This helps explain my recent foray into Roger Zelazny’s 1967 Hugo Award winning novel Lord of Light. If you take a look at any of the top 100 SF lists, you’ll see this book frequently mentioned. That’s why I picked it up. Now that I’ve read it, I’d put Lord of Light into the category of a Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which I found to be a mixed bag. It’s a very good book, and I get why it’s accorded its classic status. But just like Matheson’s tale, I would describe Lord of Light as a book of great ideas, marred a bit by its execution.
First the good: I love the concept of this book, and the ideas advanced therein.
Earth is gone, rumored to be annihilated in war or perhaps drained of its resources (it’s not clear which). Colonizers have settled on an unnamed planet and started a new society. To increase their chances of survival on the alien planet, the crew of the ship has used chemical treatments and electronics to become godlike beings. They take on the names of Hindu gods and position themselves as such. In this future world technology has advanced such that it allows for the transfer of an individuals’ soul/mind to a new body. Thus, the peoples of this new earth are effectively immortal. However, the gods don’t wish to share equally in their power and so have developed a rigid caste system that forces the populace to slowly advance to “Godhood” (if at all) through a system of Karma. You earn your next station in life by the actions you take in the here and now, and are judged by the Gods when you die. They tell you what new body you will inhabit, king or pauper or something in between.
Meanwhile, in order to keep people from jumping ahead with technological advancements and assuming godhood and usurping their place at the top of the pyramid, the “Gods” keep the tech level at an artificially low level, approximately medieval. Attempts to progress towards scientific enlightenment are brutally squashed (I note the gods' intentions are not entirely bad: Man already screwed it up on earth once, and the fear is that history will repeat itself). But one of the ship’s original crewmembers, Sam, objects to this system, and although he is a God he strives to bring equality to the masses and allow science to run its course. He does so by a mixture of scheming, military intervention, and introducing Buddhism as an alternative religion that does not require abjection to the Hindu gods.
As you can see, Lord of Light addresses the debate of science vs. religion. With all the public debate on the subject still brewing today, it remains relevant and prescient. I’m simultaneously fascinated/repulsed by the possibility of technology allowing eternal life, aka., the “singularity,” and the consequences thereof. Lord of Light provides an interesting treatment of this scenario.
Where I have problems is in its execution. Lord of Light is a tough read in places, and I’d describe some sections as a slog. Zelazny just doesn’t seem concerned with making it easy on his readers. It takes many pages before a semblance of a story begins to unfold. Zelazny conveys important plot points as minor background details. He introduces way too many minor characters and Hindu gods, with too few anchors providing a basis as to who they are, for what is a relatively brief novel (319 pp.). My biggest complaint is the sketchiness of the character development: Even Sam is not given sufficient motivation as to why he’s such an adamant advocate of Accelerationism, otherwise known as scientific rationalism. In short, Lord of Light is long on ideas and short on plot and character (a problem I’ve encountered with a lot of science fiction).
But in the end I recommend Lord of Light. There are some absolutely beautiful poetic passages. There’s great wisdom conferred in its pages, for example the notion that guilt is both a blessing and a curse, and is what makes us uniquely mankind. Although I have no immediate desire to read it again, it's one of the books that you find yourself thinking back on, puzzling through what it says and what it means.
Lord of Light is comprised of seven chapters, a few of which were originally published as standalone stories for period SF magazines. It’s like reading seven novellas, some of which are better than others. My favorite was chapter 3, which relays the story of the assassin Rild who is sent to kill Sam and instead becomes a disciple of Buddhism. Zelazy’s handling of Rild’s evolution from cold-blooded killer to his spiritual awakening into peace and serenity, then giving it all up to try and save Sam/the Buddha from death (the Hindu god Yama, metaphorically death itself), is a marvel and in and of itself worth slogging though some of the other sections of Lord of Light. The battle of Rild and Yama—ultimate assassin vs. death god in an epic sword duel interspersed with the cut and thrust of ontological/metaphysical dialogue—is worth the price of admission:
“Keep your maidens, horses, dances and songs for yourself. No boon will I accept but the one which I have asked—tell me, oh Death, of that which lies beyond life, of which men and the gods have their doubts.”
Yama stood very still and he did not continue the poem. “Very well Rild,” he said, his eyes locking with the other’s, “but it is not a kingdom subject to words. I must show you."