Damnation Alley: Roger Zelazny's Classic Science Fantasy

Mar 14, 2021
The original hard cover of Damnation Alley
The original hard cover edition of Damnation Alley
Now, I’m fully expecting this to be a controversial choice amongst hardcore Zelazny fans, few of whom are likely to rate this as the writer’s stand out novel. That accolade is presumably awarded to his book, Lord Of Light, with its clever assimilation of Hindu myths to disguise a tale of science fantasy on a colonised alien planet, or perhaps Nine Princes In Amber, which carved out, in opal passages of flagrant light and shadow, a unique and compelling fantasy vista of fragmented splinter worlds, with its estranged and bickering dynasty of a ruling family, who looked ‘the business’ in crushed velvet jerkins, that in terms of fantasy literature bore no relation to anything that had come before or indeed any day since.

But it is Damnation Alley, his ‘punk’ novel (Zelazny at one point claimed he wrote the story while drunk, to get a feel for the mood of the main character) that I remember most fondly from my formative years. Originally a novella length tale (I’ve never read the original), Zelazny expanded it to a short novel in length when Hollywood options became a serious possibility, and it is this version that I’m familiar with.
 
It certainly has its share of detractors. SF writer, Barry Malzberg, described it dismissively as ‘a mechanical, simply transposed action-adventure story written, in my view, at the bottom of the man's talent’; a view that Zelazny himself agrees with - but then artists are often not the best judges of their own work.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the United States of America is now mostly a bleak, irradiated wasteland (the Damnation Alley of the title) surrounded by still functioning cities, and where hurricane winds routinely blow across the sky, making aircraft flight an impossibility, the story involves a plague breaking out in Boston, and a vaccine needing to be delivered from the stockpiles of Los Angeles. The only way to deliver the vaccine is across land; a likely suicide mission for the drivers who would man the armoured cars required to cross the Mad Max-like terrain and contend with the savage civilisations and giant lizards encountered along the way.

If you’re a fan of early 2000AD comics, you may recognise this as the plot to the classic Judge Dredd saga, The Cursed Earth, and this is no coincidence, for The Cursed Earth tale was heavily influenced and inspired by Damnation Alley, back in the days when 2000AD routinely looked to other media for inspiration in crafting stories based on proven themes and formulas.

Cover of 1970s US version of Damnation Alley
1970s US edition of Damnation Alley
The initial set up is also very similar to the great John Carpenter film, Escape From New York (which I assume was also heavily inspired by Damnation Alley), as at the beginning of the book, the authorities turn reluctantly to a man called ‘Hell’ Tanner to drive the lead car across the wasteland. Tanner is a convicted criminal – the last of the bikers following the Big Raid that killed many of his denim and leather clad brothers and sisters while he was cooling his heels in jail and, like Snake Plisskin in Carpenter’s film, Tanner is offered a pardon by the Governor if he will undertake the suicide run. We are left in no doubt however as to what the authorities think of Tanner:

“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 together 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. You have a big dead spot somewhere inside you where other people have something that lets them live together in society and be neighbours. The only virtue that you possess, if you want to call it that, is that your reflexes may be a little faster, your muscles a little stronger, your eye a bit more wary than the rest of us, so that you can sit behind a wheel and drive through anything that has a way through it. It is for this that the nation of California is willing to pardon your inhumanity if you will use that one virtue to help rather than hurt. I don't approve. I don't want to depend on you, because you're not the type. I'd like to see you die in this thing, and while I hope that somebody makes it through, I hope that it will be somebody else. I hate your bloody guts. You've got your pardon now. The car's ready. Let's go."

Despite this damning assessment of the protagonist, the man Zelazny writes seems very different to the legend described above. He has his own moral code (of sorts, though buried deeply beneath a veneer of cynicism, apathy, and rebellion) and it is hard to tell whether his worst days are simply in the past, or whether the legend described is simply plain wrong and Tanner can’t be bothered to correct the opinion expressed by the ‘suit’ who insults him to his face.

If Hell Tanner is the anti-hero, then he also shares top billing with the armoured car he drives. This is the sort of heavy duty armour on wheels that would give a fourteen year-old Jeremy Clarkson and James May wet dreams at night:

‘There were no windows in the vehicle, only screens which reflected views in every direction, including straight up and the ground beneath the car. Tanner sat within an illuminated box which shielded him against radiation. The ‘car’ that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-calibre automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armour-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 a flamethrower. Razor-sharp ‘wings’ of tempered steel, eighteen inches wide at their bases and tapering to points, an inch and a quarter thick where they ridged, could be moved through a complete hundred-eighty-degree arc along the sides of the car and parallel to the ground, at a height of two feet and eight inches. When standing at a right angle to the body of the vehicle, eight feet to the rear of the front bumper, they extended out to a distance of six feet on either side of the car. They could be couched like lances for a charge. They could be held but slightly out from the sides for purposes of slashing whatever was sideswiped. The car was bulletproof, air-conditioned, and had its own food locker and sanitation facilities. A long-barrelled .357 Magnum was held by a clip on the door near the driver's left hand. A 30.06, a .45-caliber automatic, and six hand grenades occupied the rack immediately above the front seat.’

In the words of Herr Starr, from the comic book, Preacher, when he gazes out at a desert floor full of armoured tanks: “I think I have an erection.”

From the moment the armoured cars roll out of Los Angeles we’re thrown into a breakneck adventure caper that crosses the Mad Max: Fury Road movie with the 1950s film The Wages of Fear (remade by William Friedkin in the seventies as Sorcerer, with a brooding Tangerine Dream score), in which a convoy of trucks carrying unstable nitro-glycerine, needed to cap a burning oil well, has to navigate treacherous South American jungle. The Wages Of Fear is a possible influence for Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, though I’ve not seen the comparison ever made before. Gradually cars and drivers are lost to the road until only a grim Tanner and his battered vehicle remains to run the final gauntlet to Boston that has everything you need for an action movie climax.

1977 Movie poster for Damnation Alley
1977 Movie poster for Damnation Alley
There’s certainly nothing subtle about Damnation Alley, and you won’t find brooding metaphors for the human condition being bandied about, but it is a gripping and redemptive read. And like the best books of the period, it makes full use of its minimal page count. Not a paragraph is wasted in the need to entertain and inform – something that can’t be said of many of its descendants being published today. Set piece vignettes pile up one after the other, viewed through Tanner’s haze of cynicism that gradually provides small glimpses of humanity in the man.

"Those folks in Boston," Tanner said. "Maybe it is worth it. I don't know. They never did anything for me. But hell, I like action, and I'd hate to see the whole world get dead. It's just that I don't like the idea of everything being like the alley here -- all burned out and screwed up and full of crap."

Like many books that I read as a teenager I just happened to stumble across it in the small SF section of Woolworths, where the forlorn selection of paperbacks faced a front window so the sun could bleach their spines if left unsold long enough. It’s the sort of book you can read in a day, on a sun lounger, with a bottle of beer beside you.

There was an action movie of Damnation Alley in 1977 and it was truly appalling, managing to do away with anything from the book except the presence of an armoured car, and I think one of the clean cut and likeable characters was called Tanner. Avoid it like the (Boston) plague. It’s not even ‘so bad that it’s good’. It’s just bad.

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