Book: Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny
Plot (from Wikipedia)
The story opens in a post-apocalyptic Southern California, in a hellish world shattered by nuclear war decades before. Several police states have emerged in place of the former United States. Hurricane-force winds above five hundred feet prevent any sort of air travel from one state to the next, and sudden, violent, and unpredictable storms make day-to-day life a mini-hell. Hell Tanner, an imprisoned killer, is offered a full pardon in exchange for taking on a suicide mission—a drive through “Damnation Alley” across a ruined America from Los Angeles to Boston—as one of three vehicles attempting to deliver an urgently needed plague vaccine.
Type of post-apocalyptic story: The current world has ended, the story starts around 30 – 40 years after the event. Society for the most part has stabilised and is now focussed on survival.
I really enjoyed this book, for the most part, however there were a few gaping issues. Let’s do all the good things. There will be spoilers
World building: I really liked the way Zelazny put the world together for this book. The main character was not alive when the current world was destroyed and the new world was formed. He doesn’t know most of what happened, and doesn’t care – so neither does the reader for the most part. During the story the main character, Tanner, finds out a bit more, and still doesn’t care, as living in the world as it is, is his current struggle.
The fantastical way that the world has been reshaped due to radiation, storms, and people, the way people survive day to day, and how government continues (or doesn’t) to operate is all very interesting and I can see why a lot of people were inspired by the story to create works in homage.
Character building: There is only one real character, the rest are there to drive the plot but are in essence completely unimportant. Despite Tanner supposedly being a complete and utter arsehole (and he is a bit), he’s really just a guy who wants to be left alone, and safe – though his version of left alone and safe tends to be one where a lot of other people end up dead. Granted many of those other people have attempted to kill him at some point. He’s not completely unlikeable as a character and you do find yourself rooting for him. I’d say he is lazily written because he’s not really one thing or another, and I think he should be given how he is introduced.
Description: I’m a big believer in using words to their fullest effect so I can build a mental picture of what the author is describing. I found that this book was very successful in that, but not so successful that I wanted to stop reading after describing some mutated horror, or yet more violence.
And now the badly done bits
Women: So there are three main female characters in the book; two are sex objects and one is a mother. The book would have worked completely fine without them, and I actually would have preferred that to be the case. I haven’t read much Zelazny so I don’t know if he cannot write women, or whether he is actually sexist, but the three characters were really pointless to the story, and appear to be a lazy attempt at inclusion.
The mother was there in a farming household, and she was intimidated by Tanner – which isn’t surprising, he’s a force of chaotic nature and I’d be scared of him. She didn’t drive the plot, and did nothing than be a mother to some children Tanner was interacting with, and the husband of a farmer. She wasn’t badly written, just an illustration along the story.
The two sex objects were awful. Zelazny clearly cannot write a sex scene. The first woman, Cornelia, is a member of a gang that attacks Tanner. Tanner is effectively driving a tank, and he takes out pretty much everyone in the gang, and avoids killing Cornelia by chance (he doesn’t know she’s there initially). He picks up her, patches her wounds and she joins him. She clearly doesn’t care that Tanner has killed her entire gang (and probably family), and happily comes along with him. They hook up, have sex, she gets killed by another gang, Tanner buries her and continues on his way.
The second woman, Evelyn, only exists to drive the plot forward. She lives in the plague infested Boston and is meeting with her beau who believes that he is infected with the plague but wants to see her one last time. Then ensues one of the most awkwardly written sex scenes I’ve read for a while:
They moved to the bed and did not speak again until after he had ridden her for several minutes and she heard him sigh and felt the warm moisture come into her. Then she rubbed his shoulders and said, “That was good.”
Evelyn, her beau and most of Boston aren’t likeable. You don’t care that they’re dying of the plague, and the world would probably be a better place if they did because then a whole lot of annoying people wouldn’t exist. Badly written characters like this really don’t help the story. If Tanner wasn’t such a strong character, and his determination to just keep moving forward, you really wouldn’t care about what happens to Boston. Because Tanner cares (though even that seems to be out of character), you care.
Non-white characters: I don’t recall any being described in the book. Evelyn is described as having red hair, Cornelia is described as having brown hair, and an obvious red burn to her face (from Tanner’s self defence flame-thrower). The mother is described as having red cheeks. Tanner really doesn’t have that much of a description other than having dark eyes, a beard, and being a biker.
Disabled characters: Despite the world pretty much self destructing there are no mentions of disabled characters. Given the current state of the world, there would be some, and you’d expect there to be a mention of them.
Queer characters: None are mentioned. It wouldn’t have been too hard to include one in the story, Evelyn’s beau could have been a woman, or bisexual, or even trans, any of the other characters that Tanner briefly meets could have been queer.