Time Story Story Time: Roadmarks, by Roger Zelazny

Mama Fisi
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Roger Zelazny's "Roadmarks" is probably the first time travel story I'd ever read, back in high school. I was attracted to it mainly due to there being a dragon on the cover, and in those days, I was mad about dragons. Still am. In fact, I'm descended from dragons, but that's a story for another day.

"Roadmarks" is one of those experimental novels that make you wonder what the writer was imbibing while creating it. It has only two chapters--labelled One and Two--which alternate through the book; this is to give the reader a sense of there being two parallel timelines, the "One" chapters following the progress of protagonist Red Dorakeen as he tries to find out who ordered a Black Decade against him, and the other one following the stories of the ten assassins trying to kill him. While the One chapters are fairly linear, the Two chapters seem to have been written on note cards, then thrown into the air, reshuffled, and inserted at random (which, in fact, they were.)

The backbone of the story is The Road, a highway running from the distant past into the unimagined future, with exits opening into various time periods along the way. Certain gifted people know how to find the Road and use it to alter time; events in one exit might cause exits further up the Road to become overgown or to disappear entirely, or might open up new exits into alternate future histories. The Road was created by the Dragons of Bel'kwinith, who see it in their dreams, and who use it as an index for keeping track of reality. Anything from a horseman to a ground-effect supercar can travel the Road, but the Road has some peculiar rules that need to be followed, or the traveller risks destruction.

Red Dorakeen travels the Road, running guns to the Greeks at Marathon in the hopes of helping them win and reopening an exit that he has been searching for, in vain, for an indeterminable number of years. With Red is a microdot computer in the shape of a book, specifically Baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil", known as Flowers. Flowers is an AI and keeps an eye on Red, monitoring the systems of his apparently beat-up old blue pick-up truck, and occasionally saving Red's life, while also keeping Red company on his lonely journey.

Red used to own a similar computer named Leaves of Grass, but he left that with the woman who became the mother of his son, Randy. Randy now owns Leaves as he, too, searches the Road--for Red.

Accompanying Randy is a mysterious fireproof woman named Leila, who has visions, and who is trying to find Red to warn him about the Black Decade, which a rival named Fat Chadwick declared against him, ostensibly in order to kill off Red because Red inconvenienced Chadwick's business deals.

Hired to carry out the Black Decade are assassins as various as a Tibetan monk, an alien war machine left behind and now disguised as a potter, a travelling salesman with a suitcase full of tricks, and a scientifically-enhanced super-warrior from WW III.

Real-world and literary characters also find their way onto the Road--Red gains assistance from Doc Savage in dealing with one assassin, and ribs Adolph Hitler about trying to find "some place where he won the war." Jack the Ripper takes out one of the assassins--in both senses of the word--and the Marquis de Sade has a remote-controlled T-rex at his disposal.

The book's not exactly easy to follow, but it has some very clever imagery. Red, for example, ages backwards (which is a trick I now know Time Lords do on a regular basis...) The sky above the Road is always bright and clear, with a brilliant line running through it, like the eye of a dragon, and as one pulls off to the side of the Road, the sky pulses until it assumes the appearance of whatever atmospheric conditions are holding forth in the time of the exit. Somehow, every time I travel on an interstate highway, I remember Roadmarks...and when I see an old, abandoned road cut, that a more efficient road has superceded, I think about the overgrown timelines of the story. I wonder where they lead, and what it would be like to follow them; after all, it's the only way for dragons to find their way back to their true selves.

It is a weird little book, and definitely worth a read.