This Immortal: Flamboyant New Wave SF with Greek mythic overtones

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Roger Zelazny This ImmortalThis Immortal by Roger Zelazny

The Earth has been mostly depopulated as humans have discovered more sophisticated and comfortable cultures elsewhere in the universe. Much of its infrastructure was destroyed during “The Three Days,” and most of the mainland areas are still “hot.” Genetic mutations have caused the birth of creatures previously thought to be only myth. Now Earth is a strange and dangerous place, fit only as a tourist attraction and a vacation spot for the Vegans.

But some people still love Earth, including long-lived Conrad Nomikos, Commissioner for the Arts. Conrad hates the Vegans, so he isn’t happy that he’s been assigned to be the tour guide for Cort Mishtigo, a rich Vegan who may be planning to buy up more of Earth. But even more interesting than Mishtigo’s plans for Earth is the nature of Conrad himself. Who is he?

This Immortal is a gorgeous novel and Conrad Nomikos makes a great hero, similar to Corwin from Zelazny’s later Amber Chronicles. Conrad’s love of Earth and, particularly, for his Greek heritage is full of beauty and passion:

You will pass, but the hills of Greece will remain, will be unchanged, with the smell of goat thigh bones burning, with a mingling of blood and wine, a taste of sweetened almonds, a cold wind by night, and skies as blue-bright as the eyes of a God by day. Touch them, if you dare… That is why I am refreshed whenever I return, because now that I am a man with many years behind me, I feel this way about the entire Earth. That is why I fought, and why I killed and bombed… 

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI listened to This Immortal on audio (Brilliance Audio) and fell in love with narrator Victor Bevine whose deeply resonant voice captured perfectly the strength and depth of Conrad, the tenderness of Conrad’s wife Cassandra, the alienness of the Vegan, the gentle deadliness of Hasan the Assassin, and even the zealous geekiness of George, the scientist whose curiosity and ambition makes him willing to experiment on his own friends, pets, and unborn child.

The end of This Immortal wraps up a bit too quickly — I wanted to stay longer with Conrad on our devastated planet. I hope everything turns out okay…

~Kat Hooper

book review Roger Zelazny This ImmortalRoger Zelazny was one of the darlings of the New Wave in the 1960s, mainly with short stories, but his first novel This Immortal tied for the inaugural Nebula Award in 1966 with none other than Frank Herbert’s Dune, arguably the greatest SF novel ever. So how could this slight 174-page Ace paperback (David, if you will) rival a Goliath like Dune?

It’s the story of Conrad Nomikos, a man in charge of maintaining the ancient ruins of classical human civilization on a post-holocaust Earth scarcely-populated by humans, mutants, and fearsome mythical creatures, mainly as tourist attractions for the alien blue-skinned Vegans (no, they’re not opposed to animal products). He reluctantly accepts an assignment to show the sights of old earth to a Vegan journalist named Cort Myshtigo who is writing a book on human civilization.

However, from the start there are a number of suspicious aspects, as a number of tour members have associations with a rebel human group called the Rad Pols (Returnists), determined to wrest control of the Earth back from the Vegans. Moreover, the bodyguard Hasan is also a well-known assassin and it becomes clear that he has been hired to kill the Vegan for political reasons.

However, Conrad himself conceals a very mysterious past, and some suspect him of being Karagiozis, a revolutionary Greek who fought against the Vegans as a terrorist. He also seems to have very detailed knowledge of events hundreds of years in the past, as well as superhuman strength and fighting skills. Who is this mysterious figure, and why is he acting as a tour guide to the Vegans? Is he opposed to the Vegans or not? What are their plans for Earth?

