“Żelazo” is Polish for “iron”—the root of Roger Zelazny’s family name. A hard, unbending substance, the name seems an appropriate metaphor for his persistent choice of protagonists; picking up a Zelazny novel, the reader knows precisely who will occupy the lead role. Zelazny’s first novel, the 1966 This Immortal (previously serialized as …And Call Me Conrad), presented the first such hero and is the starting place of all the author’s forays into the mythically fantastic. Featuring the part-man, part-god Conrad, the book sets the benchmark for every novel/protagonist that would come later in the author’s oeuvre. Multi-layered and featuring some of the strongest writing he would produce, the novel is also amongst Zelazny’s best.
Scarred, diseased, mismatched eyes, and walking with a limp, Conrad Nimikos is a rather atypical hero—larger-than-life nonetheless. Possessing a past centuries in length and awash with hazy facts, his present, unfortunately, is crystal clear. Having been decimated in a three-day nuclear war, Earth lies in ravages, its population under the control of an alien group, the Vegans, who took control in the aftermath. An enlightened race, the Vegans have transported the majority of humans to their home planet to live in peace and safety. However, roughly 4 million remain on Earth in pockets of land untouched by radiation, many mutated beyond recognition. His job to oversee the cultural treasures left unaffected by the war, Conrad is the Commissioner of the Earthoffice Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives. Asked one day to give an important Vegan a tour of ancient Egypt and Greece, his pride is challenged: give respect to Earth’s controllers or to defend her honor by eliminating the overseer? In classic Zelazny style, the road Conrad chooses is his own.
For a first novel, This Immortal is written with surprising confidence and skill. The descriptions are deft and characters are effectively sketched in a few words. But Zelazny absolutely shines in dialogue. Possessing the perfect balance between character voice and thoughts left between the lines (Conrad’s conversations with Hasan are just brilliant), the narrative is at most times a perfect economy of words—“One does not go to hell to light a cigarette.” just one of many lines that say more than what’s written on the surface.
Setting the bar for Zelazny’s fiction (actually welding the bar in place), This Immortal utilizes myth and heroism to backstop story. A small but specific selection of Greek gods, anima, heroes and tropes motivate the narrative. But at no time does the feeling of “Hey, look at me, I’m playing in Homer land!” take over the novel. Zelazny picks and chooses his motifs carefully, allowing Earth’s situation and the backdrop of nuclear holocaust to color the majority of setting and characters. The result is a story that occupies the liminal space between myth and reality and can thus be interpreted two ways—a credit to Zelazny’s handling of the text.
At perhaps its most base level, however, This Immortal is a book that puts humanity on trial for its past deeds and attempts to determine whether our kind is worthy of continued existence. The preceding nuclear holocaust and the resulting wasteland affecting people in a variety of manners, Zelazny handles the premise with aplomb, nothing morally whitewashed. Conrad’s past and current circumstances indeterminate, it’s in the tenor of his behavior and choices he makes that his intrinsic value is presented. Conrad is a gray hero for an imperfect world, and must be judged as such. Which way the scales finally tip, however, must be discovered in the reading.
Where problems start to creep into the novel is with overt elements of the fantastic. I am probably in the minority in saying this, but the battle scenes starring mutant creatures simply do not fit what is otherwise a mature narrative. Duels featuring giant crocodiles with multiple legs heavily contrast the commentary—direct and indirect—on humanity’s stewardship of planet Earth. The setting and premise sci-fi enough, adding such comic book scenes distracts from the main conflict and feel only as though Zelazny threw in such puolp era tropes just to spice up what is already an intriguing story. Certainly there are readers who enjoy Zelazny precisely for this aspect of his writing, I simply appreciate more the sublime handling of myth, for example the usage of Jason, satyrs, and the like. (Gene Wolfe and his Latro novels are a good example of the subtle usage of myth in modern fiction.)
In the end, This Immortal is an accomplished debut from a writer who would go on to redefine the usage of myth in speculative fiction. The writing startlingly accomplished for a first novel, readers should expect a story containing dialogue that is adroit and dexterous as can be, the tale equally engaging. Able to be understood along parallel lines: the mythic and the realistic, Zelazny likewise shows a good handle on story base, the tentative value of mankind seeping through it all despite the occasional cartoonish scene. Conrad not the typical storybook hero, he is nevertheless a man to be empathized as he carries out his alien commission to the best of his human abilities. Maybe not a thousand faces, but he would go on to be the hero of nearly every Zelazny story thereafter.