Book Review: Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazny (1969)

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1969 edition)

3/5 (Average)

As I read Roger Zelazny’s post-apocalyptical adventure Damnation Alley (1969), the relentless throbbing of Hawkwind’s 1977 song inspired by the novel along with cringeworthy lines of dialogue from the 1977 film version kept interjecting themselves into my reading experience.

First, a snippet from the song….

I’ve got the serum and I’m going to take it
All the way to Boston, oh I’ve got to get through
The going won’t be easy, but I’m going to make it
It’s the only thing that I’m cut out to do
Ride the post-atomic radioactive trash
The sky’s on fire from the nuclear flash
Driving through the burning hoop of doom,
In an eight wheeled anti-radiation tomb
Thank you Dr. Strangelove for going doolally,
and leaving me the heritage of Damnation Alley […].

Absent from Hawkwind’s interpretation that focuses on the barebones plot of the novel–an adventure trek in a decked-out vehicle with a lot of guns across the wasteland that is America in order to deliver a serum to cure a plague in Boston–is Zelazny’s non-tradition (understatement) protagonist: Hell Tanner. Before Hell sets out on his quest, California’s Secretary of Traffic lays out his manifest and manifold flaws:

“I just want to tell you that I think you are the lowest, most reprehensible human being I have ever encountered. You have killed men and raped women. You once gouged out a man’s eyes, just for fun. You’ve been indicted twice for pushing dope, and three times as a pimp. You’re a drunk and a degenerate, and I don’t think you’ve had a bath since the day you were born. You and your hoodlums terrorized decent people when they were trying to pull their lives after the war. You stole from them and you assaulted them, and you extorted money and the necessaries of life with the threat of physical violence. I wish you had died in the Big Raid that night, like all the rest of them. You are not a human being, except from a biological standpoint.” (19)

And the Secretary of Traffic is right on the money. I should also add that Tanner pines for his Nazi biker insignia and wields an SS dagger. Over the course of the novel Zelazny hints and finally demonstrates Hell’s remaining shreds of humanity–although the most direct thing Hell will say is that he wants to help his fellow humans because he likes action. All of which is a morally nebulous mash….

Brief Plot Summary

L.A., the capital of the Nation of California, receives word from a dying driver who braved the post-apocalyptical expanse that Boston has been ravaged by a plague. The plague was stopped in L.A. due to a serum (108). The President of California authorizes the best driver alive, who happens to be a hardened criminal, Hell Tanner released from prison and pardoned if he delivers the serum (accompanied by other drivers who are tasked with shooting him if he disobeys) to Boston. The vehicles are described in great length:

The “car” that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-caliber automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armor-piercing rockets which could be discharged straight ahead or at any elevation up to forty degrees from the plane. Each of the four sides, as well as the roof of the vehicle, housed flamethrowers. Razor-sharp “wings” of tempered steel […]. (21)”

…ad nauseam. You get the idea.

Cue: mutated Gila monsters, bats, dust storms, more bats, random tanks, an entire menagerie of menacing and easily dispatched animal and human challenges (burn them, shoot them with bullets, drive over them, shoot rockets at them)…. Along the way Hell discovers that he does care about saving the world. Sigh.

Final Thoughts

Is the novel vintage Zelazny? Not by a long shot. Is it worth a few fun hours of repetitive adventure? I thought so. Maybe? Zelazny does attempt to pad out his original novella with a series of post-apocalyptical vignettes, of varying success, depicting daily life in a wasteland: scenes of violence, preachers, newspapermen, etc.

As indicated by Hell’s name and that he’s the last of the Hells Angels, the novel dangles shreds of religious imagery and more experimental almost cosmic moments that reflect on tropes and plots and the roles characters (and by reflection, us) play.  The most intriguing idea is Hell’s own childhood vision of his desire to care for the world which he abandoned long ago: the “keeper of the machine” (129). But, unless I miscounted, Zelazny mentions this concept only twice.  All of these potentially fascinating ideas are clumped at the end and not seriously integrated into the story. As the dust settled and Hawkwind’s song droned on and on, I found myself agreeing with Barry N. Malzberg’s assessment: “a mechanical, simply transposed action-adventure story written, in my view, at the bottom of the man’s talent” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May, 1970). 

Recommended for fans of SF adventures in post-apocalyptical landscapes only. Fans of Zelazny’s more mature works like The Dream Master (1966), Isle of the Dead (1969), Lord of Light (1967), This Immortal (1966), etc. beware…. I suspect the level of reflection and craft in Damnation Alley (1969) is more on par with the later more ramshackle/rushed volumes in his Chronicles of Amber sequence.

If you desperately want an adventure in a post-apocalyptical world give Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence (1952, revised 1969)  or even Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s False Dawn (1978) a shot.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

(Alan Gutierrez’s cover for the 1984 edition)

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1972 German edition)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1970 edition)

(Gordon C. Davies’ cover for the 1973 edition)

(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1990 edition)

(Eddie Jones’ cover for the 1974 edition)

(Cover for the 1978 edition)

 Connor Freff Cochran’s cover for the 1979 edition)

41 thoughts on “Book Review: Damnation Alley, Roger Zelazny (1969)”

  1. I’ve always felt sceptical about this novel,and based on these long-standing feelings of doubt,I’m sure I can trust your review as to how bad it is.I shall only read the novella if in an anthology or a possible Zelazny collection,although I doubt if it’s much better.You probably remember my comment on his “The Doors of his Face,the Lamps of his Mouth” collection,which I found only just above average overall.

    I wasn’t that keen on “Lord of Light”,published the same year,but it was better than the “Amber” sequence,so this one really must be quite grim.The first volume,”Nine Princes in Amber”,I enjoyed more than “Lord of Light” though,and could have been a novel of some substance if it had been longer and the entire saga had been compressed into a single book.

    1. It’s not bad — I gave it an “average” rating. I’ve read far worse, that’s for sure. It’s a relatively engaging adventure with an unusual (and mostly evil) main character. Did I actively despise it? No. Was I thoroughly engaged while reading it? Definitely not. Far from the quality of his other works I’ve read…. It has all the flaws of a post-apocalyptical adventure story hastily gathered together and padded out from the original form. And it’s a shame as another one of Zelazny’s more straight-forward adventure stories Jack of Shadows (1971), which I never reviewed after I read it a few years ago, at least had cool ideas and a strange surrealism throughout.

      1. Average means acceptable,but it’s not what I or I assume you want.I said as much of the “Amber” series.”Jack of Shadows” was the first Zelazny novel I read,by an author I knew of but knew very little about,when I read it in the 1970s.I thought it was quite good though,and that impression has stayed with me,although I haven’t read again since then.

        1. Of course not. But if I call it “bad” or even suggest it’s “bad” overall then I’d be ignoring what it does right or tries to do which a lot of novels do not — and it’s Zelazny, and he’s automatically a better prose author than many of his contemporaries.

          1. Yes,I know you’re quite right,so I can easyly see what you mean.Zelazny was justly famous for his prose,which was better than other SF authors whose stuff also tended to veer towards what might be called fantasy,such as Philip J. Farmer or even Michael Moorcock.

            Referring to “Nine Princes in Amber” again,it definitely had a fine style of prose,and that was the trouble with the succeeding volumes,he couldn’t sustain it,and the whole saga rambled.

  2. Like some, I read this after seeing the movie. I remember being a bit disappointed in the sense that the movie was simply “loosely based” on the book. The movie holds a special place in my heart simply for nostalgia’s sake (and the fact that the ridiculous ending was filmed just a couple of miles down the road from me).

    At the end of the day, it’s really just another one of the postapoc books in my collection that I feel is required to be there.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m not sure I finished the movie but I thought it was pretty miserable at the time — I looked at stills while I was writing the review and a lot of it feels familiar. Must have been a late night movie watching session when I was an undergrad nearly a decade ago. The film did preserve the non-white (the book suggests he’s Indian) secondary character (African-American in the film) who accompanies him.

    1. I’m not a comic book reader so I wouldn’t know. That said, the world Zelazny creates is sort of simple…. cookie-cutter. So I’m not sure we can track inspiration (perhaps a scene or two). And, from what general characteristics I know about the character of Judge Dredd, him and Hell Tanner are rather different in outlook. Maybe it’s more the anti-hero vibe?

    1. Not exactly. The movie was long after the novel. There was a novella first in 1967. The novel was published in 1969. And the movie in 1977 — but I wouldn’t doubt that the novelization was written with an eye towards an eventual movie….

