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Just for the sake of hypothesis let us suppose that a small group of humans possessed of high technological prowess arrive on a planet populated by a wide variety of native lifeforms, some of which are hostile, and manage to tame said lifeforms and become rulers of said planet. What, then, would be their next move? It’s obvious, isn’t it — name yourselves after a bunch of Hindu Gods and use reincarnation technology to realise the beliefs of Karma, ruling from on high to an underclass of ordinary humans, each of which seeks, through living a worthy life, to be reincarnated into a more important life; perhaps, one day, even joining the gods themselves. Then suppose, once again purely for the sake of hypothesis, that one such god, Lord Kalkin, also known as Mahasamatman (or “Sam” for short) decides to try to end the reign of the gods, and in order to do this resurrects amongst the ordinary people the religion of Buddhism, taking on the mantle of the Buddha himself in order to lead the movement he has created. Such supposition effectively leads to the set-up of the novel ‘Lord of Light’ by Roger Zelazny; cited on the front cover by George R.R. Martin as “One of the five best SF novels ever written”, Lord of Light is certainly an imaginative, fast paced and memorable novel which is a far cry from the generic norm. The actual plot of the novel follows the gradual progress made by Sam as he utilises Buddhist teachings (carefully modified to allow his followers to fight at strategic moments) in an attempt to usurp Heaven, the city of the gods, and move forward his own philosophy of Accelerationism, in which the general population of the world would be given scientific knowledge at a fast rate in order to increase their quality of life and independence from the Gods. The Gods, of course, oppose Accelerationism, their main argument being that it would cause social instability and upheaval, their main reason being that it would fundamentally reduce their own power of divine governance. In the Encyclopædia of Science Fiction, John Clute refers to this novel as, “Zelazny’s most sustained single tale, richly conceived and plotted, exhilarating throughout its considerable length.” Although most of this statement is undeniably true, the final comment, regarding length, shows how standards in literature in general have changed over the past few years: at 319 pages, Lord of Light, which would once have been regarded as very lengthy indeed, is now somewhat shorter than average length for a novel on the market. Thankfully, however, the book still conveys the feel of an epic, even if not the page count of one; this is an achievement which has not deteriorated over the roughly 35 years since this book was written, and nor would I expect it to deteriorate over the years to come. In fact, through a use of (religiously) disguised technology with a lack of reference to the techniques or technical names behind it, Zelazny has managed to create a tale whose machines, as well as his quasi-mythological settings, are timeless and unlikely ever to date. Although this novel is unusual in many ways, the two which stand out most clearly are the degree by which characters can change throughout the course of the events described, and the extended timescale of the novel as a whole. The first of these, with regard to character ‘development’, is a side-product of the strange world in which the novel is set. With reincarnation a tangible reality, a character can inhabit many bodies, including those of both sexes, and take many names over the years, meaning that both the physical appearance and name of a character can vary rather widely over time. The fact that many of the characters we encounter within the tale are gods makes matters even more complicated, since these individuals are more ancient than most and hence have more names and appearances than average. The main character of the book, though called Sam for much of its length, is, for example, also referred to as Mahasamatman, Kalkin, Manjusri, Siddhartha, Tathagatha, the Binder, Maitreya, the Enlightened One and Buddha and although, thankfully, a list of these names for this character is provided on page 16 of the novel (a page to which I referred much during the course of reading), for the other characters there is no such reference. It is, therefore, a testament to Zelazny’s writing ability that the characters within the book are readily recognisable as continuous entities throughout the exploits and many incarnations. As well as Sam himself, characters such as Yama (the deathgod), Ratri (the goddess of beauty who has hit upon hard times for the vast majority of the book), Kali (a determined, ruthless and extremely untrustworthy goddess; it is a shame that Yama is so in love with her), Tak (Heaven’s archivist who is supposedly possessed of all knowledge), Taraka (leader of the Rakasha, a native race who have been decried by the dominant religion as demonic) and others are both memorable and well-defined, each having their own agenda and loyalties, and many often torn between two causes. I have never subscribed to that view, oft expressed by many critics and which, in my opinion, reeks of snobbery, that any novel which is concerned with big ideas is inherently inferior, in literary terms, to a novel which concerns itself with the minutiae of characters and their interactions. Here, however, we have both, and even those gods who have completely adopted their chosen role of godhood and adopt their Aspects and display their Attributes at every opportunity contain that glimmer of human personality which marks them out as a real person. As regards timescale, in a modern science fiction novel there would, no doubt, be two options open to an author when wishing to convey the passage of large amounts of time. The first would be to retreat into a good few long pages of exposition at every ‘jump point’ in the story, using the “over the following years Sam did this, then this, then this” technique, whilst the second would be to simply tell the details of those years, boring as they may be, in immaculate detail (a technique born in