…And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal) (1965) by Roger Zelazny

ThisImmortal1I feel like this book should really be called …And call me …And Call Me Conrad. Sort of like that Gene Wolfe collection, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories.

To be honest, I much prefer the publisher’s title. This Immortal just feels more ripe. It certainly makes for a more interesting lens. But Zelazny wants us to call it [pause]…And Call Me Conrad. So we must. And with that, the lens becomes less focused on this immortal, (as in, not those immortals, which would make for some fun comparisons) and more focused on this dude with ‘tude. Whose name isn’t really Conrad, but by golly we better call him that.

 …my left cheek was then a map of Africa done up in varying purples, because of that mutant fungus I’d picked up from a moldy canvas… my eyes are mismatched. (I glare at people through the cold blue one on the right side when I want to to intimidate them; the brown one is for Glances Sincere and Honest.) (loc. 69)

My right eye is the one over which I furrow my brow. People say it’s intimidating.

Confounded by my withering experience with Roger Zelazny’s 1965 fix-up– a novel and author I was sure to love— I went to the experts to find out what I’m overlooking:

“an impressive disappointment,” (F&SF, Dec. 1967, 34) – Judith Merrill

“stodgy and undigested” myth… “in need of a good editor…” (Trillion Year Spree, 2001, 337-338) – Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove

“no real plot…” (F&SF, Jan. 1968, extracted from The Country You Have Never Seen, 2007, 6) – Joanna Russ

Okay, so maybe I’m not such an outlier. But then we have Delany over here:

“The wonder of the prose is that it manages to keep such intensely compressed images alive and riding on the rhythms of contemporary American.”- Samuel R. Delany (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, 2009, 52)

Well, that’s true, too, and I love the crisp, vivid tightness. But it’s the other stuff that gets me. It’s not that the contemporary American prose isn’t so contemporary anymore, it’s that I’m tired of this jaded, unaffected arrogance we see so often in male protagonists:

ThisImmortal4“What’s she like?”

I shrugged.

“A mermaid, maybe. Why?”

She shrugged.

“Just curious. What do you tell people I’m like?”

“I don’t tell people you’re like anything.”

“I’m insulted. I must be like something, unless I’m unique.”

“That’s it, you’re unique.” (loc. 181)

For the history buffs, [pause] …And Call Me Conrad tied with the more famous Dune for the Hugo Award in 1966. In terms of writing, [pause]…And Call Me Conrad is far better than the prosaic and clumsy Dune. Where Herbert resorts to italicized internal thoughts to convey nuance and depth (an oxymoronic technique if there ever was one, she thought to herself), Zelazny lets his protagonist’s sardonic wit do the talking (while the reader does all the sorting of bullshit).

“’Mine won’t bother people, just spiderbats. They discriminate against people. People would poison my slishi’ (He said “My slishi” very possessively.)” (loc. 421).

Zelazny is funnier than Herbert, too.

ThisImmortal2So back to the question of what bothers me about this book: It’s another detached, unaffected first-person male narrator. At a cursory glance most people love This Immortal, not for its understated dynamism or the unsprung symbolism that Delany points out, but for its chilled-out, don’t-mess-with-me-man god protagonist, apparently a blueprint for what will become a standard Zelazny character (oh great, more disaffected, entitled dudes, she thought sarcastically). It’s a model that’s common in SF, almost like a rite-of-passage for authors to play with—that hard-boiled detective style. So then I wonder, why doesn’t it bother me in contemporary SF that I love, such as Lavie Tidhar’s Osama (2011) or China Mieville’s The City & the City (2009), or more recently in Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn (2014) (which is more Le Carre than Chandler, but it’s still full of unshakeable white dude ‘tude). Is it because the contemporary concerns (terrorism/alienation/immigration, or, rather, borders/borders/borders) addressed by those books feel relevant enough to me today to override the gnawing machisimo? Or, perhaps the Tidhar/Mieville/Hutchinson protags are uncertain enough about their circumstances to not come off as disaffected know-it-alls?

(It’s probably the borders thing, frankly, and I just realized how very one-dimensional I am with my Texas residency, Latin American studies degree, and NAFTA-imported husband.)