      EDIT: I don’t know if the script for the movie was based off of the short story or novel. Zelazny apparently hated the final version of the film.

  3. I remember being enthralled by this as a teenager, then mortified by it years later. It might be the nadir of Zelazny’s work. And he is capable of so much better. Deus Irae, from the same time period and also set in a post-nuclear USA, is a lot more interesting — no doubt, in part, because of co-author Dick.

    1. From Joachim’s description of it,it did remind me of their novel,and it could be said therefore to have been based on “Damnation Alley”.However,Dick conceived of it I think in 1964,even though it took over ten years to be written.That was why he needed a co-author.

      What shape it would have taken if it had been written at it’s conception,is hard to say,but the themes and characters in “Deus Irae”,are definitely Dick’s.

    2. Thanks for commenting Doug! I completely understand how a shift in perspective from youth to adulthood could completely change one’s view of the novel. What about it mortified you years later?

      But yes, as of now, my ranking of Zelazny’s novels (what I’ve read of course) goes something like this.

      This Immortal
      Lord of Light
      The Dream Master
      Isle of the Dead
      Jack of Shadows
      Damnation Alley

      I’ve not read Deus Irae yet. I need a copy first! I’m also keen on tackling Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969). I tried a few months ago but wasn’t in the mood.

  4. Reblogged this on Walttriznastories's Blog and commented:

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    The blog keeps alive the science fiction writers of the past, some well-known and some forgotten.
    Give it a try.

  5. Richard, I agree. Deus Irae definitely has Dick’s fingerprint, with its religious and philosophical themes.

    With Damnation Alley, it was Hell’s character (or lack thereof) that I couldn’ t get around. You gotta love the radioactive road trip, though.

    1. Yes,and the empty,barren landscapes also recall his novels “Martian Timeslip” and “Dr Bloodmoney”.Zelazny’s original novella was written not very long after these two were published.

  6. Hi

    I enjoyed your post and the comments. I am a Zelazny fan but his work was always very uneven. The Lord of Light I loved but then Creatures of Light and Darkness seemed like an attempt to go back to a similar mythological vein, with lots of interesting elements, but the characters never gelled for me. Your comment “All of these potentially fascinating ideas are clumped at the end and not seriously integrated into the story.”
    rang true where ever they appear, in the novels especially, interesting ideas crop up and then are tossed aside and it work devolves into action adventure instead. I really wanted Jack of Shadows to one, be longer but also more fleshed out. The Amber series started okay but all too soon began to tread old ground and degenerated into a money grab in my mind. I am not sure if it is in Evan Lampe’s book about Dick which I have been dipping into, but I recently read a discussion of Deus Irae which makes me want to reread it. I know I read it many years ago but I think now that I am more interested in Dick’s themes I would enjoy it more.
    I still like Zelazny but I always temper my expectations, as with many SF writers Simak who I love for example, they often remix the same elements into different configurations, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t, but especially with his novels I often feel .Zelazny needed to devote more time to the work and explore some of the new ideas a bit more.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

    1. I want to read Deus Irae as well — I am intrigued about the partnership.

      I wanted more in Jack of Shadows as well. I know it’s sort of silly arguing for “wanting more” but in this particular case a whole lot of small interesting fragments (he was apparently writing in homage to the landscapes of Jack Vance) needed additional reflection and elaboration to connect them to the larger philosophical themes. It’s been a while since I’ve read the novel so I can’t comment more in depth.

  7. Dick’s 1953 short story The Great C was later adapted to fit into Deus Irae. I haven’t yet read the Zelazny/Dick novel, but the original short is an amazing little gem, and no doubt inspired Douglas Adams’ ‘Deep Thought’ computer character and the eternal puzzle of ’42’. The Great C is very similar in some of its themes. It’s one of his best early shorts, and if Deus Irae continues in such a vein, the novel must be just as wonderful.

    As to Judge Dredd’s Cursed Earth story echoing the novel and film of Damnation Alley, I agree with the commentator above that it was very probably influenced by them. it was serialised in the 2000AD comic book in late 1978, so there was plenty of time for the writers to have seen the film, if not the book. And for those who don’t know Dredd, and especially the classic Cursed Earth storyline, so well, it was the barren, burnt-out ruins and desert-like vistas of an irradiated landscape, as well as the accompanying mutated critters and criminals, which would have stuck in the minds of Dredd’s writers, not any character traits, in regard to Dredd himself, as Joachim correctly alludes to.

