In the far future, on a colony world, some people have developed mutant powers…which they use (along with technology) to impersonate the gods of the Hindu pantheon and rule over the planet of their descendants.
And that’s as sci-fi as this story gets. It’s not at all a spaceships-and-lasers story…it’s a fantasy epic, imitating all the conventions of religious myth from symbolic repetition to deliberate ambiguity.
The story follows Siddhartha, AKA Maitreya (“Lord of Light”), AKA Mahasamatman, AKA the Buddha, AKA just Sam. Some view him as a god, others as the friend of demons. He views himself as a charlatan, using the tools at his disposal in a political crusade. The story suggests they are all right – just as it deftly synthesizes a culture built on veneration of the Hindu pantheon (and depending on their approval for reincarnation in a new body) and advanced technology (including the technology that makes this body-transfer possible).
Lord of Light is a story of ideas…a raw, unidealized look at humanity – and the darkness inside of them…a tale of atmosphere, ancient legends, and towering personalities…all set in a rich, layered world drawn from Indian culture and religion – perfect for those fantasy aficionados tired of the “bland European” fantasy setting.
Mr. Zelazny excels at making characters that are…not exactly “huggable,” but sympathetic. They may not be people you trust, and they sometimes do distasteful things…but you can always understand what’s going on in their heads. They are always intensely human characters.
This goes for our main character Sam, too. While his peers are strutting around in gorgeous bodies and play-acting gods, he’s living as a simple human prince among the commoners (who must watch their political and religious sympathies, lest they be denied a reincarnation when their current body wears out).
Once Sam decides to take on the oppressive oligarchy of Heaven, he does it with subtlety, with trying to break the people’s blind reverence for them…with the (uncontrollable) power of local aliens…with human mistakes, partial victories, set-backs and failures. While we might disagree with some of his choices, and question some of his methods, there’s no denying Sam is a realistic, three-dimensional human character.
Speaking of humans…they are pretty dark creatures. And Mr. Zelazny doesn’t shy away from that fact.
The city of the gods where the “Heavenly” bureaucracy lives is basically a great big “garden of delights”…where they spend their days banging each other (and their interchangeable concubines), getting drunk, eating delicacies…and occasionally, indulging even darker passions like violence.
There was more sex than in Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, but each instance was still tamer than Robert Ludlum’s style. A good author doesn’t need to give medical definitions for the readers’ skin to crawl…perhaps there’s a reason “debauchery” is such a gross-sounding word without even knowing what it means?
All of which paints the message loud and clear: no matter what humans achieve – even if they invent a technology that lets them side-step death! – they will still be fallen creatures, and sooner or later they will use it to oppress and exploit each other.
Speaking of the honest exploration of ideas, a central element of Lord of Light is the technology that lets people transfer their “atman” or soul from one body to another.
While no one ever brings up the issue of how they created human bodies without a “person” already living in it, they do discuss the complications of family ties where people are constantly renewing their bodies. What does it mean to say this or that person is your “father” – when he’s now in a new body, and so are you, and so the two of you have no genetic material in common at all…yet he (and your mother) still contributed to the birth of your spirit into the world. Complicated, no?
Add to that the fact that male and female bodies are now interchangeable, and I’m honestly surprised the whole society hasn’t devolved in a fiery collapse because of the total fragmentation of the nuclear family. Perhaps humans are more resilient than I assumed…or rather, perhaps Mr. Zelazny views humans as more resilient than I would.
Myths and legends
Part of the fun of Lord of Light is the depth of the world Mr. Zelazny has created. We really get a sense that exciting, unusual things have happened a lot in the past – that, in fact, the characters’ lives were stuffed full of strange and interesting things – but that we only see through hints and barely mentioned memories. Extending the world beyond the story at hand makes it immensely bigger.
I think the author was trying to do the same thing with some of his ambiguities… Like an old wives’ tale that teaches you about the world by beginning, “Some say…” – while still leaving room for interpretation. This narrative style perfectly captured the ambiance of an oral culture, infused with the rejection of “material reality” that underlies Buddhism. After all, the goal of a Buddhist is to disconnect from physical reality so much that you reach Nirvanna – a state beyond existence.
It fit the story Mr. Zelazny was telling like a hand in a glove…and yet…
And yet Jesus said, “I Am the way.” He said, “I am the Truth.”
The gods of the Celestial City rule by indoctrination…by denying their opponents reincarnation…by insisting on the pre-ordained roster of “Heaven.” When a god or goddess dies, their place must be taken by someone else – another of the mutant oligarchs takes on their name and primary attributes (male, fire-wielding, etc.). They essentially ret-con history to maintain their narrative.
Very clever as a story ploy…but, well, modern America has a bad habit of thinking it can make a thing so just by yelling it louder. Which, now that I think about it, makes Zelazny’s villains all the more believable. But…
But ideas have consequences. And when we tell ourselves (even in stories) that real historical events don’t matter (“some say this, but others say that…”) it erodes our grip on reality – God’s reality. Which happens to be very insistent.
Am I saying the novel Lord of Light will destroy your psychological grip on cause-and-effect? Only if you are a pathetically weak, ungrounded person. But I am saying we must be aware of the ideas we come into contact with…fore-warned is fore-armed.
(Also, it’s kinda weird that this universe’s master-of-zombies is the one guy who spouts vaguely Biblical references and claims a vague Christian ecclesiastical affiliation. Even weirder than Ultron’s habit of Biblical/apocalyptic literary reference in Avengers: Age of Ultron.)
Spoilers for Authors
My other complaint is because I watch too much Writer Youtube.
The entire novel builds up the conflict of Sam versus the fake gods…Every scene somehow ties into their clash of ideas: oppress and exploit the common people, or allow them to (re)discover and enjoy the same tech advances that have given the “gods” their comfortable lives. Every battle, conversation, and set-back is somehow laced with the conflict.
Then, in the last chapter, everything peaks – only Sam doesn’t fight the gods. Instead, he teams up with the gods who are left (the ones he, or various others, haven’t killed yet) to fight some third party who’s barely been mentioned.
This mysterious “new challenger” popped up in conversation once or twice before, as one of these hinted past conflicts that made the world feel bigger. But he certainly didn’t get enough development to be the end boss of the entire book. It’s not quite an official “Martha Moment“…but it’s also not entirely satisfying.
(In a “Martha Moment,” something causes one of the opposing teams – often the winning side – to abandon their goal so that the two sides can unite in the third act. Instead, Sam joins the gods because he figures he has already won the culture war — once people no longer view the gods as inviolable, their power will be basically broken. It’s still less satisfying though.)
It’s fun when authors know what style they’re aiming for, and then go whole-hog in nailing that style in the bull’s-eye.
Lord of Light is an evocative, atmospheric fantasy (glossed with scientific explanations)…The manipulation of philosophy for political ends was a clever plot device, and the ideas raised by the technology were honestly explored.
What with the “questionable” scenes, and the worldview implications, I would recommend this for mature readers who are ready to intellectually confront the ideas presented to them.
You’ll also get a part-epic, part-character-piece that melds battles, adventure, and intrigue.
Lord of Light is available on Amazon.