But much as Delany exhalts Zelazny’s Archimedean archetype—a man so intent on his insight that he sees little of the surrounding world— and what he calls poetry (and I call economical wit, because, while Zelazny describes things in a tight, pretty way, Delany himself far surpasses him in beauty and affect), it’s just another unwieldy fantasy adventure with lots of monsters popping up (which Vance had long ago already made fun of), and what Merrill refers to as another response to “myth-loss.” She describes the tale as “last night’s champagne in today’s plastic flask,” though to her, the plastic is the “lost the power of myth,” whereas to me, the plastic is the Chandleresque mode of voice. (Merrill finds this style revolutionary. Fifty years ago, mind you.)

But I have to side with Merrill one this one, despite Delany’s sermonizing. Delany knows his shit, but that just makes me want to read more Delany for poetic prose, structural symbolism, and subversive insight.

And back to the popularity of the stiff upper lip protagonist, it’s a fine way to gain a reality-puncturing perspective on the surrounding world, and even, at times, it provides for surprising self-awareness, but the swarthy “I got this” component will only plumb character depths as far as the upturned leather jacket collar.

Konstantine— I’m sorry— Conrad is a man who’s got it all figured out. He’s got people pegged. He’s got you pegged. He’s got his friends pegged:

…and the expression that had once lived in that flesh covering his skull had long ago retreated into the darkness of his eyes, and the eyes had it as they caught me—the smile of imminent outrage (loc. 218).

ThisImmortal3And he even knows himself; he’ll tell you when he’s sad (so distraught when he thinks his newlywed wife is dead, even though she doesn’t know his last name or age. Immortals always go for the young, carefree chicks, you know.)

But he’ll say he’s distressed, and you won’t actually feel it. This immortal will keep you at arms-length.

A true professional must respect some sort of boundary between self and task. (loc. 1063).

Oh shut up.

***

Because this weekend’s read is still fresh on my mind, and because these comparisons seem to indicate I’m still hung up on the British Science Fiction Cabal (more dangerous than any other imaginary genre cabal), I would like to mention Adam Roberts’ Bête (ooohh, there’s that shadow TBR again…), which pretends the “I got this” attitude, but at the same time pursues a resonating intimacy that exposes white male insecurity in the face of a rapidly changing world (and without having to play too much of the unreliable narrator game, tyvm). I can’t remember the last time I read a male SF author who was so willing to bring down the water line like that (SF is, after all, where authors go to put up walls and dams and magnetic catapults and space elevators and Bussard ramjet propulsion engines… ANYTHING TO NOT HAVE TO SHOW THAT I’M REALLY NOT ALL THAT!). Not that I feel the protagonist is any way modeled after the author, but there is a genuine insight that comes from more than just a character chart from a creative writing class.

I’m a little bit disgruntled Bête didn’t get more attention during awards season this year. Bête is a beauty, but I’ll talk more about that later.

And don’t call the protagonist Graham, dammit!

***

And, as an addendum to last week’s blah review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), the above thoughts have got me thinking and I realize that what most keeps BGitR at the surface level is exactly the same issue: this “I got this” conceit, which doesn’t so much emanate from the protagonist, as we see with Conrad and his ilk, but it does control her. Ti-Jeanne is like a waldo in this sense: the breast-feeding mother, the mourning granddaughter, the indecisive ex-girlfriend who still wants to fuck her drug-addicted ex-boyfriend (who murdered her grandmother)… who hands her newborn to a near stranger and marches off to battle her evil sorcerer grandfather, while armed only with an invisibility spell. The prose sometimes tells us she’s tired, she’s confused, she’s sad, she’s indecisive, but her actions say, “I got this.” No, you don’t, Ti-Jeanne. And I won’t believe you until you show us how this affects you.

***

So, chin up and fungus forward, kids. Maybe we’ll talk next week about why your book sucks when your hero calls a woman a slut.

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29 thoughts on “…And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal) (1965) by Roger Zelazny

  1. It’s about this point where I realize I haven’t read that much Zelazny, and that I’ve just confused him with Delany again. The blending of myth and SF doesn’t help, though, as the last Delany I read was the myth-infused Einstein Intersection

    Maybe we’ll talk next week about why your book sucks when your hero calls a woman a slut. Oh, so we’re all the way to Russell already.

    Liked by 2 people

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Russell it is. You’ve got me pegged.

      My next Zelazny is Doorways in the Sand. Then the big one- Lord of Light. And I’ve got to get around to Jack of Shadows to finish up 1972.

