Saturday, November 18, 2006

Postapocalyptic Highway I: Review of Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

Grade: C-

There are books that try nobly and fail. There are books that are clawed painstakingly out of the brains of lesser authors for megabucks and unreasonable popularity. And then there's the phone-it-in crap that skilled wordsmiths produce by the yard and foist on their unsupecting fans. Unlike some present-day authors you can probably name, it's my understanding that Zelazny badly needed the money.

Damnation Alley is bad. It sucked so much that I was pissed off to have to evaluate the one or two pockets of attempted good writing. (The film based on this book--released in the same year as Star Wars and starring Hannibal and that dude from Airwolf--was in turn such a black hole of cheesy craptasm that Zelazny asked that his name be removed from the credits. I can only imagine.) A generation after the apocolypse, and the earth's weather system is a clever mess, with massive tornadoes sucking debris into the upper atmosphere, contaminating the sky, raining detritus and making flight impossible (these are some of the well-described parts, by the way, a whole seven paragraphs worth). The interior of the American continent is a radioactive hellhole, but the last Hell's Angel, one eponymous Hell Tanner is sent across by land with a plague antidote for the surviving people of Boston.

Zelazny particularly could have done a lot with that setting. He's an essential pulp writer who could achieve moments of genius. (Others may see him as a brilliant writer slogging in the sf pulps, but I disagree. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, This Mortal Mountain, and the rest of his ghetto-acclaimed work are dry and dull to my ear. He was at his best when he mixed his high attempts with a rollicking pulp sensibility. Lord of Light, in parts, was amazing. Jack of Shadows was silly, but total fun throughout.) Damnation Alley, however, failed horribly in the execution. Hell Tanner crosses the continent. He drives around some bats and brakes for a snake. Shoots a big spider. Gets rained on. Smokes. Meets some people. The dialogue is ridicuolous; the characters I didn't care about; the action is uninvolved; and if the setting was a good thought, it was lame when ultimately traversed. Here is a master at the bottom of his craft. Go read Lord of Light instead.

Note: this is, in fact, a setup for another novel on a similar theme. Not far in, but the pairing is going in exactly the opposite direction I'd intended.

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