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"No! A man gave his life to bring us the news! And we've got to get across the continent as fast as possible now, or it won't matter! Storm or no storm, the car leaves now! Your feelings on the matter don't mean a good goddamn in the face of this! All I want out of you, Hell, is one word: Which one will it be?"

"'I'd like something to eat. I haven't..."

"There's food in the car. What's your answer?"

He stared out the dark window.

"Okay,' he said. 'I'll run Damnation Alley for you."

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Meet Hell Tanner, the last hardcore One-Percenter left on the planet. After a worldwide nuclear holocaust, raping, looting and pillaging as they went, Hell and the rest of his Hell's Angels brethren ran illegal contraband from one pocket of civilization to the other. But as time passed and humanity reasserted itself, the new Nation of California cracked down on these hooliganistic activities, wiping most of the offenders out, and now, finally caught, Tanner faces hard prison time for several crimes -- including murder.

However, when word comes that the Nation of Boston is about to be wiped out by some mysterious plague, California arranges to send a vaccine via a caravan of three specialized cars -- more like armored half-tracks -- armed with missiles, flamethrowers and machine guns. And whoever pilots them is gonna need all that fire-power if they hope to survive the perils of Damnation Alley -- the nickname for the wasteland that was once America's heartland.

Reputed to have traversed this suicide run as far east as the Mississippi River and survived to tell the tale, Tanner is offered a full pardon if he'll drive the lead rig carrying the precious Haffikine anti-serum. Seeing it as his only option, with the possibilities of escaping along the way lingering in his mind, Tanner agrees ... With the clock ticking, the expedition quickly embarks into a vicious storm, but Tanner knows that he has a lot more to worry about than just the weather where he's going...

Author Roger Zelazny was one of the founding members of the so-called New Wave of science-fiction writers who, with the likes of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Harry Harrison, were a little less grounded in science and opened up a whole, wild-assed can of fiction and fantasy, evolving the genre past its space-faring and whiz-bang preconceptions. Probably more famous for his series of Amber books that blurred the lines between science and magic rather deftly, Zelazny also had a couple nifty novels dealing with life on Earth after the nuclear apocalypse. In The Immortal, a slightly irradiated and mutant plagued Earth is now under the management of the Vegans: an alien race who treat Terra Firma as a planet wide tourist attraction, and while Conrad Nomikos, our protagonist and tour guide, shows a certain Vegan what's left of his world, he becomes embroiled in an assassination plot. And thanks to some latent precognitive abilities, Conrad knows he must keep the alien alive -- but has no clue as to the reason why.

As good as The Immortal is, I like Zelazny's vision and version of a post-apocalyptic future in Damnation Alley a lot better. The Alley in question is a wasteland, littered with active volcanoes and lingering hot-spots of radiation around the still smoldering craters left by the hydrogen bombs. Outside these few pockets of civilization, the flora and fauna have mutated to gigantic proportions and monstrous creatures lurk everywhere. On the ground, the caravan has to stop several times to allow train-sized snakes to pass -- as shooting at them would only piss them off. They also must keep their eyes peeled for the truck-sized Gila monsters. And I found myself giggling a little at this old B-movie scenario come to life, and then, when one of these creatures pounces, destroying one of the vehicles, I found myself cheering ... Tanner manages to kill the beast, but one of the drivers was crushed and killed. Now paired with a guy named Greg, the surviving co-pilot from the destroyed vehicle, they roll on until more danger comes from the sky in the form of giant bats:

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"The flame shot forth, orange and cream blossoms of combustion. When they folded, Tanner sighted in the screen and squeezed the trigger. He swing the gun, and they fell. Their charred bodies lay all about him, and he added new ones to the smoldering heaps.

"'Roll it!' he cried, and the car moved forward, swaying, bat bodies crunching beneath its tires.

"Tanner laced the heavens with gunfire, and when they swooped again, he strafed them and fired a flare.

"In the sudden magnesium glow from overhead, it seemed millions of vampire-faced forms were circling, spiraling down toward them."

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Even with all this stuff trying to eat them, the real danger isn't what's on the ground, or even the bats, but what's lurking up in the atmosphere -- and this is what really sets Zelazny's novel apart ... Seems that all those nuclear detonations chucked a lot of stuff into the sky that never came down. These blasts also triggered some bizarre and deadly weather patterns, with jet-streams of high velocity winds, whose erratic courses led them to sheer off mountains and suck up oceans. The sky above is criss-crossed with these separate streams of debris, and whenever these streamers of refuse collide, gravity kicks in and whatever they sucked up -- rocks, water, trees, anything and everything -- crashes back down to earth at terminal velocity, leading to several loud and lethal barrages. And before they can reach refuge in Salt Lake City, the caravan loses another vehicle to one of these violent storms. 

Down to one vehicle, the surviving crew presses on and manages to make it as far as St. Louis before Greg starts to crack-up under the pressure. With a mutiny on his hands inside, and giant mutant spiders lurking outside, low on ammo, and with still long way yet to go, Tanner puts the pedal to the metal -- hell bent to see this thing through to the bitter end. 

Does he make it? Who am I to spoil the ending, and I encourage you to find out for yourselves; it's well worth the read. Trust me.

One of Zelazny's greatest strengths is that he can really get into the nuts and bolts on how something works -- like the catastrophic weather patterns, and paints a beautiful picture that's easy to "see" and understand. And he's no slouch with an action sequence, either. But the main crux of the novel is the transformation of Hell Tanner from self-absorbed misanthrope to hard-working savior of the people ... As he travels across the scarred landscape, he's slowly stripped of everything and emerges on the other side, transformed into something far greater.

Coming in at a a quick 190 pages, the novel threatens to unravel near the end with several stream of consciousness chapters from the delirious and nearly dead protagonist. Zelazny also hijacks the novel in a few spots for some social commentary that probably could have been left out. And as he gets closer and closer to Boston, the action shifts more and more from King Dinosaur territory to the Road Warrior's terrain as roving bands of bikers lurk, ready to pounce on anything that moves, and an obligatory love interest that comes from completely out of nowhere. Still, the author manages to hold it together until the very end.

Obviously, by what I've told you so far, if you've only seen the movie that's based on this novel, you can see they are as different as night and day. Allegedly, Zelazny was so disappointed with the film adaptation that he asked for his name to be removed from the credits. The studio refused. Having seen the film and liberties taken, yeah, I can see why he was a little upset. Personally, I encountered the film first, and after finally reading the novel several years later, all I could think about was, Damn, if they hadn't screwed it up so royally, that would have made a great movie, which leaves us with the source: a damn fine novel.

Originally Posted: 08/22/07 :: Rehashed: 05/20/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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