      My next Delany is Dhalgren. Yikes. I think I better buffer that with Einstein Intersection.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        And interesting that you confuse Delany and Zelazny. The ‘nys, we should call them. They both certainly killed it in Dangerous Visions, but so far I see Zelazny being cool and sardonic, while Delany is poetic and vivid.

        And Zelazny has this thing with soda… it’s like the sign of end times for him.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I can’t wait for you to read Lord of Light. Then you can explain to me why people like it. Or support me in my continued smug and negative assessment of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. S. C. Flynn says:

    Latin American studies? For some reason, I thought you were a psychologist! FWIW, I really liked this book and gave one star to Lord of Light. Maybe I need a paychologist.
    ..

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Let’s just say Latin American Studies, which was actually PoliSci with a Latin American concentration, ain’t exactly a career around here, so the teaching and counseling came next.

      I liked this book, too, even though my review makes it sound like I didn’t. I just felt like examining the hardboiled dude phenomenon, which I normally like, but it kind of made me feel like punching Conrad in the fungus. Of course, I suppose any immortal Greek god would be that intolerable today.

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  3. And now I want to read Bête even more than I already did. (The gorgeous cover doesn’t hurt.)

    Did you review Dune? (I’ll go back and look right after I finish typing this.) Your faux Dune italics made me laugh. Though they didn’t actually annoy me in Dune. It was a bit hand-holdy for sure, but apparently I was totally fine with handholding while reading it. How the fuck is it that I have now actually read Dune, and liked it? I must have entered a parellel universe.

    Also, you have now made me want to pay attention to my reaction to the hard-boiled got-it-under-control protagonist effect, because reading this it occurred to me that I don’t actually know if I like it or not. (Which I would separate from seeing it critically.) I think I probably kind of like it because wish fulfillment, but the complex flawed characters are always so much more interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I can’t imagine anyone not loving Bete. I’m pretty sure it made me high all weekend. I loved Jack Glass, but Bete is special. I had no idea Roberts could write like that.

      I’m in the weird minority of people who dislike Dune, so I don’t think my opinion holds much water. It seemed kind of racist to me, misogynist, and the main thing it has going for it- besides the sandworms- is the interrelational politics which bores me to death. I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I kept falling asleep while reading it. The ecology elements are fabulous, the sandworms are fabulous, but it just wasn’t enough to overcome the “people talking- people thinking – oh here’s some more Middle Eastern exoticism.” He took our world and put it on another planet, but swapped the oil for spice.

      I also thought about Ings’ Wolves when thinking about this hard-boiled protag thing. Not the same thing, but kind of. And you and I both loved Wolves, but partly because we know the protagonist is full of shit and he doesn’t know it. SO…

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      • Jesse says:

        I have come to see the noir male-under-control character as an American offshoot of the classic British gentleman in a situation over his head but under control. I can picture the protag of Wells’ The War of the Worlds walking the alien-chewed landscape in tweed and bowler, commenting on the strangeness of it all, just as easily as I can picture Zelazny’s Joe Cool – sorry, Conrad – escorting aliens suavely through the mutant landscape, making oblique, as you say, sardonic comments. Few of these protags seem to make a mistake; they always seem to land their left hooks and right jabs in a timely manner; and they maintain that distance to reality that all the cool kids keep, just to be cool, you know, and show how little reality actually affects them. Makes for good storytelling perspective, but at the expense of relevancy.

        What a different narrative This Immortal would have been were Zelazny to have used direct rather than the abstract, Joe Cool experience. I can’t help but think it would have brought the reader closer to the state of urgency the world was supposed to be in. As it stands, I never really felt that Earth was on trial, rather I felt part of a planetary adventure.

        I’ve started to ramble. Sorry. Back to you.

        Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          “Zelazny’s Joe Cool- ” ha ha.

          “As it stands, I never really felt that Earth was on trial, rather I felt part of a planetary adventure.” That’s exactly what I think this book is missing. Lots of things at stake, supposedly, but it’s not convincing, so I’m not compelled to really care or turn the page. I’m just in it to see what other smartass things Conrad is going to say. Conrad’s can’t be bothered by anything, so why should I?

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  4. Widdershins says:

    That was just the thing to read to pick me up from the depths of a blah day! 😀 Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I hate this book. I cannot fathom how anyone thought it was worth winning an award over. I know you hate Dune, but surely the scope of that novel alone was revolutionary enough for people to recognise it’s importance – that you see, right? John Clute described Dune as giving planets WEIGHT. Prior to that they were merely places to have romances (adventures) on – “Dune had it’s own precise and deadly ecology” Whereas This Immortal, chapters pages and in-book books shorter was a right bore. I just couldn’t engage myself with any part of it. Perhaps it was better off as a shorter story…?

