Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny
Published 1971, Faber and Faber
This was so much fun. In a post-nuclear holocaust America only the coastal cities have survived. Boston has a plague that threatens its survival and Los Angeles has the cure. A messenger made the crossing to ask for the cure but didn’t survive the effects of the journey. The continent is racked with radiation, storms, quakes, monsters and feral humans. Hell Tanner, a Hell’s Angel, is offered the choice between attempting the drive or going back to jail. The rest of the story is Hell battling the environment to take the cure to Boston.
It’s a fairly basic plot and is well handled. There’s plenty of tension and excitement and the success of the mission is often in doubt. The worldbuilding is excellent and the description of the impact of the use of nuclear weapons is vivid. I’m not sure how scientifically accurate it is, but it makes good fiction. A film starring Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard was loosely based on the book Damnation Alley, and, ye gods, it’s awful. The book is much, much better.
The characters were a bit sketchy. It’s a fast-paced action story, so the characterization takes a back seat. Hell is a seventies-style anti-hero who does a good deed only because he’s forced into it, but is cool in a laconic, anti-authoritarian way. The supporting cast is handled in what I think of as line drawing. There’s little detail and not much depth, but the impression of the character is skillfully conveyed in brief strokes of the pen.
Since I’m now reading a lot of sci-fi and fantasy written more than twenty years ago, I’ve started noting the publication date. Where I can, that’s original publication date, not necessarily the edition I read or of the picture that goes with the post. The reason for doing that is to try to build up a picture of changing representations of characters who are not white, male, able-bodied, cis-gender, or heterosexual and to see whether there is a pattern of change over time.
Damnation Alley has, as I recall, two female characters. One is a wife and mother of a family that give Hell food and healing half-way through the journey. There are a number of background characters and they are overwhelmingly male and white. Near the end of the book, Hell is chased by a biker gang. He kills most of them and one of the women joins him, but she’s only there for Hell’s sexual relief and conveniently dies soon after.
Despite the disappointingly predictable lack of diversity, Damnation Alley is extremely enjoyable. If like me, you like action, adventure and bit of silliness.