If going through the Hugo Winners has taught me anything, it’s that I should read more Roger Zelazny. His 1966 winner, This Immortal, was a wonderful read. Lord of Light, the 1968 winner is even better. It’s imaginative and interesting novel with complex human characters even though they are humans on another planet that use advanced technology to live like gods of the Hindu pantheon. Sound strange? It is! Read on to learn more.
Lord of Light has one of the more interesting (and strange) setups for a science fiction novel that I have ever encountered. A group of space travelers leave Earth after some calamity on a ship called the Star of India. Once on the new planet, they use powerful technology to defeat the native life forms (which are referred to as Demons) and set up a new society. The original crew then molds themselves into the imagines of Hindu gods and rules over the planet. This is important to note that Zelazny is not attacking Hinduism. The “gods” portrayed in the story not just playing the part they are not gods at all. The technology they use is never well defined but that is not the point. Zelazny is not a “hard” science fiction writer and the technology subservient to the story, not the other way around.
The center of the novel is a character named Sam. He is an original crew member and uses novel focuses on his struggle to unseat the self-appointed “gods”. His battle with the gods take place over centuries and Sam uses a variety of means to fight them from out and out warfare to recreating Buddism to drive humanity away from the gods. The best description of him comes from the first line of the first chapter:
“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.”
Sam is a trickster, a liar, and a bit of a scoundrel but he is a likable character and nuanced then his single minded goal of defeating the gods would have you believe. In many ways, he is reminisce of Conrad from This Immortal: immortal, powerful, and with ironic and self-depreciating attitude. From what I have read this sort of demi-god is a typical Zelazny character.
While Sam is the center of the story he is not always the main character. Lord of Light’s chapters are semi-independent stories that explain Sam’s struggle with the gods from a variety of characters. Chronologically, the first chapter is the second last with the rest leading up to the final battle. This structure works since it not only eases the reader into the world but sets up the novel’s second most important character, Yami, the god of death. I really enjoyed Yami and his character arc. In the first chapter he is Sam’s ally but for the most of the book he is one of the antagonists. Rather than spoil the story by knowing how it will end, reading how Yami changes and eventually changes sides is fascinating. Zelazny builds the story so well that it makes sense how and why Yami changes sides.
The writing is vivid and excellent all around. Lord of Light’s world is full of lush detail and there is a constant sense of discovery. As I read I wanted to step into the world and walk around, see the sights and experience it for myself. His characters, which are mostly gods and demons, are well fleshed and feel real. I don’t remember any one of them feeling like a cliché or cookie cutter.
One thing that hurt my understanding and enjoyment of this book was my lack of knowledge about the Hindu pantheon. Because of my work, I know a great deal about Islam and Christianity but not Hinduism. My major difficulty was in telling all the gods apart. Zelazny does give each his own personality but a little previous knowledge would have helped.
That problem is entirely my own, not the book’s, but the book does have one major flaw: the end is a bit rushed and anti-climactic. The key villain at the novel’s end is barely referenced before the last chapter and the end is unsatisfying. For all the buildup over the thousands of years that transpire over the course of the book, I was expecting more. While in the past I have complained that Hugo winners have been too long this is too short and could have easily held a few more chapters without seeming overly lengthy.
Final verdict? Lord of Light is good and deserves to be read. Even as I am writing this blog now I am struck by a desire to reread parts of the book. If you get a chance, check it out. It is not long and I promise that you won’t regret it.
Next week I will review Stand on Zanzibar, the last Hugo winner of the 1960s and a very different novel than Lord of Light. Until then happy reading.