Monday, October 21, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: This Immortal (1966, Best Novel)

Dossier: Zelazny, Roger. This Immortal [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct - Nov 1965]

Filetype: Novel

Executive Summary: Set in some distant nuclear fallout of planet Earth with only some four million survivors and much of the planet is still radioactive populated by mutated humans. This Immortal follows Conrad Nomikos, the Art Commissioner for the planet, as he is reluctantly assigned to protect Myshtigo, an alien surveying Earth to either write a travel guide or as advance work for a major real estate deal. The alien Vegans (from Vega) own much of our world. It's a little confusing how it all fits together and everything isn't as it first appears. 

The novel is a bit of a travelogue of a ruined planet, but one where the core is Conrad wearily cracking wise as he takes Myshtigo from place to place to place while attempts are being made on both of their lives, possibly from the rest of their travel party.

Conrad may be some sort of mutant himself, partially disfigured with a half ruined face and one leg shorter than the other - Conrad may also be immortal or at least extremely long lived and he doesn't seem to know why. Of course, Conrad seems to also lie all the time as well, so it's a bit of a question mark. 

Legacy: This Immortal won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1966, tying for the award with Dune. There have only been three ties for Best Novel in the history of the Hugo Award and it would be almost thirty years until the next tie in 1993 (A Fire Upon the Deep and The Doomsday Book). This Immortal does not have quite the same reputation in the field as Dune, but few novels could live up to that legacy.

Over the course of his career, Roger Zelazny was a fourteen time Hugo Award finalists and a six time winner. Zelazny would win Best Novel again for Lord of Light in 1968. His four other wins were for Novella and Novelette (two each). 

This Immortal was Roger Zelazny's first novel. It was originally serialized in The Magazine of Science Fiction as "...And Call Me Conrad", but the magazine publication required the novel to be abridged from his original vision for the story. Much of the original text was restored for book publication.

The legacy of This Immortal is likely more that it was a part of Zelazny's influence on a generation of writers than of the novel itself having a lasting impact. There are direct lines of influence to writers like Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, and Steven Brust. The character of Vlad Taltos in Brust's Jhereg novels has strong echoes of Conrad in the particular flavor of wise cracking hero Brust employs. The idea isn't original to Zelazny, but the flavor and the influence is specific and particular in regards to Brust.

In Retrospect: "I always meant to read Zelazny" was my common refrain for years, to the point that I bought the Amber omnibus edition and a copy of Lord of Light and both have languished on my shelf for well over a decade. Picture my surprise when This Immmortal ended up as the first Zelazny novel I read. 

I can only imagine that a novel which tied for the Hugo Award with friggin Dune was more than well regarded by readers of its time. Zelazny was in the middle of a five year run where he would be a finalist for the Hugo Award eight times. But, how This Immortal was received in 1966 has little bearing on how the novel reads more than fifty years later in 2019.

It took a moment to remind myself that some of the casual racism and contemptuous comments from Conrad "but he was a Turk, so who cares?" was a function of the historical enmity between Greece and Turkey, even in a post apocalyptic future. It grated, perhaps all the more because it was in reference to real peoples and cultures rather than a fictional race. 

"I'm in charge here, thank you," said I. "I'm giving the orders and I've decided I'll do the vampire-fighting"
What works exceptionally well today is the easy wit of conversation. I referenced Zelazny's influence on writers like Steven Brust, and it is how Zelazny uses dialogue which comes across as far more modern than many novels of its time. 

In the end, This Immortal is perhaps more notable for being an important novel from Roger Zelazny than it is for being a novel that stands up among the all time greats. It doesn't hold up as being a true classic of the genre, but there is value here in reading early Zelazny and getting a glimpse of what the shape of 1965 was like, especially in comparison not only to Dune but to other works on the Hugo ballot. Zelazny shared a ballot with Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (interestingly enough and for reasons I really need to research, that novel would go on to win the Hugo Award the following year in 1967 despite being on the ballot in 1966), with a John Brunner novel (The Squares of the City), and with the final novel in E.E. Smith's Skylark series. 

While not one of the genre's great novels and not reaching the reputation and recognition of Dune, This Immortal holds up as a solid if unspectacular novel.

For its time: 5/5
Read today: 3/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 8/10 

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.