fantasy but which has, in recent years, come to engulf the entire sf-fantasy-horror metagenre). Zelazny, however, opts to credit his readership with rather more intelligence than this, and simply uses the start of each new chapter to jump straight in to the new circumstances which now hold and the new story which is to be told. In fact, one of the other main achievements of the book is that, unlike many other novels aiming for an epic feel, at no point does Lord of Light sag into an uneventful state, as usually happens towards the centre of the novel when the author is just trying to keep the novel ticking over. This is accomplished by Zelazny structuring the novel into rather lengthy chapters (approximately 50 pages each), each of which contains one set of events entirely to such an extent that many of the chapters might actually stand as standalone short stories were they to be published in a magazine, at least until the latter stages of the book where knowledge of previous events becomes more necessary. Of course, like any other, the book is not flawless, and my guess would be that one of the sticking points to many readers might be the baroque language used by Zelazny in telling his tale. Although this novel is certainly not new, its publication date of 1967 certainly does not justify the archaic language structures used within this narrative, and I would take an educated guess that Zelazny was, in fact, simply attempting to emulate the kind of language used in the religious texts (mainly Hindu and Buddhist, although the Bible gets a few mentions towards the end) upon which this novel i s based. Basically, Zelazny seems to be wielding the English language like some kind of weapon, with Lord of Light containing that kind of language, present in much genuinely aged literature (and fantasy) which is designed to be shouted at a crowd by some kind of mediaeval storyteller. Actually, although the writing style is initially rather wearying upon the reader, it is surprisingly easy to get used to, and by the second chapter most readers will have probably stopped noticing it. This book was published as part of Millennium’s ‘SF Masterworks’ series (as volume 7), and as such is a popular science fiction novel of considerable merit — otherwise it would not have been chosen for the series. Major flaws with the novel, therefore, are likely to be few, and apart from my warning about the style of writing present herein I would find few faults with the story as a whole. I have to admit to a slight amount of confusion in the early stages of the book as to the character of Yama, who appears in chapter I as the person who resurrects Sam and as an ally, but who then reappears in the following early chapters as a deadly enemy, and it is true that this discrepancy is never explicitly explained for the remainder of the book — however, of course, the implied reason, that Death had renounced some of his allegiances because of his love for the goddess Kali, is reasonably clear, and to labour this point overly would be pure nit-picking. Essentially, I would have to conclude by saying that this, as with many of the titles in the SF Masterworks series, is a novel of considerable imagination and invention, well executed and successfully sustained until the end. I would, therefore, recommend it.
I picked up this book thinking: Oooooo this looks interesting, and then left it on my shelf for a few months collecting dust. Then in a period of new things to read drought, picked it up, and began to read it. The book's opening is confusing, and if you have no idea of Hindu culture (like me)it's down right odd. Bbut persevere, it works out in the end and surges to become one of the best stand-alone sf books I've read in a long time. The book centres around a planet which is Indian-ethnic, but despite having travelled from Earth, it's people live in the ancient tradition of Hindus. Not only do they believe in the Hindu gods however, these gods actually exist. There is a battle however between these gods... there are those who revel in their power, using it, wallowing in debauchery, and then as their bodies age, change to new ones, all the while keeping the people in a developmental freeze, stamping out innovation. Then there are those (led by Sam) who believe that these people, essentially the gods descendants have a right to develop and be helped along to reach technological progress. What results is a fantastic tale of gods, their battles and quests, and the adventures of Sam as he fights Heaven to get what he believes in. A fantastic book, well thought out, well characterised, and a real page turner. While reading it I overshot my tube stop twice... a definite sign of a good read.
A million light years away from a long dead earth, there exists a colony planet. A band of men have gained the ultimate goal: a complete mastery of technology and immortality. They chose to live their lives in the fashion of Gods. the Gods of Hindu pantheon. There is Shiva - the lord of destruction, Vishnu- him of protection; Brahma -the god of creation;Yama-the god of death; Ratri- the goddess of night... but their hold over the planet is about to be challenged. Challenged by one man who was once Siddharta but now known as Mahasamatman- or just Sam. He is the Lord of Light. In this galaxy spanning saga, Roger Zelazny provides the reader with an instant classic. In conception, execution and sheer storytelling mastery this book is a gilt-edged classic. One can't help but admire Zelazny's complete mastery over the Hindu mythology. He wields every nuance of the Hindu pantheon and fashions a story, seamlessly intermingling the science of far future. Every detail of the Gods is authentic and deeply soaked in the Hindu myth. Yet this provides a refreshing, even thrilling science fiction adventure where technology helps bring the magic and miracles to life. It is small wonder that this novel won the 'Hugo award'. The science fiction world's Oscar. Zelazny may be better known for his brilliant 'Chronicles of Amber' saga, but 'Lord of Light' is a superb story worth revisiting. It has recently been reprinted (along with the Amber chronicles). Highly recommended.