This Immortal reminds me very much of another New Wave SF book I read recently, Samuel R. Delany’s 1967 Nebula winner The Einstein Intersection. They both feature devastated far-future Earths roamed by mutants and adventurers, and strong and overt references to Greek myths like Orpheus and Eurydice and the satyr god Pan. The prose is playful, lush with bizarre imagery and casual literary references, and flits from scene to scene with abandon. Like Delany, Zelazny was not satisfied with SF as practiced by Golden Age writers like Heinlein, Clarke, or Asimov. He wanted to inject a healthy infusion of literary allusions and allegory to the tumultuous social upheavals of the 1960s. College students were interested in Asian mysticism, psychology, mythology, alternative lifestyles, and were at the same time reacting against the Vietnam and Korean Wars, the Establishment, and most of all the constant threat of nuclear destruction at the touch of a button.

However, unlike the undisciplined self-indulgence of The Einstein Intersection, the storyline and characters of This Immortal were extremely well developed, especially the narrator Conrad. In particular, I liked his complex relationship with Hasan the Assassin, as they find themselves on opposite sides regarding the Vegan Myshtigo, but maintain a code of honor that is unshakable. And the more we learn about Conrad’s past and the politics surrounding the Vegan’s plans for Earth, the more we understand what is at stake. There are several passages describing Conrad’s conflicted thoughts about Earth’s fate and his role in it; sometimes proud and defiant, other times resigned and pessimistic:

It is our country. The Goths, the Huns, the Volgars, the Serbs, the Francs, the Turks, the Vegans have never made it go away from us. People, I have outlived. Athens and I have changed together, somewhat. Mainland Greece is mainland Greece, and it has not changed for me. Try taking it away, whatever you are, and my people will stalk the hills, like the chthonic avengers of old. You will pass, but the hills of Greece will remain, unchanged.

Later in the novel, the night before Conrad is slated to duel Hasan the Assassin over the fate of the Myshtigo, they share a pipe of some alien substance that relaxes and Conrad’s resolve to fight the Vegans weakens:

The struggle seemed ridiculous. We would lose it in the end. It was written that humanity was to be the cats and dogs and trained chimpanzees of the real people, the Vegans. And in a way, it was not such a bad idea. Perhaps we needed someone wiser to watch over us, to run our lives. We had made a shambles of our own world during the three days [a limited nuclear exchange], and the Vegans had never had a nuclear war. They operated a smoothly-efficient, interstellar government, encompassing dozens of planets. Whatever they did was aesthetically pleasing. Their own lives were well-regulated, happy things. Why not let them have the Earth? They’d probably do a better job than we had ever done. And why not be their coolies too? It wouldn’t be a bad life. Give them the old ball of mud, full of radioactive sores, and populated by cripples. Why not?

However, he quickly shakes this off, recalling:

But I had lost my Cassandra, my dark witch of Kos, to the mindless powers which move the Earth and the waters. Nothing could kill my feelings of loss. It seemed further away, somehow insulated behind glass, but it was still there. Not all the pipes of the East could assuage this thing. I did not want to know peace. I wanted hate, I wanted to strike out at all the masks in the universe. Earth, water, sky, Taler, Earth gov and office, so that behind one of them I might find that power which had taken her and make it too know something of pain. I did not want to be at one with anything that had harmed that which was mine, by blood and by love. For just five minutes even, I wanted to be Karagiozis again, looking at it all through cross-hairs and squeezing a trigger. Oh Zeus of the hot red lightings, I prayed, give it to me that I may break the powers in the sky.

This Immortal is a great novel, utterly different from Dune and yet fully deserving to share the stage. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Victor Bevine, and his deep and rich voice is the perfect vehicle for the world-weary philosophical musings of Conrad.

~Stuart Starosta

This Immortal — (1966) Publisher: Conrad Nomikos has a long, rich personal history that he’d rather not talk about. And, as arts commissioner, he’s been given a job he’d rather not do. Escorting an alien grandee on a guided tour of the shattered remains of Earth is not something he relishes — especially since it is apparent that this places him at the center of high-level intrigue that has some bearing on the future of Earth itself. But Conrad is a very special guy….

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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