Creatures of Light and Darkness

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Creatures of Light and Darkness
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author Roger Zelazny
Cover artist James Starrett
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 187 pp
ISBN 0-575-07344-6

Creatures of Light and Darkness is a 1969 science fiction novel by Roger Zelazny. Long out of print, it was reissued in April 2010.

Plot introduction[edit]

The novel is set in the far future, with humans on many worlds. Some have god-like powers, or perhaps are gods — the names and aspects of various Egyptian Gods are used. Elements of horror and technology are mixed, and it has points in common with Cyberpunk.

Creatures of Light and Darkness was originally conceived and written as nothing more than a writing exercise in perspective by Roger Zelazny.[1] He wrote it in present tense, constructed an entire chapter in poetry, and made the concluding chapter into the script of a play. He never intended it to be published, but when Samuel R. Delany heard about it from Zelazny, Delany convinced a Doubleday editor to demand that Zelazny give him the manuscript.[2] Consequently, Zelazny dedicated the novel to Delany.

Unlike other books by Zelazny, such as Lord of Light or the series The Chronicles of Amber, this novel is more poetic in style, and contains less straightforward action. However, like other novels, Zelazny incorporates ancient myth, in this case from Egyptian and some Greek myth, and weaves ultra-futuristic technology with fantasy elements.

Plot summary[edit]


The Universe was once ruled by the god Thoth, who administered the different forces in the Universe to keep things in balance. In time, he delegated this administration to his "Angels" (other god-like beings), who were each in charge of different "stations", or forces in the Universe. Such stations included the House of the Dead, the House of Life, the House of Fire, and so on.

At some point, Thoth had awakened a dormant, malevolent force on a distant planet. This dark force, called the Thing That Cries In The Night, is so powerful and malevolent that it nearly obliterated Thoth's wife and threatens to consume the galaxy. Thoth works to contain and destroy the creature, and in so doing, neglects his duties in maintaining the Universe. The Angels become rebellious and use the power vacuum to fight amongst themselves for dominance

Thoth's son Set, who through an anomaly in Time is also his father, fights the creature across a devastated planet. Just as Set is about to destroy the creature, he is attacked by the Angel Osiris, who unleashes the Hammer That Smashes Suns, a powerful weapon that nearly kills Set and the creature. Thoth's brother, Typhon, who was helping Set in the battle, vanishes without a trace and is presumed dead. (Typhon appears as a black horse-shadow, without a horse to cast it. He contains within himself something called Skagganauk Abyss, which resembles a black hole, not a term in common use at the time.)

The Thing That Cries In The Night survived the blast, and so Thoth, who has meanwhile been utterly overthrown by his Angels, has no choice but to contain the dark force until he can find a way to destroy it. He also revives the personality of his wife and keeps her safe on a special world known only to him, where the seas are above the atmosphere, not below them. He also scatters Set's weapons and armor across the Universe for safe-keeping in the event that Set can ever be found. Having been overthrown, he is now dubbed The Prince Who Was A Thousand by all in the Universe.

Some of the surviving Angels either hide among the peoples of the Universe as mysterious "immortals", but others—Osiris and Anubis—take over the House of Life and the House of Death, respectively. Other stations are abandoned, and Osiris and Anubis are the only two powers in the Universe now. Osiris cultivates life where he can, while Anubis works to destroy it. Plenty and famine, proliferation and plague, overpopulation and annihilation, alternate in the Worlds of Life between the two Stations, much to the detriment of those who inhabit them.


The geography of this universe contains several curious places:

  • The House of Life, ruled by Osiris, contains a room in which Osiris has reduced various people in his past into furnishings. These furnishings can speak (or scream) via wall-mounted speakers.
    • A skull (with brain) for a paperweight.
    • An enemy whose nervous system is woven into a rug. Osiris enjoys jumping on the rug.
  • In the House of the Dead, numerous dead people of the Six Intelligent Races lie on invisible catafalques until Anubis requires them to go through the motions of pleasure—eating, drinking, dancing, making love—without any real enjoyment. Anubis likes to watch. He also stages fights between champions from the Six Races: sometimes the victor gets a job—and a name.
  • The planet Blis is filled to bursting with people who are inexhaustibly fertile and do not know death: the whole planet is covered with 14 interlocking cities. Indeed, one man agrees to commit suicide in front of an audience, for money to be given to his family, because most people on Blis have never seen a death. He does so by self-immolation, after receiving the Possibly Proper Death Litany (also called the Agnostic's Prayer).
  • On fog-shrouded D'donori, warlords raid each other solely to capture prisoners, who will be vivisected by the town scrier, or augur. By examining their entrails, he predicts the future and answers questions.
  • On an unnamed planet, the sea is above the atmosphere. Here, the Prince Who Was a Thousand keeps Nephytha, his wife, who was disembodied and cannot survive on a normal planet. Here also, a green saurian frolics in the autumn mist.
  • In a cave, a dog worries a glove that has seen better centuries. The three-headed canine is apparently Cerberus.
  • On another planet, drug-maddened spearmen protect and castrated priests worship a pair of old shoes.


