Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, Winner of the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Science fiction and fantasy are sometimes dismissed by a certain form of literary elitist as “mere” escapism, as if an escape from “reality” is unique to modern-day genre fiction. That this is a foolish oversimplification is obvious to most of us. All fiction takes you away from this world; it’s just a matter of how far you travel. With science fiction and fantasy, you often find yourself traveling a long way, right off the edge of the map.
Sometimes you wonder if you’ve gone anywhere at all.
That was my overall reaction to rereading John Brunner’s best known work, Stand on Zanzibar. This is a dark, clever, inventive novel that challenged readers when it appeared in the late 1960s, and continues to do so now. The story unfolds through overlapping sections that build the world of the novel in layers of description and anecdote, even as the characters and their situations develop. There’s a lot to this book, and if you don’t familiarize yourself, through the table of contents, with how it is structured, it could leave you a bit confused. Brunner doesn’t spoon-feed readers in this one. Impatient readers and others with impaired attention spans might think the book a hopeless muddle. Patient readers who pay attention will be not be sorry they stayed the course. It’s a powerful book, well-written and full of dry, cynical wit, imaginative world building, and fascinatingly flawed characters. Through it, Brunner examined the chaotic changes taking place in the Western world of his time, and tried to extrapolate the consequences into the future. The none-too-distant future, in fact – the year 2010. He imagined us, in this first decade or so of the 21st century, living in a world with dangerously sharp divisions between those with wealth and those lacking it, between people with an education and those without, and those with political power and the disenfranchised. He envisioned a world in which scientific progress has been hijacked for short-term profit without regard to consequences, and where the concept of what’s “fashionable” has greater weight than social progress. It’s a world where people occasionally lose all self-control, surrender to violent impulses, and kill anyone within reach until they, themselves, are taken down.
If that all sounds distressingly familiar, you can probably guess where I’m going with this.
I wondered, as I read the book, if Brunner was trying to predict a dystopic future for Humanity, or merely saying that nothing would improve between the late 1960s and the early 21st century. I’m not sure which interpretation would be more depressing. Either way, he called so many elements of the current world correctly that even some of the more obvious inaccuracies lose much of their weight. And even when he’s wrong, he’s only wrong in the details. Western civilization seems unable to define itself without an adversary, and in the ‘60s it was Communism, especially the form showing itself in Asia. So Brunner has us in an interminable conflict with an imaginary Asian power, a logical choice since, at the time of the writing the Vietnam War appeared to be endless. In our modern “real” world that adversary isn’t Asian, its Islamic extremism, a conflict that appears to be every bit as intractable. Wrong enemy, but the prediction that there would be an enemy was all too accurate.
This is a troubling vision of the future as seen from an earlier, turbulent time. Reading it now, so many years later, is a strange experience. It feels less like a late ‘60s period piece than a summary of current events. If our world isn’t doomed, as the political fear-mongers so often imply, we certainly do live in the proverbial “interesting times.” If you want to escape them for a few hours or days, this is not the book to read. This is not to say you should never read it, for it is an important work in the genre, one with much to say about the times in which Brunner wrote, and how science fiction served as a reflection of that world, one from which many people could not look away. And how, years later, that same mirror has maintained its focus. It’s eminently worth the time and trouble.
Just don’t read it right after watching the evening news.
You try not to let it happen, but some degree of complacency often creeps into your life, over time. It’s hard to cope with a day-to-day routine without falling into the proverbial rut and just following it along. The pattern provides structure, and structure appeals. It can even be productive. For me, four of the past five years fell into a comfortable pattern that provided several hours each weekday in which to write. I’ve made good use of that pattern and produced four novels, a couple of short stories, and a brief memoir while following it. Unfortunately, the complacency encouraged by a comfortable pattern can come back to bite you without warning. In January of 2015 I started the fifth and last volume of the War of the Second Iteration series, ready to swing through that comfortable routine and get another book done by the end of the year. I was a month into it when the pattern suffered the first of a series of disruptions, turned on me, and bit hard.
