In the mid to late 60s, the sci-fi world was Roger Zelazny’s oyster. Possessing an abundance of fresh ideas delivered with a deft hand, the author took the genre by storm—This Immortal, Lord of Light, and Creatures of Light and Darkness gaining notable attention and winning awards. Published amidst these unique novels was, however, a book of an entirely different range and frequency. More personal and cerebral than mythic or heroic, The Dream Master (1966) instead features Zelazny’s interests in the psyche, subconscious, and to a small degree, spiritualism. The novel is based on the novella He Who Shapes—which Zelazny would later state is his preferred version—and is the subject of this review.
He Who Shapes is the story of Dr. Charles Render, a neuroparticipant who enters patients’ dreams via machine, altering and shaping them to heal mental wounds, breakdown psychological barriers, and generally improve their mental state. One of only 200 hundred people on Earth physically and mentally capable of performing the work, his personal life nevertheless remains unsettled. Wife and daughter dead in an accident years prior and his son’s education at a distant boarding school troubling his mind, locally an equivocal relationship with a younger woman fails to fulfill any sense of wholeness. Render emotionally detached from life to say the least, an encounter with a blind psychiatry student at a restaurant changes everything. Possessing an offer most intriguing, can she shake Render from the languor of life?
Not strictly an admirable man, and only nominally empathetic, Dr. Charles Render is the “hero” of He Who Shapes. I put the word in quotes as Render is not a typical Zelazny protagonist. Outwardly, the doctor would certainly seem so, however. The cool reserve, the cigarettes in contemplation, the poise, the preference for sport and intellectually stimulating subjects, the ability to deliver a biting line at opportune moments—all are familiar characteristics. But most else about the man is less contiguous with other of Zelazny’s maon characters. Self-confident to the point of tipping, in conflict with unseen antagonisms, and finding himself in a position acting against his will rather than for it, not to mention being more morose, Render is the darker side of the author.
Zelazny’s style thus serves the novel well. His incisive, brooding prose shades the narrative in sparse noir, bringing to light Render’s conflicts and inner world in dark, poetic tones. A description of Render reflected in his dream machine early in the novel is a good example: “It threw back a reflection that smashed all aquilinity from his big nose, turned his eyes to gray saucers, transformed his hair into a light-streaked skyline; his reddish necktie became the wide tongue of a ghoul.” And adding to this are the vivid descriptions of dreams entered, created, and manipulated. Allusions sown, they dig their roots deep below the surface, establishing the narrative in fertile literary soil—flowering gloriously in the denouement. The plot a moody wend, half the joy of the novella is the prose.
If prose is the first characteristic to praise, then the second is definitely the conclusion. Soaking back through the story, the ending is open to interpretation. Warm food for thought, its transcendence of the personal for the archetypal also gives the novella strong re-read value. While Zelazny doesn’t hide his cards from a plot perspective (there is a fair amount of foreshadowing regarding Render’s hubris), the pieces below the surface don’t come fully together until the final pages. Full of references, it will send many readers scurrying for Wikipedia to fill in the knowledge gaps experiencing Render’s Id. Combining matters of the psyche a la Ken Wilber (albeit fictionally), there are elements of classicism, Buddhism, and Kabalism, philosophy, as well as straightforward psychoanalytics to be ruminated upon.
Potential complaints about the novella are the additives. While I personally feel that Jill (Render’s erstwhile girlfriend), Sigmund the dog, and Render’s son Peter all add to the unsettled, eery feel of the narrative, there are others who would prefer to see these elements more directly linked to plot. Indirectly affecting the tension rather than directly informing it, these extraneous aspects create the story’s mood rather than develop it. That Zelazny maintained this presentation in the novel version despite having the opportunity to expand them would only seem to indicate his aim to keep focus squarely on Render and his desires as they color the story, that is, rather than building a world.
I will briefly digress to mention the prescience of the novella, as incidental as it seems. He Who Shapes is focused 100% of the time on the personal life of Render. Little of the futuristic world he occupies sneaks into the narrative beyond the tech of his dream machine, the autopilot cars, and a couple other small elements. Notably falling under discussion, however, is the mental state of the post-industrial society. Zelazny positing that this society is fragmenting into “sociometric units” with mental problems becoming more redolent as a result, there is little to refute his commentary from today’s perspective—a post-modern empty soul as it were. All the characters suffering in one way or another, it is a subject that has only become more relevant with the divide and conquer attitude of commercial interests. Adding the uncertainty technology places upon our future makes Zelazny’s novella possess all the more impact.
In the end, He Who Shapes is a short but rich read from one of the strong voices in sci-fi. Rife with symbolism of the conscious and sub-, Zelazny delivers a haunting story that spirals slowly into a brilliant wash of an ending that transcends the text. Utilizing classic psychoanalytics, the novella proves itself as adept at playing with Jung and Freud as the author had previously Greek mythology and would Hinduism. A successful character examination that becomes psychological poetry, the faults of the novella are few. Readers of Robert Silverberg’s novels of the same era, Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, or anything by Philip K. Dick will find much of the same caliber of material spread across the pages of Zelazny’s novella. Containing all the gravity his Chronicles of Amber does not, this is rather atypical Zelazny, on top of his game and worth the investment.