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      No one is as “precise and deadly” as Clute when it comes to describing the essence of a novel. I love that description and I do see what he’s getting at, but I also think part of the reason Arrakis feels weighty is because it’s already familiar to us. As a commenter pointed out on my Dune post, (I’m paraphrasing), “It’s like Herbert saw Lawrence of Arabia and put it on another planet.”

      I wouldn’t say I hate Dune– I don’t even nothing it– I just don’t care for it. I was never bored while reading This Immortal, whereas I had to sit myself in a hard chair and concentrate in order to finish Dune. Even though This Immortal has less going on, it is a much better written novel and there is plenty of symbolism and subtext to keep me engaged, while Dune is mostly just surface story, which is usually where an author loses me. I know people have tried to attribute deeper qualities to Dune, but, beyond the ecological warnings, I think they’re making castles out of what supposed to be just sand. Herbert just wasn’t that kind of writer. Like Heinlein and Clement, he could put details on paper and make people talk, but that’s about it.

      But I haven’t read the 2nd and 3rd books in the Dune series yet. It’s possible Herbert could grow. People have hinted that I might like those better.

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      • Jesse says:

        @Warwick Stubbs – the scope of Dune revolutionary? But it’s space opera, through and through. 🙂 It’s a medium that has existed since Burroughs popularized it half a century prior. Moreover, there might not be a better novel which captures Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces – and his research goes back thousands of years. I have not read Clute’s entry on Dune, but by ‘weight’ I would assume him to mean the burden of power politics, pseudo-philosophizing, religion, and megalomania Herbert places upon the narrative. Gotta agree with Megan: the most intellectually stimulating question arising from Dune may be: why is it so popular?

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s Space Opera with far more intellectualising and gravitas than had ever appeared before, the message was deeper, and the environment was far more hazardous and interwoven with the entire plot – that’s the difference. It’s a fully realised world and universe unlike the novels that came before it.

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      • I absolutely adore Children of Dune (‘adored’ at least – Haven’t re-read any books but the Dune novels I would if I had the time). It’s far more of a character study about both Paul and his son Leto II, a lot darker and brooding.

        “while Dune is mostly just surface story”
        Well, I’m going to call that out as completely wrong. I mean, that’s how I read ‘This Immortal’ and I’m quite happy to accept that I’m wrong due to missing all the symbolism and what-not, but essentially, I could not glean anything else from it except a boring travelogue. Dune has many layers and many things you can talk about with regards to the text and the subjects contained therein – non of those discussions are [making castles out of sand – can’t think of the word, sorry].

        I’ll never argue against Zelazny being a better stylist – I’ve always been able to accept the (general) low quality of writing amongst old SF authors, especially Herbert (Clute did also call Herbert “a windbag” haha).

        Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          As far as character studies go, that may be why I don’t connect with Dune. I usually don’t care about imaginary people and the imaginary things they do. When authors focus on that, they lose me because I never suspend disbelief long enough to really care about these fake people and the (usually) dumb and inhuman/superhuman things they do. I’m more interested in subtext, ideas, fresh ways of saying things, condensing complex thoughts and human behaviors into economically tight phrasing and etiologies. To me, authors are thinkers, not doll house tinkerers.

          My attitude toward fake characters changes when I sense that the author shares a genuine intimacy with the characters, and not just because they made them up and charted out their behaviors. With space opera/epic fantasy, I somehow doubt that many authors have actually been involved in life-or-death throne struggles and diplomatic wrangling (metaphorical sandworms, as I’m sure people have suggested in those discussions you reference). Those characters and their struggles just never feel very real or genuine to me.

          BUT, maybe Children of Dune will be something I will actually connect with.

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  6. Paul Connelly says:

    I hope you enjoy Lord of Light, because that one deserved the awards. I still re-read it from time to time. This Immortal never had much appeal to me…the absence of plot that Joanna Russ mentions is definitely a problem, because a plotless, free-floating Chandleresque outing can’t be sustained for the length of this book. (Zelazny was quite interesting in shorter works, such as the novella He Who Shapes.)

