Damnation Alley is far from a great book, but it deserves a minor place in SF history simply because it inaugurates the Absurdly Hard Hardnut In A Post-Apocalyptic Landscape sub-genre, with protagonist Hell Tanner (Hell is his actual given name - that's how hard he is) as Patient Zero. A one-star review of the book slams it for being full of cliches, but forgets to notice that they weren't cliches when it was written, waaaay back in 1967: they were freshly-minted, and became cliches only by imitation. There certainly hadn't been any (anti-)heroes like Tanner in American magazine SF prior to this, with the possible exception of Bester's Gully Foyle. Tanner, the last surviving Hell's Angel, is hilariously, absurdly tough and leaves a trail of preposterously violent damage behind him, most notably a chase scene in which he manages to kill over 100 bikers in pursuit of him. As you do. Naturally, he has his Own Enigmatic Code of Honour which involves, among other things, punching the lights out of both his brother and his co-driver because it's the right thing to do. He's essentially the Man With No Name, but with a shorter temper and less bonhomie, in the Baddest Tank Ever.
So this is the one in which our hero has to take a cargo of anti-plague serum from the West Coast to Boston, with all the territory in the middle being a dangerous wasteland of giant mutant beasties, radioactive fallout, geological instability and really, really, bad weather. Judge Dredd fans can be forgiven for thinking this sounds familiar, because "The Cursed Earth" borrows so much from Damnation Alley that Zelazny could have put Pat Mills on his tax return as a dependent.
The trouble is, "The Cursed Earth" is a much better story, because the biggest flaws with Damnation Alley are (a) it's virtually plotless - spoiler alert, but the title of this review says it all - and (b) there's no sense of peril. Although Tanner encounters the beasties, radiation and so forth, you never for an instant feel any sense that he's not going to make it. It does get a bit more exciting as he nears Boston, to encounter the hostile biker gang noted above, but for the most part it's just One Damned Thing After Another without suspense or excitement. Foot down. Gun fired. Job done.
It's still a fun read. It's admirably economic, a very short novel told in concise, taut prose, and for the most part free of the verbosity which frequently bedevilled Zelazny's 1960s novels. He does have a couple of pseudo-poetic diversions, but he keeps them brief, and they add a touch of gravity to an otherwise insubstantial novel. They suggest that, like a lot of people in the States in the late sixties, Zelazny considered the Angels a more honest alternative to the stifling nature of mainstream, conformist USA, and that the novel is an attempt at social commentary, carefully embedded and coded to ensure it sold to the cautious, self-censoring SF magazine market of the time. Incidental scenes satirising the politics and social values of the West Coast and Boston communities reinforce this impression.
But that's speculation. What we're left with is an enjoyable, brisk, and readable adventure story with a hint of depth, but which doesn't quite contain enough adventure to be as satisfying as you'd hope for. It's fun (and probably best encountered for the first time in your early teens, as experienced by several reviewers, including this one), and you're unlikely to regret reading it, but it's slightly disappointing. You'll remember it, though, and fondly, because Hell Tanner is such a brilliantly-conceived badass.
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