    But of course, such post-apocalyptic scenarios were pretty common in SF by then, in the doom-laden 70s (such worries haven’t gone away and are even more relevant now), and Dredd was unarguably influenced – via cultural osmosis, if not direct input – by many a science fiction writers’ nihilistic vision of future apocalypse, going back decades, even to the late 19th century. Such is the wider influence of this genre we all love so much; and on that note, it can be stated with a firm degree of confidence that SF is the most important literary/cinematic genre of the 20th century, and beyond (regardless of the varying quality of individual writers and filmmakers, etc). But that’s maybe a debate for another time!

    1. I’ve seen charts/articles claiming that post-apocalyptical/dystopic scenarios are increasingly popular. Sometimes I wonder if they take into consideration the % of published SF — it certainly seems like every other 60s-70s SF novel on my shelves is dystopic in some way! A fascinating topic for sure. And slightly odd considering the decrease in overall warfare/violence, diseases, etc. Of course there are new threats looming (global warming and the like)…

  8. I’d read both the novel, and also bought that Hawkwind album (a favourite) in the late 70s. I thought the book was a pleasant enough adventure but nothing special, although I could say that about most of the half dozen or so novels of his I’ve read. His best short fiction was much better, IMHO.
    That movie hails from 1977 so there is already a 99.99% chance it is going to be awful. I watched the start of the original Planet of the Apes movie recently–the first half hour was dire, and left me wondering if there are more than a dozen decent SF movies from before Alien and Bladerunner.

  9. PS I see that what I thought was ‘Driving through the burning boo bop do’ in the song is actually ‘Driving through the burning hoop of doom.’ Must stop singing along aimlessly and read the lyrics. . .

    1. Hello Paul. I’m trying to figure out exactly what “Thank you Dr. Strangelove for going doolally” means… “doolally?”

      Ah, and the dictionary tells me it’s UK slang — hence my confusion…

  10. Paul: I would politely disagree about the 1968 Planet of the Apes. In my estimation, it is one of the all-time classic SF films; the amazing last 5 minutes, in itself, is worth a hundred other modern SF blockbusters. (Sure, the actual internal logic of the film may be quite shaky, but then many SF films, and books, are incoherent or inconsistent, in such a way.)

    As to the question: ‘is there is a dozen decent SF movies before Alien and Blade Runner’? try any of the following. Sure, like everything else, about 90% of the genre is pure crud, or at best, only average, but the same could be said for the majority of ‘arthouse’ movies, which are just as cliche and unoriginal in their own way, in the main. Below is just a few examples from certain decades – but I could have added many more such classics:

    1920s:
    Metropolis

    1930s:
    Kosmicheskiy reys (aka ‘Cosmic Voyage’)

    1950s:
    The Day the Earth Stood Still
    The Incredible Shrinking Man
    Forbidden Planet

    1960s:
    The Time Machine
    Ikarie XB-1
    Alphaville
    Fantastic Voyage
    2001, A Space Odyssey

    1970s:
    Fantastic Planet
    Phase IV
    Solaris
    Demon Seed
    The Terminal Man

    Well, that’s 15 actually, but that’s because I am spoiled for choice and cannot edit it down.

    1. My Planet of the Apes comments were about the start of the movie, it picks up considerably when the crew encounter the Apes. And yes, great final scene. But that start, ugh. Plasticky spaceship, monotonous diary recording, several miles of hiking over featureless desert. . . Another thing that is quite off-putting, and this isn’t confined to POTA, is the soundtracks of these movies, which are often blaring, discordant and intrusive. They are bad enough to ruin otherwise good films.
      PS I wouldn’t agree with some of your list I’m afraid (and realise I am in the minority here). I gave up on ‘Solaris’ after twenty minutes, too slow moving (thought the US version was interesting though). ‘2001’ has always struck me as vastly over-rated, and I think the trippy ending is just incoherent. ‘Fantastic Voyage’ has such a daft premise I couldn’t take it seriously. I’ll check out some of the others on your list though.

