American author Roger Zelazny is widely regarded as one of the greats of science fiction and fantasy. His long and short works were nominated 14 times for the Nebula Award and won three. Zelazny also won six of 14 Hugo nominations, including one for …And Call Me Conrad, a novel published in two parts (also known as This Immortal) in 1966, and another for The Lord of Light in 1967. Zelazny was an early genre-blender, using high fantasy style in science fiction settings but borrowing from other popular genres of the decade, like hard-boiled crime fiction.
Zelazny commonly used at least two voices, the first a stiff, formal, mythic fantasy style coupled with a remote, third person point-of-view. An example of this voice is his well-regarded Dilvish, the Damned series begun in 1965. Dilvish is a long-lived half-elf who exists in a medieval fantasy environment. Zelazny adopted stilted language for these old-school epic fantasy stories:
We can only guess how Dilvish feels to be the last man standing. We never gain access to Dilvish’s motivations in a manner that would satisfy a reader accustomed to complex characterization essential to modern speculative fiction. We are even further distanced from Dilvish in the collection's second story, a tale about Dilvish told by a mother to a daughter.
Simultaneously, Zelazny developed a second style of voice influenced by 60’s-crime-thriller-hip, complete with snappy dialogue and cigarette-smoking protagonists. These tales are often told from a first person point-of-view, such as “...And Call me Conrad,” which was so admired that it tied with Dune for the 1966 Hugo Award.
In an early scene, the hero, Conrad, is confronting Hasan whom he knew before as a hired killer. Conrad’s job is to escort an important alien around Earth’s ancient treasures, but he fears that Hasan has joined the tour group to kill. Hasan won’t confirm it, but he’s practicing knife throwing as Conrad confronts him and asks:
As an aspiring writer, Zelazny had goals and a plan to get there. After receiving a B.A. in English and an M.A. focused on writing and 17th century drama, he honed his skills by progressing deliberately from short-shorts to a full-length novel after six years. Along the way he studied various martial arts, religion, and philosophy. When Philip K. Dick felt he didn’t know enough about Christianity to complete Deus Irae, Zelazny helped him finish it. Many of Zelazny’s best works borrow from pantheons from around the world. Conrad, the hero of…And Call Me Conrad, is the Greek god Pan in a story set after a devastating nuclear war on Earth.
Zelazny was also inspired by various scientific theories, for example, that infinite universes co-exist. How one travels them and controls the passages between is a crucial concept in his highly-praised The Chronicles of Amber series about the parallel-universe-traveling, politically cutthroat princes of Amber. The first book opens like a mystery-crime-thriller, introducing us to Amber and its rules at the same time as a prince with amnesia begins to remember them himself. Things get really interesting in Amber, a realm of perfection (all other realities are reflections of Amber, more or less debased) when it is revealed that Chaos is the ultimate parent of Amber, much as all things in the cosmos must ultimately decay into a chaotic state.
Finally, Zelazny developed a third style in which his sense of humor shines. He plays his two other styles and genres off each other, as in this passage from the Hugo Award-winning novel, Lord of Light, a science fiction fantasy. Before a skirmish, Siddhartha must get past one of his old space travel mates, now Lord Kubera. Zelazny transitions from the stilted formal fantasy mode of much of the novel to his hipster voice. Here, Siddhartha says:
And then they proceed to duke it out.
The premise of Lord of Light is that technologically advanced humans have settled a new planet where a primitive, farm-based civilization takes root, similar to that of ancient India. Those first interplanetary colonists, like Sam, who believe that the people would benefit from the speedy reintroduction of technology are put down as “Accelerationists” while the powerful few running the planet use technology to set themselves up as Hindu gods. Reincarnation is a medical procedure where, after a karmatic review, new bodies can be received, and, like the real Buddha, Sam has been perfecting his character through many reincarnations. Sam, also like the historical Siddhartha, gives up his life as a powerful prince to serve/pose as a teacher/Buddha to introduce Buddhism as a protest movement/religion. He proves such a persuasive teacher that some of the original colonists begin to think that Sam believes in it himself. In fact, at one point they have disassembled him and banished him to the ether/nirvana from which he returns only reluctantly.
Inevitably, this resistance leads to war as the first ones, now self-proclaimed Hindu gods, use their technologically honed Aspects and Attributes, which manifest as mysterious, god-like powers, to cling to rule and fight him and Buddhism. When Sam demands to know why these would-be gods are stamping out even spontaneously arising advances like printing presses, the female crewmate who has taken on the role of Brahma denies it at first, but then admits it is being done:
The novel warns us that, at their worst, religions can be used to suppress the development of science and society. And yet, Sam as Buddha is mankind’s great defender, ultimately protecting us from the Christian tendency to convert by force and follow blindly (as represented by the zombies commanded by the evil Christian priest Nirriti) and the jealous anger of the Hindu priests and gods. Though he denies he really was the Buddha as he debates which religion is correct with a demon Rakasha who can see into the true nature of a being, Zelazny leaves the question open for us to decide. The Rakasha asks Maitreya, Sam:
Despite his denial, in the last battle Sam strives to demystify religion and uses a philosophy of peace to free mankind from oppression by the gods and from the burdens of a harsh existence, much as the real Buddha did. He sides with the common people against abuses by powerful Christians and Hindus about to war against each other.
Here, he negotiates with his great ally, the fellow space traveler who now wields the Aspect and Attributes of the great Hindu god Yama, Lord of Death:
Zelazny's works are considered essential speculative fiction classics, and they represented an important step in the evolution of science fiction and fantasy. Aware of its ancient origins and early 20th Century masters, he skillfully mixed various genres to produce entertaining, trail-blazing, genre-bending fiction.