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Damnation Alley
Reviewed by Ivan Lerner, ©

Format: Book
By:   Roger Zelazny
Genre:   Apoocalyptic Science Fiction
Released:   Published 1969 (out of print)
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

A slim, rough-and-tumble volume, Roger Zelazny's feisty SF thriller Damnation Alley (Berkley; 1969; out-of-print) would've made a great premise for B-movie maven Roger Corman: a skuzzy and violent biker named Hell Tanner is picked to drive across the post WWIII America from Los Angeles to Boston to deliver the serum to stop a deadly plague. Flying is impossible: the world's skies are terrifying tornadoes that dump tons of earth and mud (and whatever) randomly. Giant mutant rats, bats and Gila monsters roam the land, and most cities are either glowing radioactive craters or plains of fused glass. And let's not forget the marauding bands of savages, shall we?

Originally attracted to its weird, almost surreal cover—which actually has nothing to do with the book, but looks really cool—Damnation Alley was the first Roger Zelazny book I picked up. While I'm not a fan of all of his books, there is a handful that I return to again and again. In high school, I devoured the first five books in his "Amber" series, and I've re-read Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969—he was quite prolific at this time), Jack of Shadows (1971), Roadmarks (1979) and Damnation Alley at least a couple of times each. Zelazny died in 1995.

Damnation Alley is hardly "hard" SF: by 1969, it was common knowledge that the massive doses of radiation released by an atomic war would not cause spiders and bats to grow 500 times their normal size. However, around the time that Zelazny wrote it, bikers and motorcycle gangs were everywhere: in the news, in films (dozens of biker flicks were released between 1966 and 1974), and in popular books (Hunter S. Thompson's book on the Hell's Angels was published in 1966), and gangs like the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club were attaining mythic stature. I think Zelazny was trying to meld a then-contemporary phenomenon with a SF plot in a very commercial premise. As a piece of pulp fiction, then, Damnation Alley is wildly successful.

More than thirty years later, the book is very much a page-turner, an exciting action story that effectively crosses genre boundaries. In fact, the "blood & guts" crowd may appreciate this book more than many SF fans will. The book may be episodic, but Zelazny takes the cheeseball premise and runs with it at a ferocious pace. You can argue that as a grand master of the SF genre (the man won six Hugos in his career!), the author should have transposed the biker theme into a more "serious" SF concept other than the giant-mutant-critters storyline that filled so many B-movies in the 1950s. But I think it's perfect: two great B-movie tastes that taste great together-bikers and mutants! (Perhaps there was something in the air in 1969, but that year also saw the release of Ray Harryhausen's underrated film The Valley of the Gwangi, which featured cowboys versus dinosaurs). Because despite the inherent trashiness of both of these respective genres (bikers, atomic mutants), there have been excellent films made about each of them, including Roger Corman's The Wild Angels (1966) and Them! (1953). In the hands of a good writer, no premise is stupid, and Damnation Alley lucked out by being written by an inkslinging wiz like Zelazny.

The book starts with a motorcycle vs. police car chase under a mutated tornado sky, slowing down only to drop a bit of exposition a few times, then roars off into the wilds of nuclear nightmare America. Tanner's given a car fit for such a hostile environment: an uber-SUV, equipped with machine guns, flamethrowers and other deadly amenities. Zelazny's anti-hero is the Last of the Hells Angels, in jail for murder, being offered a full pardon if he takes the job. A proto-Mad Max-type, who "once gouged out a man's eyes, just for fun," Hell Tanner is a mean son-of-a-bitch, but the best driver around: the only man who's made the mail-run to Alberqueque, he also claims to have been as far as the "Missus Hip." (And "Hell" is not a nickname-in a great bit of tossed off dialog, Tanner explains that when the nurse asked his father for a name for his seventh child, the old man said "Hell!" and split, never to be seen again.)

Originally a novella, the author expanded Damnation Alley by adding interstitial quasi-Gothic scenes of Boston descending into death and madness. Zelazny has remarked that he really doesn't like these scenes; that he just added them to pad out the novella. While they might slow down the out-of-control action occasionally, I feel they add weight and a sense of urgency to Hell Tanner's mission. No longer an abstract "Man Against Nature Fight for Survival," the story becomes the greater mission of Saving The World.

Meanwhile, during his drive through the Alley, Tanner finds himself thinking more and more about Brady, the man who brought the message about the plague (and the plea for the serum) to Los Angeles. The first man to cross Damnation Alley (what the survivors call the wasteland between the coasts), Brady died from his injuries soon after arriving, and only left scattered, fevered descriptions of the horrors on the road. When Tanner is finally alone (the other drivers having been killed or injured), the reminiscences grow spooky, with Tanner almost feeling challenged by Brady's ghost. When this is intercut with the scenes of desperation in Boston, there's an even deeper resonance to the endeavor, an indication that the vicious biker might be doing something to save his soul. Zelazny gives a heavily camouflaged hint that Tanner might be more than a beast early on: Rather than let his brother (who is also a naturally gifted driver) steer one of the cars to Boston—a trip Tanner has no illusions about certainly being fatal—he beats up his brother and kicks his ribs in. It's brutal and horrible, but it's the only way Tanner knows of how to save his little brother's life. A pulp novel doesn't have to be all style and no substance.

Like Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog, the novel takes place enough in the post-nuclear war period that our protagonist is truly of a unique post-war generation: kids who grew up never knowing a pre-nuked civilization, but with enough of that civilization's detritus and trappings for them to scrap up an inkling of what they've been cheated out of terribly.

Unlike A Boy and His Dog, when Damnation Alley was made into a movie, the filmmakers strayed far from the source material—and screwed things up royally. When director L.Q. Jones made the film of A Boy and His Dog in 1975, he was smart enough to know that there was no way to top Ellison's crackling dialog, and hardly changed a word. In fact, I think that Jones actually improves on Ellison in his depiction of the underground city of Topeka. While I understand the parody of Squaresville Ellison's trying to present, but I just don't feel it. Visually and thematically, I connected more with Jones' Richard-Nixon-Reads-Samuel-Beckett-on-LSD presentation of Topeka.

Made, I think, to cash in on the popularity of "sigh-fi movies" brought on by the monstro-success of Star Wars, Damnation Alley (1977) was put together sloppily by people with little understanding for the action-movie/SF genres. The flick is poorly paced, the dialog is atrocious, the movie is not even fun in that "it's so bad it's good" way. You watch actor Paul Winfield get devoured by 10-inch long cockroaches and you yawn. Zelazny's plot, except for travelling across a devastated America, is completely jettisoned, and the main character is changed from biker trash Hell Tanner to clean-cut Air Force Captain Tanner, stiffly played by a bland Jan-Michael Vincent. And the movie's Tanner is one of the guys who launched the missiles in the first place! The protagonist has been changed from the new breed of existential / nihilist human that grew up in the aftermath of the Day of Fire to the guy who pushed the button! It's a thematic change that's insulting.

But something good comes out of Damnation Alley the movie, I guess. The big tank / truck they drive, called the "Landmaster" in the film, went on to have an extended cameo in an episode of Chris Eliott's late, lamented sitcom Get A Life. The vehicle "played" Paperboy 2000, the automated paper-delivery machine that threatened Chris' job and eventually went haywire. (FYI: Aside from influencing Chris Eliott's cult comedy (albeit in a roundabout way), Zelazny's book likewise inspired a song by proto-metal / psychedelic band Hawkind... also called "Damnation Alley.")

IVAN LERNER was hoping that there still might have been a chance to make a faithful movie of Damnation Alley, but after hearing about the recent Rollerball remake debacle? Forget it.

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