  11. Sorry, my mistake re: the start of POTA. I also see that you actually said ‘is there MORE than a dozen good SF films before Alien, etc?’. But I think my point still stands – I could have put another 40-odd classic SF films in the list, easily. Though it does look like we have quite different tastes, to be honest! For one, I think the POTA soundtrack is one of the best ever, in any film. It is incredible, and stands high above the usually emotionally manipulative, commercially bombastic, ‘signifying’ soundtracks to most films. (The soundtrack to the superb 2013 quasi-SF film Under the Skin is astounding, unique and innovatory too, in the same way.)

    In regard to the cheap looking sets at the beginning of POTA, the thing is, for me, it shouldn’t matter if old time special effects look a bit ropey, as long as they adequately serve the story and general ambiance of the film. The proof of this is when you compare the wonderful, original King Kong (1933), with the 2005 re-make. Sure, the digital effects in the later version are amazing and much more realistic, per se, but they have lost all of the beautiful charm, the ‘handmade’, crafted look of the ’33 model, and the fact that the animators’ had time to make Kong express idiosyncratic, subtle little smiles or smirks, here and there, almost in the corners of our vision; none of that is in the Peter Jackson film, which is professional but somehow lifeless. This is partly to do with analogue vs digital effects, but it goes beyond that, too – ultimately, the ’05 Kong is just another take-it-or-leave it summer blockbuster, rolling off the conveyor belt, whereas the original felt like something truly special, and much more personal, for the time.

    As to the ‘incoherent’ trippy ending of 2001…well, the whole film is meant to be a kind of mystical, philosophical puzzle, a treatise on Man and his works, over millennia, and the crazy ending is partly symbolic of the great ineffable mysteries of existence, which Kubrick was trying to play with, on screen. I did my college degree thesis on it, many years ago, in fact, and it is my number 1 best SF film of all time, over all others, so maybe we should just agree to disagree here, and move on! Haha, no offense meant, of course. Also, my apologies to Joachim, if I have gone a bit off-topic here…. 🙂

    1. AtomicBark and Paul: No worries about tangents and side discussions. It’s fun to read along….

      I’m even more grumpy about SF films than my written SF as SO few movies do anything unusual — most, and I am generalizing mightily of course, follow the templates laid out by pulpy 40s/50s authors.

      A few recent favorites include Under the Skin and Upstream Color (now that’s a film!).

  12. Hell Tanner no doubt broke new ground as far as anti-heroes go. Back when he was first created most heroes had to be lily-white and likable to the masses. Tanner was not. Things would soon change everywhere. In comics Batman would soon lose the camp he was infested with, while some of his villains like the Joker, the Penquin, and the Scarecrow would start taking their trips into the lands of pure psychotica. Movies would give us Snake Pliskin, who is a Hell Tanner knock-off, and in novels we would get a steady stream of anti-heroes like Mac Bolan, The Destroyer, The Butcher, etc. Westerns would lose their innocence with such series as Adam Steele and even sf would get into the act with everything cumulating with such series like The Deathlands and The Outlander, one of which lasted over a hundred novels. The post-apocalyptic novel Cannibal Corpse M/C stars a literary twin of Hell Tanner and as by Tim Curran. Excuse the rambling, but I suppose that Zelazny’s novella was just the beginning of a wave of increasingly dislikable anti-heroes.

    1. I mentioned the book in the post and other commenters mentioned it as well — more than a decade earlier Wilson Tucker’s post-apocalyptical novel The Long Loud Silence (1952) also had an anti-hero. Although he’s a far more subdued character.

  13. I think this was the first Zelazny I read, which may explain why I’ve not read a single one of the mature works you mention.

    The Long Loud Silence is in a different league to this. But then, I am something of a Wilson Tucker fan.

    1. The Long Loud Silence is a different beast, that’s for sure!

      As I’ve said in the review and to other commenters, Damnation Alley is not a good indicator of what Zelazny was capable of. I’d at least give Lord of Light a go.

  14. I read this a few years ago, basicaly on a lark, and really enjoyed it. I was impressed by the prose as well. Since then I have read the first two Amber books, which I also liked but honestly not as much. So I will look into the titles you mention, and your commentors mention as his best work. Interesting review, and interesting discussion, too. Thanks..

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