Monday, January 15, 2007


Looky what I found while poking through boxes in my garage — my tattered old copy of Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley.

Years before Mad Max and Snake Plisskin, Zelazny created Hell Tanner, a criminal biker who’s offered a full pardon by the nation of California if he’ll drive an armor-plated “car” across post-apocalyptic America to deliver antiserum to a dying Boston (an obvious inspiration for Plisskin’s situation in Escape from New York). While rereading this 1968 novel last week, I was struck by the influence it apparently made on both sci-fi books and movies over four decades. Its socio-political message is explicitly antiwar and ecological — a nuclear war results in radioactive craters, giant bats and reptiles, and deadly storms filled with dead fish, boulders, and human debris — and reminded me of ’70s films like Soylent Green, Death Race 2000, and The Omega Man. (In fact, a terrible movie version of Damnation Alley, bearing little resemblance to the book, was made in 1977.) And some 20 years before Gibson and Stephenson, Alley possessed a distinct cyberpunk sensibility.

The late Roger Zelazny came out of sci-fi’s New Wave movement in the ’60s, and that makes Damnation Alley something more than a futuristic action thriller. The novel features some interesting touches during its fast-paced, cross-country journey. In one remarkable Kerouac-like passage, Tanner reflects on his past, future, and life purpose while waiting for repairs to be made on his car. In another scene, set in Boston, Zelazny effectively presents a preacher’s sermon, interrupted by the unremitting clang of church bells that marks the city’s rising death count. One of my favorite moments is a poignant scene where Tanner and a young kid share their philosophies of “how the world works.”

What I enjoyed most about my second tour through Damnation Alley in 30 years was visiting Hell Tanner again. He’s no simple-minded anti-hero. Tanner is a surprisingly complex character, and his journey of personal and spiritual growth is as compelling as his perilous trek through the Alley.

I’m pleased to see Damnation Alley still in print and readily available.


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