Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SF Masterworks #7: Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny defined my teen years. The Changing Land was the first fantasy I ever read, and with such a strange beginning, I was marked for life. I suspect much of my love for the weird and my lack of patience with generic fantasy and SF tropes comes from Zelazny.

Reading his works is always a pleasant experience, but not having read Lord of Light in English before, I was literally swept off my feet by Zelazny's style. His irreverent use of high style and the ways he mixes the mythical and the technological, the divine and the mundane, are a pure delight to read. I don't like using quotes in my reviews, but in this case a quote is really worth a thousand words, so an exception is in order.

'I have a better idea,' said she. 'Know that under a mortal name am I mistress of the Palace of Kama in Khaipur.'
'The Fornicatorium, madam?'
She frowned. 'As such is it often known to the vulgar, and do not call me 'madam' in the same breath-- it smacks of ancient jest. It is a place of rest, pleasure, holiness and much of my revenue.'
The story is set in a world where a long time ago an Indian generation ship from Earth (or "Urath", as it is called in the book) landed. It didn't take long before the crew took control of all technology and began creating a theocracy based on the Indian mythology, using machines that transfer the mind into another body to achieve both immortality for themselves and the illusion of Karma for the rest of humanity.

But one of their own, one of the First, known as Sidhartha and Budha, as Lord of Light and Tatagatha, as Mahasamatman and also Sam, chooses to rebel against the injustice, and topple the very gods from their throne. Lord of Light begins with the present, as Sam is revived from a state of bodiless "Nirvana" after having lost his gambit to overthrow Heaven. The book then follows the events that led to his downfall to finish with a return to the present and the resolution of Sam's story.

Roger Zelazny dubbed his own works "science fantasy". Whether the term actually means anything or not, he was among the first to mix the two in such a way as to be impossible to say which is dominant. Lord of Light is a pinnacle in that regard. The themes are undoubtedly SF in nature, but the entire approach - from the style of writing and characters' attitude to the story itself - is completely submerged in the realm of Fantasy. As I said before, Zelazny actually uses the contrast between the two genres to both epic and ironic effects. Examples of the former abound in the ways he describes the technologies used by the gods - Agni's fire wand, Shiva's Thunder Chariot etc. - while the latter is contained mainly in the way he describes certain scenes. Apart from the first quote, here's another hilarious one:
He turned and left.
The Lord of Karma made an ancient and mystical sign behind his back.
In Lord of Light Zelazny combines his love for the larger-than-life characters with his love for the tricksters, and his Sam is both a powerful ageless hero, and a gambler and a rogue. The same applies for the other prominent figure among the gods of Heaven - the One in Red, the deathgod Yama, who is both a creature of deadly abilities, and a brilliant engineer and artificer. Duality permeates everything in this book, from the most superficial to the deepest layers, from style to story to characters. Even its tone ever shifts between playful irony and gripping pathos.

Due to its themes and the complete lack of technological explanation, Lord of Light reads just as well now, as it did back in the 60s when it was written. It is a story about rebellion against injustice, and a story of archetypes that never change. It is also beautifully written and masterfully told. I can't recommend it nowhere near high enough.


  1. I must say that this caught me off guard when I tried reading it a few months ago. I've always seen Gods to be more of a Fantasy topic than Science Fiction so I guess I'll try it again in a different frame of mind sometime. A mate of mine is full of praise for it and in general I've found the SF Masterworks series top notch.

  2. It is, as George Martin put it, one of the five best SF books ever written. I don't know which other four he meant, but on this one he's spot on.

  3. A book I read first the mid seventies. Full of humour, gentleness and subtlety it is a wonderful example of the the craft of story telling. A mixture of science and fantasy it succeeds without heavy-handiness. The book that I reread nore regularly and any other.

  4. I've loved Zelazny ever since I found Nine Princes in Amber, about 15 years ago, but Lord of Light... Lord of Light took a while to grow on me. I will admit I read it once and didn't understand anything. Colonists, planets? It never occurred to me. I was oblivious and confused. Then the internet happened and everything suddenly made sense! On following readings I had a lot of fun trying to piece together the story by myself and see if I was just dumb for not getting it the first time. (I was.)