This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny

This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny, was originally called …And Call Me Conrad (in shorter format, published in two parts in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1965); I prefer the original title, and apparently Zelazny did too. …And Call Me Conrad tied for the Hugo award in 1966 with Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune.

Zelazny_thisimmortalThis Immortal is set on a future Earth, a long time after a nuclear war. ‘Hotspots’ from the war still exist, and there are primitive human tribes and some strangely mutated, mythological-like animals that are large and dangerous.

A sentient, alien species, the Vegans, are curious about humanity and the Earth is a popular tourist location; Vegans have purchased some parts of the planet, which is not exactly popular with Earth-based humans. Vegans are blue skinned, have spiracles in their chests, and are generally haughty regarding their superiority.

The novel is revealed in first person narrative by Conrad, and his ‘voice’ makes the story endearing, though in the beginning sections of the novel Zelazny pushes rather awkwardly to make Conrad sound like a ‘happening dude’ (I suppose he can be forgiven; it was the 1960s); once past the first couple of dozen pages, the story settles in (perhaps I was simply inured to the vernacular by then).

It becomes clear early on that Conrad is at least centuries old; the reason for his extended lifetime is never explained, but is possibly due to a mutation from a hot zone. It is also hinted that Conrad may be the ancient God Pan.  Conrad was the leader of a resistance movement that attempted to protect the Earth from  infiltration by the alien Vegans, but those events were far in the past and Conrad is now a caretaker of Earth’s historical areas (his involvement as the resistance leader is not generally known; nor is his age).

The mutant animals in the story are a bit over-the-top, and many of the scenes are dated and pulpy, but there is also subtle depth in the novel. For example, there are brief scenes depicting the universe from the alien’s perspective (note: Conrad also has some telepathic abilities); I particularly enjoyed the Vegans’ ability to see deeper beauty in the ultra-violet spectrum, and it is sections such as this, as well as Conrad’s discussions with other characters (in particular, Hasan, the assassin), that enable the novel to rise above a propensity for superficial pulp fiction.

Conrad is tasked with the job of guiding an important Vegan, Cort Myshtigo, through a tour of Earth’s ruins in Egypt and Greece. Vegans are blue-skinned aliens who find humans intriguing, if a tad odd (why, for instance, would an intelligent species use nuclear weapons?). There is a group of humans who believe Myshtigo is scouting for ideal real estate on Earth, and they want to murder the alien, but Conrad believes there is something more to the alien’s visit and vows to protect the blue-skinned being as they travel in a group through historical areas and mutant-filled landscapes, and around hotspots. It is not until the end of the novel that the truth of Myshtigo’s visit becomes clear.

I enjoyed Conrad’s character, more so as the story unfolded. There is a bit too much pulp in the novel; nevertheless, it is a quick read, the intriguing sections made the whole a worthwhile experience, and the conclusion is satisfying.

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Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson, is a hard science fiction novel from 1970 (the novel was expanded from a 1967 short story, To Outlive Eternity). The characterizations and dialogue are a bit pulpy for my tastes, but Anderson’s imagination is wonderful, and the science is interesting, if somewhat dated (e.g.: in 1978 Thomas Heppenheimer demonstrated the design flaw in Bussard’s ramjet design: when charged particles decelerate, bremsstralung radiation is produced, and the losses associated with the bremsstrahlung process are massive compared to any power that would be produced by the Bussard ramjet. The Bussard design may be ideal for braking a starship, which is, ironically, the problem encountered in Tau Zero). Before reading Tau Zero, I hadn’t read any of Anderson’s works in a long time, and I don’t have any particular memories of his novels, but I recall being fond of some of his shorter works; in particular, Goat Song and Call Me Joe (which should have been given credit by James Cameron for his movie Avatar).

Poul_Anderson_tauzeroIn Tau Zero, twenty-five men and twenty-five women are sent on a reconnaissance/colonization mission aboard a starship (the Leonora Christine) that is propelled by a Bussard ramjet. The ship suffers damage en route and it is impossible to decelerate and stop the vessel at the destination solar system. The crew decides to keep accelerating until they reach an empty portion of space, where they can effect repairs and then find another suitable planet for colonization. They continue to accelerate and the time dilation effect — the relative time on-board ship compared to the Earth they left — becomes ever greater. Everything they left behind — even the rest of the human race and their home solar system — no longer exists.

Psychological problems develop: an iconic, pulpy, alpha-male takes control and the first-officer, a woman, finds the need to sleep with a couple of men in order to alleviate their ennui. I’d prefer more thoughtful leadership in a novel depicting the future; old-fashioned roles are easy solutions for an author. 

Tau Zero is an easy book to read and it contains some interesting concepts, but I found it a bit too pulpy for my tastes, and the ending is convenient, but implausible.

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