fool them" internal monologue got old fast.

Somehow, Zelazny managed to both race and drag through his hero's journey - which in itself should count as some sort of achievement. As a stand-alone book spiraling inward toward a climactic battle it mires you in passage after passage of unnecessary "feels" concerning royal siblings' relations; plus, natch, the one-minimum obligatory sex scene scaled down to just under R-level to titillate teens without panicking their parents. As part of a larger work, it dives breathlessly through one fantasy locale after another where the Earth chapters alone or Rebma or Arden or any other part could easily have taken up an entire non-Amber half of a novel. The various male characters merely re-iterate "he's kind of a dick but he's my brother and he looks impressive holding a phallic symbol" while the female characters... oh, sister. I don't normally find myself taking the feminist stance but these are some of the most painfully passive damsels that ever distressed. Even the queen of Rebma's most pro-active moment was spreading her legs.

This all serves as a wonderful reminder of just how not-wonderful the publishing industry has been, the massive parasitic market-manipulators who have always stood between writers and the public. I am perfectly willing to assume from the better passages of this novel that Zelazny could do better. While Nine Princes in Amber is in some ways an example of bad writing, it should not necessarily be taken as an example of a bad writer, but of one constrained by a need to instantly prove his new venture in order to secure future commissions. It's less of a book and more of an advertisement.
Want courtly drama? I can do that!
Want swashbuckling? I can do that!
Want sex, mystery, magic, nature, castles, monsters, aliens, pirates, comedic absent-minded professors, anything, anything at all that might serve as an attention-grabber, here's proof that this author can provide it. Each of these to be expanded upon in the sequels, I'm sure. If nothing else, this book's worth reading as a reminder of the massive improvement in writers' lives since the internet and the ability to bypass publishers if not advertisers. Every whiplash-inducing plot element abandoned five pages later reeks of desperation and not just that fashionable 1960s acid-trip routine.

However, Nine Princes' core appeal, it's central plot gimmick, is also its most interesting point of discussion: Amber. It's original and I actually like the idea of it as an amoral world-building gimmick, but you've gotta spot the sad truth behind its popularity. Amber itself more than anything I would guess drew readers in. It's not just about politics or humanity or nature or the planet or magic vs. technology. The grand Platonic ideal of reality itself, as it turns out, is a vaguely Arthurian feudal kingdom. Suck on that, ancient Egypt and China! More importantly, though, it evidences the unending human thirst for social inequality, the eternal drive to bring back the most viciously oppressive systems of social control. Readers flocked to a story which didn't just regale them with naughty collages of medieval domination games but reassured them that this system is the universal absolute, the "one" to our faux-democratic fraction of truth.
This idea sold.
For nine more novels.

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