Apparently the franchise-spawning, greatest science fiction classic of all time, ever, was just barely the best book of 1966. Yep, Dune tied with the legendary …And Call Me Conrad (later expanded and repackaged as This Immortal) by Roger Zelazny. I’m being a bit facetious, but, in hindsight, this looks like a fairly big misstep for Hugo. I know I should take Zelazny’s novel on its own merit, but it’s hard not to compare it to the novel that it shared the ’66 Hugo with. And, next to Dune, This Immortal looks pretty slight, to say the least.
This Immortal takes place on a post-apocalyptic future Earth. After nuclear Armageddon, humans were befriended by a blue-skinned alien race named the Vegans. Most humans live on Vegan colonies, and Earth’s most magnificent sites have become tourist attractions, while the rest of the planet is overrun by mutants – some of whom inexplicably look like mythological creatures like centaurs.
The story is narrated by Conrad Nimikos, a long-lived Greek. Conrad is himself hundreds of years old, and there are hints that he is a Greek God, or he may just be a mutant. He previously lived as a hero of Earth named Karaghiosis, who opposed Vegan plans to buy up all of the real estate on Earth. Ironically, he now finds himself protecting a Vegan surveyor named Myshtigo from assassins and voodoo priests.
These are interesting ideas, but none of them are explored in depth or really developed at all. In a lot of ways, This Immortal is the anti-Dune. World-building, political machinations, and noble heroes are all there, but mostly just hinted at and relegated to the background. Instead, Zelazny focuses on a brisk, action-oriented plot and creating a mysterious but amiable protagonist. The book is a quick, light read, and Conrad is likable and funny (his narration is so good humored that it took me a third of the novel to realize that Earth had become a post-apocalyptic hellhole). Maybe I can see how the WorldCon voters might be split between the heavy epic Dune and the light romp This Immortal, but the latter doesn’t really seem so deserving in retrospect.