At the end of January, 2015, my father died. His health hadn’t been great the previous year, but the last time I talked to him there was no indication that things were getting worse. I very much suspect he was keeping things to himself, in a misguided effort to avoid worrying us. In the middle of the month I received word that he was in the hospital, and barely a week later, in a hospice. I got to Phoenix in time to have a talk and say goodbye. I brought a copy of my latest book release, knowing he’d been looking forward to seeing it. He took the copy from my hands, clearly delighted. He’d read all three existing volumes, by then, and set aside the new book after examining it, “To read later.” And of all the sources of pain that tangle together and equal the loss of a parent, the thing that rose then to wrap around my throat and choke me up was the realization that he would never know how the story ended. Not the most rational response to watching a parent die, perhaps, but what reason is there in grief?
His death a few days later shut me down. Some writers can work through grief, but I’m not one of them. It took a long time to catch my breath and resume work on Book Five. The comfortable pattern seemed restored.
In short order, however, the pattern was twisted twice more. My wife took a tumble and broke a wrist. Not a horrific injury, though it required surgery to repair, but it caused us both great distress and took her out of action for several weeks while leaving me to take up the slack. I did this without question; that’s what you do, and she has certainly not counted the cost when I was the one down and out. This time the creative energy wasn’t balked so much as diverted, since I needed so much energy, and time, to keep things on an even keel for all concerned. While we were coping with the wrist injury, we were in a traffic accident. This left me with an injured leg that shut down a lot of activities, and slowed me down to the point that I could barely keep up with any obligations. The process of writing the book became a less organized and cohesive activity, with lengthy gaps between writing sessions that often left me feeling that I’d lost the thread of the story. I’d certainly lost that comfortable pattern, that’s for sure.
I did the only thing I could. I kept picking away at it, hoping that I’d be able to sew it all up into one neat bundle – eventually. For surely this run of bad luck couldn’t go on indefinitely – could it?
And in a way, it didn’t. Something more insidious took the place of accidents and injuries as the summer passed, a slower distortion of life’s pattern. My wife’s 89 year old father’s condition began to deteriorate, a slow but steady downhill slide that saw us spending ever more time and energy helping him cope. The pattern of daily hours for writing, barely re-established to begin with, became rather shallow. For a time, it was all at least predictable, and an adjustment could be made. Things moved slowly forward yet again. The first draft was finally completed and sent off to beta readers. While they worked it over, her father lost the ability to drive, which upped the ante quite a bit. Memory impairment also worsened, requiring more of our time still to help him manage. Then, as 2016 started to unfold, his physical health declined to the point that hospitalization was required and, ultimately, the dreaded “change in residence” loomed over us all.
This, as the revision and copy editing process began in earnest. I kept revising, in fits and starts. My wife, who does the proof reading (and is very good at it, as those who have read my books may have noticed) kept at it when and as she could. With her father in a tough spot, the book assumed a decidedly secondary status.
As you might imagine, this all added up to a year and more of ongoing frustration, and not just as a writer. Frustration, but no anger. No one (except the driver of a certain green SUV) was in any way culpable. These things just happened, and happened to string together in a series of disruptive events and circumstances. All you can do with such a run of bad luck is, well, put your head down and run with it. Rearrange the priorities appropriately to do what must be done, then just keep going. I did that, or at least, did so to the best of my ability, writing and revising only when I was free to do so. It made for slow progress, but the work did move forward.
Lately I’ve I found myself looking back on that year of disruptions and circumstances, thinking that I really need to be less dependent on any given pattern of hours and days for writing. There was a time in my life when I was able to write whenever an hour or two became available. I didn’t need that much structure – the writing was always right there, ready to go, for a paragraph or a page, whatever the moment permitted. But even as I began to chide myself for having grown so complacent, I thought about Book Five – so near, now, to release – and realized that this is exactly what I spent the past year doing. The pattern was thoroughly disrupted, and yet somehow, the book happened anyway. In paragraphs and pages at a time, writing when I could, without leaving the people in my life feeling like they were secondary priorities. Perhaps the complacency hasn’t set deep roots after all. I find that reassuring, and I cling to that reassurance. I need to be able to write that way, because you never know what comes next, and 2016 already promises to be its own sort of adventure. I’ll need all the flexibility I can muster.
