Roger Zelazny, like Ray Bradbury, is an author whose prose reads like poetry. His writing style is sparse, yet every word evokes an image of clarity. I wish I could write like him, and hope to come close someday. He’s written dozens of novels, singly and in collaboration, and every one of them is well respected by his former peers (he died in 1995). Every author has one book, however, that leaps above the rest, more well known and lauded than any other. For Zelazny, that book would be Lord of Light. For good reason: the novel is nothing short of amazing. I haven’t felt so involved in a story in years.
The very concept of the story is fairly unique. It takes place in the distant future, on a colony world that has no contact with Earth. The original colonists developed a technology to transfer the soul of a person into a new body, and have attained virtual immortality through this use of reincarnation. They have also developed their psychokinetic abilities, or Aspects and Attributes, through training, drugs, and other methods, allowing them to act functionally as Gods to their descendants, who have restarted civilization from scratch. In particular, these “gods” simulate early Hindu or Vedic mythology, in trait and name.
Even demons and spirits exist in the world, the original inhabitants of the planet who long ago abandoned their physical bodies to become immortal beings of pure energy. The whole setup for establishing a modern science fiction tale couched in Vedic myth is brilliantly done, with nary a hole in the logic to be seen.
The tale centers around a disillusioned First (an original colonist) named Sam, better known as Siddhartha. He takes issue with the restrictions on civilization placed by the other Gods, in particular feeling that they have been hindering the society’s advancement in order to maintain the balance of power on the side of the Gods. He strives to undermine these efforts, taking on the role of the Buddha in order to establish a counter (yet complementary) movement among the people. He also bargains with the demons whom had been locked away centuries before, freeing them to fight against the Gods.
Most of the story takes place in the past. The first chapter involves Yama, God of Death, bringing Sam back into the physical world, after spending 50 years dispersed as energy in the troposphere of the planet. Each chapter after that is really a prologue, detailing Sam’s previous effort to battle the Gods (which ended with his spirit scattered across the planet, which brings us full circle), until the last two chapters, which deal with the final battle.
The entire adventure is truly epic and brilliantly done, with marvelous scenes of action and tension. That is not why I am so enamored with the story, however. It comes down to people. Zelazny was able to make me genuinely care about the people behind their Godhood. There is no clear good versus evil, everyone has a bit of both. Their conflict is a matter of opinions leading towards the same ideal, and no matter what side they may be on now, they have all fought and bled and cried and loved together in the past. They may be powerful and immortal, but they are still human.
It’s a question always at the forefront of my interests, and many of my favorite books address it either directly or indirectly: what makes us human? Where does humanity lie, and how do we retain that as we change and evolve and step beyond ourselves? Lord of Light is a book that addresses it directly, I think.
I would recommend Lord of Light to anyone, barring perhaps those who have problems with religious reinterpretation. Or perhaps not bar them at all, since they could most benefit from a new perspective. I suppose the question becomes whether the goal in reading it is to educate and enlighten, or merely to entertain.
Zelazny, Roger. Lord of Light. New York: Eos, 2004.