Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Lord of Light is a science-fantasy novel by Roger Zelazny, winner of the Hugo in 1968, as well as being a Nebula finalist. Two of its seven chapters had previously been published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I thought I had read this before, but may have confused it with another of Zelazny's books, or else I read one or both of those chapters in the magazine, but later, not the year of publication. He frequently used myths and religious icons in futuristic, fictional settings. In this case it is the pantheon of Hindu gods, along with the Enlightened One, alternately referred to as the Buddha, Siddhartha, Bodhisattva, Tathagatha, Maitreya, or Mahasamatman. He preferred to drop the first two and last two syllables of that last one and go by Sam, but his real name was Kalkin. The action takes place on an alien planet over hundreds of years, and it took me most of the book to realize the first chapter's events are actually the next to last in chronology...I think; more on that later.
The humans have conquered the planet, subjugating or imprisoning most of its indigenous species. Either I missed it, or it was never revealed whether there was more than one expedition, but if only one then we can assume at least the majority of the crew of the Star of India were from that Asian sub-continent, familiar with, but not necessarily devout adherents to, the Hindu religion. Those known as the First were either the original crew, as opposed to any subsequent expedition, or it was used to distinguish them from succeeding generations born on the planet. Most of the First have set themselves up as gods and reside in the Celestial City, a domed habitat alternately known as Heaven. Sam rebelled against them since he believed in the political and social philosophy of Accelerationism. He felt their knowledge and technology should be more widely shared with the whole population, rather than be withheld from them. As it is, the villagers in the other settlements live in medieval like conditions, and whenever one of the ancient technologies resurfaces, whether it be a weapon, or plumbing, or the printing press, it is destroyed, along with those who have knowledge of it.
One technology that is shared, although not universally, is the growth of new bodies and the transference of a person's essence, their "soul," heralded as the Hindu belief in reincarnation. When a person reaches the age of sixty they can present themselves at one of the many temples, and based on their piety, and/or material offerings to the gods (and a brain scan), they are either reborn into a younger, stronger body, or perhaps a not so strong, not so attractive body. Worse case scenarios are to be reborn in an animal body as a punishment, or denied reincarnation in any form. The people believe that if they live the right kind of life they will eventually be granted godhood themselves, with a place in the Celestial City. Sam has lived apart for nearly fifty years, but eventually journeys to a village temple for reincarnation, relying on subterfuge to obtain a new body but avoid detection by the other Firsts. He then begins proselytizing non-violence as Siddhartha, the Buddha. He is not sincere in that endeavor, merely using it to wander from village to village conducting surveillance, and in several cases he is able to persuade other Firsts to come over to his side. All of the 'gods' are jealous of each other, always vying to be the next Brahma, some seeing Sam, in the guise of the Enlightened One, to be a means to an end.
It is possible that all of these events had happened numerous times, and would continue to repeat. Not necessarily exactly the same each time, maybe slight variations, with Sam gaining different allies with each iteration. It could all end if only the gods would kill Sam, but for some reason they are reluctant to do so. Instead, his essence is beamed into an electromagnetic cloud, the Bridge of the Gods, that surrounds the planet. When he is retrieved later and given a new body by Yama, he says he felt he had been in Nirvana, and wished to return. How many times had that happened? I suppose Zelazny had read some Hindu texts and thought it was a good idea to adapt them to another setting, but the story of this planetary expedition could have been told in several other ways. One of my major complaints is that most of the Firsts talk and act as if they believe they are gods, when in other instances it is very clear they know they aren't. Did Zelazny intend this to be an indictment against the hubris of humanity, or an indictment against religion? I rated this just three stars on Goodreads. There are several beautifully written passages, others are repetitive, even boring. I might have liked this more if I was more familiar with Hindu legends. What little of the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads I had read was decades ago, little remembered. Several of the gods I was familiar with: Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Kali, Ganesha; others prompted a google search: Yama, Agni, Ratri. Sam was the Lord of Light in the sense he wanted to bring freedom to the downtrodden, but some of his actions were definitely not enlightened. He was not averse to violence in pursuit of his goals, so even if he was the least worst of the Firsts, I'm not sure I'd call him a hero either. An interesting literary experiment, but not completely successful.
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