Winner of the Hugo Award, 1968
In the late 1960s change and turmoil swirled around me, and I took almost no notice. I knew as little of real world affairs then as I did about science fiction. The only news that registered on my mind was that regarding the “space race,” and for me science fiction was all about Tom Swift Jr. and the occasional Heinlein young adult novel about teenagers skating down the frozen canals of Mars or navigating swamps on Venus. Well, of course, there were the black-and-white B movies, watched when the weather didn’t permit outdoor activities. This was Illinois, so in the winter at least, I spent a lot of time watching macho dudes fighting bubble-headed aliens and giant insects. I suppose that counts as sci-fi on some level. That the world was changing, and changing rapidly, around my small rural town, was invisible to me. The same was true of the steady evolution of science fiction as it was influenced by and reflected those times. The genre was expanding its reach, and bringing in ideas from an ever-widening set of sources. A case in point, the winner of the 1968 Hugo for Best Novel, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I was all of twelve years old, that year.
In Lord of Light, Zelazny tells the story of an alien world on which human settlers have used Hindu mythology as the framework for their civilization. Exactly why the original colonists chose this frame of reference never came clear to me, but the consequences were so well-realized that I wasn’t much troubled by this. The resultant civilization is ruled by Hindu gods and goddesses who are actually humans rendered immortal and given extraordinary powers through advanced technology. In general, this technology is kept from the rest of the human population, although reincarnation through the transfer of minds into new bodies can be earned by the faithful. This is not seen as technology, of course. It’s divine intervention. Centuries have passed since the original colonists arrived and tamed the world, a process that included the near extermination of the original sapient species discovered there. The battles that took place in that earlier era are recounted in the manner and style of epic Hindu myths and legends. Some of these indigenous inhabitants still survive, but are now considered demons and other manifestations of the supernatural. Almost everything about how humanity came to live in this place has been forgotten, a cultural amnesia encouraged by the “gods,” some of whom were the original colonists to settle the world.
One faction of the immortal population wants to reintroduce lost technology, with the goal of improving the lot of humanity on this world. The other gods, jealous of their privileged positions, want nothing of the sort. The novel is about the conflict between these factions. The book opens with the resurrection of a man named Sam, a clever fellow who dates back to the original colony, and something of a hero to those who would restore humanity to its full potential. How he came to be dead in the first place makes up the main body of the book, which is essentially one long flashback. (I missed this at first, and for a while the narrative had me a bit confused. Watch for an early chapter that ends with Sam sitting back and reflecting on his life.) The tale of Sam’s efforts to unseat the selfish gods of his world unfolds quickly and smoothly, a very different work from Zelazny’s previous Hugo winner, but clearly a work of the same mind and imagination.
The use of a non-Western mythological frame of reference was a departure for science fiction of the time, though Zelazny may not actually have been the first to do so. It was, however, one of the first novels to win the Hugo while recognizing the validity and utility of other mythic traditions for the sake of story-telling. (The other was Frank Herbert’s Dune.) That the book was written when it was is surely no coincidence, as the counter-culture inspirations of the ‘60s were at that time spilling out into the general public in a big way. The Beatles weren’t the only ones playing sitars and practicing transcendental meditation at that point. Anyone alive in that time would have been aware of how these “exotic” ideas were being embraced – and resisted – by the people around them. For those of a creative nature, it was all raw materials, grist for the mill. The science fiction genre certainly partook of these possibilities, and Lord of Light is one result. It’s a novel that remains very readable, having “aged” well, but is clearly a product of its time, as books so often are. The product of times that passed me by almost unnoticed, even as they changed the world.
I’ve always thought that the trickiest part of blazing a trail in the real world is trying to decide how to best make your way through the landscape. If the idea is to make the trail worth following for others, you need to lay it out in a way that appeals, and draws future travelers forward. That goal hangs in the balance every time you confront an obstacle. You can seek a path of least resistance, of course. That might get you where you want to go, and the trail you leave behind will surely lend itself to being followed by others. But if it misses the more eye-catching parts of the landscape and offers nothing of interest, no challenges, why would anyone bother? Should you cut through this thick underbrush or go around it? Do the latter and you might miss something wonderful hidden in the trees and shrubs. And then there’s that steep slope. Go around, or carve a switchback and hope the view will be worth the effort for later travelers? There’s a right answer each time, but the only way to find it is to make a choice, a commitment, and move forward. Each decision has consequences that affect the trail you leave behind, sometimes diverting it from the course you meant to follow. Turns out just making the start, the trailhead, isn’t the toughest part after all.
