I had forgotten this gem until a question on a Zelazny recommendation sent me to my shelves to rediscover this blend of Bradbury and crime caper. Set in an Earth very similar to our own, aliens have made contact and invited us to join the galactic federation. As a token of sincerity, we’re participating in an artifact exchange, lending them culturally significant objects such as the Crown Jewels and the Mona Lisa, and receiving ambiguous alien artifacts in return. Meanwhile, a perpetual university student with an affinity for heights is unwittingly pursued by various groups looking for a missing alien artifact. Thankfully, when he’s (view spoiler) staked out in the desert to contemplate a future as a raisin, he is rescued by a pair of intergalactic policemen. They’ve chosen to blend into the Australian scenery dressed as a wombat and a kangaroo.) “So I shshed while he worked on the strap. It was the most interesting hallucination I had had in a long while.”
(Like Ford Prefect, the aliens seem to have mistaken the dominant life form).
Although it perhaps sounds a little silly, and occasionally even a little absurd (there’s a professor who reoccurs “despite his departure from the university long ago under the cloud of a scandal involving a girl, a dwarf and a donkey”), it never goes so far afield that it can’t be reeled in with real life dangers and consequences. Zelazny’s writing is truly inspired. Clever wordplay based on both real life observations (the quality of coffee in the student commons), absurdity (aforementioned alien disguises), and crazy levels of creativity (stereoisotropic brandy, anyone?) and deadpan delivery combine to alternatively cause giggles and awe.
Then he challenges any absurdity with poetic imagery:
“I was taken by a glorious sensation doubtless compiled of recovery from my earlier discomforts, a near-metaphysical satisfaction of my acrophiliac tendencies and a general overlay of fatigue that spread slowly, lightly across me, like a delicious fall of big-flaked snow.”
Narrative style is somewhat unusual, but Zelazny is kind enough to provide variety of well-written transitions. And in these modern times of multiple viewpoints and post-deconstructed novels, a simple scrambled timeline should be readable.
Our lead, Fred, happens to be one of my favorite types of narrators, the knowledgeable eccentric. Of course, it’s a lot easier to be knowledgeable when you’ve spent thirteen years in university classes while avoiding a degree, much to various advisers’ chagrin:
“Clocking his expression, I noted disbelief, rage and puzzlement within the first five seconds. I was hoping for despair, but you can’t have everything all at once.”
Fred’s lengthy and varied university education gives Zelazny a chance to play with a wide range of intellectual references and ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them, except perhaps the mathematical poem. References are woven in seamlessly, almost throwaway at times. There’s the time Fred says at the end of a drinking binge:
“‘Let there be an end to thought. Thus do I refute Descartes.’
I sprawled, not a cogito or a sum to my name.”
Then there’s Zelazny’s brilliant creation of the Rhennius machine inversion program–first run through inverts the object left to right, and the inspired scenes that follow (view spoiler) There are anthropological references to toilet cave paintings and bead exchanges, analysis of government bureaucracy, naming of the stars of the Big Dipper, stereoisomers from organic chemistry and musings on philosophy. While I know I enjoyed reading this book in high school, more years of education and experience have given me even greater appreciation for the casual and wide-ranging references–surely that is a book that stands the test of time.
In the tradition of the caper, Fred’s methods are occasionally questionable (although his ethics are solid):
“Time means a lot to me, paperwork wastes it, and I have always been a firm believer in my right to do anything I cannot be stopped from doing. Which sometimes entails not getting caught at it.”
Altogether and enjoyable fun read. As I waver between a 4 and 5 star rating, I realize it’s rather irrelevant. I happen to enjoy it’s timeless references, sophistication and breezy tone. Definitely hardbound library-worthy. Crud. Now I’m going to have to search out a better copy than my worn, cheap 1977 paperback. Note: Hugo and Nebula nominee.