Book 37 on my list, This Immortal by Roger Zelazny, was an interesting read about a future devastated Earth and one man’s subtle quest to save it.
Let’s get into it.
This Immortal follows the story of Conrad Nomikos as he acts as a tour guide of Earth to an alien named Cort Myshtigo. Myshtigo is a member of the alien race known as Vegans, and they own most of what’s left of Earth in the future. As the story unfolds, we learn that Myshtigo is responsible for reporting on what the Vegans should do with Earth, which they see as a tourist destination. Conrad doesn’t want the planet to become overrun by aliens and shows that he’d rather tear down Earth’s ruins than allow them to fall into alien hands. By the end of their adventure, which includes a hit on Myshtigo and Conrad saving him, the Vegan decides that Conrad should be the owner of Earth.
Immortality/Being a god
One of the main themes of This Immortal is just that, the idea of immortality and/or potentially being a god. We don’t know exactly how old the protagonist, Conrad, is, just that he’s definitely over a hundred years old and has suffered some mutations that potentially add to his lifespan.
There’s a sense throughout the story that Conrad has seen a lot and experienced many adventures and that he represents Earth itself – old, ruined, and yet continuing on somehow. Conrad is described as having one leg shorter than the other, mismatched eyes, a face that is quite ugly on one side. And yet his charge, the Vegan alien, finds in him the same spirit as the planet itself.
“It [Conrad’s appearance and life] serves to make you somewhat intriguing, that’s all, almost like a spirit of place – and you are as curiously ruined as this place is. Doubtless I shall never achieve your age, whatever it may be, and I was curious as to the sort of sensibilities a human might cultivate, given so much time – especially in view of your position as a master of your world’s history and art.”
Thus we can view Conrad as a representative of Earth in two ways. First as the tour guide to Myshtigo, so he is literally a representative, guiding the alien around the ancient ruins of Earth. And second, as a more metaphorical representative, since his body and face parallel the destruction that Earth experienced (a nuclear war) that left it so ruined in the first place.
Humans Leaving Earth/An Empty Planet
Another theme is that of humans leaving a ruined Earth. In Conrad’s time, only four million humans remain on the planet, with the rest of the population having settled elsewhere in the galaxy, primarily, it seems, on Vega (which might explain why the Vegans own Earth). Many of the remaining humans are mutated due to the nuclear war that devastated the planet.
As such, Earth is basically a museum, a container for a time gone by housing ruins of a civilization that once was. You could argue that it’s stuck in the past since humanity hasn’t been able to rebuild it.
Tying in to the idea of immortality, we can also view the Earth as immortal, even though it has been desecrated. As Conrad opines on his homeland of Greece:
“It is our country. The Goths, the Huns, the Bulgars, the Serbs, the Franks, the Turks, and lately the Vegans have never made it go away from us. People, I have outlived. Athens and I have changed together, somewhat. Mainland Greece, though, is mainland Greece, and it does not change for me. Try taking it away, whatever you are, and my klephtes will stalk the hills, like the chthonic avengers of old. You will pass, but the hills of Greece will remain, will be unchanged, with the smell of goat thigh-bones burning, with a mingling of blood and wine, a taste of sweetened almonds, a cold wind by night, and skies as blue bright as the eyes of a god by day…
“That is why I am refreshed whenever I return, because now that I am a man with many years behind me, I feel this way about the entire Earth. That is why I fought, and why I killed and bombed, and why I tried every legal trick in the book, too, to stop the Vegans from buying up the Earth…”
Through Conrad we see that even a desecrated, empty, museum Earth is still worth preserving, worth saving from an alien race who would redevelop it into a tourist destination. This is somewhat ironic since Conrad shows Myshtigo that he would rather destroy what remains of the Earth’s ancient ruins than allow it to be taken over by the Vegans. There’s a sense here that Earth and its history belong to humans, we are its keepers, no one else. Our ruins are not for the enjoyment of others, they are monuments for us to remember and live alongside. Earth is ours, and ours alone.
Strengths & Weaknesses
This Immortal was an interesting read with some interesting themes to think about. One thing that I appreciated it about it was that it progressed at a good pace. I’ve been finding that many stories from this decade (the 1960s and earlier) are quite slow reads with way too much unnecessary detail. But that was the style of writing back then so I can’t really fault them. Story structure and story telling have simply evolved so that today we (at least I) am used to a different structure and faster pace.
I’m not sure I can think of a weakness other than that the writing style of this decade is sometimes a bit hard to follow. It’s hard to explain, but the style doesn’t lend itself to enough explanation or exposition sometimes. You’d have to read it to understand what I’m talking about I think.
Overall I think I’d recommend this book as a quick read and a good addition to the sci-fi canon.
Zelazny, Roger. This Immortal. Craftsman Book Company, 2020. Apple iBooks Edition.
Author: Roger Zelazny
Publisher: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction