This immortal was originally published in a somewhat shorter, serialized form under the title “… and call me Conrad” which was apparently Zelazny’s preferred title for the work and may or may not be the title it is currently published under? Apparently the “complete” version wasn’t actually published until 1980. I read the 1974 Ace edition so there are (once again, apparently) about ten paragraphs that I didn’t get.
It’s been hard for me to find the right angle to approach this one from. This review will probably come across as more negative than this book warrants considering its publication history but so be it. I’ll just say for the record that I do like Zelazny’s work, including this book.
Also the aliens are from Vega so they are, naturally, referred to as “Vegans” which has great comedic potential.
Conrad Nomikos is apparently ageless and possibly a god. Conrad is ugly, clubfooted and with a face covered in some sort of fungal infection. The Earth has been devastated by nuclear war, the vast majority of the population has moved offplanet to serve as menial servants to the Vegan people. The Vegans are fascinated with how humanity has managed to destroy their planet and view the Earth as an intriguing holiday destination.
Years previously, Conrad was the leader of the Radpol movement, the center of the Returnist movement that attempted to convince human expatriates to return to their homeworld and used terrorism to prevent the Earth from being entirely turned into a tourist trap for the Vegans.
Now, Conrad has been charged with escorting the wealthy Vegan Cort Myshtigo on a research tour of prominent locations in human history. Myshtigo claims they are writing a book, but the current Radpol leadership sees Myshtigo’s trip as a fact-finding expedition to enable complete Vegan domination of the planet.
So how is it?
It’s short. It’s interesting. It’s incredibly dated.
For historical context, it tied with Dune for the 1966 Hugo. So at the time at least this book was held in high acclaim. And deservedly so. The blurb on the 1974 Ace edition that I have paints an incredibly misleading picture of what the story actually is, presenting it as a straightforward “Superhuman fights alien invaders” which is far from what is actually going on here. I think this misleading blurb actually made me like it more as it meant I wasn’t prepared for what ended up being a much more nuanced story (although considering that it was by Zelazny I should have realized that was going to be the case all along…).
This immortal does interesting work, balancing a heavy dose of myth with more traditional science fiction. It’s quick enough and interesting enough that it’s well worth reading as long as one keeps in mind the historical context. Because this book also features a parade of ethnic stereotypes.
In Zelazny’s defense, it doesn’t seem mean-spirited. There are some moderately clever references (the killer for hire is named Hasan) but for the most part every character with a defined ethnicity ends up caricatured to some degree or another, including the narrator. It’s intrusive enough to detract from the experience and the setting, where most of the surviving humans are reduced to extremely primitive conditions, exacerbates the issue. So that really holds this back from being as great as it could have been.
The text itself is beautiful. Zelazny’s prose is a joy to read. There’s a poetic quality to it that’s hard to describe. There’s not really a whole lot to the story. Even for a book that’s under 200 pages, not very much actually happens. It’s definitely a product of 60s sf but it’s also Zelazny which means there’s significantly more moral complexity than one might expect and the plot resolution deftly avoids cliché.
There are really three things this book has going for it. The quality of the writing itself, the way the story fuses sf with myth to create something that works on multiple levels but where each level can stand successfully on its own, and the plot resolution that is satisfying and flouts some of the more popular pulp sf tropes. What it has going against it is cartoonish racism which is really unfortunate.
It’s a decent recommendation for fans of classic sf since it’s short and is less well-known than its co-Hugo-winner. Those looking for classic sf are generally aware that they’re going to get “treated” to a parade of ethnic stereotypes so it’s less of a liability here. Otherwise it’s a more cautious recommendation.