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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny

On page one of Lord of Light, Zelazny drops the reader smack into the middle of an epic and eternal struggle, taking place on a distant planet in the distant future. It's an incredibly disorienting way to enter a story, especially one as bizarre and complicated as this one is. The structure of the novel is no help, either - it's divided into seven long and loosely-connected chapters, presented out of chronological order with no way for the reader to know, at first, that this is the case. The prose is grandiloquent and old-fashioned, which matches the book's mythic themes, but does nothing for clarity. And the overall premise of the novel is revealed only gradually, in broken bits and pieces throughout the narrative. As such, I spent the first half of this book having no idea what was going on.

So it's fair to say that overall, this is a dense, confusing, and difficult book. It is also, in retrospect, an extraordinary book, and I look forward to reading it again now that I know what it's all about. I can't think of any other book I've read recently that so demands to be reread.

In this paragraph and the next, I'll explain the basic premise of the novel. So if you're planning on reading this book and prefer to be confused surprised, you might want to skip them. Lord of Light takes place on an unnamed planet, which had been colonized by a single spaceship of humans centuries earlier. Earth is either gone or else completely out of contact. The planet's original inhabitants, incorporeal beings of great power, were completely subjugated early on, and the ship's passengers quickly began to populate the planet. The ship's crew, on the other hand, possessed extremely advanced technology, whether brought from earth, or developed during their war against the aliens. Importantly, they had mastered cloning and the ability to transfer human minds across bodies, which gave them literal immortality. After the war, they began to rule over the planet's human population as gods, modeling themselves after the Hindu pantheon. They jealously hoarded all technology for themselves, keeping the rest of the planet in preindustrial conditions, and demanding worship in exchange for access to reincarnation. Only two of the crew rebelled against this social order: the ship's Christian chaplain, who rejected the Hinduism if not the godlike powers, and so became a dangerous and isolated adversary. And Sam, who objected on the grounds that all people should have access to technology - which of course would jeopardize the gods' only claim to authority.

We enter this story toward the end - after Sam has already mounted one great effort against the gods, been defeated, been killed, and been unexpectedly reincarnated half a century later. In flashbacks, we learn how Sam became convinced that the gods must be brought down, how he introduced Buddhism to the masses by himself reenacting the life of the Buddha, how he freed the imprisoned alien life forms and gathered them, along with troops of men, rebel gods, and the chaplain's zombie army, in a great but futile battle against heaven. Finally, in the last chapter, we return to the present time and witness Sam's final, apocalyptic confrontation with the gods.

This book has much to say, about politics, power, technology, morality, religion, and greed. It can be read as science fiction, as myth, as allegory, or as a fantastical retelling of Buddhism's early history. It has very sober moments and very silly moments. But the highlight for me, while reading this for the first time, was finding the little easter eggs of information about the characters' distant past. As we join the story, the gods have been ruling the planet for many, many lifetimes. It is only here and there that Zelazny reveals bits of who they were when they were just a starship crew, their old personalities and relationships, and how these have been corrupted by centuries of immortality and ultimate power. Also interesting, but even more rare, are details about the planet's pre-human history, how its original life forms lived, and how their way of life was destroyed with the arrival of man.

There is much to marvel at in this book. I'd like to go back and focus more on its mystical and religious aspects, because it borrows heavily from Hindu scriptures and Buddhist history, and I skimmed over much of that this time in my quest to figure out what the freaking plot was. Like I said, it's a difficult book. But also an incredible book. It's like nothing else I've ever read in science fiction.


17 March 2009