Roger Zelazny described To Die in Italbar (1973) as the one novel he would “kill off” if he could! Here’s a bit of context for his condemnatory statement. In early 1969, Zelazny quit his U.S. Social Security Administration job to become a full-time writer. Yes, he wrote Lord of Light (1967) and This Immortal (1966) among many others after work! He quickly wrote To Die in Italbar in May 1969 to complete a contract but the novel was rejected by the press. Years later Zelazny added new material and finally published the novel in 1973 (citation). Haste and filler characterize the final product. That said, if action-packed SF adventure with bizarre ideas is something you are looking for and you already enjoy Zelazny, pick this one up.
Brief Analysis/Plot Summary
O reader, into the media res you shall be plunged…. Malacar Miles, a revolutionary who resides on the bombed out volcanic wasteland of Earth, with the assistance of a telepathic alien commits an audacious robbery on the Blanchen, whose entire surface covered with warehouses “lay like a durrilitic pineapple with millions of eyes” (9). Jackara dreams of deliverance from her brothel and takes out her trauma and anger on her patrons who want to be abused. And when Malacar Miles arrives in her room…. Heidel von Hymack, best known as H, sets off on a trek to heal a young child in Italbar. In the process, his travel companions will die: H “was taken by the irony of it. He had come to save a life and the effort had already cost four” (13). H’s body swings between the ability to heal the ill and spread disease. A cathartic coma, in which he interacts in a dream-like state with a Blue Lady, is required to reset the balance. An ex-geologist, he wanders from place to place… spreading disease, healing, spreading disease.
And all the stories revolve around H. Dr. Larmon Pels, suspended seconds before death, wants to track H down to solve a mysterious illness (21). Malacar Miles wants to find H in order to use him as a weapon to strike back at the powers that destroyed Earth. And the extraordinarily wealthy world builder Francis Sandow knows where H is–and offers Malacar a deal he might not be able to resist.
Along with Damnation Alley (1969) and Jack of Shadows (1971), To Die in Italbar ranks among my least satisfying Zelazny reads so far. The entire enterprise feels rushed and unable to reflect on its ideas. The bones are solid. The connective tissue, on the other hand, sorely missing. Some of the characters feel unnecessary. The artist John Morwin, with his ability to record “sexual fantasies, dreamscapes of peace, nightmares for mad kings, psychoses for analysts,” comes off as an attempt to fill pages rather than sync into the plot in a needed way (31). Francis Sandow, who appeared in Isle of the Dead (1969), makes an appearance on page 123 and soon exits the narrative. H is by far the most interesting element of the story and additional accounts of his strange wanderings would have heightened the narrative climax. This novel is the perfect example of a minimalist plot that might suit a short story fleshed out by short fragments from a massive supporting cast.
To Die in Italbar is for Zelazny completists only. If you haven’t explored his work, track down copies of Lord of Light (1967), The Dream Master (1966), and This Immortal (variant title: …And Call Me Conrad) (1966) first.
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