I thought I’d read all of Alfred Bester’s novels. I thought I’d read all of Roger Zelazny’s. I was wrong on both counts. This one was left unfinished when Bester died in 1987. At some point (introduction author Greg Bear doesn’t seem to know when) it was completed by Zelazny before he died in 1995, and published posthumously in 1998.
The narrator, Alf (also Bester’s name of course) is a magazine reporter given an assignment in Rome to investigate a place called the Black Place of the Soul-Changer. It’s run by a man named Adam Maser, that’s the only lead Alf has, but he soon makes contact with Adam who invites him into his unusual shop, one where a person can trade any physical, mental or emotional skill or ability one doesn’t want for something else one does. The shop has been there since ancient Roman times, and the clientele, as Alf soon learns, come from many times and places in the past and the future. At the center of the shop is a black hole which provides the energy for its enterprises. Adam is assisted by a snake-like woman, Nan, while Adam himself has feline or tiger-like qualities. Alf is soon invited to help with the business, and Adam and Nan seem as curious about him as he is about them. Perhaps the group of bodies in the back room of the shop that look exactly like Alf have something to do with that, and perhaps Alf will turn out to be much more than he seems, even to himself.
It’s an interesting book, full of clever ideas, word play, snappy patter, moments of action and suspense. It’s kind of like science fiction in a film noir or pulp mystery package. I didn’t find it obvious where one author left off and another began. As Greg Bear says in his intro, both Bester and Zelazny were like jazz musicians, improvising great riffs, and fascinating ideas at a rapid pace. What the book does lack for me is any emotional resonance. Alf is cool and calm no matter how strange things get, kind of like a film noir detective. I never felt he was in much danger, or that he was ever much worried. Adam and Nan seem equally in control in almost any situation. There are clever plot developments and mysteries unveiled as the book reaches a climax, but it all felt rather distant and uninvolving for the most part. I prefer characters that give me some reason to care about them, and these did not. It’s still worth reading for the performance of both authors as creators of cool ideas.