The Cosmic Codex
The Cosmic Codex
Hell on wheels
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Hell on wheels

Meet the literary antecedent of Mad Max and Snake Plisskin
“Perilous journey” by Brian S. Pauls, 2024; Digital image created using Midjourney

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The recent premier of Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, the latest movie in the Mad Max franchise, provides a good opportunity to correct the record regarding the origin of a couple of popular cinematic characters.

A number of science fiction movie franchises have their origins in sf literature. Often, this debt is acknowledged, but sometimes credit doesn’t go the the author who deserves it.

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The latter appears to be the case for the popular characters Max Rockatansky from the 1979 movie Mad Max, and Snake Plisskin from the 1981 movie Escape from New York. While it may be easy to distinguish between these two charismatic, post-apocalyptic anti-heroes because of their unique settings, they appear to share a common ancestor in Hell Tanner, the protagonist of Roger Zelazny’s 1967 Hugo-nominated novella ”Damnation Alley”.

While I can’t prove George Miller, director of Mad Max, and John Carpenter, director of Escape from New York, read “Damnation Alley”, it seems likely.

Consider, for example, one of the first scenes in Zelazny’s novella:

He saw the roadblock and turned. They were not sure how he had managed it that quickly, at that speed. But now he was heading away from them. He heard the gunshots and kept going. Then he heard the sirens.

He blew his horn twice in reply and leaned far forward. The Harley leaped ahead, and he wondered whether they were radioing to someone farther on up the line.

He ran for ten minutes and couldn’t shake them. Then fifteen.

He topped another hill, and far ahead he saw the second block. He was bottled in.

He looked all around him for side roads, saw none. Then he bore a straight course toward the second block. Might as well try to run it.1

Reading this is like watching a Mad Max movie in my head. A harried protagonist deals with armed attackers while navigating a high speed vehicle down a perilous road. And make no mistake, Hell Tanner’s driving skills are a match for any character Miller ever created for the Mad Max series.

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It turns out Tanner is running from a deal he made in exchange for a full pardon from the national (you read that right) government of California. He’s been serving time for the extensive rap sheet he’s run up in his 25-30 years of life. But now he’s having buyer’s remorse. To earn his pardon, he has to deliver the vaccine for bubonic plague to an infected Boston before all its residents die. The problem is he can only accomplish this in time by running Damnation Alley, the coast-to-coast route across a post-apocalyptic (like Rockatansky’s Australia or Plisskin’s New York) America. The only person to do this successfully was the messenger who delivered the news of the epidemic to California. And he immediately died of the injuries he sustained en route.

A prisoner of the national government is coerced into service facing a hellscape for the greater good. If this plot sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the last time you watched Escape from New York.

But it’s when Tanner speaks that Snake Plisskin really comes through. As in this exchange in which he tells fellow driver George why he tried to renege on his deal:

“Why shouldn’t I? I’m not anxious to die. I’d like to wait a long time before I try that bit.”

Greg said, “If we don’t make it, the population of the continent may be cut in half.”

“If it’s a question of them or me, I’d rather it was them.”

“I sometimes wonder how people like you happen.”

“The same way as anybody else, mister, and it’s fun for a couple people for a while, and then the trouble starts.”

“What did they ever do to you, Hell?”

“Nothing. What did they ever do for me? Nothing. Nothing. What do I owe them? The same.”2

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When I read this, I hear Kurt Russell’s voice. Because it’s the same sort of dialog John Carpenter gave Snake Plisskin in Escape from New York.

Another example is Tanner’s response to George’s attempt to encourage him to finish the job and save the people of Boston.

“You’d be a hero. Nobody’d know much about your record…“

“The hell with heroes,” said Tanner.3

This seems to be an attitude shared by Rockatansky and Plisskin. They’re both men trying to survive in a world gone mad, and neither is too picky about how they do it.

Another link to the Mad Max setting is the dangerous weather in Tanner’s world. In the wake of a nuclear war, high-speed, high-altitude winds sweep continuously around the globe, carrying with them debris lifted from the earth by “dust devils”:

He watched them: towering, tapered tops that spun between the ground and the sky, wobbling from side to side, sweeping back and forth, about a mile ahead. It seemed there were fourteen or fifteen of the things. Now they stood like pillars, now they danced. They bored into the ground and sucked up yellow dust. There was a haze all about them.4

As Tanner navigates through this landscape in his 30-foot long enclosed, armed, and armored car, it’s easy to think of the cinematically stunning storm scene in Mad Max: Fury Road. Too bad the actual movie adaptation of Damnation Alley in 1977 utterly failed to evoke feelings of awe and dread in a similar way.

As with his later imitators, Hell Tanner turns out to be not all bad. He saves his younger brother (by beating him up) from foolishly volunteering to run Damnation Alley for the reward money. He saves George (by beating him up) from an ill-advised impulse to turn around and go back when it’s too late. And when he meets Jerry, a young boy in a household where he seeks aid on his journey, Tanner shows a softer side (thankfully not by beating him up):

“What’s that ring on your hand?” said Jerry. “It looks like a snake.”

“That’s what it is,” said Tanner, pulling it off. “It is sterling silver with red-glass eyes, and I got it in a place called Tijuana. Here. You keep it.”5

Notice the form of the ring. Yep.

Also instructive are Zelazny’s own words about his motives for writing “Damnation Alley,” in particular his desire to create a character “…trapped into being a hero and reaching a point where he couldn’t turn back.”⁠6 This describes both Rockantansky and Plisskinn.

In the case of Mad Max, he is often thrown into situations where he must depend on others in life-or-death situations, and they depend on him in the same way. As the reluctant “hero,” he soon finds he has to look out for others simply as a form of self-preservation.

Plisskin is a hero so reluctant the only way to secure his assistance is to threaten him with a dire fate—in Escape from New York, it’s explosives injected into his body. He then becomes a dog on a leash, doing his masters’ bidding so they will avert the death which will come without their intervention.

As a final word on the topic of giving proper credit, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention even Hell Tanner isn’t a complete original. Zelazny claimed to have based him on a real person he met “…in basic training who had been in a motorcycle gang.”⁠7

You can read the novella “Damnation Alley” in the October 1967 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, available at the Internet Archive.

Do you know of any instance in which John Carpenter or George Miller have acknowledged a debt to Zelazny for their creation?

Let us know in the comments!

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1

Roger Zelazny, “Damnation Alley,” This Mortal Mountain Volume 3: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, NESFA Press, 2009, p. 142

2

Zelazny, p. 167

3

Zelazny, p. 170

4

Zelazny, p. 174

5

Zelazny, p. 207

6

Zelazny, p. 245

7

Zelazny, p. 245

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