Writing a novel or short story works the same way. With the first pages or chapters of a rough draft set down, and the story begun, it’s tempting to say the hardest part is behind you. After all, you’ve made that start, and now you’re moving forward. But as you move away from that attractive opening, all the possibilities inherent in any nascent work of fiction begin to manifest in your brain. And that’s when the trouble begins. Bushwhacking through this metaphorical underbrush quickly proves more of a challenge than most people expect. To be sure, the way is sometimes very clear, and the view is immediately fantastic, exciting. Just as it is in cutting a trail in the real world, the ground is sometimes bare and all you need to do is stride forward, perhaps piling cairns of stones or laying a few branches along the side to guide the way. But it’s inevitable that obstacles will present themselves. Numerous choices arise, like a thicket of trees with dense, tangled underbrush. Go around it? But what might you miss inside? If you plunge in you must decide what to cut and what to leave growing beside the path you want to create. Each stroke of the machete, each decision, moves you forward by eliminating a specific shrub or plot option. Cut this branch – say you decide a character says “Yes” to a relationship instead of “No” – and the trail bends this way instead of that way. Is that the right way to go? The only way to know is to cut through the rest of the brush and see what lies beyond.
You do so. Now, is this where you want to be? Never mind where you might have intended to be at this point. The path you’re trying to cut will often take you in unintended directions and this can be a good thing or bad. If the result is acceptable you carry on, striding forward, nipping off a stray thought here, an idea there, leaving them on the trail behind you for later clean-up. If not, it’s back into the thicket of possibilities for another try. Fortunately, this is a fast-growing metaphor, capable of almost instantaneous regeneration. This, also, is both a good and bad thing at times. You remain unable to see exactly where it is you need to pass through the thicket, but now that you’ve glimpsed the other side, you’re not totally clueless. So on you go, cutting a new path and hoping this will be the correct route.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s just good enough for now, and you move on anyway, and that actually is the best idea more often than not. You can come back to the awkward kinks in the trail and fix things for good and all later. It’s generally a good idea to keep moving whenever possible because some other feature of the story landscape, revealed later, might help resolve the situation. Looking back from higher ground can often be revealing.
The arm will grow weary of swinging the ax and machete. So will the mind while writing your way down a new trail to story’s end. Either way, it’s sometimes tough work cutting a trail through an untouched wilderness, even if that wilderness is “merely” an image in the mind’s eye or a sequence of ideas. But if you are true to this process, you will keep going until you reach the journey’s end. How long must you endure? Depends on the story in you, and the choices you make as you blaze the trail. In other words, it’ll take as long as it takes.
The War of the Second Iteration series is nearly complete, with four of the five volumes available and Book Five – Setha’im Prosh – entering the editorial/revision phase. It should be available in very early 2016.
What has gone before…
Book One, The Luck of Han’anga
For Robert MacGregor and the crew of the probeship William Bartram, it’s a dream come true. Theirs will be the mission that makes the long awaited First Contact with an intelligent nonhuman species, a race of humanoid beings called the Leyra’an. But the dream soon becomes something very different when the Leyra’an prove to be more than just humanoid. They are like us to a degree that cannot be explained by chance alone. As if that isn’t complicated enough, the Leyra’an are at war, locked in a conflict that soon threatens the safety of the William Bartram and its crew. First Contact was sure to be a challenge, but no one could have expected this!
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Book Two, Founders’ Effect
While Robert and Alicia MacGregor, survivors of the ill-fated probeship William Bartram, work to rebuild their lives, the Commonwealth seeks a way to end the long, bitter conflict between the Republic and the Leyra’an. But the leaders of the Republic, suspicious of the motives that drive their long-sundered kin and faced with unrest among their own people, resist the changes that must come for peace to exist. And all the while, forces unseen by either side are at work, determined to force Humanity and the Leyra’an down the road to war.
