In Ursula K. Le Guin's The Language of the Night, she claims that the geography of fantasy fiction describes the inner landscape of the author and the reader. Sometimes, though, the fictional landscape turns outward, describing a whole culture rather than a single person. This is one way to look at Roger Zelazny's first five Amber books: as an exploration of the suburban culture permeating America after World War II.
The first volume in the Amber series appeared in 1970. By that time, the phenomenon of suburbanization had taken firm root in America, with the spread of housing developments, name brands, and chain stores. As Zelazny moved around the U.S., living in Ohio, Baltimore, and finally Santa Fe, the suburb and its attendant problems became firmly rooted in the nation's consciousness and lifestyle patterns. The restaurants are almost the same as the ones in the next suburb over, or the next state, or across the country. The gas stations, the houses, the lawns, the school buildings, all vary just a little bit from suburb to suburb -- or so the ideal of the suburb goes. And so, in its fantastic and Platonic way, does Amber.
In the universe of Amber, there is only one real world, Amber; all other worlds are mere reflections of that real world, with the details changed in a series of alternate worlds. Members of Amber's royal house have the ability to walk through the Shadow worlds, and even, perhaps, to create new ones as they go. New worlds are not created whole cloth, however, but are gently modified versions of Amber, with many features remaining constant in every transformation, although the difference from the original increases with distance. The Amberite royalty can travel through the Shadow realms on foot, or by using the Trumps (magical cards which transport one directly to a person or place), or the great Pattern (a maze whose orderly presence is at the literal and metaphorical heart of Amber, and which can be used for transportation or other magic only by the royal family).
At first glance, Amber doesn't look like it's the suburbs all dressed up. It features princes and princesses, horses and swords and magic Tarot cards. Yet the problems plaguing the denizens of Amber parallel those of a suburbanite in several key ways, based on a person's relationship with his/her surroundings. The alienation highlighted in suburban movies and books, from American Beauty to the works of John Updike; the fear of economic downturn; the lack of constancy and the quest for familiarity in a quickly changing world -- all are central to the suburban existence, and all have their place in Amber.
At the beginning of the first Amber book, Nine Princes in Amber, Prince Corwin is alienated from most of the people around him. Living under a false identity in a Shadow world he has shaped for himself, he is isolated from family and friends. He has not seen in years his siblings, nor does he care to. The constants in his life are Amber and the treachery of his family, treachery he has taken upon himself as well. In fact, none of the characters in any of the Amber books connects much with the others at first, and divorce has taken its toll on family relations. Step- and half-siblings constantly fight for attention and power in a way that exacts a human toll on all of them. The suburban family, too, is often separated by distance, divorce and remarriage, and simple lack of effort. Any of Amber's princes could contact each other instantaneously through their Trumps -- but, like siblings who never pick up the phone, they do not.
One of the major changes in American society as it progressed from a rural to a suburban society was the increase in migration throughout the country. Few people live their entire lives in the towns or cities where they grew up. As a result, the suburbanite yearns for constancy but has to settle for reflections. The same is true of the Amberite away from home. In the media, the suburbs are often portrayed as less than real, disconnected and almost subhuman -- certainly dehumanizing. It's a similar view, in fact, to that of a prince of Amber walking through the realms of Shadow:
"We led our troops and saw them die, but of Shadow I have this to say: there is Shadow and there is Substance, and this is the root of all things. . . .Of Shadow, there is an infinitude of things. Every possibility exists somewhere as a Shadow of the real. Amber, by its very existence, has cast such in all directions. And what may one say of it beyond? Shadow extends from Amber to Chaos, and all things are possible within it."
--Nine Princes in Amber
The familiar surroundings lack reality; the nature of Shadow itself forms a buffer between the Amber princes and the Shadow dwellers they encounter. Other people, their lives and deaths, matter less because of it.
Most "suburban art" has to wrestle with questions of alienation that touch on the suburbanite's own self-conceptualization. However, while he/she may feel trapped by the surrounding society, the honest person must recognize his/her own role in the creation of that society and its limitations and strengths. The princes of Amber, too, had to acknowledge their responsibility in the (somewhat more direct) creation of the worlds that sometimes turned on them:
". . . and it is like unto my life, I guess, for a Prince of Amber is part and party to all the rottenness that is in the world, which is why whenever I do speak of my conscience, something else within me must answer, 'Ha!' In the mirrors of the many judgments, my hands are the color of blood. I am a part of the evil that exists in the world and in Shadow. I sometimes fancy myself an evil which exists to oppose other evils."
--The Guns of Avalon
The suburban dweller, too, may feel ambiguously part of the evil in the world, of all of the things that are pushed aside, away from the sanitized lifestyle of the suburbs. In fact, the darker suburban reflections in the Amber books show up in the great problem the main characters must combat early in the series: the dark Circle.
