Book Review: Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light

Once again, the pendulum has swung from ‘cheesy schlock’ to ‘actual quality literature.’ But, with October coming up, I’ll probably read a couple of pulpy horror novels, so don’t you worry.

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I picked up Zelazny’s Lord of Light at the same garage sale I nabbed The Left Hand of Darkness. The lady just threw them in with the bookshelf I got for like 10 bucks– in hindsight, I kind of wish I’d picked up a couple more of the retro hardbacks they had laying around, but what can you do. Zelzany is another of those classic writers who I’ve read before– just … a long long time ago (I still haven’t finished that huge Amber omnibus I nabbed a couple years back). So now it’s classic Sci-Fi time here on Dial H for Houston. Woo!

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BALLER.

Lord of Light is a weird novel, in the best of ways. The first paragraph of the first chapter sums up the plot and tone of the book pretty well.

His Followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

As Clarke’s Law goes, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Lord of Light was actually written before Clarke came up with the pithy term, but it’s a sentiment that’s pervaded science fiction ever since the dawn of the genre. Zelazny really leans into the whole “science as magic” idea, as Lord of Light is set on a planet ruled by a cadre of people who have set themselves up as Hindu Gods, complete with reincarnation and names like Shiva, Kali, Ganesh, etc. They’re basically the kind of demi-godlike beings that pop up on every third episode of Star Trek.

Enter Sam, one of the “First” colonists, who opposes the Gods and seeks to tear them down from Heaven, so that he can share the amazing technology they use with the rest of the planet. Describing the novel this way makes it sound straightforward, but Lord of Light is anything but. This book is dense and obtuse and weird. Most of the main characters have several different names and titles, which are bandied about interchangeably– and that’s before you get into stuff like reincarnation and body-switching and so on. On top of that, the book also features armies of demons and zombies and all kinds of crazy stuff. There was even some vague talk in the 70’s about making Lord of Light into a movie, so they tapped the best possible person to do some quick designs: the great Jack Kirby.

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I’d love to see Tom Scioli take a crack at this material too. 

It’s ridiculously common in sci-fi for the hero to use his advanced knowledge to ‘invent’ gunpowder or steam engines or whatever on a backwater planet. Lord of Light differs, however, in that Sam invents/introduces a religion. Namely, Buddhism. Sam’s not a devout man– he just uses Buddhism as a way to undermine the caste-based rule of the Gods. He even mentions at the end that he could have used Islam or Christianity, but they wouldn’t have meshed well with space-Hinduism.

Lord of Light is a dense book, taking place over years, or even centuries. It’s eventful, too– each chapter could easily be expanded into its own novel. Thankfully, Zelzany doesn’t take this approach– I’m not sure if he could’ve kept up the book’s airy, almost mythological storytelling style for a seven book series or whatever. Then again, the sci-fi market in the 60’s was a lot different than it is today.

Zelazny won a Nebula and a Hugo for Lord of Light, and rightly so. It’s funny, thoughtful, and suitably epic in its conclusion. On top of that, it’s unique. Plenty of people have done the whole “technology makes us gods!” thing before, but I can’t think of any authors who have couched their stories with such an explicitly storytelling-based style.

All and all, Lord of Light is well worth a read– and not just for fans of science fiction. So go track yourself down a copy– getting a matching bookshelf is optional.

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