Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Lord of Light

© 1967 by Roger Zelazny

Mythology holds a special place in my heart, especially as a young science fiction obsessed lad all those years ago, and in due course I devoured my way through Greek, Norse, and even Egyptian mythology. An uncle gave me a tattered paperback of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and if only he knew how high he grew in my esteem over that simple act. In fourth grade I loved writing a three page report on Poseidon (lost two points for writing “The End” at the end of it). Watching those Thor animated comics with my pals in the late 70s on channel 11 kindled an interest in Asgaard, frost giants, and great big wooden trees of life.

So it should come as no surprise that my focus would turn eventually to the Hindu pantheon.

Now, I mean this with absolutely no disrespect, coming at it from a Western, steeped-in-monotheism point of view, the Hindu belief system always struck me more literary and mythological, with a great big dose of philosophy tossed in, than theological. In the mid-90s, during my searching-for-meaning phase, I did spend a month or so investigating Hinduism. Now, it wasn’t a spiritual fit for me, but I did have my first introduction to Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and the whole host of lesser deities and their avatars. Fascinating stuff.

In the summer of 2000 I first read Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, and was overwhelmed. Amazed and overwhelmed. Fifteen years would have to go by before I cracked it a second time.

I love just about everything about this novel, now that I understand it. Of course, it did take a second reading plus another refresher course in Hindu theogony, but I don’t believe that’s necessary for one to appreciate the Hugo Award-winning novel.

Zelazny deliberately keeps the premise vague (so we can’t really label the book definitively SF or definitively fantasy), but you can pick up bits and pieces from what the characters say to each other. Apparently, some time in the distant past, a spaceship crashed on an unknown planet. The survivors of the crew used the technology available to them (and later seriously expanded upon) to become gods. Hindu gods, specifically, with special powers, such as the ability to spew fire that can burn anything, a “death stare,” the ability to cause darkness, the ability to cause illusion, and much more. They also developed the wherewithal to transmigrate souls, and thus the whole Wheel of Birth and Rebirth is created. The passengers on the ship, it is hinted at (or at least I picked up on), become the population ruled by these gods, and the gods in turn, to keep their supremacy, crack down on any technological advance among the people, be it printing presses or indoor plumbing. Oh, and the natives on this world, energy-like beings, are “bound” and referred to as “demons.”

Now the monkey wrench in the plans of the gods: Sam. Mahasamatman, “Great Souled Sam” if you having a passing familiarity with Sanskrit. Originally a member of that crew so many millennia ago, Sam has come to the realization that the “gods” are a curse upon the planet and the population, and decides to go to war against them. Incarnating as the Buddha, Sam, the “Lord of Light” leads a revolt against the gods, enlisting the aid of the demons and the ever-shifting allegiances of other deities such as Yama and Kali. Though his revolution never quite succeeds as planned (or revealed to the reader), it might possibly succeed if said reader has the patience and has paid enough attention to decipher the tale.

It ain’t an easy book, and does require some cooperation from the guy turning the pages. It did take me two go-throughs, but it was well worth it. The chronology may throw you. The novel consists of seven parts, and I believe Part One fits chronologically between Parts Six and Seven, though it may require a third read to determine that for certain. I was like, why is this guy risking his life to help Sam and then for no reason trying to kill him? Ohhh.

Zelazny is a great teller of tales when he wants to be, and here is he definitely at his best. The images, the backstories, the dialogue – all fantastic, all worth the price of admission a dozen times over. The ideas, the part of a novel I like best, are there in plentitude and fruitfulness. The SF stuff aside, I liked the idea that an antagonist who appears later in the story is actually a Christian chaplain from the original crew. Wow! What are the repercussions of that? Something I wished the author explored a little further. Or again, maybe the next time I crack Lord of Light the answers will be there.

I’ve been reading Roger Zelazny off and on since I was a kid and tackled To Die in Italbar. This Immortal was my Best Read of 2010. Even his mediocre stuff is better than the majority of stuff out there. Lord of Light is a keeper and I think I’ll re-read it sometime around 2030, the Trimurti willing.

Grade: Solid A.

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