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Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny, Avon, 1976, 319 pp. (originally published in 1967)
Lord of Light was not Zelazny's first novel. He had been a presence in the field with his stunning short stories, which announced his genius as clearly as could be. He expanded award-winning stories into his first two novels: "...And Call Me Conrad" became This Immortal and "He Who Shapes" became The Dreammaster. By the time of Lord of Light, Zelazny was regarded as one of the most accomplished writers of his generation, the new vanguard which would be hyped so effectively by Ellison in Dangerous Visions. Lord of Light is another superb work that silences most critics of the New Wave hype -- in the wake of a novel like this, most categories of new and old dissolve and there is only this singular achievement. Interestingly, Zelazny was often in close competition with Delany for awards in the field. Lord of Light would go on to beat Delany's The Einstein Intersection for the Hugo, but lose to it for the Nebula. I'll discuss what it might mean for New Wave material to win so many awards in my review of Dangerous Visions next.
Lord of Light itself is a fantastically textured novel, a work surpassingly rich and strange. The background of the story might seem familiar at first: a group of humans have colonized an alien planet, but the subsequent generations have lost most of their grasp of technology and their roots on Earth. Thankfully, Zelazny puts a spin on this dreadfully overused formula. A small group of the original colonists have retained their knowledge of technology, as well as gaining some extra-human powers, and have set themselves up as gods of the Hindu pantheon. The ordinary people worship these gods and goddesses, and also submit to the machinery which judges their lives and reincarnates them according to their karma. A convenient setup, especially for capricious and power hungry "deities."
The main character of the book is named Sam, short from Mahasamatman. He is one of the initial colonists, the Lord of the title, and a Buddha figure. Sam recycles the ideas of the original Buddha back on Earth in order to set up resistance to the status quo as maintained by the other gods. The book begins with a long sequence in which Sam is brought back to life by some of his friends and begins to plot another revolution. Then Zelazny rewinds the narrative to show how the Lord of Light was destroyed in his earlier insurrection. It is only much later in the book that the story catches up to where it began.
Sam is a suitably ambiguous character, and one that proves that a skilfully written enigma can indeed be the centre of a novel. Zelazny is careful to show how oppressive the current regime is to the population of the planet, and Sam is almost always shown in a positive manner. However, the common people themselves never figure in the story in a real way -- they are the tokens on the battleground on whom the gods and goddess trample. Lord of Light almost becomes another story about superpowerful beings and their squabbles so common to science fiction, but Zelazny undercuts almost every clunky trope that he deploys. Sam might be indistinguishable from a god, but he is also cynical enough to see how his words, if believed, can cause the overthrow of the status quo. A trick perhaps, and perhaps no different a means to an end than his opponents use, despite the very different ends. The dazzle of the story sometimes obscures the way that Zelazny has laid out the foundation, but the foreword momentum is posited on the cryptic nature of the main character. Sam may nor may not believe, yet still he and the other gods and the common people go on living every day, go on struggling every day.
Lord of Light has some interesting insights into what it means to be embodied. The gods and goddesses have command of the apparatus of reincarnation, and Sam believes that this re-embodiment should be out of the moral control of a small group of capricious deities. Technology has made godlike progress possible, and the ethical centre of the book resides in someone who wants to de-link these powers from a repressive religious system. It's also the case that no one questions that primacy of the body itself, not even the gods and goddesses. In a strange bit of anthropocentrism, the incorporeal alien beings who inhabited the planet before the arrival of the human colonists also long for physical bodies. Sam is known as Binder of Demons because of his power over these discorporate aliens; he makes a pact with the chief "demon" for help, and a large portion of Sam's plans go awry when the demon takes control of his body (and in much the same hedonistic thrill-seeking as the deities in the pantheon). Far from emphasizing the mind/body dualism of such a setup, the book implies strongly that the mind itself has its form in the peculiarities of the body. However, Lord of Light also depicts the deities retaining their mental powers from one body to the next. Again, Zelazny walks a slyly orchestrated line between the sf tropes he employs (like immortality through technology) and the meaning that is wrung from them. Take for example a quotation from a long passage where a character named Tak is talking about deities and their immortality: "The bodies mean so little in the long run that it is far more interesting to speculate as to the mental processes which plucked us forth from chaos" (205). Yet still the body itself is the intersection point for all of the struggle in the book.
The final word in this review belongs to Zelazny. It's really quite a joy to read his prose, and it's easy to get lost in admiration at how easily he achieved the effect he was reaching for. One of my favourite passages in Lord of Light involves what I would describe as graceful circumlocution. Early in the book, Sam is down at a harbourfront, where he is trying to get in touch with an old friend:
I hadn't thought of cursing in quite that way before!
Last modified: July 20, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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