This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
Published: Ace Books 1966
Awards Won: Hugo Award
“Radiation has ravaged the Earth, and the surviving humans live on islands, away from the hot spots of the mainland. Mutants and monstrous creatures roam the wilds, making travel even more dangerous. In humanity’s darkest hour, an alien civilization from Vega came to their rescue. Humans moved in droves to the worlds of the Vegans, willing to live as second-class citizens in exchange for a home in a comfortable and highly advanced society. Those who remained on the Earth saw their home slowly turned into an exotic Vegan vacation spot, despite their violent efforts to stop the process.
Conrad Nomikos, Earth’s Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives, is a mysterious, close-lipped figure with a long history. He is not especially happy to find himself impressed into the service of a visiting Vegan, Cort Myshtigo, especially when he finds the alien insisted on him personally. Myshtigo plans to tour the remains of the Earth, ostensibly for a book he intends to write. Some humans believe there’s more to his trip than meets the eye, and they are not willing to watch more of their home slip into the hands of aliens. Conrad may be the only thing that can stand between Myshtigo and an untimely death, but should he?” ~Allie
Zelazny is an author I’m rather familiar with, as I have read his Amber novels. I believe this was actually Zelazny’s first published novel, though I wouldn’t have guessed it from reading. It’s pretty impressive that he was able to win a Hugo Award with a debut novel, and tied with Frank Herbert’s Dune, no less!
This Immortal or …And Call Me Conrad, as Zelazny preferred the novel to be titled, is a book that works on several different levels. The intrigue surrounding Myshtigo’s presence provides an undercurrent of tension throughout the story. There’s very little evidence along the way about Myshtigo’s true intentions, but speculation on them illuminates parts of Conrad’s history and the continuing political situation of the remaining humans. It also provides an interesting moral dilemma for Conrad, who is hired to protect Myshtigo but driven to protect the Earth. On top of this mystery, the basic plot concerns the adventure of the journey Conrad and the others undertake. There’s plenty of well-written action to move the story along, as they encounter mutants and dangerous creatures. The action segments seemed episodic to me, but I appreciated how they were used to highlight information about the world, the characters, and the situation with Myshtigo.
Of the characters, Conrad is the most memorable. He seemed somewhat similar to Corwin, from the later Amber books—both of them are flawed, (probably) immortal super-humans, who have a wry sense of humor and seem like fundamentally decent people. Conrad also appears to be instrumental in the fate of his world, shown both through his role as commissioner and Myshtigo’s guide, and through his comparison to the Greek kallikanzaros. I am not usually a fan of main characters that are vastly more powerful than everyone around them, but Conrad’s down-to-earth personality made this story work for me. While he is undeniably physically strong and long-lived, he is not untouchable. Conrad is also very invested in the future of Earth and the lives of his friends, and even his superhuman abilities cannot assure positive outcomes for either of them.
Aside from the surface plot and characters, I also enjoyed the confluence of science fiction and fantasy atmosphere in the story. One can see this clearly in the case of Conrad, who can be seen as either a kind of god (or kallikanzaros), or as simply an extraordinarily long-lived mutant. In a similar vein, the monstrous and mutated animals of the irradiated Earth are often compared to mythological creatures, as if the ruined planet was sinking back into times of myth and legend. There are actually quite a lot of Greek mythological references throughout the story, which were pretty fun to pick out. On the science fiction side of the story, I enjoyed piecing together the future history that led to the current situation for humanity and their home planet. The future history was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed piecing together the events that led to the current Earth.
My Rating: 4/5
This Immortal (or ….And Call Me Conrad) is a highly entertaining novel from early in Zelazny’s writing career. The superhuman Conrad is rather similar to future Zelazny heroes, such as Corwin of Amber. The story features a ruined future Earth, where many mutated creatures seem almost mythological. The references to Greek mythology and the nature of Conrad’s identity also give the story an atmosphere that seems like a mix of fantasy and science fiction influences. Conrad’s task of escorting the alien Myshtigo around the Earth is full of conflict and action, but the story is also underpinned by the tension surrounding Myshtigo’s true purpose. I think the novel has stood up well to the test of time, and will undoubtedly be enjoyed by many more readers in the future.