Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

“Home is the Hangman”, by Roger Zelazny

Second paragraph of third section:
“Yes?”
This is the next in sequence of joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Award as I re-read them. It was the cover story for the November 1975 issue of Analog, and won the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novella.

I have to be honest: I love this story with a deep love that is not entirely rational. Zelazny was one of the first authors I discovered when I first started reading sf systematically as a teenager. He won five Hugos and three Nebulas in his abbreviated career; this was the one story that won both.

It's set some decades in the future, though not all that many, vis-a-vis 1975 (so Zelazny quite possibly had roughly 2020 in mind when he wrote it). The protagonist appears in two other Zelazny stories (all three are collected in My Name Is Legion): in a world where everyone has become integrated into the surveillance state, our nameless narrator has managed to stay outside it and also retained the power to invent false identities when needed, which turns out to be occasionally useful for the security service when unusual problems need to be solved. Before I get into the story itself, it's interesting to note that while we today remain worried about state surveillance of our daily lives (and Zelazny here is on a straight line from Nineteen Eighty Four, with the difference that the sheeple have allowed it all to happen democratically), in real life we now worry at least as much about the extent to which corporations have power over our personal data. Several other aspects of the story point to its mid-70s view of technology - most notably that there are video phones but no mobile phones.

One interesting call is that one of the major characters is a US Senator who used to work for the space program - in 1975, John Glenn had just been elected for the first time and it must have seemed like a bit of a novelty; now of course Wikipedia has a whole category for American astronaut-politicians (and let’s not forget early cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Gherman Titov, who both later served in the Russian State Duma).

I have said many times that I hate stories about cute anthromorphic robots. The Hangman of the title is an anthropomorphic robot, but it is very far from cute. Programmed *mumble* years ago to be an autonomous intelligence exploring the outer planets of the Solar System, it went rogue and disappeared. Now it has returned, and its former operators are being murdered one by one. Our hero is brought in to stop it.

There are a lot of good ideas in here, of which the best is the notion of the robot's psychological make-up being heavily influenced, but in the end not completely determined, by the four people who were in charge of its development. (Compare the two-dimensional Susan Calvin of Asimov's robot stories.) Another is that of the three storieas Zelazny wrote about his nameless protagonists, this is the only one where his cover comes close to being blown, and it humanises a character who would otherwise appear a little too superhuman.

It's interesting also to read about a future America that is not New York or California; although the story starts in Baltimore (apart from a couple of framing paragraphs), the main action is the length of the Mississippi - New Orleans, Memphis, St Louis, rural Wisconsin. And of course, as usual, Zelazny's prose conveys the images economically but vividly. Here are the first two paragraphs:
Big fat flakes down the night, silent night, windless night. And I never count them as storms unless there is wind. Not a sigh or whimper, though. Just a cold, steady whiteness, drifting down outside the window, and a silence confirmed by gunfire, driven deeper now that it had ceased. In the main room of the lodge the only sounds were the occasional hiss and sputter of the logs turning to ashes on the grate.

I sat in a chair turned sidewise from the table to face the door. A tool kit rested on the floor to my left. The helmet stood on the table, a lopsided basket of metal, quartz, porcelain, and glass. If I heard the click of a microswitch followed by a humming sound from within it, then a faint light would come on beneath the meshing near to its forward edge and begin to blink rapidly. If these things occurred, there was a very strong possibility that I was going to die.
I must admit now that I am 52 rather than 14 that the story is not without flaws. It depends very much on two coincidences of timing - the availability of our protagonist, who reports in for work only four times a year, just happening to match the return of the Hangman; and also certain other events that appear to be connected with the Hangman’s return but turn out to be independently generated. Zelazny did not always write women well or sympathetically, but there is an interesting woman psychiatrist here (not the only one in his works).

Anyway, re-reading it, I still love this story. Not entirely rationally.

“Home is the Hangman” won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella presented in 1976 (so the 1976 Hugo but 1975 Nebula). The other novella on both final ballots was “The Storms of Windhaven”, by George R. R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle, which was incorporated into their novel Windhaven, but I don't think I have read it. The other Hugo finalists were “ARM”, by Larry Niven, one of the “Long ARM of Gil Hamilton” stories; “The Custodians”, by Richard Cowper, also the title story of a collection; and “The Silent Eyes of Time”, by Algis Budrys, whose only English-language reprint was that year's Terry Carr collection. The other losing Nebula finalists were “A Momentary Taste of Being”, by James Tiptree, Jr. which I enjoyed in 2006 in the Star Songs of an Old Primate collection, and “Sunrise West”, by William K. Carlson, which has never been reprinted.

This was a year when three of the historic four fiction categories were won by the same story for both Hugos and Nebulas. Short Story, as already reported, went to “Catch That Zeppelin!”, by Fritz Leiber; the Hugo for Best Novelette went to “The Borderland of Sol”, by Larry Niven, and the Nebula to “San Diego Lightfoot Sue”, by Tom Reamy; and Best Novel went to Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, which will be the next in this series of write-ups.

“Home is the Hangman” is in print in numerous places. To my delight I managed years ago to get my own copy of the November 1975 Analog, but it's probably easier to get in the following:

Tags: bookblog 2020, sf: hugos, sf: nebulas, writer: roger zelazny
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