Jan 14 2011 10:38am

Wisecracking, aliens, and hot places: Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal (“And Call Me Conrad”)

This Immortal by Roger ZelaznyThis Immortal, or “And Call Me Conrad” was Roger Zelazny’s first novel, and it showcases a lot of the things that he typically did. It’s unquestionably science fiction, but it uses mythic resonance in a way more familiar in fantasy. It has a first person smartass hero, wisecracking his way across the adventure. It’s fast moving and builds the world up as a neat piece of juggling—and of course, it’s poetic and beautifully written. I can see some people hating Zelazny for the very things I love about him—the style, the prose, the offhand worldbuilding. It doesn’t always work for me. But when it does, as here, it’s lovely.

In This Immortal it’s Greek mythology, and Greek folktales too. In the first line, Conrad is accused by his wife Cassandra (who is, naturally, always right and never believed) of being a kallikanzaros—one of the demons who try to destroy the world and are scared away by the Easter bells. He’s tall and hairy with one leg shorter than the other and he somehow just doesn’t seem to age. This is because there was a nuclear war on Earth, the “Three Days” and there are a whole lot of mutants around, especially near the “hot places” that are still radioactive. There are also a whole lot of alien tourists, and Conrad’s job involves taking one of them on a tour of beautiful but devastated Earth, while other people, human, mutant, and alien, seem desperate to kill him.

No plot spoilers.

There’s a complicated backstory—after the nuclear war, the colonies on Mars and Titan had to manage on their own. They were rescued by blue-skinned humanoid aliens from Vega, who took them to their planets, even though the presence of humans detracts from the value of real estate, cheap sentient labour and entertainment makes it worth it. Meanwhile, Earth has a lot of mutants, a civilization based on the less-damaged islands, and the only thing that’s thriving is the tourist trade as bored Vegans visit to be entertained. Conrad’s been trying to save the world, or possibly destroy it, for a long time now. The exiled human population are a problem, having their own agenda, and the Vegans want resorts and seem to see all humans as whores.

What we have here is a picaresque in the traditional old fashioned sense—the characters go from place to place and encounter and overcome dangers while we learn about them and about the world. Zelazny gives us enough of all three things—the encounters, the characters and the world—to keep us fascinated and tantalised. There could always be more. The end is something of a deus ex machina, but in a way that fits very well with everything that has gone before. There are moments in this book that are as good as anything Zelazny ever wrote—getting a telepathic flash of being in the alien’s mind and seeing ultra-violet colours in a white flower, fighting a boadile and wondering how many legs it has, Hasan saying the devil has forgiven him.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out on January 18th, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Sol Foster
1. colomon
This makes me feel terribly guilty that I haven't read this book for at least 20 years. But at this point, I guess I might as well hold off until I reach the version in Collected Short Stories Volume II.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
This book does sort of encapsulate everything that Zelazny would become. Just about all the elements are there and there are, as you say, flashes of his ultimate skill with words. Alas at this late date, and through no fault of the author, I cannot see the word Vegan without first thinking "person who avoids eating or using any animal products". It causes reading stumbles.
Gardner Dozois
4. Gardner Dozois
Perhaps my favorite Zelazny novel in some ways, even counting in LORD OF LIGHT, although it falls apart toward the end. The first two-thirds though are as good as anything Zelazny ever did; there are few writers in any genre who can write at this sizzling sustained level of white-hot talent.
Gardner Dozois
5. shireling
Hard to believe a book this good was Zelazny's first novel. One of the great things about Zelazny is how much he can pack into a short book -- how allusive his writing is. (Compare and contrast to today's thousand-page doorstops.)

I happened to read Walter Jon Williams' Knight moves right before this book. There are a number of similarities between them. WJW has no need to steal from another writer, so -- unconscious homage? Parallel evolution?
Alex Johns
6. almuric
I love Zelazny, perhaps more than any other writer. I was devastated when he died. First place I would always go in a bookstore is the Z's to see if there was a new one.

One thing that many people forget is that this book tied with Dune for the Hugo award. Tied. With Dune.

Perhaps it hasn't aged as well or it didn't have quite the scope which allowed Dune to become so huge, but I certainly think that it's just as fun to read. Even if it didn't spawn a half-dozen gigantic sequels.
Michael Walsh
7. MichaelWalsh
"Even if it didn't spawn a half-dozen gigantic sequels."

There are some things to thankful for - that is one of them.
Gardner Dozois
8. John Fiala
@5 shireling:
"I happened to read Walter Jon Williams' Knight moves right before this book. There are a number of similarities between them. WJW has no need to steal from another writer, so -- unconscious homage? Parallel evolution?"

