The Doors of His Face,
  the Lamps of His Mouth

by Roger Zelazny

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1965

collected in —
Four for Tomorrow
The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth
  and Other Stories

  The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Vol. 1

July 2011

A struggle for our depths

"The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" is a deliberately anachronistic science-fiction novelet by Roger Zelazny. That is, it's an adventure story set on the oceanic Venus which pre-NASA space opera, like pre-NASA astronomy, guessed was hidden under that planet's perpetual cloud cover. In this aspect it is a kind of companion piece to Zelazny's first-written science-fiction story, "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" (published 1963), which is set on the tolerably hospitable and inhabited desert Mars of earlier astronomy and science fiction. Both are award winners and multiply reprinted. Further along I will contrast the two stories.

Venus at night is a field of sable waters. On the coasts, you can never tell where the sea ends and the sky begins. Dawn is like dumping milk into an inkwell. First, there are erratic curdles of white, then streamers. Shake the bottle for a gray colloid, then watch it whiten a little more. All of a sudden you've got day. Then start heating the mixture.

This is a story of a sea-hunt, the latest attempt to fish up one of the true leviathans of the Venusian deeps; but the theme itself is ancient, as is the overt challenge — so I will sketch this by extending the title reference with some other pertinent Biblical verses. Some deep-sea fish are fishers themselves with their luminescent lures, and leviathan perhaps the most dangerous fisher of all:

14. Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about.
19. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.
Job, Chapter 41
Bible: King James Version

The huge fishing raft Tensquare is nicely realized, but to attempt such a monstrous quarry is asking a lot even of advanced ocean-going engineering:

1. Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
2. Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?

Pride and romance are complicating factors; indeed, subtle challenges as embedded as any hooks in the depths of our characters:

34. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride.
5. Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

But for those hopeful fishers who have yet to see a leviathan, and far more for peoples who have come too near before and survived, fear is the dominant emotion:

8. Lay thine hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more.
9. Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?
33. Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.

So is there an answer, a survivable answer, for the victims of fear and the children of pride?

25. When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid: by reason of breakings they purify themselves.
22. In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him.
Contrast: scintillating versus profound

In many of Roger Zelazny's stories we may notice a conflict between the author as Wordsmith and as Storyteller — and, too often, as King of Misrule spreading treacly silliness over all — but that is a different sort of problem. In "A Rose for Ecclesiastes", the Wordsmith jumps the Storyteller before we even get out into the Martian desert, befuddles him with sparkles, and hoodwinks him into a daze of unoriginality. The pre-NASA setting and the space-opera plot are designedly homage: not necessarily a problem for me. What hurts is that the Wordsmith is so busily a-whirl, sandblasting the story surface without letup, that the Storyteller is given scarcely any space or time for development: the setting and plot both are derivative, without adding anything striking.

In contrast, "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" is an excellent story, clear and muscular, full of surprising deeps as well as sparkling waves of adventure. The Wordsmith and Storyteller are clasped in firm brotherhood, and the King of Misrule gets in only one or two background chuckles. The people feel realistic, they grow, and we care how they cope and what happens to them. Symbol and seascape, action and character, language and plot, all work together in balance.

On the huge Tensquare fishing platform, heading out:

"What's it like underneath on a night like this?"

I puffed [on my pipe], thinking of my light cutting through the insides of a black diamond, shaken slightly. The meteor-dart of a suddenly illuminated fish, the swaying of grotesque ferns, like nebulae — shadow, then green, then gone — swam in a moment through my mind. I guess it's like a spaceship would feel, if a spaceship could feel, crossing between worlds — and quiet, uncannily, preternaturally quiet; and peaceful as sleep.

"Dark," I said, "and not real choppy below a few fathoms."


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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