Monday, May 16, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Damnation Alley

Although "pulp fantasy" is a terrifically malleable term, it's not infinitely so. I've often stretched its use beyond the bounds of credibility, but there must be some limits to this practice. That's why I'm seriously contemplating changing the name of the series to something broader, like "Gaming Library" or even "Appendix N," starting next week. If you have any suggestions in this regard, either send me an email with them or post a comment below. Were this a commercial site, I'd happily award a prize of some sort to the person who comes up with a better name, but, alas, it's not, so a Marvel-style No-Prize is all that's on offer.

With that out of the way let's turn to Roger Zelazny's 1969 science fiction novel, Damnation Alley (based on an early short story of the same name). Set sometime after a nuclear war so devastating that the Earth has been tilted on its axis, it's the story of a criminal named Hell Tanner. Tanner is a murderer and a rapist, formerly a member of a motorcycle gang, sent to prison by the new nation of California for his crimes. As Damnation Alley begins, though, he's given the chance for a full pardon if he'll undertake an extremely dangerous mission: the cross-continental delivery of an antidote to a plague currently raging in Boston.
"You're thinking it's a suicide job, and you're probably right. We're sending three cars, with two drivers in each. If any one just makes it close enough, its broadcast signals may serve to guide in a Boston driver. You don't have to go though, you know."
"I know. I'm free to spend the rest of my life in prison."
"You killed three people. You could have gotten the death penalty."

"I didn't, so why talk about it? Look, mister, I don't want to die, and I don't want the other bit either."
"Drive or don't drive. Take your choice. But remember, if you drive and you make it, all will be forgiven and you can go your own way. The nation of California will even pay for that motorcycle you appropriated and smashed up, not to mention the damage to that police car."
"Thanks a lot." And the winds boomed on the other side of the wall and the steady staccato from the windowshields filled the room.
"You're a very good driver," said Denton after a time. "You've driven just about every vehicle there is to drive. You've even raced. Back when you were smuggling, you used to make a monthly run to Salt Lake City. There are very few drivers who'll try that, even today."
Hell Tanner smiled, remembering something.
The after effects of the war have created freakish electrical storms, high winds, and deadly hail, making air travel impossible. The only safe way from California to Boston is through a stretch of land known as Damnation Alley -- "safe" being a relative term, as even the Alley is filled with giant, mutant animals, barbarian gangs, and patches of deadly radiation, in addition to the aforementioned weather hazards. It's little wonder that Tanner might consider a life behind bars preferable to what awaits him in the heartland of the former United States.

Of course, Tanner's not going alone. Accompanying him are five other drivers, one of whom is his brother, Denny, who's undertaking this mission to earn enough money to get married and buy a home for his bride. In addition, he and the other drivers aren't expected to make this hazardous journey in ordinary vehicles. Instead, California has supplied them with huge, heavily armored land rovers dripping with weaponry.
The "car" that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-caliber automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armor-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-barreled .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.
This vehicle, I think, is emblematic of all that's good and bad about Damnation Alley. It's an incredibly over-the-top post-apocalyptic romp that gives very little thought to plausibility on almost any level. From the tricked out vehicles to the absurdly large gila monsters, this is not a novel that'll stand up to any degree of scientific scrutiny, but, then, that's not really the point. Rather, it's an enjoyable little bit of escapism whose plot and central character bear sufficient resemblance to those in Escape from New York and The Road Warrior that I can't help but wonder if their creators were influenced by it. And, as ridiculous as the book is at times, it is far, far better than the horrible 1977 movie loosely based on it, which is about as damning a criticism as I can think of.

By no means is Damnation Alley a masterpiece of, well, anything. It's certainly not deep nor is it one of Zelazny's best works, but, as I noted above, it is fun and ought to provide plenty of inspiration to players and referees of Gamma World, The Morrow Project, or even Car Wars. It's a quick read, so it's well worth the time spent on it.


