Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Zork Chronicles by George Alec Effinger

When clutter attempted to take over our apartment and force the humans out, we won, but at great cost. Many objects to which we were emotionally attached were ruthlessly frogmarched out, given to charity when possible, sometimes thrown into a dumpster. Most of the books I still have mean something to me.

The books lodged most prominently on my bookshelf and in my mind are not always predictable. I'm sure you saw plenty of media tie in novels on your last trip to the bookstore. The more prominent shared universes can afford to hire well known science fiction authors, but it is often done as work for hire without royalties, and considered unprestigeous. At any rate the constraints on the author's imagination often don't allow for great books which are remembered twenty years later.

The Zork Chronicles by George Alec Effinger are an exception to this rule, at least for me. The earliest Zork games were text only. 'Kill troll with sword' you type, and the computer responds, 'You can't see any sword here', then you die.

He mixes in his interest in mythology, and the various guides who often lead heroes on their quests in epic poems, and even his experience with Hugo and Nebula award nominations. The result is often hilarious, and he finds ways to joke about the occassional illogic of the game without breaking our suspension of disbelief.

Glorian is a guardian spirit, a young supernatural being, and a Campbell award nominee. The latter refers to Joseph Campbell's 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' and the guides who help heroes along their journeys. Some of the attendees are quite well known. For instance, Shiva the Destroyer terrifies the hotel clerk into rediscovering Glorian's reservation. Despite the fun, Glorian is downbeat, feeling he is one of those destined to watch the winners then talk humbly about how it is an honor just to be nominated.

Then a mysterious envelope from the Powers That Be appears in his room, with the imprint of the Autoexec himself on it. Glorian is to guide a hero names Mirakles on a quest.

This quest is through the Zork universe, starting with breaking into the house and getting the equipment. They don't do everything quite as you're supposed to do it in Zork. Not having the Bell, Book, and Candle at the right time, they are forced to get a vast quantity of blood from their hotel room through drawer forwarding and perform a much more ancient ritual to get Mirakles out of Hades after he makes a boo boo.

I'm not going to give away too much of the plot, but there's real character development, and Mirakles son of Thrag the Well hated really learns things about himself. Somehow even the bit characters of Zork become real, and we understand the meaning of the tragic limits imposed on them in the name of game balance, which the programmers themselves probably didn't give much though to. Despite which, this is also a light fun adventure novel with a happy ending, and even the bit players come to terms with their fate.

I'm not sure if this novel is truly great in itself, or if people will take the trouble to read it when the Zork generation has passed away, but it is fun to read, and I've always remembered it because George Alec Effinger wasn't satisfied to sell his name and knock off a bit of hack work in exchange for easy money. He put a lot into this novel.

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