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WesternSFA


Roadmarks
by Roger Zelazny
Del Rey, 185pp
Published: October 1979

The more I read Roger Zelazny, the more I realise I should read more Roger Zelazny. I have a bunch on the shelf, but hadn't dipped into them until I started my Hugo Award runthrough.

My first taste was a relatively short affair called 'This Immortal', the book title of a novel previously published as '...And Call Me Conrad', which won a Hugo in 1966 as a tie with Frank Herbert's far more famous 'Dune'. While the latter is certainly the more abiding work, I preferred the Zelazny. My next encounter was with his second Hugo-winning novel, 'Lord of Light', a novel I really didn't like but did appreciate a great deal. It's one of a few winners, along with 'Stand on Zanzibar' or 'The Snow Queen' that I'm thankful to have read but am not ever likely to go back to.

Here's my third Zelazny, another short novel from a decade further into his career, that I pulled down off the shelf because it's Doc Savage-adjacent. It's not a Doc Savage novel in the slightest, but there are a couple of characters who are clearly recognisable to fans as Doc and his only two-time foe, John Sunlight. As I've recently reviewed both 'Fortress of Solitude' and 'The Devil Genghis', it seemed like a natural progression to revisit this nemeses in 'Roadmarks'.

And I loved this one, more so than 'This Immortal' and certainly more than 'Lord of Light'. It's a slim volume, my Del Rey paperback edition running a mere 185 pages, but it crams in so many ideas that they pepper the reader like buckshot. Not all are remotely fully explored, of course, but I didn't have a particular problem with that. My biggest problem is there's so much here in a notably rich creation that it seems disappointing to find that it's entirely a standalone novel and was never continued. I'm tempted to start in on his 'Chronicles of Amber' because they were absolutely continued.

The first thing to point out is that this is a story about a Road, with a capital R, because this one leads to all times and places, whether past, present or future. Distance is measured in Cs for Centuries and the road goes both ways, forward and backward. There's a character called Jimmy Frazier who buys a lot of stuff in the Cleveland of the 1950s and sells it in the Cleveland of the 1980s. Selling aside, that's what I'd be looking at if I ever found myself on the Road.

Where's the exit to Little Ferry, NJ in 1937 so I can empty the 20th Century Fox film storage facility in the hours before it spontaneously combusted? How about the BBC in 1967 before they started their purging of videotape and film archives? And Boulder in 1977 so I could empty the Edgar Church house. I'd even help Chuck Rozanski at Mile High Comics get all the comic books out, as long as I could leave with all the pulps and advertising art and other ephemera. Oh, and RKO and Universal and Warner Brothers. And the National Film Board of Canada, the Cinematheque Francaise, the George Eastman House and a whole bunch more. I'd be busy for quite a while, saving culture and re-introducing what we've lost. What a career that would be!

Anyway, while Jimmy Frazier does a little of that, it's not the point of the book. We're here to follow Red Dorakeen who has other goals. He drives a pickup, because that fits his time, even though others ride horses or carts and pilot futuristic speed machines. His thing is to supply arms to the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon because he wants them to win, but he also wants to trigger the opening of a new turn. Gradually we learn why and gradually we realise that he's aging backwards.

I did mention that there's a lot going on in this book, but these ideas are the sort of ideas that build entire books and Zelazny throws them at the wall in 'Roadmarks' so frequently that some of them do end up as almost castoffs. Leaves is female? Leila is a precog? Red is really a dragon? What matters in this book and why? That's something I'm still asking myself, after reeling from the experience of it all.

Maybe I'll point out here that Leaves is a primary character, even though it's actually a weird digital vision, a sort of artificially intelligent e-book of Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'. Another character is Flowers, aka Baudelaire's 'Les Fleurs du Mal'. And these aren't gimmicks. The idea behind them is not remotely the point of the book but they're primary characters who play a major part in the story, or stories, because, as I keep mentioning, there's a lot going on here.

I should probably mention that we start with chapter 2 and then alternate between chapters 1 and 2 for the rest of the book. This is to identify two separate tracks that come together.

Chapters 1 are all about Red Dorakeen and his quest, as well as his attempts to survive the hit that's been called out on him by his former partner, Fat Chadwick. This hit is called a Black  Decade, telling the various assassins in the game that they can only make ten attempts to kill him because, if he still lives at that point, then the hit is automatically off again. This flow is mostly linear, though, as I said, he ages backwards, so it's not necessarily the linear you might expect.

Chapters 2 are about all sorts of subsidiary characters, many of them the assassins taking up the hit. They're also shuffled, literally, because Zelazny wrote them on separate cards, which he shuffled into a random order. Apparently, the original publisher did rearrange them a little, but the underlying point remains that they're interchangable. They each add a snippet of information to the big picture but the order in which they arrive isn't important, as perhaps is entirely appropriate for a story that takes place on a Road that moves forwards and backwards in time.

Some of these supporting characters are easily recognisable. The Marquis de Sade is, well, himself, a version who has a remote control T-Rex. Jack the Ripper is himself too, who takes out one assassin. A man who warns Red that he will die/has died at the last exit to Babylon is thinly disguised. He drives a Volkswagen, he's a "short man with a small moustache" and his name's Adolph. Red asks him if he's still "looking for the place where you won".

And then there's Doc, a "big golden-eyed guy with one hell of a suntan." He's described as a "highly skilled physician" who drives a "hot little 1920s roadster" and even 'had on a torn shirt". His nemesis John Sunlight goes simply by John here, but again he's recognisable. He's "big, skinny, with eyes like Rasputin", "hands such as Modigliani might have painted" and a constantly changing wardrobe. He's entirely clad in purple when we first meet him, down to his amethyst rings, but later on shows up all dressed in green, all the way to his shoelaces. Of course, they face off.

Others are perhaps conjured out of Zelazny's imagination or are references too deep for me to know. Mondemay appears initially to be an 11th-century potter, but he turns out to be an alien death robot. Timyin Tim, who easily gets the better of Sundoc in a brief encounter, is a 14th-century Chinese monk. Are these real people thinly disguised or entirely new creations? I have no idea, but I'd love to know for sure. Who's the crusader working a gas station along the Road?

This sort of questioning seems entirely appropriate about a Roger Zelazny novel. He seems to revel in confusing us, but gradually letting us in on secrets so that we're never completely in the dark but never completely in the light either, even after turning the final page. His books seem to be puzzles, of sorts, for us to figure out, and questioning them is the best way to do so. What sets him apart is a feeling that the ultimate question about any Zelazny novel is "Why?" What really drove him to write this particular story in this particular way? Perhaps only once we've found an answer to that, can we start to fathom everything else.

I liked this a lot and, unlike 'Lord of Light', I can see myself coming back to this over and over. It's rich beyond my ability to describe and I'm hopeful that that makes it a gift that keeps on giving. At this point, I love it but I don't believe I've come close to grasping it in its entirety. I look forward to doing so with future visits. After all, I want to know where this Road is. How do I get on? How do I get back on once I've hopped off? This book isn't an atlas but it's a fantastic glimpse. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Roger Zelazny click here

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