This review was originally published over at booknest.eu.
Published by: HarperVoyager (2010 ed.)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novel (1968)
Copy: Picked up at my local library. Support your libraries, folks!
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.
Gods, I loved this one. My admiration for Roger Zelazny and his talents goes back to early adolescence when my father, may Krishna and Vishnu look at him favourably, granted me passage into a world that lies in intersection to our own (and yet far, far above it, the way real objects are above shadows), the world of Amber. It is a glorious place, and one I haven’t dared revisit for many years; but this review goes a little further back, before Zelazny himself ventured into the Chronicles of Amber.
Lord of Light is an epic contained in just under a three-hundred page novel. Its ideas are grand and ambitious, as much in the vein of fantasy as in science fiction, the basic structure of much of the novel borrowed from the creation myth of Buddhist lore (heavily based on reality but mythologised after two and a half millennia), the aforementioned Sam taking on the role of prince Siddhartha Gautama. But Sam is not a man to only wear a single hat – his identities throughout the seven chapters of the book are many and the role of destroyer comes as easy to him as that of ascetic philosopher. Whether he believes in what he preaches or not is besides the point.
This book is fantastic to read if you don’t know much about Hinduism and Buddhism but are looking for something to enthuse you, make you curious about enlightenment and spirituality of these dual religions which many of us in the Western world are hardly ever in the position to interact with on a meaningful level.
But divorce it from any knowledge from Hinduism; no, divorce is the wrong word. Rather, give Zelazny the creative leeway he deserves, let him loose on the pantheon and watch as he creates something remarkable and original as well as traditional. Perhaps the most delight I took was in these scenes which centred around the interactions between Sam and Yama (also called Yama-Dharma) the death-god and most brilliant amongst all the gods.
“Call themselves?” asked Yama. “You are wrong, Sam, Godhood is more than a name. It is a condition of being. One does not achieve it merely by being immortal, for even the lowliest laborer in the fields may achieve continuity of existence. … Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so that those who look upon you know this without hearing your name spoken. Some ancient poet said that the world is full of echoes and correspondences. Another wrote a long poem of an inferno, wherein each man suffered a torture which coincided in nature with those forces which had ruled his life. Being a god is being able to recognize within one’s self these things that are important, and then to strike the single note that brings them into alignment with everything else that exists. Then, beyond morals or logic or esthetics, one is wind or fire, the sea, the mountains, rain, the sun or the stars, the flight of an arrow, the end of a day, the clasp of love. One rules through one’s ruling passions. Those who look upon gods then say, without even knowing their names, ‘He is Fire. She is Dance. He is Destruction. She is Love.’ So, to reply to your statement, they do not call themselves gods. Everyone else does, though, everyone who beholds them.”
“So they play that on their fascist banjos, eh?”
“You choose the wrong adjective.”
“You’ve already used up all the others.”
This is the kind of dialogue that got me into literature, made me want to dig as deep into it as can be, and make the study of it my life’s work. It sparkles, it crackles, and it captures perfectly who these two characters are; Yama, who is avatar and representation of the end of all things, as severe as the silence of the grave; and Sam, who cuts through all the bullshit and calls things as he sees them, and fights for a cause not wholly his own to the last. Fine – I’m projecting beyond the conversation above but you can’t blame me for the enthusiasm.
See, the intertextuality is something Lord of Light thrives on and is shaped by. The paragraph above makes a passing nod to Dante’s Inferno, and perhaps to some of Zelazny’s other work itself – a quick google search revealed the following quote, penned by none other than him: “All of these things considered, it is not surprising that one can detect echoes, correspondences and even an eternal return or two within the work of a single author. The passage of time does bring changes, yea and alas; but still, I would recognize myself anywhere.” What this intertextuality allows Zelazny to do is weave his unique vision while using Hindu and Buddhist cannon as a vehicle to enrichen an imaginative world which takes on themes of oppression and the dangers of technological advancement, touches on colonialism and, most formidably, seeks to divorce religious preaching from spirituality, while arduously studying the bonds between the two. What does that last point stand for? As mentioned before – and I don’t mark this as spoiler, for it is established early on – Sam hardly believes what he preaches. Does that lessen his teachings? To discover the answer, multi-faceted as it is, you might want to pick this one up.
I am in awe of Zelazny, yet another of the SFF masters of old whose works will always hold relevance to our present. Lord of Light is a quintessential classic, and one you will be well-served by taking the time to read it. It will not always be easy…but it will be rewarding. This is my Sci-Fi read of the month, and I give it full marks, 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.
I rarely add a song to my reviews, but there is one that encapsulates the book and its protagonist in particular, in such an excellent way as to warrant it. The song in question is called “The Lord of Lightning” by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.