Lord of Light (1968)
Eos; Trade Paperback; 279 pages; IBSN: 0380014033
I have usually kept to reading science fiction titles, and sometimes fiction in general, published from the 1970’s to present day. It’s a cruel set of standards, but some entertainment just doesn’t hold up with age.
Roger Zelzany’s Lord of Light, however, doesn't seem to belong to any age, combing a purposely antiquated voice with pared down text. It could have easily been a bestselling book in the past decade rather than a Hugo award-winning book of 1968.
Lord of Light is about faux Hindu gods ruling an alien world. Humans have long ago left behind Earth, referred to as “Urth” or “Urtha.” We’re never given the exact number of years that have elapsed since this mass exodus, giving the narrative a frighteningly vast feel.
The planet described is ruled by small number of humans who, through a sort of “reincarnating” technology which allows them to switch into new bodies once they become too old, have imitated the Hindu gods for centuries through various avatars. Kali, Vishnu, Brahma, and other deities have all been appropriated, their original human names dropped casually into the text not more than a few times (i.e. Madeline, Candi). Through these divine personas, and in a sly commentary on organized religion, these gods slow down technological development among humans in order to remain in power.
Except for Sam, the amoral hero of the narrative, who is known as Mahasamatman or Buddha to his followers. Beginning with Sam’s reincarnation, most of Lord of Light is in flashback. The book details his rebellion against the major gods who live in Heaven (several mountaintops that have been flattened and fused together) in order to set the world right for the rest of the humans.
So. Is this book good, fun, both, or neither?
A good book, at its best, reframes the world and returns to the reader’s thoughts days after he or she has put down the text in question. A fun book, on the other hand, is just an escape hatch from the world. And yes, “fun” and “good” can be the same thing.
A good, solid book.
Despite the lag of exposition, the writing style is air tight and straight forward. The characters are morally complex, like Sam, who’s driven mainly by guilt to assume the role of the pure figure of the Buddha, or Yama whose story is analyzed in depth over at i09. It deserves to be reread often and is definitely the sort of sci-fi I wouldn’t mind seeing taught in college courses.
As for “fun,” while I trudged through the first chapter and the world building, this feeling of tediousness was admittedly brief. Once the story really began, it was difficult not to get sucked into the action. The plot even transforms into a detective story for a little while with Yama attempting to solve a murder mystery in Heaven.
Definitely recommended, either for the casual reader looking for something new or the sci-fi enthusiast who hasn’t quite gotten to this title yet if, like me, they're biased toward fiction published in the last decade or so.