Book Review: This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny exploded onto the science fiction scene back in the mid-sixties.  Two of his stories won Nebula Awards in 1966, the first year they were ever given:  “He Who Shapes” won the Nebula for best novella, and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” won for best novelette.  In addition, in the same year his novel “This Immortal”, which had appeared in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” under the title of “And Call
Me Conrad”, won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year, in a tie with the famous novel “Dune” by Frank Herbert.  Comparisons are inevitable, but I will
reserve them for later in the essay.

For years I have searched for this novel.  It has been long out of print, and unavailable for ordering as a new book from either physical or online bookstores.  And when I had found it used in online bookstores, it was always out of my price range.  Often I wondered why it was not reprinted in the British series of “SF Masterworks”, in which certain other
writers are overrepresented, and now that I have read it, I consider it a disservice that it was not.  Be that as it may, reprint lists are not representative of the general reading public’s taste but rather that of the editors of the series.  But on my last trip to the States, while browsing a small used book store in Seattle I managed to come across a good
copy of the book for the very reasonable price of two dollars.

It’s a short book, and that is unusual these days.  Most science fiction and fantasy books you see on the shelves are weighty tomes of one hundred to one hundred fifty thousand
words – more words for your buck, the publishers probably imagine.  But it was not always so.  Many of the classic award-winning novels of past decades were of shorter, more manageable length.  You can tell a great story in about fifty thousand words; it can be lean and tight, without extraneous stuffing to make it look fatter on a bookshop’s shelf.  So it is with this book.  There’s no fluff or fat or add-ons or ornaments.  Every word counts.

This book is a hell of a lot of fun.  In the beginning it seems a bit confusing and you wonder where it’s going.  But little by little Zelazny unfolds his story and you see that it is inevitable.  It’s complex and exciting, full of wild ideas and poetry and mythology.  Zelazny’s writing style was unusual and idiosyncratic; nobody wrote like he did.  I use past tense because he did not write long – in 1995 he died of cancer at the age of fifty-eight.

“This Immortal” exemplifies “typical” Zelazny, if anything Zelazny wrote can be called typical:  his use of mythological themes; his ability to set vivid scenes with minimal, starkly poetic description; a blend of heart-pounding science fiction action/adventure and deep intellectual acuity; brisk, snappy dialog; and a cast of interesting and diverse characters, of which the main one almost always seems more than a bit like Zelazny himself:  tall, lean, erudite, well able to defend himself, and habituated to cigarettes and alcohol.  It all makes for a great ride.

Now, at last, for the comparisons of this novel with “Dune”.  Uh – in fact, you can’t compare the two.  Contrast, perhaps, but not compare.  “Dune” is much more traditional:  a huge, complex, world-building book.  It is a wonderful book and just missed the list I previously published of my ten favorite novels of all time.  But it is nothing like “This Immortal”.  It is three or four times the length (if not more), has many more characters, and spans a much greater length of time.  And it is, as I mentioned, more traditional,
more classic.  “This Immortal” is innovative, brisk, flippant, seemingly almost off-the-cuff, as it were – more in the spirit and style of what was then being termed “the new
wave” in speculative fiction, a genre-shattering attempt of certain writers to burst out of narrow pulp confines into the realms of serious literature.  I like both “Dune” and “This Immortal”, and I think it was a great move that the Hugo Award that year was shared between them.  There is room for great diversity in speculative fiction.

I highly recommend “This Immortal”.  It’s entertaining, thoughtful, poetic, exciting, and stimulating.  I only hope you don’t have to wait as long as I did to find a copy.

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