Roadmarks’ original title was “The Last Exit to Babylon”, but the publisher declined it, so it became a part of the cover illustration instead. One of the best-known novels by Zelazny, Roadmarks is a rather short and seemingly unprepossessing, ending in less than 200 pages. As do most of Zelazny’s books, one might add ;). Roger Zelazny, as befits a poet, was a great believer in succinctness. Forget 700-pages bricks in hardcover, suitable mostly for beating somebody to death with them. If you want to read his works you will need to be content with stories tightly bound in a very limited amount of choice words.
The structure of this book is somewhat baffling at first – it starts with chapter “Two”, followed by “One” and then by another “Two”, and so on, right to the end. The names of the chapters have nothing to do with chronological order, they are just two perspectives on the events happening in this book: “One” follows the fate of the main protagonist, Red Dorakeen, while “Two” shows us jumbled in time vignettes of other Roadmarks characters: from Randy, Red’s son, through a bunch of all-time assassins, to a left-over alien killing machine currently engaged in the art of pottery, and finally to dragons. Apparently Zelazny wrote all “Twos” and then shuffled them and inserted each between the chronologically structured “Ones” in this new, chaotic way. It was supposed to serve as a physical reminder that on the Road there’s no such thing as timeline – whether successful or not, that is the reader’s decision.
Back to dragons. Yes, the cover artists got that right. It doesn’t seem like it at first, as for more than half a book there’s not even a sign of a dragon, but they do appear, and they do matter.
After this lengthy intro, why not introduce the content ;)? The reason I delayed so much is that it’s difficult to say much about Roadmarks without spoiling the surprise. The blurb on the cover lets us believe that we in front of us an action adventure of reckless gun smugglers with ability to move in time. It’s true, but only to a degree. Red Dorakeen does plan to smuggle gun to the Greeks at Marathon, to ensure their victory over Persians. But it’s really just a beginning. Roadmarks is a novel about a road. The Road, to be precise, the only road that matters – a time line, a highway in time allowing certain gifted individuals to travel back and forth between different times, different places, alternate histories.
Dorakeen travels the road since he can remember. His only companion is an artificial intelligence hidden between the covers of Baudelaire’s “The Flowers of Evil”. Actually, it’s his second AI companion; the first one, embodied in the Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, Red left behind when it/she became unbearable. “Leaves” have been picked up by someone else… But Red has now much more pressing problems: his former business partner decides to sent after him a black decade – a posse of assassins, the best he can afford – and he’s extremely wealthy. Among them are Archie Shellman, a cyborg, formerly “the most decorated soldier in World War III and a master of the martial arts”, Max, a XXIV-th century brain set in an armored vehicle, and Timyin Tin, a Buddhist-like monk who had been brainwashed in an effort to eliminate the lethal traits of his personality. Roadmarks is full of little allusions to the works of popular – and not so popular – culture, populated with real and pulp-fiction characters, such as Marquis de Sade, enamored of a cloned Tyrannosaurus Rex; Adolf Hitler, “still looking for a place where he won”; John Sunlight from Doc Savage novels; Jack the Ripper, and many more.
But what is this novel really about? I’d say it’s a slightly atypical road trip plot, both literally and metaphorically: it’s about one’s growth and change through experience. It’ also about one’s roots: Zelazny’s favorite, all-pervading theme of relations between a father and a son, the lost-father figure, the question of one’s forgotten or unknown past – they’re also here.
It’s a slightly melancholic book; a poetic paean to the American roads, clean and empty and never-ending; to the horizon, always being tantalizingly close, but yet ever out of reach; to the multitude of choices, seen as the roads converging and diverging from the nexuses – the people making each choice, the moments in time when each choice is made. It’s build of short impressions, alternated with broad, impressive visions of different pasts and futures. The Road becomes much more than just a setting – it becomes a way of life, a worldview, a message.
But Roadmarks is also funny. There are many moments ranging from humorous to ironic, to outright absurd, such as de Sade breaking out to take control over a live, full-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex, or a fight between two of the assassins, ensuing to determine which of them will get the chance to personally kill Red. At the same time Zelazny’s novel can be poignant – full of cameos of people still looking for the right past, for their own, more friendly place in some alternate reality.
That said, I closed the book with a sense of something missing. I wanted a conclusion to Red’s story; instead I got, very much like in life, only a part of it. A promise of future, a glass half full. It has to be enough now, as Zelazny’s not gonna write anything else, but one can always wish for a more complete ending ;).