Doorways in the Sand

Posted by : atcampbell | On : November 16, 2020

Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny

Participants: A. T., Carol, Karen, Shirley, Nancy Loomis, Benjamin Iglauer, Ken Tolliver, Ruben, Mona, Denman, Hudson, Joan, John

  • Started the book: 11
  • Finished the book: 11
  • Read before this year: 5
  • Audio: 1
  • Digital: 10
  • Paper: 4
  • Read the author before: 10
  • Met the author: 3 (maybe 4)
  • Had dinner/lunch with: 2

Reports are that Zelazny was nice guy. Heavy smoker.

Ben: Read it in high school. Didn’t remember much beyond character as professional college student; thought that was great. This time reading it, noticed. Read Amber series, Lord of Light, Jack of Shadows, Changeling, Dilvish the Damned, etc. in high school and college. Hadn’t read Zelazny in decades when he started this. Lots he didn’t notice when young, even though he was a great fan. This time noticed lots of allusions (e.g., Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler). Interesting insight into the literary aspect of Zelazny (as opposed to sword and sorcery). This is the first book of Zelazny he’s read that didn’t have a mythological/folkloric inspiration. More reminiscent of Hitchhiker’s Guide, Space Opera, etc. with disguised aliens. Also reminiscent of Rudy Rucker with mobius strip. Enjoyed the humor. Enjoyed rediscovering Zelazny at a later stage in his reading career. Dated aspects: few to no significant women in the story. Liked fast-talking, swashbuckling, wisecracking protagonist. Character is doing something like parkour pre that word being available. Liked it a lot. Fun book. Interesting re-read. Almost felt like a first read since it had been such a long time since he first read it. Liked that it was short (typical SF of the period was ~200 pages). 

John: Read this in the 70s perhaps. Lost original paperback and bought an e-book. Really enjoyed it. Not top of the Zelazny novels (although not a huge Amber fan); favorites are Lord of Light and This Immortal and Creatures of Light and Darkness. Found this story a great deal of fun. Protagonist was very good. Almost no women and secondary characters were very minimally outlined. Use of language was great. Don’t remember so many literary allusions in his other novels, although those have so many mythical allusions it rather makes up for it. Recommend “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.” Love the main character. Had totally forgotten the eternal student as protagonist. Love the men in black aliens masquerading as animals, even though it didn’t make sense. Liked how the story line played into the protagonist’s knowledge from his eternal student status. Disappointed by how little we get about the star stone’s capabilities or intention. Could have been a follow-up novel about his adventures in the stars. 

Denman: Enjoyed it. Agree with many of John and Ben’s comments, though I’d like to re-read it. One of my writing group members has read it every year for decades. Thought the doorways in the sand could be clarified. They are mentioned as actual things a handful of times, but there’s not a lot of clarity on what they are or how they function. The black cat antagonist was well done. Set up early but did not see it coming. Liked the short length and brisk pace. Seemed like a reasonable tradeoff for the less well-drawn secondary characters. 

Joan: Read Zelazny’s short stories when in high school (graduated 1964) or earlier, back when he was first starting to write. Don’t think I’ve read his novels. Did start Nine Princes in Amber and don’t think I read more than one. Thought it was boring and went looking for something more exciting. Thought “doorways in sand” was intended as a metaphor. He does have magic friends who beam him up in a spaceship. Could call them a portal to the rest of the universe. Could call it a detective story. So many nefarious characters. Think he needed an editor. Was trying to refresh my memory and read in Wikipedia that Zelazny didn’t do any kind of rewrite. Paul, the guy who stole the stone originally had these two thugs working for him and then the two guys were working for the alien who was a black cat. Was never clear when they switched to the other boss. Thought for a bit that Paul was an alien and now he’s a cat. Made more sense that way, because the idea that he was trying to revenge the taking of the crown jewels was silly. The British people aren’t that fond of them – it’s an odd reason. Paul as an alien makes more sense. Nevertheless, enjoyed it. It was fast. 

Shirley: In some Eastern European language, Zelazny means iron. I think I discovered Zelazny in college. When he started writing, he considered writing mysteries. Published one or two that were more mystery than SF. This novel holds up over the years; have read it several times. Could get away with a lot of experimental things in that time period. For example, working with flashbacks a lot.  Don’t like how he starts so many chapters in the future and then flashes back to how you get there. A lot of the descriptions are fresh/ unexpected. Enjoy the passages that sound like prose poems. Tone and way of speaking worked for me. Sometimes, characters speak in natural manner. Other times, some of them speak like people who have been taking college classes far too long. Aliens masquerading as wild animals was amusing. For me, it was a very good book to read during 2020. 

