Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow & Co.
Book Review by Jonathan M. Sullivan
Gods, but I miss Roger Zelazny.
Didn’t know the man, although I did have a chance to meet him once, when I was fifteen, at the second Phoenix LepreCon, St. Paddy’s day, 1976. A ganglier, more affable, funnier fellow you never met. I shall never forget him telling a bunch of us simpering fen that he sold his fantastic fable of magic and technology, Jack of Shadows, on the basis of a short note to his agent, saying only that there was “a machine at the center of the world and the protagonist is going to break it.”
He was at the peak of his powers then, with several Hugos and Nebulas under his belt and many productive years ahead of him. But he had already produced the centerpiece of his career, what Clute has called his most sustained and sustaining work: Lord of Light.
That novel brought the literary sensibilities of the “New Wave” to mainstream science fiction, won the Hugo award in 1968, and forever changed the impressionable young Sullydog’s idea of what sf should be. After many years out of print, Lord of Light has made a long-overdue return. It’s one of the few genre novels I’ve bothered to read more than once. And it’s still fresh–masterful in its storytelling, breathtaking in its scope, sublime in the depth of its humanity.
Millenia in the future, the descendants of the human diaspora live on a distant planet, ekking out an Iron Age existence reminiscent of ancient India. The descendants of the passengers of the Star of India, an ark from “lost Urath,” worship the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Their piety is well-founded, for Shiva, Brahman, Krsna, Vishnu, Ganesa, Agni and Ratri are the virtually immortal members of the crew, who control all the technology on the planet. They’ve used that technology to set themselves up as gods, to control the karmic cycles of life and death and reincarnation, and to keep the masses immersed in a simple, agrarian existence. Accelerationism, the movement to bring the peasants up to date, is ruthlessly suppressed by Heaven. Accelerationists who’ve reached the end of their physical lives are denied reincarnation–or worse. Agni, Lord of Fire; Maya, Lord of Illusion; Yama, Lord of Death–the gods use their awesome machines and weapons to maintain an iron grip on an entire world.
Obviously, it’s time for a change. It’s one of the Crew, one of the First, who turns against Heaven and takes up the banner of Accelerationism. His name is Mahasamatman, and they call him a god. He prefers to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and calls himself Sam. He never claims to be a god. But then, he never claims not to be.
When you make a revolution against a Hindu techno-theocracy, what do you call the movement? Buddhism. On the run from Heaven and the Lords of Karma, Sam sets himself up as Siddhartha, Tagathatha, the Enlightened One who awakens to reality beneath the bodhi tree. But before Heaven falls, the Buddha must unleash the demons at the heart of the world, outsmart Yama, the Lord of Death, and contend with Nirriti the Black, the Christian Warlord who lives in exile on the southern continent with an army of zombies. ..
This staggering tale of a world in the grip of religious and political convulsions is told at the most human level, with vibrant, luminous prose and Zelazny’s inimitable intelligence and humor. The characters are such extraordinary beings, and yet so palpably human, that the triumph and tragedy of this epic resonates at every level of the reader’s experience.
Lord of Light incorporates most of Zelazny’s favorite riffs: the wasted potential and intractable folly of immortal humans, the fine line between magic and science, entire pantheons brought to life with technology and politics. Zelazny gave these themes masterful treatment in works like This Immortal, Jack of Shadows, Eye of Cat, and Creatures of Light and Darkness. But Lord of Light is his masterpiece, a perfect tapestry of speculation, satire and sheer beauty. No sf library will ever be complete without it..