With This Immortal, Roger Zelazny Brings the Gods Down to Earth

One of two Hugo-winning novels from 1966, This Immortal laid the groundwork for later divine masterpieces and turned action on an epic scale into something new and intimate, without sacrificing the sense of wonder.

I had this theory awhile ago, that when it comes to what we call "classic" works of art, they tend to be one of two things: either a groundbreaker or a paragon. That is to say, you've got your King Solomon's Mines, which introduces a number of conventions to the mainstream — the civilized white-man adventurer-explorer confronting primitive mysteries, the notion of the Lost World — and then you've got your Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which those conventions, now refined over time, are used to construct a simply top-shelf example of the form. NEEDLESS TO SAY, upon further review, the theory seemed deeply flawed and probably just wrong; and so I abandoned it, and went and made a sandwich instead.

But I've been thinking about it anyway in relation to 1966's two Hugo winners, the indisputably monumental Dune and the considerably less well-known This Immortal, which isn't even the most famous of Roger Zelazny's books (those would be his Amber chronicles and his 1968 Hugo winner, Lord of Light). Dune, I would argue, is where what we think of now as epic space opera finally grew up — if E.E. Smith broke the first ground years earlier, Frank Herbert raised exotic planets and super-powers and battles and intrigues to a level that remained grandiloquent but was no longer simplistic. It's pretty clear why he won an award voted on by fans.

What did Zelazny do, though, that tied him with Herbert? (And with his first novel, no less?) I'm not sure what the Hugo voters were thinking at the time, but in hindsight, their support for This Immortal seems prescient.

The story (which first appeared in shorter, two-part form in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction under the title "...And Call Me Conrad") is tough to summarize without spoilers, but let me try: First-person narrator Conrad Nomikos, commissioner of the Office of Arts, Monuments and Archives, is ordered to take an alien author from the Vegan empire on a tour of Earth's remaining landmarks, much of the planet having been ruined years before during a three-day nuclear war. It's the sort of task Nomikos would normally hand off to a subordinate, but the Vegan has specifically requested him as a guide, because he's curious about him: He's done some research and determined that Conrad — who looks thirty — is actually hundreds of years old. And you can't say no to the Vegans, because they stepped in long ago to rescue the humans who survived the holocaust; the majority of humanity actually lives on Vegan worlds, well taken care of, but serving as menial laborers and concubines.

With This Immortal, Roger Zelazny Brings the Gods Down to Earth

So Conrad pledges to guide and protect the Vegan, which is not as easy as it ought to be, as their traveling party also includes a couple members of the Radpol, a subversive group aiming to free humanity from the Vegans and return the bulk of them to Earth. Before he became commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives, Conrad was a hero and leader of the Radpol; now, he's not as convinced of the rightness of their terroristic methods. Further complicating things is the presence of Hasan, an assassin who has never failed in a mission, and who, Conrad believes, has been hired by the Radpol to kill the Vegan.

If that sounds a little convoluted — well, yes, it kind of is. Zelazny's talent lies in how he doesn't just make it work and make sense (and ultimately culminate in a heck of a worthwhile twist ending), but in how well he uses mystery to lure you further and further into the story. Conrad is — like the hard-boiled detectives who serve as inspiration for him — a man unsure of whom to trust, haunted by his past and unable to rely on anyone or anything except his own wits, strength, and code of honor. As readers, we're there with him as he struggles to get his bearings.

But we're also drawn along by the mysteries about Conrad, and it's here where Zelazny really excels, giving us the answers to some questions, but leaving others ambiguous. As he'd do later in Lord of Light with the Hindu pantheon, he plays around with Greek myth in this book, and manages to create a fractal effect that is just superb and an ambience that is uniquely his. Conrad himself is a mythical figure on several levels: He may be a god — his real age is never clarified, and his immortality might be one of the post-apocalyptic mutations that have shown up all over Earth, or something else; he might be a Greek goblin called a kallikantzaros. He's also the old Radpol hero known as Karaghiosis, whose name is that of a folk-hero trickster character representing the struggles of the Greeks under foreign oppression.

And This Immortal itself serves as a larger myth. It's one we see in fine detail, rather than in the broad strokes that myths are usually composed of; but the end twist is so momentous (even if Conrad's response to it is typically deadpan) that it can't be anything else. Then, too, there's the respectful antagonism — motivated by the valences they occupy, rather than any personal dislike — between Conrad and Hasan (who is himself shown to represent a death-god figure).

With This Immortal, Roger Zelazny Brings the Gods Down to Earth

The reason I say the novel's Hugo win was a prescient move on the part of the voters is that I think This Immortal broke the ground for a particular popular, mildly highbrow style of science fiction and fantasy, the kind Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons, and others traffic in to such success and acclaim, where not just the fantastic but the divine are juxtaposed against a contemporary sensibility, and where story itself is accorded the power of a force of nature. In these sorts of stories, it's not just that there are these overmen whose powers come from mysterious sources; it's almost more like the mystery itself is part of where their powers come from. And the mysteries can't be penetrated by any ordinary mortal means.

This is getting long, but before I stop, I think it's fair to ask why a story like this is valuable. There's a certain mind-set that claims as a given that a story is "better" when it hews more closely to reality, and I think a lot of people might dismiss This Immortal as a neat little fantasy with no bearing on what's truly important in life. Conrad, after all, is not exactly the little guy struggling to make it in an oppressive world; he's closer to Superman than he is to us, his fellow Earthlings, and so when things come together for him at the end of the book, why should we be surprised? And besides entertainment, what's the takeaway? I mean, our lives aren't myths.

But without spoiling it for those who haven't read it, I can say that the reason things come together for him is not so much because of his extra-human abilities and luck as it is because of how he comports himself. Conrad lives by a code — a code that compels him to repeatedly risk his own life to keep the Vegan alive, simply because he's promised to and in spite of the fact that it might destroy everything he loves.

And a code is really a type of myth — an artificial construction that gives order to how we view our lives. Codes don't arise inevitably, but it's by sticking to them that we shape our responses to the world and how the world responds to us; and I'd even go so far as to say that it's only with some type of code to provide structure that a human being can build the sort of life that transcends time and space.

And what's a god if not a being who transcends time and space? This Immortal is a reminder that if you want to be a hero, it's not about what you are, but about how you are. In every day and age, but especially in this one — when jadedness comes way too easy and wonder is increasingly tough to maintain — we need all the reminders we can get, as often as we can get them.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Dune, by Frank Herbert, from 1966.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.