The growth of the dark Circle in the first books looks a good deal like the suburban property owner's greatest fear: a neighborhood that "turns." A socioeconomic downturn, whether racially motivated or not, can kill a neighborhood. If it had a magical component, it might look something like this:
"The spot was immediately said to be accursed. It grew quickly in the months that followed, until it was half a league across. The grasses darkened and shone like metal within it, but did not die. The trees twisted and their leaves blackened. . . . In the twilight, strange shapes could be seen moving -- always within the Circle, mind you -- and there were lights, as of small fires, throughout the night. The Circle continued to grow, and those who lived near it fled -- mostly. A few remained. It was said that those who remained had struck some bargain with the dark things. And the Circle continued to widen, spreading like the ripple from a rock cast into a pond. More and more people remained, living, within it. I have spoken with these people, fought with them, slain them. It is as if there is something dead inside them all. Their voices lack the thrust and dip of men chewing over their words and tasting them. . . . They began to leave the Circle in bands, marauding. They slew wantonly. They committed many atrocities and defiled places of worship. They put things to the torch when they left them."
--The Guns of Avalon
Fires, riots, and gang warfare. Plants growing up twisted, or not at all. Dwellers in the night, rather than in the clear light of day. All of these things are associated with the inner city for many suburbanites -- and the perils and pressures of the inner city are exactly what they moved to the suburbs to escape. Even when the darkness of the inner city is the symbolic darkness of poverty rather than literal racism, its primal and sometimes violent nature is the antithesis of suburban life. When there is something dark and violent to fear, the city is the external source.
But the Amberites also have problems that the suburbs were just recognizing as the Amber books were being written: family secrets and struggles, alienation from family members as well as from the self. And just as the city is not truly a threat to the residents of the suburbs, the real conflict in Amber is internal, among the princes and princesses themselves. Their use of their own situations and powers prove much more of a threat than anything from the dark worlds of the city/Circle, even though they themselves had a hand in creating it.
The growth of the Circle, as we find out later, is directly the fault of the Amberite royal house: they create the Circle by betraying members of their own family. Ultimately, the evil that spreads throughout their lives is a result of their own attempts to control their surroundings without regard to other human beings.
Further, while most of the series focus on times of civil turmoil, even at its beginning, when Eric reigns over Amber, he is only able to keep his power by demanding that his siblings pay homage to him or flee. An orderly exterior must be maintained through family machinations, even if it requires the literal (and figurative) blinding of his brother Corwin. Appearances of normality and the power of Amber must be maintained at all costs to the real lives of the characters.
Even in its calmest moments, Amber has its problems, and so do the suburbs. Social crisis is not their only point of similarity. It is the plight of the suburban dweller to be casting about for familiarity, for elements that reflect a deeper, truer reality, one in which nothing is lacking, nothing is missing. Chain stores and supermarkets are supposed to form a self-contained but interchangeable world, where San Francisco and Minneapolis and Boise have roughly the same amenities. And yet, at the end, the suburbanite outside his or her home suburb is not much different than the denizen of a small town who tries to move to another small town. The Shadow walkers of Amber, too, find that difficulty to be burdensome:
"A shadow is never precisely like that which casts it. These little differences add up. They are actually worse than major ones. It would amount to entering a nation of strangers. The best mundane comparison which occurs to me is an encounter with a person who strongly resembles another person you know. You keep expecting him to act like your acquaintance; worse yet, you have a tendency to act towards him as you would toward that other. You face him with a certain mask and his responses are not appropriate. It is an uncomfortable feeling. . . . Personality is the one things we cannot control in our manipulations of Shadow."
--The Hand of Oberon
The familiar morphs into the unfamiliar. This Safeway is not your Safeway; this McDonald's is not your McDonald's. This clone is not the copy it was supposed to be. In the end, only the real satisfies; only genuine interactions prove to be enough. No amount of physical similarity can create the type of conformity that would produce the ease of interaction, the home atmosphere that Amberites and suburbanites both seek.
In the end, the Amberites discover, like any disillusioned suburbanite, that Amber itself has no greater reality than the Shadow worlds, that the truth must be sought elsewhere, in unexpected places, and not through closer and closer representations of Amber. As Prince Corwin says, "Now I realized [Amber] was but first among shadows. . . ." (The Courts of Chaos) Home is not what he thought it was, not as real and not as primary. All of the worlds based on Amber are themselves based upon an illusion. Or, to think of it another way, Father does not know best, and having the best chain restaurant in the world with "neighborhood bar" on its sign does not account for lacking a real neighborhood bar. Amber's princes have to live with being no more real than the Shadows they've been consorting with, just more privileged. Truth and solidity must come from within, and from genuine relationships. Not an easy lesson for anyone, certainly, but a necessary one. Like all the best fantasy, Zelazny's pure escapism sends us right back into the problems of our own surroundings.
Marissa K. Lingen is a freelance writer living in Hayward, California. She was the 1999 winner of the Asimov Award for Undergraduate SF & Fantasy Writing, and her work has appeared in Speculon and Phantastes. She's working on selling her first two novels.
Roger Zelazny Page -- An extensive page full of interviews, biographies, bibliographies, and essays.
Zelazny & Amber -- A good collection of links on Zelazny, along with information about his life. A thorough overview of him and his works.
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