Ken: Very amusing, light. Checked and did meet him in 1982 at AggieCon. First SF convention I’d been to but had a lot of fun. After having gone, went through a period where read everything I could get my hands on by Zelazny and Hogan (another guest) and enjoyed them. 

Ruben: Liked the book for many reasons, some already mentioned: short, good yarn, fun plot, liked the vocabulary (liked the e-book definition function). One of the reasons I like SF is for the concepts, e.g., exploring crazy ideas. In this book, one of those ideas was social: the idea of exchanging cherished works of art between cultures that have just met. The 13 years in school is a lot but not record breaking. Liked that what he learned proved useful. I did not like the structure of the chapters. Didn’t bother me so much as that it wasn’t consistent. Was disappointed at the end. The last sentence was too much of a surprise. 

Mona: Liked the book – brought back my childhood. Read a lot of Zelazny then. Maybe read this as a serial. As a kid, lived on an army base and all kids would run around on Saturday morning. I’d climb a tree with a bunch of books from a neighbor who had stacks and stacks of serials. Would read all day in a tree. Zelazny was one of my favorites. This book was fun. I like the way it was written. Appealed to my sense of beauty in the writing. Liked the vocabulary. Don’t know how much of it I understood. Remember parts of it. Reread in my twenties. Good adventure story. Really enjoyed it. Was surprised at the vocabulary. Nice to be able to click on a word and get the definition. Appreciate the perpetual student now. Don’t think I did in my twenties. 

Karen: Also had a great librarian in Austin. Her funeral was overflowing with kids who wanted to say thank you. Loved the aliens dressed up as animals. Kangaroo said, “on the other paw.” Liked the “left-handed whiskey.” Lots of images of Spider-Man as the protagonist was climbing the buildings. Read it as an e-book and liked checking word definitions. Liked poetry of language. Plot grew more subtle and had consequences towards the end. Change of who the “I” was at the end reframed the story in an interesting way. Want to read more Zelazny now. Want to give the book to a middle school library. 

Nancy: Enjoyed the book. Also stumbled a lot on going into the future and backtracking. Segues were a little abrupt. Tripped over those. Read a lot of Zelazny a long time ago. Apparently, that is characteristic of his writing. Liked the animals. Liked the quick pacing. Liked that it was light. Liked the good language. Interesting climbing sequences. Liked that he came back to the retiring -> retired professor. Aside from trouble getting into the flow, enjoyed it. For the record: died of kidney failure secondary to colon cancer. 

A.T.: Read a lot of Zelazny in my twenties. Haven’t read a lot of him in the reading group. Only A Night Lonesome in October and Nine Princes in Amber. This is Zelazny’s favorite of his own books. Enjoyed his wordplay. Liked quality of writing in all his books. Flashbacks became annoying and slowed me down. Surprised that he stopped using it towards the end. Not sure what he was trying to achieve. Liked the protagonist. Lost track of the professors – so many of them. Amusing playing with how to graduate with him. Glad uncle showed up at the end with the shillelagh. Liked the talking animals as aliens. Lots and lots of smoking. Maybe couldn’t imagine an intelligent being not smoking. Figured out early that he had a symbiote (Needle by Hal Clement treats it similarly). Hard to figure out who was good and who bad. Liked that the protagonist was always in a good mood and always seemed to know what to do next. Will probably go back and read more Zelazny now. Read some of his novels, but favorites of his are the short fiction. 

Denman: Very much a middle-aged white guy gliding through life. Highly competent. Deemed lucky (probably the reason he gets the State Department job – more his ability to do the useful thing than his extended education). Enough bad stuff happens due to the competence of other characters to keep it realistic, but we know going into a story like this that there won’t be deep trauma to wade through (in contrast to more traditional fiction and much contemporary SF/F). 

Shirley: Crain smoking was a cheap, readily available mechanism for veterans to cope after wars of the period. 

A. T.: Many writers of the period were particularly good at writing about science fiction concepts in a way that didn’t become dated. Zelazny did a good job of that here. 

John: Favorite quotes: “doodle bombs”; “baptizing a thing doesn’t explain it”; something about Euclid; “Maybe we’ll have some fresh ideas in the morning. Thinking them will be painful whatever they are. [….]”; etc.

Ben: Flashbacks in classical literature usually occur only once at the beginning of the story. Zelazny seems to give up on that in the middle. Still found it interesting.