This 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.
The 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.
But, 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:
“The 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 fact, that Hollywood 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 Hollywood 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.
“Unicorn Variation”. The 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.
But, 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 the Nebula).
All of which has led me to a very important question:
Why the hell haven’t I read more Roger Zelazny?
But 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.
(I’d rank this as a B+ collection without the lengthy “Home is the Hangman”, which is an A+ story.)