Book Three, The Plight of the Eli’ahtna
On a mission to bring aid to a beleaguered star system, John Knowles and Eb’shra Wirolen have been hurled by a freak accident across countless light years, and are marooned in uncharted space. As they work to repair their damaged ship, the Eli’ahtna, and the friends they’ve left behind launch a desperate rescue mission to bring them home, the castaways discover that although they are truly lost, they are not alone.
Book Four, The Courage to Accept
Four years of research, using the combined resources of five species of sentient beings, have brought Alicia MacGregor no closer to understanding how Humanity’s sibling species came into existence. Who was responsible for redirecting the natural course of evolution on four living worlds? Why did they do it? And can she find the answer before the Faceless render all such questions moot? For the Faceless are back with a vengeance, and as implacable as ever. The Commonwealth has known nothing but peace for almost four hundred years. Now, war is upon them. How do you prepare for something no one alive has ever seen?
Coming in 2016…
Book Five, Setha’im Prosh
The Republic is failing in its defense, and Confederation is now under a determined assault. Former enemies close ranks against a merciless enemy, one bent on the utter extinction of Humanity and any who stand with them. Humanity does not stand alone, but will even the aid of the Sibling Species and the alien T’lack be enough to stop the Faceless, an enemy no one can predict or understand?
Also in this universe, the short story “Long Time Passing,” still available as a free download.
The Commonwealth’s grand star liner Edwin Teale has entered Leyra’an space on a mission of cultural exchange. Among the ship’s passengers is Martin Russman, a man scarred by terrible memories from an ancient war, memories he has worked hard to erase. But can he escape the shadows of his own past if history repeats itself?
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1967
I have strong memories of books I read in younger days. I was not a particularly sociable youngster, being on the small side and relatively thin-skinned, and often uncomfortable around my rowdier small-town peers. I became something of a loner, which was not encouraged in that place and time, and very quickly came to place a high value on having time to myself. Reading is a natural fit for such a frame of mind. Finding such solitude was remarkably difficult between long days at school and living in a small house with parents and four siblings. There was often only one place to go to get away from everyone and get any peace, especially in winter, when being outside was rarely an option – inside my own head. This may have been what rendered me imaginative. It’s certainly what turned a desire to read into a compulsion.
Fortunately, there were other readers in the family, and seeing in me a kindred spirit, they did what they could to provide me some space (reminding siblings that it was rude to distract someone while they were reading) while keeping me supplied with books. If a birthday or holiday season passed without at least a couple of books being unwrapped, the occasion felt incomplete. This almost never happened. Since one of these relatives, an aunt, was a die-hard science fiction fan, I was introduced to the genre very early, and among the first novels I read were those by Robert A. Heinlein that would these days be considered YA. These books had an enormous impact on how my imagination developed. I practically memorized stories such as Red Planet, Between Planets, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel – the last being my favorite in those days. Since I responded so eagerly to these Heinlein novels, it comes as no surprise that this same aunt, when I was a few years older, produced copies of Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as gifts. Both novels fascinated me, and were read multiple times. One of these books, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, was the last novel by Heinlein to ever win the Hugo Award.
When I read these works by Heinlein as a teenager I was, well, a teenager. Typical of someone that age, my frame of reference wasn’t exactly expansive, so when I read fiction it was in a rather superficial way. This didn’t start to change until I was well into high school and became more aware of (tempted to say sensitive to) subtexts in the fiction I read. This explains the effect Dune and The Fellowship of the Ring had on me, at the time I read them, and timing really is everything. I first read Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress well before reading Dune, and this gradual increase in awareness had barely begun to develop. I enjoyed both, but was mostly blind to anything beyond the central plots. As a result, when re-reading Starship Troopers a couple of years ago, I was rather startled by my reaction to the book. The political subtext was anything but subtle, and the preachy quality was blatant enough that it almost spoiled the book, and cast a shadow on some old memories. So it’s not surprising that I approached The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (and before that, Stranger in a Strange Land) with a bit of wariness.
