Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

 index Title: Damnation Alley
Author: Roger Zelazny
Published: 1967To submit your own review, click here!

Damnation Alley – Beyond damnation!

Though an on-the-road-themed plot set in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust may sound hopelessly dated in 2013, considering a whole different set of the issues the world is facing today, Damnation Alley (1969) by Roger Zelazny, a short novel turned into a horrendous flick of the same name (1977), still conjures up enough charm to interest even a present-day reader.

Sometime in the future, we never really learn when, mankind has populated the planets but then it has suffered a tremendous setback in the event which has since come to be known as the Three Days when the nuclear bombs rained down from the sky destroying the atmosphere and changing the weather patterns for ever – hey, who says the nuclear angst ridden 60s don’t speak to our modern day climate anxieties?

Sometime hence a few remaining pockets of humanity are still to be found along the East and West Coast whereas the most part of the continental US has been terminally destroyed and re-named Damnation Alley. To make matters worse, a new highly contagious plague virus has swept the surviving population. The only communication left available is the old-fashioned postal service with big heavily-armored rigs hauling supplies and medications between towns.

Enters Hell Tanner, convict and top-notch driver, with busloads of attitude and a reputation to match. Yet again he is on the run and yet again the police manage to track him down. However, instead of throwing him into jail they offer him a full pardon on condition he delivers a cure for the plague from Los Angeles to the dying city of Boston. To do that he must drive across the entire continent, which no one has ever done before and lived to tell about it.

Following a string of highly original and successful works such as He Who Shapes (Nebula for the Best Novella 1966) and This Immortal (Hugo for the Best Novel 1966) and The of Lord of Light (Hugo for the Best Novel 1967), and preceding the author’s lifework The Chronicles of Amber(1970-1991) The Damnation Alley may seem like a career detour – as pulp-as-they-come piece, written for a quick buck, rightly overlooked and passed up for the more accomplished works.

Yet it is not entirely without merits. Also, it too shares some of the highlights of Zelazny’s style. First, it features a dismal and vividly conceived post-apocalyptic backdrop, which, if truth be told, occasionally gets a tad threadbare– the friendly country folk and rotten cops are downright obnoxious.

Second, the relatively straightforward plot with a few nifty vignettes –a form with which Zelazny experimented considerably at the time as evidenced by The Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969) – makes the novel a page-turner – very handy for reading on a plane or subway, though you would be well-advised against reading Damnation Alley in crowded spaces or social gatherings as it doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of humanity.

Interestingly enough, it is not the unrelenting plot nor the haunting vision of the US as a blighted desert inhabited with bizarrely overgrown wildlife, plus rowing bands of marauders wreaking vehicular havoc right, left and center, plus all manner of lethal human and non-human freaks, where the strength of the novel lies. Instead, it is the main character.

Hell Tanner’s rugged larger-than-life persona makes him instantly a centerpiece of the novel. As in many such stories, his last-ditch attempt across the continent inevitably turns into a self-quest. Yet there is never a whiff of mawkishness. The redemption is nothing if not balanced and Hell’s rough veneer never shows cracks.

Though not as uniquely compelling as some other more famous characters Zelazny created during a span of his career cut short by illness, Hell Tanner comes across as an early version of Mad Max and Snake Plissken rolled into one. Perhaps an acerbic antihero and a fast-paced plot are not enough for a masterpiece yet they undoubtedly make for a very readable story. Definitely beyond damnation!

About the Reviewer: Sinisha Avramov started reading fantasy and SF at the age 13 and hasn’t stopped since. Besides teaching and running trails, he occasionally reviews movies for www.Explore- Science-Fiction-Movies.com.

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