Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Published: Doubleday 1967/ Gollancz 1999
Awards Won: Hugo Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award
“A group of humans with impressive technology have colonized an alien planet. With the ability to reincarnate into new bodies, the original colonists live long lives and populate the world with multitudes of their children.
However, rather than raise these citizens of the new world to their standard of living, many of the powerful want to maintain their own dominance. In the guise of shepherding an unready population, they impede the development of technology among their subjects, and tightly control the means of reincarnation. They model themselves after the Hindu pantheon, and manipulate the population through their enforcement of a system of ‘karma’.
A threat to their control comes from one of the first colonists, a man named Sam. To many, he is a great religious leader and a legend—the Buddha of this new world—though others see him for a fraud. For all of those who wish to bring down the Lords of Karma, though, he may be the only hope.” ~Allie
It’s time for some more Zelazny! I seem to have a bit of a theme with religious science fiction going on, and it will be continued with A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Lord of Light continues many trends I’ve seen in other Zelazny works, though I think this one might be my favorite. As in This Immortal, Zelazny deliberately mixes the feel of science fiction and fantasy in the novel. On the side of science fiction, there is some justification for the technology and abilities of Sam and the others, and the general setup is of a colonized alien planet. On the fantasy side, almost none of the technology is explicitly described, and many details of the world and characters’ past adventures are left vague. The technology is essentially like magic, and the world the humans inhabit has a rich, mostly unexplored history. The prose and dialogue are also very stylistic, in a kind of archaic, mythological way.
The style of writing seems to fit well with the focus on Buddhism and Hinduism. I am not an expert in either religion, but I don’t think that was a barrier to understanding the story. There is quite a lot of information included, though, so I expect that I missed some allusions or references. Each chapter begins with and excerpt from Hindu or Buddhist literature, along with an excerpt from the legend Sam had built as the Buddha of a new world. There are descriptions of many gods and goddesses, and the native creatures of the planet, energy beings called “Rakasha”, reflect the Hindu Rakshasas. I don’t know how the story would appear to a follower of either faith, but I felt Zelazny treated the religions with respect. It is made very clear within the story that the Hindu pantheon and the new Buddha are not actually true gods or religious figures, but simply humans using the doctrines to achieve their ends. In that sense, the story was less about the faiths than it was about how religion can be used as a tool to affect human society for good or evil.
Many of the numerous characters were a little one-note, but I think that was deliberate. The members of the pantheon were honing their personalities down to a major characteristic, in order to better personify their chosen deity. Things could get a little confusing sometimes, as most characters had gathered a number of names over the years, and they occasionally even switched to different bodies. I enjoyed the discussion about how access to reincarnation technology would affect identity and relationships, but it ran into a little too much gender essentialism for my taste at some points. The main character, Sam, is a pretty standard Zelazny hero. He’s an intelligent, flawed, immortal super-human (he can control electromagnetic fields). He also has a sense of humor, is a pretty decent person, and is instrumental to the fate of his world. In the case of Lord of Light, this involves his struggle to defeat the established pantheon and bring technology to the people.
The story begins near the end, but then cuts back to tell the story from the beginning of Sam’s long struggle against the self-appointed gods. While there is a lot of interesting theological trappings, and entertaining debates on freedom of technology and the effects of reincarnation, I felt like the story was an adventure at heart. There are dramatic fights, battles, betrayals, some romance, and ill-fated gambling with Rakasha. As in several other of Zelazny’s novels, the individual adventures sometimes seemed episodic, but I found them entertaining in themselves as well as in the context of the larger story.
My Rating: 4/5
Lord of Light is pretty well representative of what I think of as Zelazny’s usual kind of story, with a combination of aspects of science fiction and fantasy, an immortal, super-human, but likeable hero, and plenty of exciting adventures. The hero, Sam, is the irreverent founder of Buddhism, a faith that he chose to oppose the self-styled Hindu pantheon that controlled the populace through their monopoly on reincarnation technology. I enjoyed the focus on Hinduism and Buddhism within the story, though story was less about the religions themselves than about their use by humans. Overall, Lord of Light is my favorite Zelazny novel so far, though I should warn that it was a little confusing to get into at first!