Stranger in a Strange Land survived the test of time, and so did The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.As was the case with Strange in a Strange Land Heinlein’s personal philosophy and political beliefs inform The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but in this he is really no different from any other author. If it serves the story, it can work for me, even if I don’t entirely agree with that particular philosophy. Of the Heinlein I’ve re-read, only Starship Troopers blatantly subverted the story to drive home a message. In Stranger in a Strange Land the story carried his points without becoming pointed, and so it was with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This is not to say that I came away from this reading with the same impression I had when I was fifteen years old. The author’s Libertarian-style point of view is easy to see all through the book, but in this case he uses these ideals to build a civilization that, while it exemplifies that school of thought, isn’t a deliberate application of it. Heinlein imagines, in the development of the lunar culture in the book, a society that is essentially libertarian in nature, but not by design. Survival in that deadly lunar environment dictated certain traits and behaviors, and the society depicted in the novel is a consequence of that.
When I read the book early in high school, I was fascinated by the way the lunar revolutionaries orchestrated their complicated conspiracy. Knowing human nature a bit better these days, I find it all a little less plausible, almost naïve in the way it unfolds so well. Never mind deliberate betrayal, inevitable human error and simple bad luck play roles that would more than likely unravel the scheme if it went on too long. I get the feeling Heinlein realized this, because his lunar revolution, when it comes, does erupt abruptly and before the narrator believes they are fully prepared. Less easy to overlook was his characterization of the two sides involved in the conflict, and it’s here that I could see his politics most clearly. The colonists are, for the most part, competent, self-reliant people. Stereotypical rugged individualists, the myth of colonial America set on the Moon. The administrators of the lunar penal colony, along with their handlers on Earth, were equally, if negatively, stereotyped as over-reaching and often inept government bureaucrats, clearly lesser beings, and blind to anything but the need to remain in rigid control of the lunar population. Heinlein manages once again to avoid preaching. Use of first-person narrative helps here, which is ironic since he used the same style of voice in Starship Troopers. But he stopped that story dead in its tracks to deliver a sermon. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it just comes across as the way one Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis happens to perceive the world and the people who share it with him, and the story keeps rolling along.
There was one element that I just couldn’t buy, as an adult reader of fiction. As is so often true with Heinlein, and other authors of that time period, the interactions between males and females sometimes have a juvenile quality to them that, in this more sensitive era, comes across as sexist. I try to make allowances for sensibilities changing over time, when I read older books, but now and then I run into something that leaves me shaking my head. Heinlein attempts to describe how the curious sexual dynamics of the lunar colony developed, and why, and it approaches being plausible. But in the end a minority population of women dressing like it was a day at the beach and encouraging – even expecting – wolf whistling, eye-rolling, and foot stomping recognition of their beauty strained my ability to suspend disbelief.
Even with that wrinkle, though, I managed to enjoy revisiting this old novel. And with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I leave the work of Robert A. Heinlein behind, as far as the Hugo Awards are concerned. Heinlein did very well with the Hugos, winning four and being nominated for ten. He remained popular and productive almost to the end of his days. And yet, at some point in the 1980’s his work began to lose its appeal for me. The last Heinlein novel I read that I truly enjoyed was Time Enough for Love. After that there was something of a sense of having been here before one time too many, and later on, too often a sense that the author was being more than a bit self-indulgent. People would grow excited about a new Heinlein novel, and sometimes passed copies on to me when it was clear I lacked the motivation to buy one for myself. I usually gave those books a try but – and here The Number of the Beast comes to mind – I generally ended up setting them aside unfinished. They didn’t hold my attention. The times changed and I changed with them, altering my tastes in food, in music, and in fiction. Nothing against Heinlein, to be honest. It just sometimes works that way.
This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
Thoughts inspired by the co-winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1966
In 1966 voters for the Hugo Award apparently had a terrible time deciding which of two novels should receive top honors. I know nothing of what might have been going on behind the scenes in that year (I was 10 years old and reading Tom Swift Jr. adventures at the time, unaware that there was such a thing as science fiction fandom) and haven’t looked into the history of the vote. I probably won’t, either, since that’s not the point of these essays. What I have done is read both books involved, books that ended up tied for the award that year, and so were awarded it jointly. A comparison of these books is illustrative of how diverse the tastes of the science fiction and fantasy community can be, and of the fact that this is nothing new.