Most of the characters have the names and some of the features of Egyptian gods. But Typhon belongs in Greek mythology and was a fire-breathing dragon rather than a dark horse-shadow. Norns are Norse and weavers of fate rather than smiths. The Steel General and other minor characters have no obvious mythological source. The Steel General has elements of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but is more intended as a Che Guevara like figure, a rebel who selflessly fights injustice everywhere, on the side of the weak, against the powerful.

Typhon also contains or controls Skagganauk Abyss, which is described in the chapter "Master of the House of the Dead" as "a bottomless hole that is not a hole. It is a gap in the fabric of space itself." This resembles a Black Hole, a concept first described in 1916, though the term itself was not coined until 1967 and only gradually became the standard name. This would make it an early instance of black holes in fiction.


The novel is dedicated "To Chip Delany, Just Because".

In one scene, a "scrier" (or augur) tries to read the future by disemboweling and examining the entrails of a captive taken in a raid, who just happens to be a professional rival. He misses an important detail, and his victim screams, "They are my innards! I will not have them misread by a poseur!"

Wakim, later revealed to be Set the Destroyer, seeks the gear he lost a thousand years ago. One item (which has seen better centuries) is currently hidden in a cave and guarded by a three-headed dog.

Osiris has reduced various old enemies, lovers, and others to elementary forms. He holds the skull (and brain) of a former lover in his hands. She taunts him until he throws her skull against the wall, smashing it and giving his victim release from further torment.

Osiris has captured another enemy and woven his nervous system into the fabric of a rug. He amuses himself by jumping up and down on it, listening to the screams of his victim via loudspeakers on the walls.

The blind Norns, the best smiths in the universe, await the arrival of Thoth, for whom they have built the Star Wand, a powerful weapon. Their fee: artificial eyes, which Thoth will install himself, because he is a skilled surgeon. He is also a skilled anesthetist. Unfortunately, the Norns are physiologically incapable of unconsciousness, so each begs to be operated on last. There is considerable screaming. After each Norn receives his new eyes, he lovingly regards his tools, until his neighbors, envious of his advantage, blind him, as is their legal right.

The Steel General (like the Tin Woodsman) has had his organic body replaced with stainless steel, but wears a ring made from his last hide of skin. He has alternated many times between flesh and metal: in flesh phases, he wears a steel ring, from his last metal skin; in metal phases, he wears a leather ring made from his last organic skin. He rides an eight-legged mechanical horse with diamond hooves, and plays a banjo. He is the spirit of rebellion, which can never be killed.

The Steel General, Set, and some others practice a novel martial art called temporal fugue. A fighter, seeing that his enemy is ready to attack, projects himself behind his enemy—in both space and time—to strike him from behind. Of course, the enemy does the same thing. When both warriors use the technique, recursively, things get complicated. Each character is replicated over a hundredfold, at various times in the past and future, thus putting a considerable strain on the space-time continuum.

The Agnostic's Prayer[edit]

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to ensure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

This prayer, also called the Possibly Proper Death Litany, is uttered by one of the main characters, Madrak, to shrive a man about to commit suicide for money (given to his family).

The Agnostic's Prayer is cited by Larry Niven in his short story "What Can You Say About Chocolate-Covered Manhole Covers", where it is used as the sacrament in a formal divorce ceremony.


Algis Budrys gave Creatures an uneasily positive review, praising its "rich, satisfactory detail and really moving human interplay," but warning that its unusual narrative technique "will probably baffle and infuriate" many readers.[3] James Blish, however, found the novel "a flat failure," even though "Some parts are evocative in the authentic and unique Zelazny manner." He particularly faulted Zelazny's decision to end Creatures as a scene from a play, but "a scene which absolutely demands straightforward, standard narrative and for which the playscript is the worst possible choice."[4]

Publisher's error[edit]

At the time the novel was published, Doubleday did not remainder its unsold science fiction when its sales cycle was complete; instead, it simply destroyed the unsold copies. After Creatures was issued in paperback, Doubleday mishandled its inventory, causing most of the print run of Zelazny's next novel, the just-published Nine Princes in Amber, to be destroyed in error.[5]


  1. ^ "...And Call Me Roger"": The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 2, by Christopher S. Kovacs. In: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 2: Power & Light, NESFA Press, 2009.
  2. ^ "...And Call Me Roger"": The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 2, by Christopher S. Kovacs. In: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 2: Power & Light, NESFA Press, 2009.
  3. ^ "Galaxy Bookshelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1969, pp.141-42
  4. ^ "Books," F&SF, April 1970, p. 49-51
  5. ^ "...And Call Me Roger": The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 3, by Christopher S. Kovacs. In: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 3: This Mortal Mountain, NESFA Press, 2009.
  • Levack, Daniel J. H. (1983). Amber Dreams: A Roger Zelazny Bibliography. San Francisco: Underwood/Miller. pp. 25–26. ISBN 0-934438-39-0. 

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