(Picture from here.)
Lord of Light is an odd story that blends Hindu mythology, Buddha philosophy, technical progress and science fiction. It’s structurally odd as well. It begins in the now time for the story, has an extended flashback, and then returns to the “now” for the rest of the story. The transition between parts is subtle and if you don’t catch it (which I didn’t initially) you can misinterpret the book considerably.
First, a little world building.
The colony ship Star of India lands on a lovely world. The local inhabitants are incorporeal and have no actual form but are not higher beings. They took along with their transition all of the ego, anger and greed of their former lives. They resented the incursion onto their world and the colonists and crew had to fight for their place in it. During this process the crew discovers that the world or their journey or the time aboard ship—something—has released some latent powers within them. These powers allow them to tame their world. In so doing, they become like unto the gods of Hindu mythology. They retain this power and retard the growth of the rest of the world, keeping their authority to themselves.
All this happens long before the book opens.
And it opens with one of the stellar openings of science fiction: “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.”
Bang! You’re not in Kansas anymore.
Everything I love about Roger Zelazny is in this novel. Big action. Lovely prose. Self-involved characters. Bifurcated lines where the thread goes one way and ends up another: “Because the world has need of your humility, your piety, your great teaching and your Machiavellian scheming.”
The story is a familiar one in science fiction. The authority is suppressing technological innovation for the populace’s own good. A reformer arises (or revolutionary. It works both ways in SF) to put things right. Hilarity ensues.
Except in this case the authority are those who can make a good philosophical case for being gods: they have taken on symbolic qualities of mythological beings with physical attributes as well. Who is to say their feet are clay?
Well, Sam thinks he is and there lies the tale.
Sam himself has such attributes but rejects godhood. Instead, he brings up Buddhism as a reform and makes it stick. There are a lot of such things: the philosophy of being, the nature of death, the aspect of divinity. All while making a pretty rousing tale.
This isn’t Zelazny’s only foray into mythology and science fiction. There was This Immortal (1966), Jack of Shadows (1971), a science and fantasy morality tale. The Francis Sandow tales: To Die in Italbar (1973) and Isle of the Dead (1969), and Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969). Except for This Immortal, they were later than Lord of Light but LOL was such a ground breaker that I don’t think the others measure up.
The difference here is in the mythology. This Immortal is Zelazny’s take on Hercules and merely hints at the underlying story. It’s pretty much straight science fiction. While in the Sandow stories Zelazny creates his own mythology and in COLAD he uses Egyptian mythology. In LOL he seems to take the philosophical underpinnings seriously. Perhaps this is because Hinduism and Buddhism are living religions. I have no idea if the book is true to the spirit of Hinduism or Buddhism. I’m guessing probably not.
However, the characters take their roles seriously. There is no real magic in the novel but there is advanced technology that people view as magic and as extensions of their divine personas. The “gods” consider what it means to be the incarnation of a mythological character and they (and Zelazny) manage the duality of underpinnings of a real world SF and the overlay of the imagined fantastic.
This is a delicate balance that few have managed successfully.
The book has stood up well over time in part because Zelazny didn’t bother to trap himself with gadgets. The technology is cloaked in mystery so we never get a chance to check the wheels of the carriage too closely.
And it has a come from behind ending that I never, ever expected.
It has a lesson for writers in it as well. Once a writer decides a set of guiding principles, those principles have to be present in all levels in the work. There is a fractal nature to writing in that the same principles that govern the overall structure of the novel must also guide the minor interactions.
A good example of this is the “magic” element in LOL. At no point in the novel is it ever magic at all. Zelazny always keeps one foot on the ground. One of the main characters, Yama, the God of Death, talks about the original inhabitants of the planet that most call demons in this vein:
“If by ‘demon’ you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span, and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape – then no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect. … It is not a supernatural creature.”
“It makes a great deal of difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy—it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either.”
Neither, I suspect, did Zelazny.