Thursday, November 15, 2007

Review - This Immortal

This Immortal
by Roger Zelazny

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that 1966 is the single most complicated year in Hugo history. Besides being the first tie there's a lot of oddities surrounding the awards that year (and consequently 1967 as well). Let me spell out the nominees in 1966 for you:

Dune by Frank Herbert (winner)
"...And Call Me Conrad" by Roger Zelazny (winner)
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
The Squares of the City by John Brunner
Skylark DuQuesne by Doc E. E. Smith

You might spot three things wrong with this list. First, Dune has already been nominated in 1964 as "Dune World" when it was originally published. It was on the ballot because the novella and additional material which was published the following year had been collected into one volume. If you think it isn't fair that Dune got two shots at the prize you'll note that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress lost in 1966 but was on the ballot again in 1967 when it won. The final, and perhaps most obvious for this review, is that the award winner is not This Immortal which I'm reviewing but is instead "...And Call Me Conrad".

"...And Call Me Conrad" has the unique distinction of being the only best novel Hugo winner never published as a book. The original Roger Zelazny story was published in the 1965 October and November issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the year is not a discrepancy; Hugo nominees are selected from material published the previous year) and has never been printed anywhere else. After winning Zelazny increased the size of the novella by a third so it could be published alone but changed the title to This Immortal which is the only version you will find available. So This Immortal is built on the novella that won the Hugo but it is not the actual Hugo winning work.

1966 was the last year where this could happen since starting next year more categories for short fiction were introduced including novellas. Thanks to the efforts of Isaac Asimov none of those works including the novellas are that difficult to obtain; after "...And Call Me Conrad" you have to go to 1995 before reaching a Hugo winning work that has not been collected at least once (more on that tomorrow).

So that's the background, let's get to the book.

My favorite Roger Zelazny book is the one with the immortal, sardonic first-person narrator who sweats machismo and goes on an adventure. The best part is when he starts fighting with the guy who's kind of like him but the fight gets interrupted and then they work out their differences over a snappy conversation.

Zelazny wrote those plot elements very well but he did wear that rut fairly deeply into the ground. This Immortal was his first long work and it was done while this was still fresh. It's not the best time that he wrote this book (we'll get to that in a few weeks) but it is still a fine example of it.

The immortal in This Immortal is a mutant born on an earth after a nuclear war. Shortly after the war broke out an alien species swept in to save humanity from itself and now the Earth is almost completely depopulated. A few million humans remain and the planet has become a tourist resort for the aliens. The remaining humans bristle under the alien guardianship while expatriotated humans wish to leave the Earth behind forever. Our immortal first-person narrator Conrad is the guardian of Earth's cultural ruins and he is given the unwelcome task of giving a guided tour of them to an alien VIP who has great influence over the final fate of the planet.

Curiously the narrative thread of the novel stalls out quickly. There's a quick visit to Egypt with the hint of a conspiracy before the whole thing moves to Greece where the tours of Earth's ruins just seems to be forgotten. Once in Greece the focus shifts to the Greek myths being reborn as a result of the nuclear war. Satyrs roam the hills, worse things dwell in the dark forests, and Conrad might as well be a Greek demigod. It's an interesting idea but I don't think Zelazny pushes far enough with this idea. On the other hand, given his preference for certain themes it's probably for the best that he didn't rerun this too deeply as well; Zelazny may have studied mythology but with one exception I don't think it meshes well with his beat-poet writing style.

One odd thing that struck me in This Immortal is that Conrad doesn't hide the fact that he's immortal. He's been doing his job for decades without aging at the start of the novel and while he's older than most people realize they do know that he doesn't age. It's quite a difference from the traditional science fiction immortal who are paranoid about revealing their unaging status.

Something that may drive away some readers from This Immortal is the fact that a major character is a semi-reformed terrorist. Not just a vandal but an actual "Let's blow up a cafe full of civilians!" terrorist. When those methods didn't instigate changes this character switched to more peaceful tactics. Zelazny does do some examination of what is needed to drive political change through this but current readers may find it distasteful.

Zelazny strikes me as a kind of science fiction Hemingway; his stories are packed with macho men working in that kind of manly code of honor that only exists in fiction. They might be fighting to death one minute but once they've sat down and had a few drinks together they gain a mutual respect. They're supermen but it's their wits that usually carry the day rather than how they fight (though that inevitably comes in handy as well). He also carries off these macho themes with style and prose that prevented his works from sinking into a self-parody. He had a gift for dialog rarely seen in science fiction even if he stuck to only writing the same handful of characters.

If you like Roger Zelazny at all then I'd have to say that This Immortal is worth reading. It's a slight work but it is entertaining. On the other hand if you have not encountered Zelazny's style before then this isn't the place to start; the rough edges are still there and his best work is so similar in theme and style to This Immortal that I think it loses impact as a result.