Vast stretches of radioactive desert; rampaging biker gangs; vehicles and towns built out of scavenged parts; crumbling ruins populated by cannibals or mutants. The post-nuclear wasteland is one of the standard settings for genre fiction today, popularised by films like Mad Max (1979), video games like Fallout (1997), and their various sequels and derivatives. Written by major science fiction and fantasy author Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley is a classic novel which not only helped to define that setting, but also features a perfect example of the modern antihero.
Roger Zelazny (1937 - 1995) is best known for his fantasy series The Chronicles of Amber, which began in 1970. By contrast, Damnation Alley is one of his earlier SF works. Originally, it was published as a novella in Galaxy magazine in October 1967. Subsequently, Zelazny expanded it to novel length for publication in 1969. Ostensibly, this was done to increase the chances of getting the story adapted into a film, something which eventually happened in 1977.
Damnation Alley is set in a world devastated by a nuclear war that took place 30 years earlier. The ecosystem has been all but destroyed. Howling winds circle the whole planet relentlessly - they make air travel impossible and cause dust, rock, and even dead fish to fall out of the sky. Just two centres of civilisation remain in the former United States; the “Nation of California” on the West Coast and the city of Boston on the East Coast. Everything in between is a nuked-out wasteland, radioactive and populated by roving gangs and mutant creatures.
As the story opens, Boston is in the grip of a deadly plague which is causing a terrifying death toll. The only hope for the city is “Haffikine antiserum”, the only stockpile of which is 3,000 miles away in the Nation of California. Having received word of the plague, the Nation sends drivers to attempt a perilous journey across “Damnation Alley”, the deadly route from which the book takes its title. Anyone who makes it will be hailed a hero; if they fail, then Boston and everyone who remains there will die. The plot is simple and the stakes are high; fertile ground for an exciting SF story - which is exactly what Zelazny delivers.
Zelazny is frequently associated with the New Wave of science fiction and Damnation Alley contains some limited elements of that loose movement. His use of an antihero gives the story a New Wave feel, and there are a few “stream of consciousness” passages. These stand out very obviously from the rest of the text, and make clear that it was written in the late 1960s. In general though, Damnation Alley has a more straightforward, action-oriented style. The protagonist Hell Tanner - yes, Hell is his legal name - is a man of violent action, not a deep thinker. His mission is a primarily physical one, about getting from one place to another and staying alive.
Even the novel version of Damnation Alley is quite short and fast-moving, a rarity in much of today’s SF. The combination of Zelazny’s conciseness and Tanner's almost non-stop, lethal journey from coast to coast gives the book a strong forward momentum. There are few supporting characters, which fits Tanner’s loner tendencies, and Zelazny wastes little time on describing the post-nuclear world in detail. Instead, the focus is on a series of life-or-death situations as Tanner encounters giant mutated animals, hijacking attempts, and catastrophic weather events.
With that being said, Damnation Alley does feel like an important contribution to the development of post-apocalyptic settings. The book forms a part of a long chain of influences across different media. In its basic plot, it strongly resembles the 1950 novel The Wages of Fear (or Le Salaire de la peur) by Georges Arnaud and its 1953 film adaptation. In both stories, outcast antiheroes endure a perilous journey by truck in order to solve a crisis occurring in a distant location. Again in both cases, the characters act more out of selfishness or desperation than out of traditional heroic intentions and few expect them to survive the effort.
The post-nuclear world of Damnation Alley is a particularly extreme one. The giant mutant bats, snakes, and other creatures and the world-encircling winds are absent from a lot of more grounded takes on the same setting. However, the book also contains numerous elements which have become integral to the post-apocalyptic genre. It’s hard to imagine something like Mad Max 2 (1981) being made if it wasn’t for Zelazny. The book was an even more explicit “inspiration” in other cases. “The Cursed Earth”, a major Judge Dredd story published in 1978, was heavily influenced by Zelazny’s book. One difference is that Judge Dredd’s adventure to deliver a vaccine takes him from the East Coast to the West Coast, instead of the other way around.
Another way in which Damnation Alley may have been influential is through its central antihero, Hell Tanner. A convicted murderer and rapist, Tanner is a classic example of the violent criminal antihero. Like Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Snake Pliskin in Escape From New York (1981), or Riddick in Pitch Black (2000), Tanner is an experienced killer who is called upon to save the same society which condemns and is disgusted by him. From the beginning of the story, Zelazny makes Tanner’s ruthlessness clear but also highlights the shred of warped humanity remaining in him. Upon finding his brother has been recruited to assist with the journey to Boston, Tanner brutally beats him specifically so he will be hospitalised and pulled from the mission. It’s a very particular definition of “tough love”.
Tanner’s flair for brutality and willingness to kill is as critical to the mission as his prodigious driving and navigational skills. He dispatches as many human beings as he does mutant, giant bats and makes full use of all the weapons at his disposal. Occasionally though, and increasingly as the novel goes on, Tanner shows his humanity and capability for compassion. In particular, he reacts positively to those who show him kindness. The provision of the serum to Boston gradually becomes something that Tanner wants to do for its own sake, and not just to save his own skin. This character development is one aspect which lifts Damnation Alley above being “only” an action-adventure story.
As Zelazny had hoped, Damnation Alley was eventually adapted into a film which was released in 1977. Unfortunately, the script deviated hugely from the novel and the film was one of several which had their commercial hopes obliterated by the release of a little film called Star Wars. Today, the film is derided for its poor quality special effects and weak connection to Zelazny’s work.
One element of the film was outstanding, though. In the book, the vehicles used by Hell Tanner and the other drivers are massive, heavily-armed, eight-wheeled trucks with internal living space and radiation shielding. Despite their impressive specifications, Zelazny refers to these as merely “cars”. For the film, custom car designer Dean Jeffries was tasked with creating the vehicle for real. Fully operational and amphibious, this incredible feat of engineering was called the “Landmaster”. It features 12 driven wheels, of which eight touch the ground at any time. It has a 6.4 litre industrial engine, weighs over 10 tons and steers using an articulated central section manipulated by hydraulic rams. Rarely, if ever, has a concept from science fiction been brought to life so literally and so spectacularly. Happily, this amazing machine still exists and can be seen for real if you happen to be in Mojave, California. Surely, an amazing TV series could be made finding out if the Landmaster could be driven all the way to Boston - even if the giant mutant snakes could be hard to replicate for real.
While the film of Damnation Alley was a disappointment, the novel itself certainly is not. An important, influential and entertaining example of post-nuclear SF, it's a minor classic and a more than worthwhile part of Roger Zelazny’s literary legacy.
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