I always figured that Knight Moves was WJW's Zelazny homage, having noticed the similarity myself. It was one of his earlier works, IIRC.
Janet Hopkins
9. JanDSedai
a while ago, I saw Walter Jon Williams at a science fiction convention, and told him I had just read Knight Moves. He asked how I liked it, and I said it was the best Zelazny novel I had read in a while. He said something to the effect that he got that a lot. So, the similarity is intentional.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
When I first read _Knight Moves_ I had to keep checking the cover to make sure it wasn't Zelazny. I think I said that when I posted about it. I don't think it was stealing. I think it was wanting to do something just that cool.
Gardner Dozois
11. zvi999
Speaking of Zelazny hommage/pastiches, Chip Delany's wonderful story "We, In Some Strange Power's Employ, Move On A Rigorous Line" (aka "Lines of Power") is a note-perfect Zelazny hommage, down to the glittering languages and the wisecracking male protagonist.
Jonah Feldman
12. relogical
I would have loved to see some mention of the parallels between This Immortal and Heart of Darkness, of which there are many. The main character being named Conrad is the obvious one, but the whole setting of the novel turns the entire nuked planet Earth into "Darkest Africa", which is just plain fascinating. The human servant class on Vega corresponds to the former slave class in Europe and America, while a civilized Vegan ventures to the dark, mysterious homeland of these primitive beings... Earth.

But while Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness has an "alien" recounting his voyage into the unknown, This Immortal has the "native guide", also Conrad, as the POV instead of the "alien". And furthermore, it's the "native" who is the immortal superman Zelazny was so fond of writing. And Conrad is determined to force out the imperialists who treat their servant race's home like a tourist attraction.

Essentially, Zelazny's Conrad is at war with Joseph Conrad and what he stands for. To free Earth from the dehumanization brought about by colonialism, it takes someone who is more than human. And as bad as it looks to the "alien", this setting is not a heart of darkness. It's mankind's home.

And that's not getting into the further link to C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station, another book about aliens and colonization, which has characters named Conrad and Konstantin, which can't possibly be a coincidence.
Gardner Dozois
13. Gardner Dozois
Walter Jon Williams, a major fan of Zelazny's as well as a personal friend of his, also wrote a sequel to Zelazny's "The Graveyard Heart" called "Elegy for Angels and Dogs"--which I believe still holds the title for longest single story (as opposed to novel serialization) ever published in ASIMOV'S.
Bob Blough
14. Bob
Just as Gardner said - the first two thirds of this book are some of Zelazny's best writing. The last third is not bad just not quite as sterling as the earlier part. Still, it's one of my favorite books. And, I have to say, I like it better than Dune upon re-reading both of them
Gardner Dozois
15. shireling
Thanks to all for the info about the W.J. Williams / Zelazny connection. This is a real community!

relogical @12 -- Fascinating comparison to Heart of darkness. You could probably get a good scholarly essay out of it. Zelazny being allusive, as usual. He had an almost Shakespearean way of pulling in anything and everything to his orbit. Which was a great part of the fun when I recently read (for the first time, but not the last) A night in the lonesome October.
Clifton Royston
16. CliftonR
Great comments as usual. I really like relogical's deconstruction @ 12; it does make sense. I've been wanting to reread this for several years myself, but the ex got our copy in the Great SF Book Division, so I need to get a new copy first.

I had never realized this was his first novel; it seemed so completely in his later developed style, and more so than some of his books. If asked, without knowing the dates, I would have guessed something like Damnation Alley or Today We Choose Faces as coming before this one.
Peter D. Tillman
17. PeteTillman
RE: WJW, Knight Moves

I hadn't read even half of your review when I thought, "Gee, this sounds an awful lot like Knight Moves. I see I'm not alone....

Have to fish out This Immortal for a reread. And Jo,
your reviews are a kick.

Best for 2011,
Pete Tillman

She: So, if you had your choice...
He (interrupting) --if I had my *choice* I'd spend the rest
of my life on a tropical island, with a
fast Internet connection, beautiful
women, and lots of books. I'd spend my
days reading, researching and making love.
She: No you wouldn't! I know you! You'd make love for
ten minutes, then spend the rest of your time reading!
Clifton Royston
18. CliftonR
I forgot to mention that Delany's "We, In Some Strange Power's Employ...", mentioned above as being written in a homage to Zelazny's style, also contains a character "Roger" who's obviously a playful characterization of Zelazny himself.
Madeline Ferwerda
19. MadelineF
Now, I forget where I heard this: from someone's mouth on a book tour or at a meeting? In a preface? So take it FWIW.

Roger Zelazny was known for being kind and generous with newer writers; this was how he and Jane Lindskold met, for one, exchanging letters about her writing. There was a group of people who took this so to heart that they occasionally called themselves the bastard sons of Roger Zelazny. Among this group were Steven Brust, Walter Jon Williams, and I think Neil Gaiman.

Walter Jon Williams I believe lived in New Mexico when Zelazny was there, and they hung out together with George R.R. Martin and Jane Lindskold and others. I think Williams and Martin gamed/game together even.

