Roadmarks (1979) Book Review & Analysis
by Roger Zelazny 1979
Classic Science Fiction
3 / 5
This is an absolutely bonkers novel with a compelling concept that is as quirky as it is fragmented.
I adored the premise. There is a road that only certain people can access, which was built by dragons, and it links the future, past, and what-could-have-been together. One man, Red Dorakeen, has been traveling it for some time, but now he is beset by assassins sent by his past business partner.
The novel is interesting in its format. A linear plot follows Red as he tries to evade the assassins, and the other is out-of-order almost vignettes of minor characters, including Red’s son, a woman named Leila, and the assassins. I enjoy a novel that tries to make me think, so I liked having to figure out what was going on. It was confusing, but not complicated. The dialogue is great.
What I liked was how I had simple questions (for example, who built/maintains the gas stations on The Road) which ended up being answered later on. Not all of them, I must add, particularly anything related to the characters.
This is where the novel falls apart a bit for me. I loved the concept, the overarching plot, and the absolute zaniness, but the characters are very very flat. The novel feels too short - we learn almost nothing about any of them, and the only one I even remotely cared about was the A.I. book called Flowers, because she was funny. This has nothing to do with the format, but how no one gets enough time on the page to develop properly. There was also a lot of time given to a character who dies almost instantly and sometimes I wasn’t sure why certain characters acted the way they did because their motivations weren’t clear. We’re also told a lot of major plot points in passing, which was a bit frustrating. I did love how freakin’ weird the book was though. It definitely is my type of novel, in that we have everything from book-shaped A.I., allusions to literature and mythology, and a t-rex. Zelazny is quite clearly a well-read and intelligent man - he doesn’t hold the reader’s hand when it comes to his references and some are quite subtle. I’ll definitely be reading another of his. I have a couple already!
Yet, the novel needed something else, a way to give it a point. Or is the fact there is no point… the point? Perhaps it’s saying that no matter what you change, every time you travel to is still your present? Or maybe I’m just reaching here and should just read this book to laugh at the weird stuff in it.
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Warning - Here be Spoilers!
This isn’t going to be a critical analysis like in my usual classic sci-fi reviews. Instead, I’m going to talk about the technology, the concept, and the crazy-ass stuff that this book includes.
I will start by saying that this novel doesn’t have enough women. Sure, there’s Flowers, the female-identifying AI, a female dragon for two seconds, a woman named Strangula for two other seconds who loves ruins (I can get behind that), and Laila, who, quite frankly, does nothing to forward the plot and is only in it for maybe twenty seconds. This is a shame, because the female characters we do get (the exhaustive list mentioned above) are likeable and interesting. I adored Flowers. I want a book with her just sassing people.
I’ll talk about the tech, as I usually do. There isn’t a lot of it, but we have:
1. Flowers and Leaves, the A.I.s housed in books of poetry. Leaves describes themselves as a “microdot computer array” built on the Mitsui Zaibatsu satellite Tosa-7 in 2086.
I also loved that Flowers is Baudelaire’s collection Les Fleurs des Mal, because Flowers
herself is quite sensual (for an AI Book) and Baudelaire was known to push “public
2. The T-Rex. I’ll come back to the T-Rex later, but did Michael Critchton read this and get inspired for Jurassic Park from this? Because Sundoc, the scientist, goes back to the Cretaceous period, steals a T-Rex, and then clones another one, as well as messing with its nervous system so humans can control its movements. Dr. Wu anyone?
3. There’s also things like mind-conditioning and microminiature integrated circuits, but only mentioned briefly.
This book uses the multiverse theory of time travel, the idea that if you change something in a past timeline, the original timeline still exists, but the act of changing something creates a new branch of time that follows its own trajectory. So, even if Red were to change the outcome of the battle of Marathon, it would simply create another timeline with a new history from that point onwards. The Road is interesting because you can travel to places that COULD have existed too. For example, out of nowhere that one guy starts doing magic, but given there’s also dragons, who created the Road in the first place, magic is a thing, but perhaps it’s from a timeline where magic evolved? I guess? It’s not explained, like most things.
The Weird Stuff
There’s a lot of weird stuff! I can't talk about them all, so I've listed a couple.
This one isn’t that weird, at least to me, but I loved the little bitty love story between Flowers and Mondamay. I love when robots/AIs fall in love. It’s a trope I very much enjoy. I guess it wasn’t so much love as sex, but still. So cute.
The most bonkers thing about the entire book is the plot involved the Marquis de Sade. It's funny enough that he's not only a character in the novel but brought out of the 1700s to teach writing and hates it. But then, one hundred pages after his initial introduction, he knocks out the doctor, steals the T-REX and then tries to murder his boss with the T-Rex? His boss that happens to be Chadwick, the guy that called out the bounty on Red? Then one of the dragons shows up, they fight, and she ends up sleeping with the dragon? WHAT. I laughed so hard at this turn of events and probably seemed like a lunatic when I explained it to my partner.
Old School SFF Ranking
It gets a 10 / 20 for diversity/inclusion/stereotypes, 6 / 15 for awesome sci-fi elements, and 5 /5 for the cover (because it's bangin').
*I will give a novel a 1 if there is no representation at all. A book would get a 0 if there was disparaging characterization or horrendous stereotypes.