Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: And Call Me Conrad/This Immortal Part I

Welcome back to my Roger Zelazny book reviews. Today I'm looking at the first half of "...And Call me Conrad"/"This Immortal".

I think I owned This Immortal for a good six months before I read it. I bought my first copy when we moved to New Hampshire and lived in proximity of a wonderful specialty book store that carried nothing but sci-fi and fantasy. It had more Zelazny than I had ever seen in one place and I scooped up one copy of everything I didn't have (and often one copy of everything I did have because these were two dollar used book store paperbacks)

I looked at it and kind of shrugged and put it on my bookshelf and forgot about it. It looked slim and lightweight, and the title? This Immortal? It's a Roger Zelazny book. Aren't they all about this or that immortal anyway? It sounded like the name of a Roger Zelazny parody.

I know better now, of course. This Immortal (Like me, Zelazny preferred his original title, "...And Call Me Conrad") is not only a highly enjoyable read,  but also a work of tremendous sophistication from an author who was not yet thirty at the time and not incidental to these two facts, a Hugo award winner (having tied with Dune in 1966).

So that is the tale of how I came so late to one of the strongest works of my favorite author.

It is the story of an earth was devastated in a long ago war. Humanity was largely wiped out (global population is about four million), though many humans live as expatriates on Vegan worlds.

What's a Vegan? They "partake not in the meat, nor the breastmilk, nor the ovum, of any creature, with a face" which allows them to use all of their brainpower because the other 90% is no longer filled up with curds and whey.

Scott Pilgrim shout out!

I have the audio book of this and he pronounces it Vee-gan rather than Vay-gan, and while this in fact is the correct pronunciation, it makes me think of people who eschew any kind of animal in their diet every time I hear it. Vegans in This Immortal are friendly blue aliens who helped humanity after we almost wiped ourselves out, but they engendered some bad will in certain segments of humanity by adapting certain sections of the world for tourism and resorts.

Our lead is Conrad Nomikos, who has gone by other names in his time. He is the Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives for the planet Earth. He's a big man, and strong, like most Zelazny protagonists, but not a handsome one.

His wife is the lovely Cassandra. She can see the future, but no one believes her. The book was written 45 years ago before this kind of thing became a cliche, so I'm willing to give Zelazny a pass on this. (But seriously, when I encounter a character in a more modern genre work named Cassandra, the big surprise is if she's not psychic)

In his capacity as Commissioner, Conrad is retained by a visiting Vegan dignitary in order to serve as a tour guide. When asked why he was selected for this role, he receives the following answer: "I found that you could have been three or four or five other persons, all of them Greeks, and one of them truly amazing. But, of course, Konstantin Korones, one of the older ones, was born two hundred thirty-four years ago. On Christmas. Blue eye, brown eye. Game right leg. Same hairline, at age twenty-three. Same height, and same Bertillion scales."

I was familiar with the Bertlillion system because of a footnote in a criminal justice text when I was working towards my degree in forensic chemistry. It was one of the precursors to modern biometrics and it's no longer used. Zelazny's works do remain remarkably topical, and I think that the occasional anachronism does nothing to diminish them.  (I can even forgive the punch cards that make up the the Central Database in My Name is Legion.)

I like Conrad. My favorite character, however, is Hasan the assassin, with his scarred hands and who "could still face any barrier without blinking those sun-drenched, death-accustomed, yellow eyes…" He's ostensibly along as a bodyguard to another traveler, though Conrad believes he's been retained to eliminate the Vegan also.

"Have you been working for Mister Dos Santos very long?" I asked him.

"For about the period of a month," he replied.

He threw his knife. It struck five inches below the center.

"You are his bodyguard, eh?"

"That is right. I also guard the blue one."

"Don says he fears an attempt on Myshtigo's life. Is there an actual threat, or is he just being safe?"

"It is possible either way, Karagee. I do not know. He pays me only to guard."

"If I paid you more, would you tell me whom you've been hired to kill?"

"I have only been hired to guard, but I would not tell you even if it were otherwise."

"I didn't think so. Let's go get the knives."

The concept of a principled assassin is a bit of a cliche nowadays, but Hasan was subverting the archetype before it was archetypal. He also knows Conrad, of old, when Conrad was Karaghiosis, "the killer, the defender of Earth". He calls "Karagee" in private on several occasions, to which our hero replies "...and call me Conrad," thereby naming the book.

So they embark on their tour. Hasan travels with Rolem his Robot Golem, a kind of mechanized sparring partner. This comes in handy when Conrad receives word of his wife's death and flips the fuck out. He's quite capable of killing the entire party with his bare hands, so Hasan turns up Rolem to maximum (setting him "five times the strength of a human being" and "the reflexes of an adrenalized cat") disables the failsafes, and sets him loose.

I really like the description of how Conrad perceives the events through the filter of his madness:

I looked around. They had stopped coming at me, and it wasn't fair—it wasn't fair that they should stop then when I wanted so badly to see things breaking. So I raised up the man at my feet and slapped him down again. Then I raised him up again and someone yelled "Eh! Karaghiosis!" and began calling me names in broken Greek. I let the man fall back to the ground and turned.

There, before the fire—there were two of them: one tall and bearded, the other squat and heavy and hairless and molded out of a mixture of putty and earth.

"My friend says he will break you, Greek!" called out the tall one, as he did something to the other's back.

I moved toward them and the man of putty and mud sprang at me.

Conrad beats the robot apart with his bare hands and afterward, recovers his wits. It's such a gorgeously written scene. Afterwards his companions offer their condolences in their various ways.

The story was originally edited down and printed in two parts for its original publication and this is about where the first part of the story ended. This part of the review shall now do the same.Come back soon for part 2!

1 comment:

  1. I loved this review as well as the book. Hasan is my favorite character as well. I've even done some yahoo PBM roleplay with him...