by Roger Zelazny
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
It had been a long time since I read Zelazny, most all of which I recall liking, but it was the first time for this title, which didn't impress me as much. It won a Hugo in 1966, in a tie with Dune by Frank Herbert, but it was the serialized magazine version that was nominated. "...And Call Me Conrad" appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in two parts, in October and November, 1965. The first paperback from Ace Books came out in July '66, after voting was in progress, possibly after the voting deadline. Zelazny preferred the original title, but Ace decided on This Immortal for the novel, which restored some of the text edited out by F&SF. The magazine version was still long enough (over 47,000 words) to qualify as a novel, and the first Ace edition added about 11,000 more. The copy I read was the third printing from '73. However, when the Science Fiction Book Club put out a hardcover in the early '80s, the author realized there were still some passages that hadn't made it into the first paperback. I assume the current trade paperback and hardcover have the most complete text available.
Zelazny used mythology and religion for the basis of quite a few of his stories, including this one. It is set on a future post-apocalyptic Earth, after a nuclear war, after a long period in which technology advanced again to generate space exploration, culminating in colonies on Mars and Titan. Further advances brought interstellar travel, and that is when humanity came into contact with a superior alien civilization from the Vega star system. Many emigrated to the Vegan colony of Taler, leaving only about 4 million humans on Earth. Vegans visit Earth frequently, having constructed several resorts, their interest being in ancient Earth structures and customs. The first person narrator is a man(?) who goes by the name of Conrad Nomikos, the Earth Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives. He has gone by other names in the past, and has had many occupations, including as a soldier fighting against Vegan incursion, and promoting the Returnist political movement, trying to convince humans who have left to return to Earth. Now his job is to protect, preserve, and in some cases rebuild, Earth buildings and monuments, although one project is dismantling the Great Pyramid of Cheops, claiming they need the stone for other projects. His real reason is to taunt the Vegans, whom he thinks want to take over Earth completely. Perhaps they will reconsider if they think humans would rather destroy everything rather than give it up. Reports of Conrad's age vary from around 80 (although he appears no more than 40) to as much as 250, and even that might be a conservative estimate. The only hint concerning his longevity is as a mutation, but that isn't confirmed. He isn't necessarily immortal, but to quibble would just be semantics. There have been many other mutations of both humans and animals, due to high radiation, plus many new extraterrestrial species have been introduced.
The bulk of the novel concerns a tour by a visiting Vegan, Cort Myshtigo, who says he will be writing a book about Earth and its various religious customs. Conrad is to be his guide, an assignment he doesn't want but is forced into. Several friends and acquaintances round out the party, among them a former lover, and Hasan, who had fought alongside him in previous conflicts, who is hired as a bodyguard for Myshtigo. Conrad has conflicting impulses regarding the Vegan, at times wanting to kill the alien himself, but he commits to protecting him, even after he suspects others in the party wish the Vegan dead. He decides he needs to know their motive first, and he needs to know Myshtigo's agenda too, thus he needs to protect him until he gets the answers. They visit Egypt, and then Greece, doing mundane touristy stuff, but also have dangerous encounters with mutated animals and/or extraterrestrial creatures, along with mutated humans. I suspect some of the events might correspond with one or more Greek fables, although it didn't interest me enough to do much research, beyond googling a few unfamiliar references. Conrad's wife is Cassandra, and like her namesake, she is quite prescient about future events, but doomed to be ignored. She hasn't known Conrad that long, isn't aware of his former life, and he would prefer to keep it that way. She does accuse him of being a kallikantzaros, which he neither confirms nor denies, although he does concede he was born on Christmas.
The dialog is stilted when it should be poetic, and the action sequences are less than compelling. Myshtigo decides to return to Vega early, whereas the tour had originally planned to visit quite a few other sites around the globe. The quarrels and fights between Conrad and Hasan were repetitive without resolving anything. It is not until the very end that Conrad learns the real reason for Myshtigo's visit, information that would have made his job much easier if a friend had divulged it earlier. It's essentially a journey that did not need to be taken, at least not in the way it unfolded. Some of the mutations were hard to believe, not the least being Conrad's giant, armor-plated dog, Borthan, and the "Black Beast" they battle toward the end. There were a couple of times I felt like abandoning it, but others have rated this highly, and since it is an award winner, I felt obligated to find out if it got better. I gave it only 3 stars on Goodreads. I might alter my opinion if I ever re-read it, but don't feel inclined to do so. Dune, which also won the Nebula that year, is a much better book.
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