Science fiction writers got religion in the 1960s. Or at least their
books did.  

Back in the so-called Golden Age of sci-fi, which
roughly spanned from the 1930s to the early Cold
War years, the writers who churned out stories for
the pulp magazines didn't worry much about the
creeds and dogmas of the bug-eyed monsters
from outer space and other strange life forms that
filled their tales. These storytellers had other things
to worry about—post-nuclear weapons, faster-than-
light warp drives, battles in outer space, and the
other concerns of 14-year-old adolescent males
who made up their target audience.

The turning point, in my opinion, came in 1958
with the publication of James Blish's
A Case of
Conscience, a strange outer space thriller that
contained far more theology than astrophysics. Blish's novel won the
coveted Hugo award, as did another spiritually-charged book,
A Canticle
for Leibowitz, two years later. Strange as it seems, religion was now
the hottest thing in sci-fi.  When Roger Zelazny won the Hugo in 1966
for his pagan revival work
This Immortal, it tied with another creed-based
drama, Frank Herbert’s massive
Dune. During this period, a host of high
profile writers—from Ursula K. Le Guin to Kurt Vonnegut—were exploring
other ways of mixing sci-fi concepts with spiritual dogma, and even
managed to reach a crossover highbrow literary audience in the process.  
Perhaps society had grown more secularized during the decade, but
genre fiction was pointedly moving in the opposite direction.

Zelazny hardly owned this movement, but he did stake out a claim to a
sizable territory. He understood, better than anyone, that you didn't need
to create a new space-age religion for sci-fi; the old-time belief systems
of Mother Earth were good enough. In his hands, Hinduism, Buddhism,
Norse mythology, Navajo myths, or even the good ol' Judeo-Christian
dogma, could serve as a springboard for a fast-paced action story. You
might think that this formula would result in sluggish, introspective tales,
long on hermeneutics and short on fisticuffs, but this was hardly the case.
Zelazny's protagonists may be gods, or demigods, but usually of the more
vengeful variety. They are more likely to level the walls of Jericho than issue
ten commandments on a stone tablet.

This Immortal (also known as …And Call Me Conrad) is a case in point.
Zelazny's hero Conrad Nomikos is allegedly one of the Kallikantzaroi,
mythical creatures known for destruction and bringing bad luck to mortals.
He also might be the Greek god Pan. Or perhaps just a human mutation,
one of many followng the "Three Day War" that left much of Earth piping
hot with radiation. Yet whatever his origins, Conrad is lax in enforcing moral
codes, but deadly in mortal combat.

Equivocal belief systems of this sort, where you do unto others before they
get a chance to do it unto you, play to Zelazny's strength which is not theology
but fight scenes. I will put it straight: no science fiction writer is better at
describing hand-to-hand combat than Roger Zelazny. The best punch-em-up
in sci-fi history can be found in his novel
Lord of Light, where he stretches out
some enhanced mixed martial arts between Lord Yama and Rild over the
course of eight gut-wenching pages.  Where did Zelazny learn this craft?  
Certainly not by reading science fiction, where most confrontations are at
a distance, and rely on high tech gadgets. (However, I do note, with interest,
that Zelazny wrote his graduate thesis on
The Revenger's Tragedy—which
could be described as the
Kill Bill of the Jacobean age.)  Certainly he
delivers the goods again in
This Immortal, where readers can enjoy a
spirited brawl every 40-50 pages, more or less.

Conrad Nomikos has been called in as tour guide for a visiting Vegan
(no, not that kind of Vegan…but a visitor from Vega, a bright star in the
constellation Lyra) who wants to see the surviving monuments of post-
nuclear-war Earth. The visiting alien has been sent to complete a secret
mission, but Nomikos is unable to figure out what it is, even with the
benefit of telepathy and interrogation of various sources. Apparently
what happens in Vega, stays in Vega. He soon finds that some of his
associates, who have joined on the grand tour, intend to murder the
Vegan. Nomikos is torn by conflicting allegiances—does he protect or
destroy?  Or will he be destroyed in the process?

Zelazny is a frustrating writer for all his flamboyance and skill.  He is flawless
in describing conflict, whether one-on-one or the battle royale.  But he has
little patience for character development or relating the nuances of a back
story. In the opening pages, he introduces the reader to Cassandra, Conrad,
Ellen, Phil, Hasan, Donald, Myshtigo, Lorel, George and Diane. But these
are mostly rushed, almost like the quick nod of acknowledgement to a
new acquaintance at a cocktail party. Zelazny should take more care here,
and also use this opportunity to tell us more about the galactic and terrestrial
political situation that is behind the characters' conflicting motives and
aspirations. But our author is impatient for the action to begin, and hurries
through the preliminaries.  

He is only partially to blame here. Zelazny originally wrote this story for
serialization in
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, where the
editor downsized the text before publishing it. Zelazny restored 11,000
words before publishing it in book form, but the finished product still bears
the marks of its origins as escapist fiction for teenage readers. Certainly
Zelazny had the talent to deliver a more subtly paced narrative.  When he
slows down or takes the trouble to introduce a subplot or side story, he
does it with aplomb. My verdict: even though I enjoyed this 58,000-word
novel, I suspect I would have enjoyed it all the more at 70,000 or 80,000

Despite this reservation, I still would recommend
This Immortal to genre
fiction fans. Even as he got religion, along with his contemporaries in
sci-fi, Zelazny embodied many of the core virtues of the leading Golden
Age writers. If you don’t dig the citations to Sir James George Frazer's
The Golden Bough, you may still enjoy the snappy dialogue and witty
asides. It's highbrow, middlebrow, and low brow, all mixed together—
in short, something for everyone. Or, if all else fails, you can just wait for
the fight scenes. Zelazny won't keep you waiting for long, and no one does
dueling deities with better choreography.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a history of
love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication date: September 16, 2014
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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