On Rereading Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

What can I say? Lord of Light is a terrific book and Roger Zelazny is a one-of-a-kind author. If only he were still around weaving his incomparable tales! He died way too young (at age 58 of cancer). I may throw out a few spoilers as I discuss this book, but don’t be dismayed. Zelazny’s magic was in the way he wrote as well as in what he said. He’s the type of author whose works you can read over and over and enjoy the ride just as much or more each time.

The Hugo Award-winning novel Lord of Light is one of his longer and more ambitious works. The original colonists of a faraway planet in the distant future have set themselves up as a pantheon similar to the Hindu gods. They have suppressed technology, choosing to keep the human inhabitants of the planet ignorant and ill informed so that they can more easily be controlled. As part of that control they strictly regulate the transference of people into new bodies, which is the technological equivalent of reincarnation. The protagonist is a man named Sam, one of the original colonists, who has taken it upon himself to oppose the gods, bring them down, and promote acceleration, or technological advancement. The book has, to my mind at least, one of the greatest opening paragraphs in science fiction:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

Therefore there was mystery about him.

A blurb on the cover by George R.R. Martin claims that this is one of the five greatest science fiction novels ever written. Once you read it, you’ll find it hard to argue with him.

As the novel opens, Yama, the god of death, is manipulating machinery to bring Sam back from the sky-cloud of Nirvana, to which he has been vanquished. Yama and a few other rebels from the Celestial City need Sam’s help to complete his task of overthrowing the gods. After this, the book goes into a long flashback that tells how Sam initiated his war with the gods by invading one of the halls of karma where new bodies are distributed, how Sam takes on the aspect of Buddha to introduce spiritual teaching contrary to the reigning gods, how Sam descends into a place called Hellmouth to enlist the aid of the bound demons that were the original inhabitants of the planet, how Sam is then taken captive to heaven and is supposedly killed but somehow escapes, and how Sam leads the rebel gods and a huge army of spirits and humans against the pantheon of heaven. Sam’s army is defeated, and Sam is sentenced to lose his corporeality – and this brings us back to the present.

As for the final chapter and the ultimate fate of Sam and his allies, well, I’m not telling. You’ll have to discover that for yourself. Be assured, though, that this is a great, complex, rousing adventure told in elegant manner by one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. As I said above, nobody else has ever written like Roger Zelazny. His intelligence, wit, clarity, and poetic verve would have made him a first-rate writer in any genre. We who enjoy well-told science fiction and fantasy stories can be thankful that he lavished his talent upon the field, at least for a time.

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