Friday, March 04, 2011

Book Review: This Immortal

Originally published in serial form as ...And Call Me Conrad
Roger Zelazny
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The funny thing about this book is that it is not a terrifically complex story, and it is pretty short – 216 pages in my 1989 paperback edition – but it shared the 1966 Hugo award for best novel with the mighty Dune.

And I have to say, I agree with the Hugo voters. It’s a really good book.

I think the reason it is up there with Dune in spite of its plot’s relative normal-ness is because of Roger Zelazny’s character development and writing style. He has this weird combination of plain speaking narrative that occasionally switches into the elaborate, archaic language of religious texts and ancient legends with total smoothness. This can be really funny and also oddly mournful. (Zelazny exhibits this talent to the hilt in his other Hugo-award-winning novel, Lord of Light.)

The story takes place on Earth several hundred years after a three-day nuclear war wiped out most humans and destroyed most continental mainland. The few humans that survived mostly fled to islands or to off-world colonies on other planets or space stations.

Since the war, we humans have met the Vegans – that is, blue-skinned humanoid aliens from the planet Vega. They are far more advanced and civilized than us (which is especially obvious since we blew up our planet) and have basically taken over, buying up much of the remaining quality Earth real estate and turning the absentee human government on the planet Taler into a puppet regime.

The Vegans send an emissary down to be led on a tour of Earth’s greatest places. He is supposedly there to write a travelogue, but some humans – especially those in the anti-Vegan resistance movement known as the Radpol – think he is there to figure out how to put the final nail in humanity’s coffin.

This is where it gets good. Because the puppet human government has assigned him a native Earth guide and bodyguard – Conrad Nomikos, the narrator of our story. Conrad is ugly, proud, grumpy, and cynical, but also a natural leader, an excellent fighter, and cool-headed and sane compared to just about everyone else. He is none too pleased about acting as a Vegan’s protector and pretty much just wants to be left to himself to lounge around on his Greek island with his wife.

He also just happens to be immortal (a side effect of a radiation-related mutation). He does his best to conceal this from his acquaintances but sometimes it just, you know, comes out. Especially when he runs into one of his great-great-grandchildren or someone else who knew him in a previous life, or somebody, like the Vegan emissary, takes the time to do a computer search on humans with Conrad’s unique physical characteristics and comes up with four or five matches spread out evenly across several hundred years.

Which, as it turns out, is why the Vegan chose him as his bodyguard and tour guide in the first place.

The story is basically just the tale of Conrad accompanying the Vegan on his mysterious tour and trying to prevent various Radpol agents from assassinating him until Conrad can figure out if the mission is for good or for ill. They also run into plenty of dangerous mutants – human, animal, and combo human/animal – who want to do them in. It’s a bit of a parallel (overtly referenced by the author) to the twelve labors of Hercules, with Conrad as the Herc.

The story is fun and plenty of the other characters and beasties are entertaining. But what it lacks (compared to Dune, at least) in depth and length, it makes up for primarily with the quirkiness and appeal of both the main character and the writing. It’s more of a modern, quickly-read narrative and less of a fantasy/religio-legendary tale than Lord of Light, but Zelazny does this one just as well.

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