No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, November 01, 2000

This Immortal -- Roger Zelazny

This Immortal is the earliest of Zelazny’s explorations of the solitary, long-lived hero who – in different guises – recurs throughout his fiction. This fast-paced, Hugo-winning novel (expanded from the 1965 novella ‘…And Call me Conrad’) reads like a pastiche of Homer and Hemingway. The ‘immortal’ of the title, Conrad Nomikos, is a centuries-old, retired freedom fighter who’s seen post-holocaust Earth abandoned by humanity. Embittered by the failure of the struggle, he finds small consolation in his role as Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives. The humanoid, blue-skinned Vegans, who’ve taken in and sheltered the remnants of humanity, are fascinated by the tragic history of the Earth, and by the social problems the refugees bring with them. Earth has become a pleasure resort, and most of humanity is content to forget its ancestral home and create a new civilisation offworld.

Conrad becomes tour guide and protector to a Vegan ambassador and his human followers - one of whom, at the behest of the Returnist movement RadPol, has joined the tour expressly to kill the Vegan and save the Earth from alien rule. Despite his best efforts, Conrad’s past as Konstantin Karaghiosis, folk-hero and founder of RadPol, comes back to haunt him. Too many people know who he is – or was – and, if he’s betrayed the cause, are prepared to kill him in order to get at the Vegan. Meanwhile, the radioactive Hot Places are throwing forth hazards of their own – satyrs, zombies, and the Black Beast of Thessaly, not to mention an anthropologist who’s gone native and knows far too much about ritual cannibalism. Conrad must complete a set of labours worthy of a modern-day Herakles before he can receive a surprising legacy.

The mythological framework – Homer’s Greece, recreated by the Promethean fires of radiation – is delicately drawn, and the slow, melancholy decline of human civilisation is conveyed without melodrama. This is a dated future, though. This Immortal was written at the height of the Cold War, when nuclear devastation was the Armageddon scenario of choice: it is nevertheless the narrator’s attitude – rather than the socio-political background – which now seems outmoded. Despite the exotic backdrop and the motifs of death and decay, the tourists behave like guests at a Swinging Sixties cocktail party: flirting, gossiping and upstaging one another. Conrad’s – and the author’s – casually sexist treatment of the females in the group may seem patronising to a reader hypersensitised by the recent trend towards political correctness. There’s a macho sensibility to the whole narrative that recalls Hemingway: not necessarily a bad thing in an adventure novel, but here the blending of fantasy with gritty realism is less assured than in Zelazny’s later work.

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