Psychoshop - Alfred Bester & Roger Zelazny

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Alfred Bester & Roger Zelazny
Random House Publishers
ISBN: 0679767827 (Amazon link)

What a particularly odd book! Psychoshop is an unfinished novel by Alfred Bester, which was picked up and finished off by Roger Zelazny. I'm always a bit leery of collaborations, and was quite curious to see how this novel worked out. Bester is one of my favourite authors, but - and I realise this is going to draw a gasp from his legions of admirers - but despite his critical acclaim Zelazny's writing doesn't do much for me at all, not even the Amber books or the admittedly impressive Lord of Light.

The eponymous Psychoshop is a time-travelling, galaxy spanning, meta-physical swap shop most usually accessed via Rome where it is infamous as the Buoco Nero; it's easily identified as its sign has three golden infinity sigils instead of the usual sign of the pawnbroker. Inside this shop you can trade anything of yours, personality traits, talent, anything, for anything else, even luck or foresight. Beyond that I'm not even going to try and describe the setup as, well, it's much too peculiar to summarise well, and part of the fun of reading this slim novel is having things unfold in their glorious madness.

Did I like it? Yes, but with reservations. Given the setup I was expecting something along the classic lines of Brunner's The Traveller in Black, cautionary tales in which you should be careful what you wish for as you might get it. In fact, the Psychoshop is remarkably benign, and customers, including Edgar Allan Poe and Mother Shipton, leave happy, content with the trades they've struck with the mercurial proprietor. As this is a Bester novel, an author whose Tiger, Tiger brought him enduring fame, it struck me as only fitting that the proprietor is a human-feline chimera.

The whimsical setup and overall exuberant tone are pure Bester, and in case there was any doubt, his trademark typographical oddities and simple drawings enliven the typesetting. The latter half of the novel is much more typically Zelazny, and for my money, much less successful. Onto the basic humorous tale of the curiosity shop of the soul, Zelazny tacks a love story and a tale of sinister hidden identity between our hero - a journalist come in search of a story - and the shopkeepers assistant and nanny, a human-snake chimera. At least, I presume the story is Zelaznys - though some of the plotting could be Bestian the later character development and plot climax seem pure Zelazny. In particular, I really wish some editor had sat Zelazny down early in his career and explained that while martial arts fights are splendid plot devices in visual presentations, they tend to be, at best, confusing when described in detail in prose. (And I'm saying that as a black belt who probably had an easier time constructing the physical narrative than most.) The ending was adequate enough overall, but what I take away from Psychoshop is the brisk absurd wit of the first half that Greg Bear, in the introduction, argues has influenced many later authors including Stephenson and Pratchett. I can't disagree.

Overall, a failed experiment that is still worth reading for the sheer fun the authors were having writing around the fabulous conceit of the Psychoshop. I only wish I could read Psychoshop as completed by Bester alone.

Posted: Mon - November 17, 2003 at 11:37 PM