Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, a review

My reading selection is mainly the product of my personal (and admittedly diverse, and quirky) preferences. Which is why you see a mixture of epic fantasy, swords and sorcery, horror, military and/or historical non-fiction, and a smattering of science fiction reviewed on this website. I also branch out into books that are acknowledged classics of their genre, titles which I wouldn’t normally read were it not for their place on “top 100 polls” and the like. Some might argue that life is too short to read uninteresting books, or to conform to public opinion, but I’ve come to realize that consensus on some issues does matter, especially after finding that several of my forays into the classics have been well worth the trip. Watership Down is among the top 20 books I’ve ever read, for example. Ditto Slaughterhouse Five and 1984. Other titles have been duds and left me wondering “what’s the hype all about?”, but at least I can say I made the effort.

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."


Barad the Gnome said...

I think the criticism is fair Brian, Zelazny really makes the reader work to understand this little gem. And the jumping around of the timing can also be confusing. Zelazny did a lot of magazine work, and then bundled them for novels which is also evident here.

However, all that said, this is still one of my very favorite books. I had to read it multiple times right at the beginning to understand it - and I still don't get it all. I have been eyeing it on my book shelf recently thinking it was time for a another reading.

'Sam' is another typical Zelanzy reluctant/unconventional hero. The character building is light, but it is there as you say in subtle and hidden bits.

If nothing else people need to read the passages on the prayomat.

Perhaps some of my comments are a give away on why my game is like it is...


Anonymous said...

The fun part is that there actually is an Indian myth where the human demanded that death boon, and the god capitulates and tells him.

I read it only after Lord of Light, which meant the myth didn't have half the impact of Zelanzy's story.

Brian Murphy said...

Barad: Thanks for the comments, and come to think of it, the cryptic nature of Lord of Light does remind me of a certain game I've played. I do need to re-read the prayomat bits.

Mary: That's pretty cool. I wonder if my lack of knowledge of the Hindu mythos might have lessened my appreciation of Lord of Light a bit. Still, I loved that scene, probably my favorite in the book.