Leaving lost Vegans

"... and call me Conrad!"

“… and call me Conrad!”

Starting the new year with an old book, a band of hardy Beamers braved the winter chills and avoided any spills to make it to our favorite bookstore, Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, to discuss This Immortal by Roger Zelazny.  A slender volume stuffed with various Greek delights, it was bulked up from an original serialized novella.  But, it kept much of its lean, mean fighting spirit and provided us with a quick if lightweight reading experience.     

And the Winner is … It’s a Tie!

Coming from the mid-1960s, This Immortal completes its story in relatively few pages (174 in my Gollancz edition).  Being so short, it caught us by surprise to learn that it had tied Frank Herbert’s monument to ecological understanding, Dune, for the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, as Donna revealed.  Nick, who is not much of a fan of Herbert’s complicated universe (being unhappy not to have found the glossary until he had finished Dune), could understand how fans might have enjoyed the rapid pace and less taxing nature of This Immortal, even with its somewhat obscure mythology references.  Still, he would have voted for the superior writing and worldbuilding of Herbert’s masterpiece.

The Way the Future Was

One comment that Donna noted in reviews of the Zelazny work was that it had dated less well than the Herbert.  That observation intrigued me, as I did not see much in the book that was showing its age, aside from the usual obsolete “future” tech that inevitably litters our sf classics.  The post-apocalyptic scenario, here called The Three Days, was what drew the comments, relying as it does (or so we infer) on a Cold War gone hot with a nuclear exchange wiping out much of Earth’s civilization and population.  And, as ubiquitous as such doomsdays were (I mentioned the Twenty Minute War that sets up the post-apocalypse of Edgar Pangborn’s Davy, which I recently read), they are certainly a bit out-of-date for our current world politics.

Otherwise, though, we did not single out elements of the book as seeming old-fashioned.  I thought, for example, that the female characters were fairly strong and active, with most of them verbally sparring with Conrad, our immortal, and often winning the argument, or at least proving their point.

174 Pages, No Waiting!

The book, though, is chock full of incidents and oddities, being an “actioner” as Nick put it.  Which was not always to its credit, as Donna found the three major fight scenes to be a bit too long and involved to keep her focused on the story.  I thought that the fight scenes, particularly the duel, maintained a lot of suspense at the cost of a minimum of violence, but Donna was more concerned with what she felt was the tedium of descriptions of repeated blows, for no good effect in advancing the story.  At least the characters never took up fencing, I offered, where authors often pour out loving and technically involved move-by-move breakdowns.

Better, though, was the novel’s ability to spread out its action among its various characters, preventing Conrad from becoming too overbearing as yet-another Chosen One.   Zelazny likes to base his books on mythologies (Hindu in Lord of Light, Egyptian in Creatures of Light and Darkness), and here he uses not only Greek myth (with satyrs and kallikantzaroi and hellhounds) but also Haitian vodoun (perhaps inspiring Gibson’s use of vodoun figures in his seminal cyberpunk of the 1980s).

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins …

On the other hand, it was hard to say to what end the book was moving.  As Alan noted, it did not end so much as stop, with the Vegan visitor, Cort Myshtigo, deciding to cancel his Grand Tour and head home after sundry adventures around a few selected locales.  It felt, as Alan quoted one of the novel’s characters, that the journey, not the destination, was the point, and so any place would work as the stopping point.  As Liz commented, the finish may come as a surprise, but it was a fair surprise that Zelazny had worked to make the reader accept, with small touches about Myshtigo’s grandfather being a Vegan enthusiast for Earth.

Even with that, it did leave us with a lot of loose ends and unresolved character features, like Conrad’s “pseudo-telepathy” and whether it made any difference to the plot, or how the voodun possession of the assassin, Hasan, altered his role in any way.  Cinematic, yes, but necessary?  We could not see it.  And what would Conrad “inheriting” the Earth really mean?  Would any of the other survivors understand or accept it?  (Cf. the Louisiana Purchase and the Native Americans who were living on it.)

Canine Ex Machina?

Worse were the occasional plot holes, like the too convenient return of Conrad’s armor-plated mutant hound, Bortan, who apparently was wandering lost in the Greek hills despite the nearby village of Conrad’s relatives or the fact that his son, Jason, herded goats up there as well.  I saw the obvious parallels that Zelazny was making to The Odyssey (Odysseus returns to Ithaca in disguise, recognized only by the old shepherd and by his faithful hound), but Alan rightly called it for scoring metafictional points but losing them on the straight narrative level.

Still, the mention of a visit to watch the alien spiderbats return to Capistrano had Liz and me laughing, and Donna loved the shout-out to Judy Garland’s Trolley Song (“Puff, puff, puff, went the Vegan.  Damn, damn, damn, went my thought-strings”), and Alan was pleased to find out that Zelazny used the same edition of Fraser’s The Golden Bough, containing the exact same page references.

When All is Said and (Almost) Done

But, while we might not have voted for it, we did not begrudge This Immortal its Hugo.  It certainly does not embarrass us as a book that has overstayed its welcome, nor does it require more time to read it than it is worth.  Even if it does not hit with the impact of a 9.6 Richter scale earthquake (like the one in the book that apparently kills Cassandra, Conrad’s wife), it at least amuses and diverts and occasionally provokes a deeper thought about the nature of ownership and colonialism and disaster relief efforts (kindly meant or otherwise).

[Postscript: Missing member Edward found that the unexpected connection of This Immortal to Dune sparked a few unexpected parallels in his thoughts: “First, they both deal with the effects of colonialism.  Second, their protagonists are both mythic messianic types.  Oh, third, they both feature sand at some point…”]

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4 Comments

  1. “Being so short” — well, almost ALL SF of that era was that short… Dune and works like John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar are very much the exceptions.

    • Eugene R.

      Serialized publication was one technique to get around the shortness of published sf, as with long-running “future histories” like Asimov’s Foundation stories, or Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (originally serialized as a 2-parter called “Starship Soldier” in F&SF and hitting 263 pages in print).

      Even with that approach, though, the abruptness of the ending in This Immortal seems to emphasize the shortness of the tale. Your mileage may vary.

      • You’re lecturing the choir. But yes, definitely.

      • I have a strange love of This Immortal. Perhaps the unusual narrator….

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