is, quite simply, a superb collection of short fiction. Within
its pages Zelazny ranges freely from science fiction to fantasy;
from irreverence to painful truth; from the merely good to the
truly excellent and every point in-between.
The collection includes “Walpurgisnacht”, “Recital”,
“The Night Has 999 Eyes”, “My Lady of the Diodes”,
“The Last of the Wild Ones”, “The Horses of Lir”, “A
Hand Across the Galaxy”, “The George Business”, “Home is
the Hangman”, “The Force That Through the Circuit Drives the
Current”, “Fire and/or Ice”, “Exeunt Omnes”, “Dismal
Light”, “Angel, Dark Angel”, “And I Only Am Escaped to
Tell Thee”, “A Very Good Year”, “The Naked Matador”,
“Go Starless in the Night”, “But Not the Herald”, and
the titular “Unicorn Variations”, as well as three short
essays and introductory commentary to each story by Zelazny.
one weakness of the collection, in my opinion, is the number of
short-short stories that Zelazny includes: Some are mood pieces.
Some are clever ideas. Some are sensawunda. And, in fact,
essentially all of them are good little pieces of fiction. But,
ultimately, the short-short form is a one-punch fight (or, as
Zelazny says himself, a single-panel cartoon). While each stands
by itself, the effect of so many short-shorts in close proximity
to one another is a pervading sense of gimmickry.
that minor flaw aside, UNICORN VARIATIONS is peppered with
memorable stories providing a tour de force of what speculative
fiction is capable of. Particularly notable in my memory are:
Last of the Wild Ones”. This is the sequel to another
Zelazy short story, “Devil Car”, which I have never read.
Despite that, I found this to be a beautiful, emotional sojourn
of a warrior at the end of a long and personal journey.
"The George Business”. This is a rather clever
twist on the old dragon-slaying chestnut. It’s so clever, in
just couldn’t resist lifting it for DRAGONHEART a few years
back. The distinction is that Zelazny spices the story with his
unique wit and verve, whereas the
vehicle choked on its re-treading of fantasy stock pieces.
“Dismal Light”. This story is a prequel of sorts to
Zelazny’s ISLE OF THE DEAD. I say “of sorts” because it
was apparently written as a character study for the novel. I
haven’t read the novel, but, like “The Last of the Wild
Ones”, I found “Dismal Light” to stand admirably on its
own. The bifurcated vision of the first paragraph really drew me
into the story: “Right there on his right shoulder, like a
general, Orion wears a star. (He wears another in his left
armpit; but, for the sake of wholesome similes, forget it.)
Magnitude 0.7 as seen from the Earth, with an absolute magnitude
4.1; it was red and variable and a supergiant of an insignia; a
class M job approximately 270 light-years removed from Earth,
with a surface temperature of around 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit;
and if you'd looked closely, through one of those little glass
tents, you'd have seen that there was some titanium oxide
present. It must have been with a certain pride that General
Orion wore the thing, because it had left the main sequence so
long ago and because it was such a very, very big star, and
because the military mind is like that.” And the extended
metaphor of Orion throughout the story lent a metaphorical
skeleton to a subtle character drama writ large across a
backdrop of star death.
story from which the collection draws its title is a simply
delightful little piece of whimsy. It made me laugh and ponder
and wonder and, most importantly, turn the page.
ultimately, it’s the collection’s centerpiece – the
novella “Home is the Hangman” – which makes it
shine. This is, quite simply, one of the best robot stories
I’ve ever read, summoning up a queer mixture of pre-cyberpunk
and noir with an Asimovian sensibility to deliver a poignant and
powerful drama on the cusp of revolution. This story deserves
every accolade it’s been given (which includes the Hugo and
of which has led me to a very important question:
the hell haven't I read more Roger Zelazny?
enjoy every piece of his short fiction that I stumble across. I
loved the First Chronicles of Amber. I rave about LORD OF LIGHT.
this collection really brought home to me the fact that, for
whatever reason, I’ve never really made an effort to
read Zelazny – I’ve kinda just let his work fall into my
lap. (Even this collection was a random purchase that I only
plucked off the shelf because of a coincidental comment here in
the newsgroup about one of the essays.) I think that’s
something that’s going to have to change.
rank this as a B+ collection without the lengthy “Home is the
Hangman”, which is an A+ story.)