On Rereading Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

While reading the encyclopedic collection of descriptions of worlds created by science fiction and fantasy authors called Literary Wonderlands I encountered a synopsis of a book I’d never read but I thought might be interesting.  It was famous and popular and critically well regarded, at least within a certain genre, so I thought I might give it a try.  When I acquired a library copy of the thick tome, I plunged in: ten pages, then twenty pages, and then more…  The problem was, so little happened that I began to get frustrated.  The descriptions were ornate and dripping with accomplished prose, sure, but there was no story.  I thought: Am I going to be able to keep this up for so many hundreds of pages?  The answer was no.  Life is too short.

I can’t be without something to read, though.  Casting about for a substitute to help get the bad taste of the last volume out of my literary mouth, I settled on rereading a novel by Zelazny.  His prose is as amazingly descriptive and ornate as the best of them, but he also knew how to keep a story moving at a decent clip.  At first I thought I might reread This Immortal, his first novel, but I had read it fairly recently, at least within the past few years.  Instead, I remembered I had a copy of Lord of Light, which I hadn’t read for at least a decade.

Lord of Light is Zelazny’s longest and most ambitious single novel.  Well, I can’t say that for a fact because I haven’t read all of his books, but I have heard it said.  I think I prefer This Immortal, which is about half the length and is much tighter and reads almost like an extended novella.  Zelazny excelled at shorter lengths.  His masterpieces are novelettes that he wrote early in his career such as “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.”  That’s not to say his novels aren’t great – they are.  It’s just that his shorter works go beyond great into sheer brilliance.

Lord of Light posits a world in which the original colonists from Earth have set themselves up as gods from the Hindu pantheon so that they might exploit and oppress later generations of the planet’s inhabitants.  The god’s powers and attributes and other relevant concepts such as reincarnation are all explained scientifically, elaborate deceptions to foster and continue the first generation’s claims of godhood.  Accelerationism, which is the granting of scientific knowledge to the mass of humanity that lives in subjugation to the gods, is ruthlessly crushed, as are any teachings that promote the theory that the gods are anything less than what they claim to be.  The novel is about a rebellion by one of the first colonists, who wants to expose the gods, throw down their celestial city and its oppression, and teach scientific knowledge to humankind.  He has various names such as Siddhartha, Buddha, Tathagatha, the Binder, Lord of Light, and Mahasamatman.  However, he prefers to call himself Sam.

Many of Zelazny’s primary heroes have similar attributes: they are physically strong; they are knowledgeable and clever; they are skilled in martial arts; and they smoke cigarettes and drink significant amounts of alcohol.  Sam is no exception.  Zelazny’s heroes are also typically tall, but because Sam has multiple bodies throughout the story, he escapes this attribute, at least in some of his incarnations.  I mean this in no way to detract from Zelazny’s abilities as a writer.  He was one of the greatest of the so-called New Wave writers of the late 1960s through early 1970s.  Tragically, he died of cancer in 1995 when he was only 58.

As I said, Lord of Light does not have as consistently strong narrative voice as some of Zelazny’s best shorter works.  It starts fast, slows down a bit in the middle, and then zooms to a smashing finish.  Overall, though, it is one of the best novels of the 1960s, a great read, and well deserving of the designation of classic.

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