I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. This week we reach 1966, the first year when two works tied for the Best Novel Hugo. Up first, a trip to Greece! Please keep all hands and legs inside the vehicle as we continue our Odyssey (or Argosy, if you prefer) through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
…And Call Me Conrad
(also known as This Immortal)
published in two parts in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1965
published as a novel in 1965
Conrad is old. Very old. Old as balls. Appropriately, he’s also in charge of preserving the arts and antiquities of the living museum of a post-nuclear planet Earth. A nice, cushy, do-nothing sort of job – until an alien writer comes demanding a tour of the planet’s wonders. An alien everyone seems to want dead. An alien whose life is now in Conrad’s hands…
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
I like the original title better, as, according to Wikipedia (not the most reliable resource, admittedly, and they don’t source this claim) Zelazny did, too. But the book is better known as This Immortal – probably the publisher thought that would sell more books than …And Call Me Conrad, even though the latter is more appropriate for the story.
This was a nice fast read, which is something I’m coming to appreciate more and more as school and work and more work and work-I-don’t-get-paid-for continue to conspire against my reading/knitting/sleeping time. I didn’t find it earth-shattering, but it was enjoyable enough. Zelazny appears to enjoy a good bit of wordplay, as do I, so I appreciated the various clever turns-of-phrase spouted by some of the characters.
My biggest impression: Holy Greekness, (Feminist) Bat(wo)man! Conrad is Greek and of indeterminate age; he’s married to a woman named Cassandra who dreams of the future; she thinks he’s a Kallikanzaros; along the way we run into a very loyal dog (Argos/Kerberos) and a group of satyrs; Conrad, who is deformed, ends up playing his pipes in the Greek wilderness *coughPancough* Not to mention Conrad’s job as preserver of antiquities…well, it’s not exactly subtle. I mean, it works, but I’m pretty sure you could pick up any person, place, or thing in the book and find “MADE IN GREECE” stamped on the bottom.
Conrad himself is kind of interesting as the reluctant hero (or reluctant Übermensch) (or reluctant god) (it’s not really clear). He is clearly more than an ordinary man, but all he wants – or all he pretends to want – is a normal, boring life of leisure. That’s why I like the title …And Call Me Conrad better; Conrad has been known by many names throughout his life (including the very Greek Konstantin), and most of those names belong to political revolutionaries and the like. But Conrad just wants to be Conrad.
Or at least, that’s what he wants us to think…I don’t want to spoil the book, but Conrad is definitely not telling us everything, and I think he cares a lot more about planet Earth than he wants to let on. Which was, in the end, what elevated the book from merely ‘fine’ to ‘good;’ the tension between what Conrad wants to care about and what he actually cares about, combined with the revelations at the end, give the reader a new appreciation and respect for this rather unlikely protagonist.
Onwards to the social equality review!
Race: I think we’re supposed to assume that all of the human characters are white, except for Hasan, the Asian assassin who is actually one of the more well-developed characters, so kudos there I guess.
Gender/Sexuality: Err…not as objectionable as usual. Women are for sexytimes, babies, and being confusing, as per usual, but sometimes they have brains too. Conrad seems more resignedly perplexed by them than anything else, which seems to be his reaction to pretty much everybody. Of course then there are the aliens (Vegans, as in their home planet orbits the star Vega, not as in we-don’t-eat-animal-products), who are polygynous and beat their wives because of course they are and of course they do.
Other: Conrad is described as having several physical abnormalities; legs of different length, eyes of different colors, etc. He himself is not too fussed about this, and generally his appearance isn’t treated as a big deal. The point of his appearance, I think, is to link him with Pan, or at least designate him as otherworldly. Which ventures dangerously into either super-cripple or other-than-human territory, now that I think more about it…
In the end the book was…fine. It was quick, and interesting, and clever enough, and in the end left me going, ‘huh,’ in a thoughtful sort of way. It’s not going to change my life forever, but I certainly don’t regret reading it, and might even read it again if the mood strikes.
OVERALL RANKING: 8 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).