I always get excited when I start Damnation Alley. It opens when Hell Tanner (which is a great name) hits a passing gull with a flicked cigar butt. I love that image, because it instantly paints a picture of the kind of guy Hell is. It starts off good, and while it never becomes bad exactly, it seems like it's front loaded with the good stuff. I think Damnation Alley unique among Zelazny's works in that it could have been written by someone else.
I'm surprised that this was the only film adaptation of Zelazny's work. Come on! Roadmarks would be awesome! You could even have special features like the Memento DVD did that lets you watch the scenes in the proper order!
It's a post-apocalyptic adventure story with giant mutant monsters. It has some really cool vehicles, and Chris, if you're reading this, I will never again question the importance of automobiles in Zelazny's work after rereading this particular bit of car porn:
There were no windows in the vehicle, only screens which reflected views in every direction, including straight up and the ground beneath the car. Tanner sat within an illuminated box which shielded him against radiation. The "car" that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-caliber automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armor-piercing rockets which could be discharged straight ahead or at any elevation up to forty degrees from the plane. Each of the four sides, as well as the roof of the vehicle, housed a flamethrower. Razor-sharp "wings" of tempered steel, eighteen inches wide at their bases and tapering to points, an inch and a quarter thick where they ridged, could be moved through a complete hundred-eighty-degree arc along the sides of the car and parallel to the ground, at a height of two feet and eight inches. When standing at a right angle to the body of the vehicle, eight feet to the rear of the front bumper, they extended out to a distance of six feet on either side of the car. They could be couched like lances for a charge. They could be held but slightly out from the sides for purposes of slashing whatever was sideswiped. The car was bulletproof, air-conditioned, and had its own food locker and sanitation facilities. A long-barreled .357 Magnum was held by a clip on the door near the driver's left hand. A 30.06, a .45-caliber automatic, and six hand grenades occupied the rack immediately above the front seat.
It has a lot of stuff I like, but the stuff I like doesn't fit in with the broader tone of the work. I like the staccato account of his capture. It reminds me of Corwin's description of a similar event. I like lines like "The man with the pistol turned and stared through bifocals that made his eyes look like hourglasses filled with green sand as he lowered his head." because, hey, green eyes, take a drink.
I like the dressing down from Denton, the Secretary of Traffic for the nation of California. (I thought it was especially well performed on the audio book)
"Shut up! You don't care about them, and you know it! I just want to tell you that I think you are the lowest, most reprehensible human being I have ever encountered. You have killed men and raped women. You once gouged out a man's eyes, just for fun. You've been indicted twice for pushing dope, and three times as a pimp. you're a drunk and a degenerate, and I don't think you've had a bath since the day you were born. You and your hoodlums terrorized decent people when they were trying to pull their lives together after the war. You stole from them and you assaulted them, and you extorted money and the necessaries of life with the threat of physical violence. I wish you had died in the Big Raid that night, like all the rest of them. You are not a human being, except from a biological standpoint. You have a big dead spot somewhere inside you where other people have something that lets them live together in society and be neighbors. The only virtue that you possess, if you want to call it that, is that your reflexes may be a little faster, your muscles a little stronger, your eye a bit more wary than the rest of us, so that you can sit behind a wheel and drive through anything that has a way through it. It is for this that the nation of California is willing to pardon your inhumanity if you will use that one virtue to help rather than hurt. I don't approve. I don't want to depend on you, because you're not the type. I'd like to see you die in this thing, and while I hope that somebody makes it through, I hope that it will be somebody else. I hate your bloody guts. You've got your pardon now. The car's ready. Let's go."
And I guess that's it for the stuff I like. As for the stuff I don't, well...
Part of the problem is the tone.
We're told that Hell is a murderer, a rapist, a slaver, a pusher and a pimp, someone who would gouge another man's eyes out just for fun.
We're shown Hell as a this happy-go-lucky goof who loves his brother and mouths off to authority figures, a lug who is lazy in his casual cruelty. When I imagine Hell the image that sticks with me is "...he drove with one hand and ate a corned-beef sandwich."
He's supposed to be this savage brutal thug, (who looks at the world through crap-colored glasses, another great line), but he seems too deliberate, too civilized. I've always thought that Zelazny's writing melds the poetic and the precise, and Hell is supposed to be neither of these.
(Apropos of nothing, I always imagine Hell and Ganelon as the same guy.)
When morning came, many hours later, he took a pill to keep himself alert and listened to the screaming of the wind. The sun rose up like molten silver to his right, and a third of the sky grew amber and was laced with fine lines like cobwebs. The desert was topaz beneath it, and the brown curtain of dust that hung continuously at his back, pierced only by the eight shafts of the other cars' lights, took on a pinkish tone as the sun grew a bright red corona and the shadows fled into the west. He dimmed his lights as he passed an orange cactus shaped like a toadstool and perhaps fifty feet in diameter.
Consider that passage for a moment. The story isn't first person like many of Zelazny's story, but Hell is unquestionably the protagonist and the narrative follows him. Descriptions like those, juxtaposed against the barbarian Hell is supposed to be, (or have been, depending on how charitably you want to interpret his statements) just draw attention to the difference between Hell as written and Hell as described.
Another thing is Hell's use of the word "Screw," as a profanity. I happen to like this, as it makes him distinctive. I imagine it was some kind of compromise, because he probably couldn't say "fuck", and while it lacks the visceral impact of the f-word, I'm fine with it. However, that leads into another oddity about the story, the line: "To the squares, this was Damnation Alley. To Hell Tanner, this was still the parking lot."
I thought that was a cool sentiment, but the use of "squares" simultaneously dates the story and neuters Hell. If the last Hell's Angel is using slang out of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, then your story has taken a wrong turn somewhere.