Drat! Zelazny did it again! Or, to be precise, he did it in 1966 for the first time – winning a Hugo Award for his debut novel This Immortal in a tie in with Herbert’s Dune. Dune is known by almost everyone. It has a new, beautiful edition lovingly done by Folio Society, several movies based on its premises, etc. And what about This Immortal? It’s not even the most popular of Zelazny’s books, or best known – these titles probably go to the Amber series, or Lord of Light. I put This Immortal on my TBR list only after I found that Zelazny himself considered this novel as one of his favorites (along Lord of Light, A Night in Lonesome October, and two others – the list can be found here).
It’s a small, unprepossessing book less than 200 pages long (precisely 174 pages). Compared with most modern books it almost seems like a novelette, not a full-fledged novel. But don’t be misled by its length. One important thing about Zelazny is that he was first a poet. He excelled in short forms, and the majority of his novels is rather succinct. However, in no way does it affect their value or their deeply ingrained poetry. Zelazny was a master of words.
And this is exactly the case of This Immortal. The book was the first in a series of Zelazny ‘s very successful and original attempts at reinterpreting myths – from Greek mythology through Hindu and Buddhist, to Egyptian. The new spin, the new life Zelazny gave those myths underscores the importance of the story itself – in a very structuralist fashion. I’m sure Claude Lévy-Strauss would have been thrilled :).
This Immortal is a science-fiction novel. The Earth had been ravaged in a three-day nuclear war. Most of the planet became uninhabitable. Most of its human population escaped to stars, where an alien race of blue-skinned, noticeably more civilized Vegans decided to help them. Of those who stayed many have been severely mutated, along with the wildlife. The dogs have been extinct. The mainland is haunted by beasts and monsters. Fauns walk the earth spotted with vampiric flowers. Mermaids with a foretelling gift swim the seas, and the mainland Greece is raided by the nearly mythical Black Beast of Thessaly. There are Hot Places, where the radioactivity is still, years after the war, lethal.
This world is home to Conrad Nomikos, a mysterious rouge and a charming rascal, the likes of which Zelazny was such an unrivalled master of creation. Conrad goes toe to toe with Corwin and Sam, and for a good reason which I’m not going to divulge here ;). Suffice to say that Conrad has been known under many names before. He’s very strong and cunning, passionate and lazy, and nearly immortal. He’s not a pretty boy; very hairy and almost freakishly tall, with mismatched eyes and a fungus covering half of his face, with one leg shorter than the other… No, not a pretty sight. And yet, women flock to him. Animal magnetism or something such, or maybe just the pull of his personality :P. He’s being called kallikanzaros by his wife in the opening sentence – and that really sets the scene for the story. Kallikantzaros, the Christmas-born, devil-like goblin from the Balkan mythology, who for most part of the year wickedly saws at the world tree in an attempt to destroy the world. Is Conrad, too, a product of mutation? Or maybe his immortality comes from a different, more divine source? Readers will wonder to the last pages, trying to rake up their knowledge of Greek mythology for a good match for Nomikos. It’s there, I assure you 😉 As Conrad says,
Greece is lousy with legend, fraught with menace.
He is a very strong presence, made even stronger by the first-person narrative Zelazny employs in This Immortal. But the supporting cast backs him up very well – from Cassandra, Nomikos’s wife, who shares with her namesake the difficult talent of seeing the future and not being believed by others; through Phil Graber, the last decent poet on Earth, the have-been great talent who should have died young but didn’t, old and bitter and courageous and loyal; through the friendly neighborhood mad scientist George; through the blue-skinned, contemptuous alien Vegan, Cort Myshtigo; to Hassan the Assassin, the yellow-eyed ruthless killer who lives by his unbreakable ethical code. Of course, there is the dog. Not just any dog; the DOG. Immortal hellhound the height of a grown man, with eyes like burning coals, with armored sides and very puppy-like attitude (unfortunately, only toward its owner).
The story itself can be summarized quite simply. The Earth after the Three Day War became a monument to human stupidity, ruthlessness and cruelty – and a popular touristic destination for those who like the weird, the uncanny, the disturbing. A great place for Vegans who’d like a peek at something as unthinkable as a world irreversibly changed by a nuclear war. One of them flies down to Earth, ostensibly to write a book about human civilization. Cort Myshtigo comes from a very rich, powerful family; he requests Conrad as his guide on the tour of the old monuments of human civilization, from Egypt through Greece and Rome and further on… Nomikos has no choice but to say yes; and around those two gathers a group of adventurous travelers. But nothing is as simple as it seems, and our protagonists learn this quite quickly.
It’s a great little story, fantastical and whimsical, with a tasty bit of social commentary. A real treat for Zelazny’s fans, and I’m not at all surprised it won the Hugo. You will enjoy it even if you’re not interested in Greek mythology. But for those who are, like me, This Immortal is a perfect read: there are countless allusions to the classical and pop culture, there are the new renderings of different Greek myths, there is wit and poetry and that bit of self-aware irony which over the years became Zelazny’s trademark.
There’s really nothing quite like someone’s wanting you dead to make you want to go on living.
It’s also a groundbreaking novel in some aspects; I can’t think of anybody who wrote sf or fantasy that way before Zelazny; his influence can be easily detected in many contemporary works, in the unique perspective where the story itself has the power to shape and change events.
Maybe it’s more difficult to find fault in a book so short, or maybe it just doesn’t have any – either way, I didn’t. It’s a crazy ride, dreamlike, phantasmagoric, chimerical and capricious like Conrad himself. It’s not for everyone; the reader is drawn into the book on equal rights with the author, invited to explore and discover, to create his own meanings – and that means it’s a demanding read as well. But if you decide to play along, the ultimate reward is more than worth it.