In his 1979 novel Roadmarks, Roger Zelazny combines one man's search for his past with another man's quest for his father, and sets them both on a unique journey back and forth through time. The basic premise is that there is a highway, called the Road, that leads backwards and forwards through time. Each exit from the Road takes the traveller to a different time and place. Some are better travelled than others, and some fade away entirely with disuse. To get on this Road, you have to have a natural affinity for it, much in the same way you have to be of the blood of Amber or the Courts of Chaos to travel through Shadow in Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. The idea of time as an endless highway came to him while driving through New Mexico:
I got the idea for [Roadmarks] during an automobile drive. I was coming up l-25, which is a nice modern highway in New Mexico, and just on a whim, I turned off at random on a turn off I'd never taken before. I drove along it for awhile, and I saw a road which was much less kept up. I turned onto that one, and later on I hit a dirt road and I tried it, and pretty soon I came to a place that wasn't on the map. It was just a little settlement. There were log cabins there, and horses pulling carts, and it looked physically as if I'd driven back into the l9th century. I started to think about the way the road kept changing, and I said, 'Gee, that would be neat, to consider time as a superhighway with different turnoffs.' I went back and started writing Roadmarks that same afternoon. - from "Forever Amber"
Another hallmark of Zelazny's writing emerges here with the protagonist, Red (or Reyd) Dorakeen. Like Corwin of Amber or Donald from Coils, Red's past is shrouded in mystery. He's been travelling up and down the Road for as long as anyone can remember, believing that the key to his past is finding a particular exit he knows was once there, an exit leading to a past where the Greeks won at Marathon. He's even tried his hand at creating the exit by attempting to smuggle 20th century firearms into ancient Greece to turn the tide of the battle.
Randy Carthage has a different problem. He has all his memories, but he doesn't really know who he is. His journey of self discovery along the Road begins when he accidentally activates an advanced computer disguised as a book of French poetry. The computer, it turns out, was once the travelling companion of the man who could be Randy's long-absent father, one Red Dorakeen.
And so Randy's search for his father begins. Red, on the other hand, continues his efforts to find his way home and finds himself under a "Black Decade," a series of ten assassination attempts sanctioned by a far-future gambling commission. Into the mix are thrown a wade variety of characters from all ages: a sorceror in monochromatic dress being sought by Doc Savage, Timyin Tin, a Buddhist monk whose memory of his days as a lethal assassin have been removed, Archie Shellman, a soldier who has been augmented into the perfect killing machine and conditioned to hate Red, and Mondamay, an alien robot with the power to destroy entire planets and who finds himself pulled from his peaceful life of pottery to kill a friend. Even the Marquis de Sade and Adolf Hitler (driving a Volkswagon down the Road, no less) put in appearances. The combination of superhuman characters and historical figures is very reminiscent of the Amber Chronicles as well.
The action barrels along up and down the Road, back and forth through history and future, to the climactic confrontation at "the last exit to Babylon," marked with a blue ziggurat. At 185 pages, Roadmarks is a relatively quick read, but still manages to give a good dose of Roger Zelazny's highly entertaining storytelling. It mixes action and reflection, quick humor and dramatic combat, science fiction and fantasy, in a perfect balance that will only leave you wanting more when all is said and done. Roadmarks was nominated for the Locus Award for best science-fiction novel in 1980, and was ranked 13th in the poll.
What first really grabbed me about this book was the excellent cover art by Darrell K. Sweet. It depicts a battered old pickup truck driving down a two-lane highway toward a sign proclaiming "Last Exit to Babylon" under a stylized ziggurat. Overhead, a large dragon appears to be following the truck. It's a beautiful image, with both truck and dragon heading into the sunset (or sunrise), into the distant past, and into destiny. It's one of a few book covers that has stuck in my mind since I first glimpsed it in a darkened used bookstore.
When I read the back cover, I knew I was in for a treat. Here was, in my experience, a totally unique time-travel story. There were no complex machines, no starships slingshotting around the sun, and no future soldiers emerging naked as the day they were born. Instead, the past and future were available to anyone with a vehicle and either a natural affinity for the Road or a guide to show them the way. Once the premise had hooked me, the characters really drew me in. Red Dorakeen is very much like Corwin, world-weary and totally focused on his driving obsession. He has the same quick wit and quicker reflexes, and he travels with similarly rich personalities. Randy Carthage came across as a classic Everyman character, taken from his rather dull life in Cleveland into a world he couldn't possibly imagine. His guides on the journey are Red's first computer, Flowers of Evil with her unique insights into Red's psyche, and his original travelling companion, Leila, who remembers much of Red's past and future and has her own suspicions of what's motivating him.
The book ends with several questions unanswered, especially with regard to the Dragons of Bel'kwinith and their relationship with the Road and with Red Dorakeen. While it left me hungering for more, leaving some loose ends also preserved the air of mystery and wonder woven through the story. Zelazny pulls of a perfect balance between telling you enough to spin a self-contained tale while not revealing so much that your imagination has no room to expand upon it. I was surprised and disappointed that he never returned to the Road with a followup novel, though I know a sequel would never have lived up to the original.
Grab a copy now and read the master at work (or play).
Roadmarks, by Roger Zelazny
"Forever Amber" - http://zelazny.corrupt.net/amberever.html
Locus Index to SF Awards - http://www.locusmag.com/SFAwards/index.html