  1. The idea was also borrowed -- quite successfully -- for a classic Judge Dredd story in 2000AD. It's probably one of the better homages.

  2. There's no doubt in my mind that Escape From New York was heavily inspired by the original story.

    I thought the novel was enjoyable but nothing special as I just didn't feel Zelazny was putting much effort into it. I recently made the acquaintance of someone that used to know Zelazny and he claimed that a lot of Zelazny's lesser works, including Damnation Alley, were often done when he was in need of some quick cash; e.g., he never would have written the later Amber novels if he hadn't been having financial troubles beforehand.

  3. Certainly reminiscent of Road War 2000, the old PC game with the plague mcguffin.

  4. Now I want to see a new Damnation Ålley movie that ties in closer to the book.

  5. I must respectfully disagree with your comment about pulp fantasy. Any fiction is technically a fantasy, and the pulps were an era where there was a lot of cross-fertilization, mainly because the genre catagories in SF and fantasy were blurred. Are L. Sprague de Camp's Vishnu series science fiction or fantasy?

    Clarke's maxim is well observed. Anything with a sense of magic/wonder can be considered fantasy (or science fiction). They are marketing catagories for publishers which tell bookstores where to stock the book on their shelves. [In Oz, fantasy and horror weren't considered separate genres from SF until the 70's. And now we have the development of the paranormal genre, which has started getting it's own section of the bookstore.]

    It's a reasonably modern and very artificial invention, especially given the fiction you are in fact examining.

    [Then again, for me, Star Wars isn't science fiction. It's action-adventure with science-fiction tropes. You can tell the same story by changing the tropes, without having much of an effect on the storyline. (Most SF films these days are not SF, as they don't require some element of SF in the plot for the plot to work. Examples that are SF include Gattaca, Moon, and Source Code. But it's interesting to note how the mainstream doesn't consider them to be true SF, because they lack the blasters, spaceships, and giant squids of "real SF." If watched by an audience trained to expect this sort of SF they can be very unsatisfying.]

    YMWV, of course. <grin>

  6. Man, that vehicle description totally reminds me of many days speccing out ridiculous Car Wars creations. Good times...

  7. It may not be one of Zelazny's best works, but I have found it to be more accessible than much of his other books. Sure, Damnation Alley may not be scientifically accurate, but it has been a great inspiration for my Morrow Project and Aftermath games.

    @kelvingreen - Surely you mean the Cursed Earth saga? Definitely based on Damnation Alley, but it went a lot further. Unfortunately, you will never rbe able to read that story in its full glory unless you get hold of the original comics. The Burger Wars and the Jolly Green Giant stories can't be published again.

  8. The novel also directly inspired the 1977 Hawkwind song of the same name, and would be worth celebrating for that alone.

  9. It was supposed to be an Iditarod race? Delivering medicine to the Yukon?

    Wow, I guess I never did see the start of that movie. Or they changed it a LOT.

  10. I recall reading one of Zelazny's short story collections which included the original short story version of the novel. In his introduction Zelazny seemed to feel this short version was superior to the novel which seemed to be stretching a premise beyond what it needed to be.

  11. I remember the corny movie, and after that had read the story. To me, it was unrelentingly grim. Also, I remember a dedication, I think, by Michael Moorcock to Roger Zelazny, "for letting me play in his Alley." To this day I'm not sure what it means.

    @ClawCarver: Yes! I love that song (and Quark, Strangeness and Charm)!

    @Roger the GS: I remember that game. Many hours of frustration and glory!

  12. Damnation Alley is a film I love with all of my little, mutant heart. Atomic cockroaches!

  13. I'm a big fan of Vehicular Combat stories (which sometimes overlap with Post-Apocalyptic but not always) so I have a soft spot for Damnation Alley.

    Also, as an old Car Wars and Dark Future Fan this, along with Alan Dean Foster's "Why Johnny Can't Speed" are two of the best (IMHO) prose representatives of the feel of those games.