Wednesday, February 20, 2013

1968: Lord of Light

               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.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

1967: The Moon is Harsh Mistress

              The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the final Robert A. Heinlein book to win the Hugo Award for best novel. How did it compare to Heinlein’s other winners?  Quite well, in fact. While it was not as good as Starship Troopers, I enjoyed much more than the disappointing Stranger in A Strange Land (sorry hippies and free love enthusiasts). The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a great sci-fi read and it would recommend it to anyone who loves the genre.
                The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is narrated by Manuel Garcia "Mannie" O'Kelly-Davis. He is a born “Loonie” (inhabitant of Luna) and the computer tech for HOLMES IV, the super computer that keeps the Moon colony running. In this future, the Moon was a penal colony for American and Soviet criminal and political dissents. This fusion of the two groups is shown through Mannie’s narration. He speaks English but there are a number of elements from Russian in his speech. He does not use articles (“a”, “an”, and “the”) and say “My god” as “My bog”, bog being the Russian word for god. As a Russian speaker I appreciated these elements and thought they were well done. Luna is loosely governed by a Warden; it did start as a penal colony after all, but for the most part the people of Luna are self-governing anarchists. Their principal export is foodstuffs and they have started to chaff under the rules of the Lunar Authority about how much they are export and the dues owed on their products. A rebellion begins with Mannie, his mentor Professor Bernardo de la Paz, Wyoming “Wyoh” Noit, and the supercomputer HOLMES IV who Mannie calls Mike after Mycroft Holmes.
                Mike is both the best and worst part of the novel. Mike has achieved consciousness and Mannie helps him understand humans and such uncomputer like concepts as humor. This is funny because Mike has a sense of humor. At one point in the novel, Mike multiplies a few of people’s paycheck to the 100th power giving them more money than the economy of Luna. Mannie told him doing that was not funny but I disagree. They also go over jokes and discuss the elements of humor. I loved these parts. Mike felt like a supercomputer learning to be human. He was massively intelligent but often understood things like child. He was a well-developed likable character. I still smile to myself when Mannie asks how Luna will defend itself from the Earth and Mike responds “We’ll throw rocks at them, Man.” Or how he refers to Mannie as his “best and only friend” and changes it to “my best and first friend” as he meets other people. Those are the good parts of this character. I will explain the bad parts as I talk about the rebellion.
                Professor de la Paz and Wyoh are typical Heinlein characters. De la Paz serves as a mouthpiece for Heinlein himself as he talks about political philosophy and leads the rebellion. Wyoh is one of Heinlein’s usual female characters: strong, capable, but still subservient to the males in the story. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that Heinlein’s female characters are this strange combination of progressive and traditional. Not sure what to make of them. Sadly, Professor de la Paz doesn’t come out as realistic as other mouthpiece characters such as Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. While Jubal Harshaw seemed like a real person even though he was a Heinlein surrogate, de la Paz hardly seems like a real person. He always is in control and knows what to do next making him thoroughly understanding.
                This is part of the novel’s greatest flaw. Professor de la Paz and Mike are so perfectly in control of the rebellion that there is no tension. Never did I feel that the revolution would fail despite Mike giving them less than favorable odds. For everything that happens de la Paz and Mike seem to have a plan response to it. They never were at a loss and never failed. There were small set back but even those seemed to play into their plans. In many ways the actual revolt is the worst part of novel. It never seems to be a struggle and with no struggle there is no tension or excitement. That is also the problem with Mike. His calculations are always perfect. I have noticed this problem in other science fiction as well. Supercomputers are often portrayed as so powerful that they cannot make mistakes. It irritates me and makes the stories less interesting.
                Still The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a good read. Mannie is a likable character and his narration gives the story an interesting flavor. As a political scientist, I don’t believe that Luna’s self-governing anarchy would work but Heinlein’s description and the thoroughness of his imagined Luna work. I would safely say that this is the second best Heinlein novel I read and would gladly read more of his work in the future. It is not hard to see why he is one of the fathers of science fiction. And if you are libertarian, you should read this book. You will love it.