In many ways, 'This Immortal' is the antithesis of Frank Herbert's 'Dune', the novel with which it shared the Hugo Award in 1966. It's a fraction of its length, for a start, having been serialised a year earlier in slightly abridged form in only two editions of 'The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction', under the title of '...And Call Me Conrad'. It was also the debut novel of Roger Zelazny, who would win the Hugo for Best Novel outright only two years later.
However, it does carry some similarities. Most obviously, both books set an entire planet into the balance, in this case the Earth, with one man tasked with saving it, who may or may not be a god. Also, both novels play a great deal with religion and philosophy, albeit in very different ways. On another level entirely, both books were new to me in this project. I think I would have voted for 'Dune', had I been at Tricon in Cleveland, OH in 1966, but I think I've thought more about 'This Immortal' afterwards.
We're in the future and our planet has been devastated by nuclear war, the Three Days. What's left is a population of only four million, living in an island culture because the radiation is less on the islands. Compared to a typical post-apocalyptic wasteland, we're doing well, all things considered, but much of the Earth now belongs to an alien race from Vega, who treat it like a holiday home. One of them, Cort Myshtigo, is visiting and expects to be guided around the "old places".
Enter Conrad Nomikos, our narrator and something of a man of mystery. He's the immortal of the title, though we don't know for sure whether he's truly immortal or just long-lived. Certainly he appears a lot younger than an old man who is apparently his son. Much is said about him and some of it may or may not be true. He's called a kallikanzaros, a sort of goblin/troll spirit of mischief from Greek mythology. He's called by different names, which he may have used in the past. And he's the Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives for the planet Earth.
While we're not immediately sure what to think of Conrad, especially if we know what a kallikanzaros is, we're set up to see him as the good guy and Cort Myshtigo, the visiting blue-skinned Vegan, as the bad guy. Vegans like Earth women, we're told, and think everything on Earth has a price. Conrad doesn't want the job of escorting him around but has to take it anyway and it starts to puzzle him. Myshtigo isn't what he seems, though he can't tell how or why, and he becomes driven to defend this Vegan from assassination, even though the likely assassin is an old friend.
My Baen paperback only nudges past two hundred pages and the font size isn't small, but there's a heck of a lot here. However, I won't summarise things too far, not in fear of spoiling the novel but because the real story takes place in the gaps as much as it does the events we're guided through. Roger Zelazny writes in an impressionistic manner, showing us little things that together serve to build up the big picture.
He almost writes this as legend rather than novel, giving us one account of a pivotal moment in our history that would substantially match others, even if its details are different. A future historian comparing all the accounts would conjure a common truth out of them, which may or may not be true, but would shape our understanding of a time and a culture.
Little moments leap out like moments from accounts of the Trojan War or the Arabian Nights, albeit without any fighting skeletons. A man is possessed in Port-au-Prince by a death god during a voodoo ceremony. In Egypt, the locals are dismantling the pyramids to repurpose the stone. We witness an attack by boadile, a forty-foot-long creature with the head of a crocodile that rolls itself up into a ball. A quake destroys the island of Kos, home to Conrad's wife, presumed lost, and he goes briefly mad, raging with superhuman powers against a golem. None of these tell our story but they flavour it well.
Best of all is a twist that isn't really a twist but has the same effect as the best of them. Conrad realises quickly that there's something important about Cort Myshtigo that isn't obvious and, like him, we spend much of the novel trying to figure out what. We're eventually let in on the secret and it's a fantastic one. Once we have that big picture, we promptly reevaluate everything we've read and everything we've enjoyed feels all the better for now possessing the key to it all.
Roger Zelazny is new to me, though I have a stack of his books here in my library. 'This Immortal' seems like a good place to start an exploration of his work, as it's his debut novel, even if he had a string of short stories to his name prior to it. His next was 'The Dream Master', an expansion of a 1965 novella that became the 1984 movie, 'Dreamscape'. After that was 'Lord of Light', which I'll review in March, because it won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novel, without having to share it with anything.
Next month though, 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' by Robert A. Heinlein, my favourite novel of all time, which I've read often. Interestingly, it was on the ballot for the 1966 Hugo and lost to the two winners as a serialisation in 'If' but won as a published novel the following year. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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For more titles by Roger Zelazny click here