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 words.
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.