Once again enjoying some vintage science fiction, I finished up This Immortal by Roger Zelazny (1937 – 1995). It is the first Zelazny that I have read, I think (unless I’ve come upon some short fiction that I have forgotten about). This is such an odd novel I actually feel bad for anyone reading this review because I feel like my review will be scattered and swirly. Sorry about that in advance.
The first thing to mention is the publishing history of the work. Originally, This Immortal was …And Call Me Conrad and was published in two parts in issues (October and November) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I think the first collected, novel-edition of the work was released by ACE in July 1966 under the title This Immortal. I read the 1981 ACE edition with the Rowena Morrill cover. If you look at the cover of the edition I read, you see in the upper right the words: THE HUGO WINNING NOVEL……
….because this novel won the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, which was presented in Cleveland in September of 1966. Some readers just read that line and felt no significance whatsoever and briefly wondered why I am giving them a boring history lesson. Some other readers thought something like, “Wait, what? 1966… Are you sure?” and the most precise of readers said, “Oh! I know where you are going with this! Hahaha!”
….because, actually, this novel tied for first in the Hugo Award for Best Novel. The novel that it shared the win with is none other than Dune by Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986).
Dune is not an easy read. It is subversive and complex and at its heart, it is a space opera. It has layers and agendas and ideas. Readers could complain about how slow it reads or how involved it is. Or even its often derivative elements making it seem very borrowed-ish. And then there is This Immortal, which is so obviously different in many ways. Frankly, I cannot lie, I do not see how Zelazny’s novel competes. I am not saying that it does not have merit, but sheesh, even if you hate Dune, how is This Immortal a tie with it? Now, one thing I do not want this review to turn into is a comparison-contrast piece pitting the two against one another again.
Zelazny wrote a novel with some deep, heavy ideas in such a breezy and pulpy manner that it, I think, does somewhat of a disservice to itself. At the same time, I really do not know if Zelazny could have written it differently, say, in order to not be so utterly flippant and almost wispy with the weighty things. The problem with being breezy and wispy is that I am willing to bet that the majority of readers are unable to pick up on all of the neat connections and “Easter eggs” and such. One of the biggest demands is that the reader be familiar with Greek mythology and culture – and the familiarity is not one from a glossary or a handbook on ancient Greece. The familiarity has to come from study, schooling, and honestly, years of letting that stuff ferment and simmer in one’s mental slow-cooker. Here’s the first line:
“You are a kallikanzaros,” she announced suddenly.
Of course this was sudden, I doubt there is any other way of stating such a thing to someone. Anyway, the novel is off and running at this point. For a good quarter of the novel, the dialogue keeps a breezy, choppy flow to it. It is the style that one would find in noir crime novels and/or pulp fiction novels. Another example of this writing would be John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stuff. Snappy and sarcastic and never taking anything seriously. Everything said with a shot glass in hand and tongue-in-cheek, because the state of the world is so bad that we certainly cannot take it seriously.
The main character is the Commissioner of the Earthoffice Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives. Its after the “Three Days,” which is presumably when the massive bad event occurred (one suspects it involved nuclear destruction). The Earth’s main continent lands are destroyed and the population, such as it is, lives on islands. There are Hot Spots (likely radiation-filled zones) and a whole lot of mutated and deranged creatures that roam Earth. There are aliens, too, the Vegans, and a Sprung-Samser medical treatment, and a Vite-Stats Register. No details on any of these things whatsoever. Accept them at face value and build them however you, as a science fiction reader, would like.
The main character is recalled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to join a social event and be assigned as a tour guide to a visiting alien. All very farcical and strange. So, a motley crew of whomever gets assembled to tour around with the alien – the alien wanting to go to various places to research a book or something that he is creating. The world has gone to rot and those of us left are having theatre productions and drunken social mixers and we are all going to pop out on the skimmers with the Commissioner and the alien to see how ravaged our world is. Also, someone invited the super famous assassin to the social party.
They set off to visit a voodoo ritual – like, a pre-cursor event before they start the actual tour. It is as weird as it sounds. I have no idea why this scene is in a novel. Bored rich folk visit voodoo shrine before they tour radiated Cairo; probably alien’s fault.
This theme of a mobile social gala continues throughout the entire book – even in the most pulpy and action-scene segments. Very much the story felt, to me, like those British novels wherein the upper-middle class packs their bags and their Baedekers and travelled to Florence and Athens and the “coast.” Instead of sedate tourism, though, there are several incidents of savage violence and mayhem in a post-apolocalyptic setting. Literally, at one point, the alien sets up an easel and is painting a river scene and then everyone gets attacked by a mutant crocodile. Drama and intrigue and pulpy action all in one scene.
The weirdest scenes include one that is along the road to Volos in which a fifty-meter clearing is nearby and things get super bizarre because they see a satyr and the biologist wants to shoot it, but instead the main character (kallikanzaros, remember?) starts playing a shepherd’s pipe and more goat things appear. A strange 1960s interlude of weirdness.
Another dip into the insane is the whole segment wherein the group gets captured and there is a obese albino and Procrustes shows up and fighting and what in the ever-living-heck is this crap about? One wonders if Zelazny just felt like writing while inebriated or if he wrote scenes just to weave some weird ancient Greek mythology into them or if some editor demanded pulp action scenes. Whatever the case may be, these are basically absurdist and once overlayed on the frustrated, apathetic social gathering that is filled with ennui and motives – it just deflates the whole effort.
Constantly the novel is filled with allusions and hints and name-dropping and metaphors that display Zelazny’s interest and knowledge of ancient Greek (and other) mythologies. However, instead of peppering and simmering, he just dumps the whole spicy bottle into the stew and we get heavy-handed writing with no plot and stupid characters. For example, Cassandra – if you can believe it – is here. Why? I honestly do not know. A lot of the book actually involves her in some way, but why? At the end of the thing, I have no idea why this character is even here except maybe to fill the final scene with that happy all-wrapped-up easy peasy action novel ending. (Cassandra with a high-powered rifle is a painting I want on my walls, though.)
Overall, the novel wants you to like it and as a reader I really wanted to, as well. So engaging and breezy, but ultimately ridiculous and stupid. It is really quite like taking the well-worn concept of “humans do not treat their planet well” and then turning it into some Edwardian/ancient Greek farce. What did Zelazny want to do with this? He did not know, either, I think. Its mid-1960s sentiment with some leftover 1940s pulp. Good luck, readers.