    If you find the prose of Dune clumsy, read what else was being written in the 1963-1965 timeframe. Aldiss himself produced a couple of clunkers in that period. There were better stylists, including Le Guin, Delany, Ballard and (yes) Zelazny, but Herbert exceeded the literary standards of SF of that time by quite a bit with Dune. Most of these authors were hit or miss at novel length. Le Guin was the only consistently excellent novelist in the bunch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jesse says:

      “Exceeded the literary standards of SF of the time by quite a bit…” Does this include Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, Algis Budrys’ Who?, George Orwell’s 1984, Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man stories, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time, James Blish’s Cities in Flight, Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X, Stanislaw Lem’s The Investigation, PKD’s The Man in the High Castle, Robert Sheckley’s Journey Beyond Tomorrow, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World… I daresay all of those books, plus many more, possess prose and underlying qualities that exceed the superficiality of Dune – and all were published prior! Forgive me for sounding indignant. I enjoy Dune as good entertainment (I think the sandworms, spice, skinsuits, etc. are cool sf), but I wouldn’t consider it literary science fiction, rather space opera.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Hi Paul,

        As Jesse above mentions, there were a lot of standard-setting works prior to Dune, which adds to my indifference toward Dune. 1963-1965 is an awfully narrow time frame, so I wonder why you limited it to that, although I would add Simak’s Way Station and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to Jesse’s list, who were doing wonderfully technical things during that small frame of time. And just outside that window, I’ve seen in more than one place that 1962 was a breakout year for a lot of rich, experimental SF, again citing Jesse’s list, but I would include Galouye’s far from superficial Dark Universe and Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of Spacewoman and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

        Looking forward to Lord of Light, though. I have enjoyed the little bit of Zelazny’s short fiction that I’ve read and I like the way he thinks.

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        • Paul Connelly says:

          1963-1965 was when Dune was being serialized in Analog. I would not call Dune literary science fiction by any stretch, but I would argue that it’s better written than most of what I was reading at the time, which was largely SF paperbacks (many Ace double novels) and some library books in hardcover. I don’t consider the prose style of Way Station, The Big Time, Dark Universe, Cities in Flight, or The Man in the High Castle to be any better than that of Dune…I suppose that’s a matter of taste. If you compare it to the Ace doubles being churned out by John Brunner, Philip High, Kenneth Bulmer, Robert Moore Williams, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Keith Laumer, et al., it’s way more advanced.

          I devoured (and mostly enjoyed) a huge number of SF novels in that time period and Dune stood out. Philip K. Dick stood out also, as did Delany and Ballard and Le Guin. Ray Bradbury I had been reading for a while at that point, so he was more of an old standby. Cordwainer Smith was just so insane, like R. A. Lafferty would strike me later on–loved it but you knew this writer was a genre unto himself. But these people were at the peak of what was being published in SF venues at the time. There was a lot more pedestrian stuff filling up the paperback racks, clumsily written, obtusely plotted, thinly characterized–but still welcome in many cases if you were an SF junkie like me. So my appreciation of Dune comes from reading it as it was first being published in light of the other books that I was also reading that were published at that time.

          Liked by 1 person

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Well, that certainly puts it in another light, although Dune doesn’t strike this Gen X-er that way at all. Thanks for your informative response!

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  7. marzaat says:

    I remember so little about this novel (and made no notes other than a “three star” — average — rating) except for a bit with a Coke bottle, that it’s one of those titles I wonder if some organic deficit in my brain at the time kept it from making any impression.

    As to hard-boiled Zelazny, I like My Name Is Legion — even though it has dolphins.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] compares Three to Conquer to Raymond Chandler (the flavor is there, but I’ve already talked about the kind of Chandleresque stuff I like) and John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, which is a good deal more fun and psychologically […]

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  9. […] I put my best fungus forward and, instead of reviewing Zelazny’s [pause]…And Call me Conrad (1966), I mostly talked about the crime fiction tropes in SF, especially the unshakeable white dude […]

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  10. […] This Immortal (…And Call me Conrad) by Roger Zelazny – I suspect most sixties guys enjoyed Zelazny because he made them feel smart and cool, but his words are a bit dated today. Still, there is something appealing about his Holden Caulfield-esque, DGAF voice that’s ideal for this long-lived demigod who’s seen and done it all, yet still has to deal with all kinds of tiresome crap, including ex-girlfriends, a modern post-apocalypse, and shady real estate deals with those pesky Vegans. […]

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