This Immortal was originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the title “…And Call Me Conrad.” The book version, when it was published, was apparently somewhat different, but I’ve only read the book version, so I can’t comment on the changes that were made. The book I read was short, quirky, and tightly written, a first-person narrative from the point of view of a most unusual character. Conrad Nomikos is the product of the radioactive legacy of Earth’s last war, bearing deformities but possessed of enormous physical strength, and quite possibly immortal. A one-time terrorist in an effort to keep the still-ruined Earth from being owned by a race of beings from the Vega star system, Conrad now heads a bureau with the alleged mission of preserving Earth’s remaining cultural treasures. In that capacity he finds himself forced to play tour guide to a visiting Vegan who is not what he seems. As they tour Earth’s ancient ruins, those predating the nuclear war I mean, Conrad discovers a conspiracy to murder the Vegan, for reasons that are not quite clear. Though he finds this Vegan contemptible, Conrad finds himself thrust into the role of protector. The tale that unfolds is an odd one, a tour of the post-holocaust Mediterranean region populated by ordinary people trying to rebuild a world that now includes dangerous mutants, cannibal tribes, and creatures of myth reborn into the waking world. It’s a surreal, imaginative journey, a quest that seems to have no purpose until the mystery is resolved in the end. The tale is told by a character who shows a curious mix of cynicism and compassion, guided by a moral compass that is his alone.
I’d never read This Immortal until now, though I’m certainly familiar with the work of Roger Zelazny. Much of what I first read of Zelazny came in the form of short fiction (“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “This Moment of the Storm” immediately come to mind), and this short novel felt very much like those works. Had I read it early on, it would have made a strong and positive impression, of the sort that had you seeking other works by that author. As it was, his short fiction led me to other novels, and so I picked this one up already a fan of Zelazny’s work.
A tie for best novel in the Hugo awards is very rare. The tie between This Immortal and Dune was the first, and there have been just two since then. In this case, the two novels involved couldn’t be more different. Dune is long, complicated, vividly described, with multiple points of view that combine to tell a tale of intrigue as vast as a galaxy. This Immortal is short, a there- and-back again tale of adventure and mystery in a setting described with just enough detail to move you through the landscape, all of it seen through the eyes of the character telling the tale. Dune explores lofty themes of religion and philosophy, very much a reflection of culture of the 1960s. This Immortal is rooted, as so many novels of science fiction were in that decade, in the nuclear terrors of the Cold War, mixing a post-apocalyptic tale with an alien contact story. The only thing that really ties these books together is genre.
This says something important about the genre we define, at times rather loosely, as science fiction. Science fiction as a form of literature is difficult to define precisely because it is so wide-ranging in its themes and concepts, so open to experimentation and new ideas. No other genre I know of can touch it in terms of sheer diversity, for diversity seems to be its fundamental nature. Someone once told me that science fiction represents a continuum full of blurred boundaries and fuzzy edges, but that characterization has never satisfied me. It’s more like the literary equivalent of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram used by astronomers to classify the stars in their multitude of forms. Instead of a box for this kind of star, and another for those, all the while wondering which box to use for the big, hot, blue one, astronomy has one “box” that holds all stars, while providing a sense of order for their diversity. I sometimes think of the diversity within science fiction represented in this way. Just as stars, while having common characteristics, are not all one kind of thing, so it is with science fiction: a scatter-shot of diversity that, all the same, can be arranged in a sensible fashion and recognized as related forms. Science fiction, as clearly illustrated by this pairing of Hugo winners, has never been a homogeneous thing, and this diversity has only increased in the decades since This Immortal and Dune fell into their first-place tie.
That increase in diversity has created a comparable diversification in the people who read and write such tales. This makes sense. Science fiction, by exploring possibilities over the years, has naturally attracted people who might not, in a bygone age, have been interested in reading space opera adventures. Buck Rogers isn’t for everyone. A happy consequence of diversification is enrichment, as ideas that might once have been beyond the genre are folded into the mix and become grist for the mill. For a genre of fiction proud of its ideas, this can only be a good thing, since new ideas to explore are what it’s all about. Any attempt to limit the steady evolution of the genre, and the diversification these changes bring, is a fool’s errand, and one doomed to fail.