So anyway, I figure he's got plenty of excuse and cred and he can write like Zelazny any time he wants to. The world can use more people writing like Zelazny.

I know I'm not the most in the know about all this, and welcome additions and corrections.

As for This Immortal, been a long time since I've read it... I vaguely remember that it throws you in to things and it's not obvious what's happening; I should reread it, though.
Gardner Dozois
20. Shagrat and Meshack
I love Zelazny. always have. His Martian stories were amongst the first non-YA SF I ever read, and I've always had a soft spot in my heart for any of his works.

Speaking of Gardner Dozois, Jo, are you planning on writing a review of Strangers? I keep hoping he'll come out with another novel equally as good and thoughtful - and Strangers is so good it's a pity that it's not more widely known.
Allana Schneidmuller
21. blutnocheinmal
I need to read more Zelazny. I adored Lord of Light when I read it about 5 years ago. I'm always looking in the Zs for him, but usually all they have is the 'doorstop' tome of the Books of Amber. I can't bring myself to commit to that just yet.

...I'm absurdly amused that the aliens are Vegans. Though I don't know if the term vegan was in use then, so it's probably unintentionally funny.
Gardner Dozois
22. Gardner Dozois
As far as I can cudgle my poor tired old brain into remembering, the term "vegan" was not in wide use then, if in use at all.

Another pretty good Zelazny novel, if not quite in the same league as LORD OF LIGHT and THIS IMMORTAL, is THE ISLE OF THE DEAD.
David Levinson
23. DemetriosX
I was also amused by the Vegan thing. Apparently, the Vegan Society was founded in Britain in 1944 and the first American branch in 1948, with national organization by 1960. Who knew? There must have been somebody in fandom who knew about them by the mid-60s.
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
Gardner: I love Isle of the Dead, it's one of my absolute favourites. Zelazny can sometimes tip over almost into self parody, but there he's absolutely in control.

As for Vegans, I read this when I was twelve and I knew vegetarians but no Vegans, so when I first encountered them when I was in university I thought "OK non-dairy eaters, you have no idea you are blue and come from Vega..."
Gardner Dozois
25. Gorbag
Yet Another Example Of Perfidious Vega, is James Blish's Cities in Flight series, if the word "series" could be justly said to apply to such an ill-connected group of stories ...

In Earthman, Come Home, we encounter a Vegan Orbital Fort about to wreck vengeance upon Earth ...
Nancy Lebovitz
26. NancyLebovitz
This Immortal was my least favorite early Zelazny, and I'm not sure why-- even though there were good bits (kallikanzoros is as good a word as ever existed, and there was something fascinating about superstitions about being born on Christmas day) there didn't seem to be a sense of place for me. I should reread it to see whether my tastes have changed.
David Dyer-Bennet
27. dd-b
I should probably reread it also; worst case, minor Zelazny is a LOT better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick.

And I don't seem to remember it at all; I had it connected in my head incorrectly with some other stories.

I don't think I've ever reread it.
William S. Higgins
28. higgins
In 2004 I learned that the title "We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line" is a misquotation of Matthew Arnold:

Arnold's line is

We, in some unknown Power's employ,
Move on a rigorous line:
Can neither, when we will, enjoy;
Nor, when we will, resign.

This was easier to find out because I waited until after Google had been invented.

By the way, Delany's story not only contains a character named Roger, but is also dedicated: "--for R. Zelazny."
William S. Higgins
29. higgins
The estimable Gardner Dozois writes in #22:
As far as I can cudgle my poor tired old brain into remembering, the term "vegan" was not in wide use then, if in use at all.

Hark! This looks like a job for Google N-Gram Viewer!

From 1800 to 1970 he word "vegan" appears as less than once in a million words, in the corpus of Google Books used to construct N-grams.

In the 1970s, it begins to rise. In the 1980s it is four or five words in a million. In the Nineties, it climbs steeply to two words or more in a hundred thousand.

Click the searches at the bottom of the graph to see books where "vegan" appears in various years.
Steven Halter
30. stevenhalter
Thanks for the post I just reread it. I had forgotten many of the details (it had been awhile). This does have many of the characteristics of Zelazny through the years. The writing is fun and lovely.
Steven Brust
31. skzb
So, four years late to the party, and I doubt anyone will read this, but I have to say it. Among the things I love in this book--which is almost everything--there is a moment. When we come back to the line, "Feathers or Lead?" my heart thumps, and waves of pleasure wash over me. I'll consider myself a successful writer if I can ever deliver a moment like that.
Steven Halter
32. stevenhalter
Steve--set aside your doubt. I agree completely. The first time we see the line is really good. The second time is mastery.
Kallikanzaroi are that way.

By the way, I see this and other Zelazny volumes are finally on Kindle now!

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