He began during the early days of the New Wave Science Fiction movement, in the mid 1960s, and while he never identified with that movement, he did share its interest in literary technique. He wrote in a style that veered wildly between the flowery prose of high fantasy and the mundane prose of everyday life—the former to give his readers a sense of wonder; the latter to draw them in and make them feel a part of the story, and, often, to add a touch of humor. Together with New Wave authors like Michael Moorcock, he helped redefine modern fantasy.
Early in his career, he developed a reputation for writing mythology-based SF. His first novel, This Immortal (originally, Call Me Conrad) borrowed from Greek Mythology, and Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness were based on Hindu and Egyptian Mythology, respectively. He quickly branched out into more general forms of Science Fantasy, while still relying heavily on archetypal themes, like the Tarot and the conflict with Chaos in The Chronicles of Amber. He did return to his mythological-SF roots with two later works: Eye of Cat (Native American Mythology), and The Mask of Loki (Norse Mythology).
Zelazny engaged in several collaborations, including works created with Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley and Alfred Bester. His last two novels, Donnerjack and Lord Demon, were completed posthumously by friend and mentee Jane Lindskold.
His Post-apocalyptic novel Damnation Alley lent its title (but little else) to a 1977 film. His short story "The Last Defender of Camelot" was adapted (by George R.R. Martin) for an episode of The New Twilight Zone.
For biographical details and analysis, see the analysis page.
Roger Zelazny's works with their own trope pages include:
- "Auto-da-Fé" (short story)
- The Chronicles of Amber
- Creatures of Light and Darkness
- Damnation Alley
- Dilvish, the Damned series
- Doorways in the Sand
- Jack of Shadows
- Lord of Light
- My Name Is Legion
- A Night in the Lonesome October
- "A Rose For Ecclesiastes" (novelette)
- This Immortal
Roger Zelazny's other works provide examples of:
- After the End: Several of his short stories, including "For a Breath I Tarry" and "The Stainless Steel Leech" among others, are set in various post-human worlds, amongst the robotic servants who have inherited the Earth.
- Animated Armor: Merlin's servitor in "The Last Defender of Camelot"
- Author Appeal: In quite a few books (The Chronicles of Amber and Lord of Light among them) people smoke a lot— usually cigarettes, sometimes a pipe. Zelazny was himself a heavy smoker until middle-age when he gave it up for health reasons. Whenever he got stuck as to where to go next, he would have a cigarette to think about things, and would put this activity into the text. When he stopped smoking during the second set of Amber books, he also stopped writing about his characters smoking.
- Author Existence Failure: Donnerjack and several other works were incomplete at his death. It is moving that Zelazny himself finished off several books of other authors who had died.
- Automated Automobiles: Devil Car, and other stories.
- Balance Between Good and Evil: The pantheon Zelazny created for Isle of the Dead and To Die in Italbar balances creative against destructive gods.
- Deus ex Machina: The bottle that Kai Wren creates at the start of Lord Demon has the power to grant him any three wishes. At first, he doesn't want to use it, preferring to solve his problems the old fashioned way, but when the fight starts turning against him, he uses the first wish to boot his enemies to their home dimension.
- Disappeared Dad: Sandow to his son; Oberon to Corwin; Corwin to Merlin. Zelazny's own father died early.
- Doomed Moral Victor: In the short story "The Keys to December", the main character's people are terraforming a world to fit them, since the only world they could live on was destroyed. The native lifeforms, under the new evolutionary pressure, evolve sentience and religion (worshiping the main character as he awakes every 250 years and patrols the world to see how the terraforming is going). He realizes that they cannot evolve further and, after failing to convince his people to stop or slow the terraforming, leads his believers in a rebellion. Finally, he and his main rival agree to put the question to a vote of their people—as the main character says, if he loses, "I'll retire and you can be God." He loses, and lives out his life as the God of the presumably now-doomed people.
- Excited Show Title!: "Horseman!"
- Friend to All Living Things: Justified for Francis Sandow, on the planets whose ecosystems he designed. It's a plot point in one novel when an animal is frightened of him, since it means he's entering enemy territory, and identifies him in a short story.
- Human Popsicle: In Permafrost characters are frozen solid and remain... alive.
- Humanity's Wake: For a Breath I Tarry is set in a post-human world inhabited by our robotic servants. They regard mankind as godlike figures from a golden age.
- Inn Between the Worlds: Psychoshop (written with Alfred Bester) has a similar nature, but instead of a bar, it's a sort of pawnshop, "where you can dump any unwanted aspect of your spirit as long as you exchange it for something else".
- Journey to the Center of the Mind: He Who Shapes, see the main text.
- Lightspeed Leapfrog: The backstory of Francis Sandow from Isle of the Dead. He couldn't find his place on Earth and joined the first interstellar expedition on a sleeper ship. Then he found the hard way he wasn't fit to be a colonist, thus he joined the first passing ship that had a vacancy. And then he kept joining new expeditions to run to the farthest border. After over 6 centuries he found that borders outran him:I made one more trip to get away, and it was already too late. People were suddenly all over the place, intelligent aliens were contacted, interstellar trips were matters of weeks and months, not centuries.
- The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: Psychoshop, a remarkably mobile shop where you pawn elements of your mind!
- Mechanical Horse: Bronze from Creatures of Light and Darkness. Also, more distantly, the Brass Baboon in Donnerjack.
- Mugging the Monster: "The Last Defender of Camelot" begins with a trio of muggers picking on a harmless-looking old man who turns out to be the last surviving Knight of the Round Table — and not just any knight, but Sir Launcelot du Lac, who never lost a fight in his entire life.
- Plot Coupon: Inverted in Forever After.
- Psychic Powers: Coils (1980), by Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen, features a whole team of psychics selected by a Corrupt Corporate Executive because of their mental powers. These include a female telepath, a bio-PK (a former faith-healer who can heal or kill with his mind), a female telekinetic, and the protagonist, a machine empath who can control machines and "dive" into the global computer network.
- Public-Domain Character: Merlin, Sir Launcelot and Morgan Le Fay in "The Last Defender of Camelot"
- Really 700 Years Old: Many characters.
- Sophisticated as Hell: In Lord Demon, the title character Kai Wren meets an Irish Sidhe. After exchanging the appropriately formal official greetings, Kai Wren tells the Sidhe his name. The response? "Lord Demon? Holy shit!"
- Talking Your Way Out: Characters are often very chatty — a feature that saves the skin of more than one of them.
- Venus Is Wet: The Doors Of His Face, The Lamps Of His Mouth is an early example of a deliberately retro Venus, with oceans containing monstrous fish.
- We Can Rule Together: Subverted in "The Last Defender of Camelot"; the villain admits that he never expected to have Launcelot join him, and was only saying it out of spite.
- What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: The demons in Lord Demon can't truly feel it, nor can they truly hate. Except main character Kai Wren.