Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pulp with depth: Roger Zelazny's This Immortal

What I like about Zelazny's This Immortal – and I'm wondering if this is characteristic of his work as a whole (see Lord of Light) – is that it's about mind games. Below its post-apocalyptic pulp setting lives a very clever long con being played on the protagonist. And it's all the better for not telling you just how many of the supporting characters are complicit in it.

The plot is deceptively simple – one of Zelazny's usual Ubermenschen is detailled to give an alien a tour of a shattered Earth, its real estate effectively up for the sale to the highest bidder. They are joined by assorted friends, enemies and frenemies, against a backdrop of monuments and mutants. It being pulp – there is a lot of conflict. It being Zelazny – a most conversational author – most of is verbal.

This Immortal (which I keep wanting to call My Immortal, after the notorious Harry Potter fanfic) has its faults. The novel is short to the point of being brusque in its set-up and execution. Were it not for the con coming to fruition at the end would feel as if Zelazny simply tired of the conceit. The superimposition of Greek mythology onto the mutants feels like a crude dry-run for the greater sophistication he was to employ in adapting the Hindu pantheon for Lord of Light. And while pretty good by the standards of the time, This Immortal still presents a fairly masculinist view of the future and the people who inhabit it.

But Zelazny also uses this little puzzle box of a book to nod to colonialism and anti-colonial resistance, to the complicity of native culture with the former as well as its underpinning of the latter. There's a wonderful comic scene covering all these bases in which the tour party witness the dismantling of the Great Pyramid, which is ostensibly being done so that the film can be played in reverse to recreate its construction.

This, I think, illustrates why it bagged a Hugo back in the late sixties. This Immortal might be pulp, but it's pulp with depth.

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