By: Roger Zelazny
Interesting and random fact: Lord of Light was the script that was used as a cover for the “film crew” that rescued the besieged diplomats in the American Embassy in Tehran in the Iranian Revolution, as depicted in the film Argo.
I don’t normally review books as soon as I’ve read them, but Lord of Light is one that definitely deserves an exception. Even on the face of it, the concept is fascinating. A la Dan Simmons’ 2003 masterpiece, Ilium, Lord of Light is set in a dystopian future, where some humans in possession of advanced technology have set themselves up as gods and lord it over the masses.
Lord of Light is in some ways a product of its times, reflecting the growing fascination with Indian culture that Western nations underwent in the late ’60s and early 70’s, with the Beetles visiting and the beginnings of “hippie” counterculture, and the visual imagery of the book reflects that, with intense colours and patterns. In that sense, it does reflect some older ways of thinking about and representing the intellectual legacy of the subcontinent, with some clear elements from the Swinging Sixties – the “gods” having affairs being an example. The overall tone, however, is deeply respectful of Indian philosophy, criticizing more than anything else the absurdity of religious dogma. The sci-fi, including concepts such as the transmigration of the soul, mind uploading, and genetic engineering, treads a fine line between myth and later concepts. These themes have inspired generations of cyberpunk writers, but Lord of Light is head and shoulders above the rest – the father of cyberpunk, as it were.
What makes Zelazny’s work so different? Because these aren’t your typical Western gods – they’re Indian, Hindu. And the racial diversity of the cast of characters is surprising, with a surprising number of non-whites as main and supporting characters, including the protagonist: known to his followers as Mahasamatman (“Great-Souled”), Maitreya (“Lord of Light”), and Buddha (“Enlightened One”), but who prefers to be called Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.
Now let’s talk about the setting. The story takes place on an unidentified planet, colonized by humankind after the fall of “long-vanquished Urath” (Earth). The crew of a colony ship, The Star of India, monopolized the tech on the ship, conquered the planet from its former inhabitants, now called demons, and eventually claimed godhood. The parallels to older Aryan Invasion Theories are clear and striking.
The gods have set up a karmic system to “ensure stability”: live your life. If you sin, there are prayer machines in temples where you can pay money to beam transmissions to heaven (a futuristic bio-dome where the gods live their happy lives) for the remission of sin. When your body grows too old, you can apply for a new one, after your brain is scanned to determine whether you’ve lived life according to the laws of the gods. Scientific innovator? Too bad, you’re going to be a female, probably a donkey or an ape. Pious rich man? Male brahmin!
Again, an eloquent critique of the ridiculous superstition and caste theories that have plagued Hinduism for centuries, and the inherent hypocrisy of organised religion. Into this fray, enter Siddhartha: one of the original crew members of the Star of India, who played a great role in the conquest of the planet, and who remembers the gods back when they too were puny mortals. He wants to overthrow what he knows to be false superstition, and so he rediscovers an old doctrine which he presents as his own, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha – a deeper sort of metaphysics that revolutionises the planet and the older religious order. Again, a clear parallel to history.
Lord of Light is a book of magnificent scope and is an eloquent presentation of how humanity has historically interacted with religion and inequality. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s got doomed romance, great sci-fi, a little Christian intolerance, and plenty of interesting quotes and teachings from the actual Buddha in addition to deep and complex metaphysical ideas from the Upanishads and other Indian scriptures. I was particularly struck by a passage which likened the rise and fall of human civilisation to the inevitable progress of a day – dawn, a chaotic noon, and an inevitable decline. Zelazny’s really done some fantastic research work, and the world is believable and alive. I came away with a great deal of respect for the Buddha, and was, quite frankly, wowed by his silent critique of organized religion.
The work is, in a sense, post-structural, beginning near the chronological ending, and then narrating episodes from Sam’s life gradually leading up to the climax. It is a little difficult to get into, but there’s an interesting sense of mystery that unfolds satisfactorily throughout. I wasn’t completely sold on the climax, however, and felt that it lacked the intellectual depth that characterised the rest of the book. The conclusion, too, was hazy, but offered at least some satisfaction.
The verdict: Fan of Hinduism, Buddhism, India, sci-fi, one of the above, or all of the above? Then this book is a must-read.
Image credits to jubjubjedi on DeviantArt: for some great cyberpunk interpretations of the book, check out his page.