Roger Zelazny Peter Ackroyd - Essay

Peter Ackroyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[To Die in Italbar] is classified as 'science fiction' and whenever I pick up a random sample of that genre, I am always struck by its banality. 'SF', as its fans like to call it, must be the most vacuous form of the novel, interesting only to fantasists and to those who prefer the shadow of the novel to its substance (which is why science fiction is always shown to best effect on the screen). This particular narrative opens somewhere near Italbar, "a thousand miles distant from the space port", where Heidel von Hymack is making his way through the shadowy rain forests of Cleech…. (p. 670)

As long as the novel stays at the level of simple, linear adventure, it has all the merits of a fast and furious plot. But science fiction has two weaknesses which are inherent to it and which always do their best to tear down the delicate tracery of the narrative. There is, first, the tenuous—not to say pallid—romanticism which lies at the heart of science fiction, and which takes it closer to the pre-Raphaelite nightmare than any other twentieth century form. In this novel, we are treated to H's visions, which go something like this: "… but the blue mists swirled about him and there were perfumes, breezes, a kind of quiet ecstasy …". And then there is the violence and the intergalactic warfare of the book; science fiction generally excises all interesting human motives, actions and reactions for the sake of a few tacky apocalypses—worlds are always being destroyed, races are always being exterminated. Everything is an end game. This, no doubt, has something to do with the fact that science fiction caters for our more obvious fantasies; as such it cannot help but fall into vulgarity and surrealism. Unfortunately, To Die in Italbar is only another example. (pp. 670-71)

Peter Ackroyd, "Vandals," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 235, No. 7691, November 22, 1975, pp. 670-71.∗